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Monday, 26 March 2007
Page: 107

Mr SNOWDON (7:36 PM) —Firstly, let me acknowledge the contribution of the member for Moreton. He touched on a whole range of matters that I intend to come to myself: border protection, protecting our national security, the Pacific solution and the Tampa. He did not mention ‘children overboard’, although he might as well have—but I will come to those issues a little later.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Migration Amendment (Border Integrity) Bill 2006, which aims to improve Australia’s border integrity by implementing two measures. The first is in relation to special purpose visas, and it gives the minister the power to make a declaration that a person is undesirable and that he wishes to revoke the automatic visa. I noted the contribution of the member for Denison in relation to that discussion, where he referred to the category of people—including the members of the royal family, as I recall—and it is an extensive list.

Labor will be supporting these measures, the second of which is the rollout of SmartGate series 1, allowing anyone holding an eligible passport—that is, an e-passport—to use this facility, although I note that there have been some concerns expressed about the efficacy of the SmartGate system. I note that in his contribution the shadow spokesman talked about the question of the efficacy and reliability of the technology. He observed that an article in the Financial Review of 5 September noted that industry insiders have identified gaps in biometrics such as excessive error rates, a poor ability to find database matches and high sensitivity to various conditions. The article referred to the work of an analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology who has estimated that the accuracy rate for facial scanning is 90 per cent. For fingerprints it is 99 per cent and for iris scanning it is 97 per cent.

Dr Roger Clarke, a visiting fellow of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University, questioned the effectiveness of the SmartGate system on ABC radio, in its PM program on 5 May last year. Dr Clarke stated that he believed the SmartGate system would face difficulties because it is built on the assumption that a person’s face will always appear the same, when in reality that is rarely the case. He said:

The angle of a person’s head, the distance of the person’s head from the camera has got to be completely consistent with the angle from which the original photograph was taken that you’re trying to compare it to.

He observed:

... this is a very challenging thing to do, especially when you’re trying to do it in volume, with large numbers of people passing along. And that’s assuming that the person isn’t actively trying to confuse the machine.

He made what sounded like an amusing aside when responding to the interviewer, who said:

Even if they weren’t trying, things like smiling, laughing, what does that do?

Roger Clarke observed:

Well, it’s quite likely that it will confuse—

and he laughed—

the device.

Of course, we hope that is not the case, but we do observe that concerns have been expressed about the efficacy of what is being proposed.

The question is how we deal with people seeking asylum who may be coming to Australia or others who may breach our border security and what happens to them. I note that the title of this legislation refers to border integrity. The question was writ large in 2001 with ‘children overboard’ and Tampa, and what followed from that were decisions that were taken by this government which related specifically to my electorate. You would know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that my electorate, the seat of Lingiari, includes all of the Northern Territory except Darwin, all of its coastline and all of its waters, as well as Christmas and Cocos islands. That is important, because many of the decisions that have been taken by this government in the name of border protection have directly affected the communities of Christmas and Cocos islands. Both have been the site of reception facilities for illegal immigrants or people seeking to come to Australia who have been caught on the high seas in most instances, but not all. They have been transferred to Christmas and Cocos islands.

There used to be a temporary facility on Cocos Island which was used to house people who had been detained. It was an old quarantine station and it was not an unreasonable place to stay, I might say. I am sure people were reasonably comfortable. It was close to the beach and they were allowed to go fishing. It was not 12-foot wide, and there were no electrified fences. There were none of the sorts of security measures—razor wire et cetera—that currently exist in the new facilities. Indeed, on one particular occasion, the detainees wandered down the street in a protest. Of course, there was nowhere to go; they could not get off the island. It was a fairly moot point as to who they were protesting to, because I believe that most people on the island would probably have been fairly sympathetic to the cause.

It will be recalled that when people came onto Christmas Island—and the Tampa was the obvious case—they were housed in the gymnasium. Discussion with the community led to the building of a temporary facility which was opened in September 2001; it is still in existence. This building was used to provide accommodation for the expected surge of unauthorised boat arrivals. It was mothballed in late July 2005 and then reopened in November 2005 to hold seven Indonesian asylum seekers. These seven—four men, one woman and two infants—landed at Honeymoon Beach near Kalumburu, on the far north coast of Western Australia. The men had waded ashore to ask for directions. They were then picked up by HMAS Geraldton, delivered to Darwin and subsequently flown to Christmas Island.

What we have now is a new facility which is designed to house 800 people. It is a purpose-designed facility which will open, as I understand it, in the middle of this year, in June or July. It is unlikely to have anyone in it, which is a major cause of some concern and, I would have thought, of Australian taxpayers’ interest—although of course the community of Christmas Island welcomed the investment in the economy. But as a public policy initiative it raises some significant questions, given decisions which have been taken by this government in recent days.

