Senate debates

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Asylum Seekers, Department of Immigration and Border Protection

3:06 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (Senator Cash) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to the Government's border protection policies.

What a difference 2½ months make. Before the election we heard those who were in opposition at the time talk about the public's right to know. As recently as February this year Senator Cash was recorded on the Senate Hansard as saying:

… senators have a fundamental, constitutional right which they are entitled to exercise, and that is to ask questions … and to be given those answers in a timely fashion.

Of course, we never heard any talk from the opposition before the election about people discussing these issues of refugees and the irregular arrivals. We never heard any talk then about the need to shut down the public debate. We never heard any talk whatsoever about the suggestion that talking about these issues and the public's right to know were acts of aiding people smugglers. But that is what we hear from this government.

Today we hear yet another example of the new government's contempt for this parliament and this chamber. Senator Cash frankly was not able to answer questions. Even her supplementary answers after question time did not actually go to the questions. They did not seek to do it. They were just a whole lot of blather about operational matters. When it comes to the question of job losses, we know that the directive has been sent to the department that all people on existing contracts for non-ongoing employment arrangements cease at the end of the current term. That is an instruction that has been issued to every agency within the Commonwealth and, of course, every department within the Commonwealth. We know that in the case of immigration there are a thousand people tied up with those sorts of employment arrangements. If you want to change them and move outside that directive, you actually have to go as far as the Australian Public Service Commissioner to get approval. She does not mention that in her answer.

She is disgracefully ignorant of her portfolio, frankly. She has had plenty of time to get on top of it, but she is not able to answer the questions that are put to her here today. She seeks to hide behind several simple devices—contemptuous devices. 'Oh, I'm not going to talk about operational matters. I'm not even going to tell you about health checks or security checks being performed. I'm not able to tell you, in fact, about the capacity of our detention system.' Simple staffing matters are, of course, a matter that eludes her. I would have thought any minister would know the consequences of a government direction to cease contracts of employment within her department. And she then tries to present to us the suggestion that any discussion of this matter is a device by which we are giving aid and comfort to people smugglers. The hypocrisy is breathtaking given the amount of energy you have spent on these questions in recent years.

We heard the Prime Minister echo these views. Just the other night on 7.30 he suggested: 'We're not answering questions which are for entertainment purposes. We're not going to allow for media purposes. We're not going to be able to provide any advice to the public on these questions,' because presumably there is some moral imperative here for people to remain in ignorance. That is essentially what is being said. Before the election the Prime Minister, as he is now—he was the Leader of the Opposition then—said, 'The last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people.' We know the truth in that regard now, don't we? This is not the government people elected. They are hiding behind this presumption that, if the question is not asked on a Friday, you do not get an answer. There is a presumption that you have to go to Sydney to some briefing provided by a general; and, if you cannot, you do not get told what is going on within this country. Hiding behind operational matters is a disgrace. It is the last refuge of a scoundrel to suggest that we are not entitled to know about 19 Somali refugees who turned up in Darwin Harbour on Monday night. We are not to know about that. You can tie up a boat at the wharf at Darwin Harbour, and we are not allowed to know about it. We are not allowed to have that sort of discussion.

We simply cannot reconcile the claims that the government is now making with the actions that they presented to the Australian people prior to the election. We know what has changed here: the government is now running a protection racket to save Mr Abbott the embarrassment of having to front up to the consequence of trying to suggest to the Australian people that complex problems can be solved by three-word slogans. The cost of it is clear. (Time expired)

3:12 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Strangely, I agree entirely with the first words that Senator Carr entered in this debate. I will repeat them: what a difference 2½ months make. One and one-quarter months before the coalition took over, some 2,311 illegal boat people arrived on our country, and in 1¼ months after—making a total of 2½ months—only 544 people entered Australia illegally by boat. So Senator Carr is absolutely right: what a difference 2½ months has made when you have a contrast between an incompetent, incapable Labor government and the Abbott government. I congratulate the minister on the work she and Mr Morrison have done in reducing that flow of illegal boat arrivals from 2,311 in 51 days before we started Operation Sovereign Borders down to 544 people since.

I can take Senator Carr's analogy further: what a difference six years makes. Six years ago in the last days of the Howard government the Australian taxpayer was contributing $85 million a year to looking after our borders and those who had arrived illegally. I repeat that: $85 million. It is a big amount of money. But under six years of Labor that annual figure has grown to $11 billion per year. Contrast $85 million to $11 billion. What a difference six years has made.

Also, six years ago under the Howard government there was not one child in custody as a result of illegal boat arrivals. In the last days of the Labor government there were some 3,000 children in detention, and 2,000 of those 3,000 children were actually locked up. Contrast that. So Senator Carr is definitely right—what a difference six years has made since the administration of the Howard government and the administration of various Labor governments. Again, I congratulate the minister in this chamber and the minister in the other chamber on the work they have done to stop this vile trade that costs the lives of so many people wanting to leave their country and settle in Australia.

I refer Senator Carr to another fact which the minister has mentioned and which I have been talking about for years. For all the bleeding hearts who say we are cruel to the illegal arrivals in our country, for every one of them that comes to Australia, we deny to those tens of millions of people who have been living in squalid refugee camps around the world for years their opportunity to come to our country. We deny them that because Labor simply allowed people in who attempted to get here illegally, who did not go through the UNHCR process, who did not do what every other of the tens of millions of refugees did around the world and who jumped the queue. Those who were waiting in those squalid camps for their turn to get into Australia were put back by your government because you allowed the queue jumpers in, and the people living in those squalid camps were forced to remain.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What do you say to those people, Senator? 'Look, we are sorry about that, mate. What you should do is go and get on a boat and come in. Don't follow the UNHCR rules, don't get properly assessed through the UNHCR, don't wait patiently in these squalid refugee camps for your turn to get into Australia; go and jump on a boat and come in here and then you'll be right. Then we, the Labor government, will let you in.' I am delighted to say that regime has now finished. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it is critically important to point out at this time that Senator Macdonald is shedding crocodile tears for the humanitarian program—the offshore one that is guided by the UNHCR—because the coalition government is reducing our humanitarian intake from 20,000 to 13,750. This makes an absolute mockery of the claim that these people are somehow neglected. The opportunity is there for the coalition government to restore the increased numbers for the offshore humanitarian program. If they had any principles and if there were any substance to the claims we have heard in the chamber today, they would do exactly that.

I think it is worth taking a step back to remind people that, throughout Labor's term, we sought cooperation with the coalition to stop the deaths at sea because of people attempting to procure a people smuggler to bring them here to seek asylum. For every effort that we made the coalition took a step back and refused to agree with the Labor government on a strategy to do exactly that. Even when we made a very clear, overt and specific attempt to remove the party politics from this vexing problem by appointing an independent expert panel to advise on policy—and very tough policies they were—we saw the Liberal Party run a mile. We saw them oppose legislation that sought to put in place an arrangement with Malaysia. We saw them oppose our strategies, moves and efforts in this parliament to put in place an offshore processing regime that we believed would stem the flow of boats and undermine—in fact stop—the people-smuggling trade.

But today Senator Cash has belled what was not a very silent cat anyway. Senator Cash comes in here today and claims that this government is not about having shipping news and putting information out into the public domain. Senator Cash was the shipping news in opposition; that was her role. Every day in this place and through Senate estimates, Senator Cash's role was to put as much information in the public domain as she possibly could. Senator Carr referenced the Hansard, and I have many references here on Senator Cash's demands for further information and details about boat arrivals. It is quite intriguing when you go back over the Hansardas I have—to see how explicitly she details the places where the boats arrived, the costs associated with that, the logistic information associated with the way the boats arrived in Australia and the associated settlement services provided.

I am sure Senator Cash would have found herself to be the source of choice for people smugglers under the former government. So it is with a great deal of disgust and irony that when I asked a question today I found that Senator Cash was unable to provide the level of information that we were persistently placing on the public domain when we were in government. There is a hypocrisy in the conduct of the government on this matter, and it disturbs me greatly because it has played into the hands of the people smugglers. The motivation one assumes is indeed the politics of this matter.

The pejorative way in which Senator Cash and other members of the coalition have spoken about asylum seekers and this whole problem belies the politics and the way in which they were prepared to play this issue out for political gain. They now hide in the cone of silence—hiding behind briefings and with Senator Cash unable to give the parameters of what 'operational matters' were when I ask her quite specifically today. We do not even know the kind of information they are prepared to put into this place. This is contemptuous of the Senate's ability to extract information from the executive government, and it concerns me greatly.

We will of course have the opportunity, as the opposition has had before us, to explore these matters through the appropriate accountability mechanisms—Senate estimates, questions on notice, questions without notice and so forth—but I feel absolutely obligated to point out the hypocrisy of the situation, the tragedy that it has contributed to and the angst it has caused not only for the individual people and families involved but also for the sustainment of the deadly trade of people smugglers. I put that to those opposite.

3:22 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It does strike me, as it did Senator Macdonald, as somewhat ironic that the very shrill Senator Carr was able to get up and remind us that in 2½ months there is indeed a great deal of difference. As Minister Cash outlined in her answers today, in 51 days of government there has been a 75 per cent reduction in the number of people seeking to arrive illegally into this country. That is a number that you do not have to have repeated, but I will repeat it for you: a 75 per cent reduction. How many times do you want to hear that this week? I know that it was your format in government to roll out an announcement every four hours, but the people of Australia understand a 75 per cent reduction in 51 days. How many more times do you need to hear it? You over there, on so many occasions since you dropped those very effective Howard policies in 2008—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Edwards, address your remarks to the chair. And interjections are disorderly.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will remind those over on the other side that since they dropped all of the border initiatives from the Howard days, which were working, and they have been dragged kicking and screaming—

Opposition senators interjecting

I will remind you of where you have been dragged kicking and screaming. Since 2007 you have pursued 11 failed approaches to border protection, and I will remind you of them. The Labor Party extended appeal rights and legal assistance in November 2008. Pay attention! Then there was the Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum freeze in April 2010. This is how you tried to address the asylum seekers coming to this country. There was the East Timor solution in July 2010. There was the Afghan return solution in 2011. You were reeling at this stage; you had no idea. You were the proverbial rabbits in the headlights on border protection in this country.