In May 2006, the figure being reported for the construction of this new facility was $210 million. This was subsequently revised upwards to $267.7 million, and last month in Senate estimates it was made clear that the cost blow-out was now $396 million—a blow-out of 40 per cent of the original cost estimates. With all the other attendant infrastructure which was being built along with this facility and which was required in the community, it is clear now that the government’s investment is probably well over $400 million.

I recall the discussion which went on when the then minister for territories, Mr Tuckey, and the then minister for immigration, the current Attorney-General, visited Christmas Island—and I went with them—to talk to people about the development of this facility and all of the benefits that this was going to bring to the community. We know that there were significant benefits which came to some people eventually, over time. Some businesses had invested large amounts of money but, because of delays in the project, they were left out of pocket. Subsequently, though, although the major contractor was a Queensland based company, Baulderstone Hornibrook, and it employed staff who largely came from the mainland, there were a number of people who secured employment on the site and a number of small businesses which benefited directly as a result of this massive investment.

But it leaves open the question: what is it that the government proposes to do with this facility? In recent times, the 43 Papuan refugees who arrived on the north coast of Australia—from memory, in the Torres Strait—were then transferred over to Christmas Island. I met these people on Christmas Island at the interim facility. They were subsequently admitted as refugees to our country. But the government then took the decision, under pressure from the Indonesian government, that we would not accept this sort of occasion lightly in the future, and since then any asylum seekers who have made it to the mainland have been whisked off to Nauru, out of the view of the Australian people and outside the operation of Australian migration law. If they are not at Nauru then, of course, there is always Manus, which has been mothballed. We are told that the cost of maintaining the operation at Nauru is $24 million a year and the cost of maintaining Manus in a mothballed state is $3 million a year.

This facility on Christmas Island, I might say, is extremely sophisticated. It is the highest security detention centre ever built in Australia. In the words of Pamela Curr, of the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, published in the Age on 25 November 2006:

There is no maximum-security prison (in Australia) that has electric fences, microwave probes, cameras with microphones in every room, electric doors and a direct link to the control room in Canberra ...

What does it sound like—Guantanamo? We are not sure what is going to happen if in fact this facility is ever used. What happens to families in this situation? Clearly you would hope that children and families would not be held in this detention facility, but that has not been made clear to us.

We know that the facility is 24 kilometres away from the major centre of the community. We know also that, according to the immigration department website, as of the ninth of this month there are 458 people being held in immigration detention centres: Villawood, Maribyrnong, Perth, Baxter, Christmas Island and the Northern IDC in Darwin. There were—there are no longer—in the Christmas Island facility 84 people, including 83 Sri Lankans. We know that these Sri Lankans have now been transported across to Nauru, although the government was reportedly having secret talks with officials in Jakarta to send these asylum seekers back home via Indonesia.

I certainly accept the need for us to secure our borders and to have strong border protection, but there is a very open question about the merits or otherwise of the Pacific solution—the idea that we can transfer people, at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, across to the small island of Nauru. There will inevitably be problems. How can you describe the lack of humanity in the case of Muhammad Faisal, who spent years in protection in Nauru? He fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2001 and was incarcerated in the facility in Nauru after being assessed as a security threat by ASIO. It was only earlier this year that he was released after ASIO reviewed its initial assessment. As the Sydney Morning Herald said:

... Australia has tried to act tough and has ended up just looking mean.

When we talk about how to deal with these issues into the future, there is an open question, and I know it is a question that is on the minds of the people on Christmas Island: what is the government’s intention in relation to that facility? If the government is intent on ensuring that no-one who comes to Australia’s shores is actually processed in Australia—apart from the cursory processing that took place on Christmas Island, such as identity checks, health checks et cetera—but is flown across the Pacific, at whose cost is that to be? And what, then, is the purpose of the facility on Christmas Island? How much will it cost to transfer the 83 Sri Lankans? A plane to transfer eight Burmese asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Nauru cost $225,000. For the 2005-06 financial year, the cost of charter flights to relocate asylum seekers was $4.9 million, almost $5 million.

If the government is not going to use the facility on Christmas Island for the purpose for which it was supposedly built, what will it be used for? And what will the cost be of maintaining this facility in a mothball situation over time? If it costs $3 million to maintain a mothball facility on Manus Island, what is it going to cost the Australian taxpayer to maintain the facility on Christmas Island? I am happy that people on Christmas Island will benefit from the employment which will be created, one would hope, from the maintenance of the facility—and there will be high maintenance. But, like me, the Christmas Island community want to know what the government’s intention is with this facility in the short term, the medium term and the long term. The government has a responsibility to tell us how it proposes to deal with it. One thing is for certain: the community of Christmas Island do not want their island to be seen as the Alcatraz of the Indian Ocean. They would like to see tourism as an option currently and into the future. The government is keen on border security, and I ask it to tell us what it is going to do with Christmas Island.