Then we had a new one. This was another approach. You said, 'We'll have a regional processing framework.' That was in March 2011. And we all remember this one: the Malaysian people swap in May 2011, when I think your Prime Minister announced it before anybody in cabinet knew about it. In fact, I think it was even before the Malaysian government knew about it. But that is okay: in the interests of getting out a press release every four minutes of that chaotic government that you once sat in and now try to defend, we had that.

I will keep going. This is your answer to border protection: Manus Island—we'll call it mark I, shall we?—in August 2011. Let me remind you. You are a bit quiet now; you are starting to think, 'This is starting to look like a fiasco.' Then we had the community release with work rights policy in November 2011. By this stage you have all lost a bit of interest, haven't you, because the budget has blown out. Eleven billion dollars—what the hell, we'll just borrow some more! Earlier today you saw us having to borrow more money, put another cap on so that we can try to fix the mess over which you all presided just 60 days ago. I have still got more. We got the full appeals to the RRT and the Federal Court in March 2012—that'll work! Then the Houston expert panel in August 2012.

Senator Sterle interjecting

This is your record—through you, Mr Deputy President, to Senator Sterle—on border protection. You have got nothing to be shrill about.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I understand the enthusiasm, but I would ask you to draw the senator to the topic of taking note. I think it is far-reaching but beyond the bounds of the issues that we are discussing this afternoon.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order, Senator Polley. You have the call, Senator Edwards.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Deputy President. On Senator Polley's point: there is much enthusiasm and there are no bounds to my enthusiasm, because the boat arrivals are 75 per cent less than what you presided over in your time. I want to finish this in the 18 seconds that I have left. We had the Houston expert panel in August 2012—that'll fix it! Then the finale, just before the election: the PNG arrangement in July 2013. Well done. Congratulations—not!

3:27 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

May I just take time to reflect. Mr Deputy President, you and I came in here bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, along with Senator Polley, back in 2005. Goodness me, hasn't the standard dropped since then—and I am not talking about the group from 2005. Today it embarrasses me. I just hope there were not too many school children watching today's question time here in the Senate. I would like us to reflect on this. It is damned embarrassing. The standard is appalling. I am a mild-mannered man, as you know, Mr Deputy President, but should we be screamed at—with shrill screaming from Senator Cash? I know Senator Cash is well above that. I actually sympathise a bit with Senator Cash and I will explain why. She is a very well-educated woman. There is no argument about that; she is, I think, a lawyer. In opposition a very topical political football was boats. We do not deny that it is a hot potato around the barbeques. It is a difficult issue for us, no argument. But when you are climbing that greasy pole to promotion at the thought of coming into government, to be given a political football like boats and asylum seekers is a wonderful opportunity to be seen and heard out there in the country. And Senator Cash grabbed that with two hands. But what we have seen is that it is very easy—as you and I both know, Mr Deputy President—in opposition to blame the government for everything. It is very easy to be negative on every single issue. But when you come to government—when you are given the grace of being given government by the people of Australia—it is time to act.

We should not be surprised about the silence that is coming from the government. The then opposition leader and now Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, was quoted in The Australian on 21 January 2012 as having said:

What counts is what the Australian government does, not what it says. It is time for Australia to adopt turning the boats as its core policy.

Hmm—okay. Then I want to quote another paragraph from Mr Abbott in a speech to the Institute of Public Affairs on 27 April 2012, in which Mr Abbott told the faithful gathered there on that day:

Within a week of taking office, I would give new orders to the navy that, where it is safe to do so, under the usual chain-of-command procedures, based on the advice of commanders-on-the-spot, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed and Indonesian home-ported vessels without lawful reason to be headed to Australia would be turned around and escorted back to Indonesian waters.

This reminds me, as a kid growing up in the sixties, of that wonderful scene of the chief's office from Batman, where they had the bat phone waiting for the orders.

Phillip Hudson of News Limited on 16 October 2012 reported this about Mr Abbott's trip to Indonesia as opposition leader:

The people smuggling issue was discussed during Mr Abbott's meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta yesterday. However, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who was at the meeting, said Mr Abbott did not raise the coalition policy of turning back boats where it's safe to do so.

What I am alluding to is that the Australian people and us, Her Majesty's opposition, should not be surprised by the veils of secrecy. We should not be surprised one little bit by the lack of information coming from the Prime Minister or from the foreign minister because the truth of the matter is that they do not want to tell us. They do not want to tell the Australian people that at all times while they were bleating about stopping the boats, turning the boats back and towing the boats, it was just politicising—taking the opportunity to make it a political football—because it sounded great around the barbecues. The truth of the matter is that they never, ever had a plan B.

What is more, not only have we insulted our closest neighbours and not only is our relationship with Indonesia seriously damaged but the people of Australia who walked into the polling booths in September and put a mark in the box were being misled. The people of Australia were not getting a government that had any intention of doing as it says. Time does not permit me, but I will be making further contributions on this. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.