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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1385


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (18:15): I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I rise to speak on the committee's report entitled Incident at Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 to 18 February 2014. As the deputy chairman of the committee can I indicate that a number of members on the committee thought that this reference was irrelevant and unnecessary. This report refers to an incident that occurred not in Australia but in another country. Unfortunately, one of the people involved in that incident lost his life. Because of that, there were a number of serious inquiries set up, starting of course with the police force, the proper investigative authority, in the country where this incident occurred—and, I repeat, that was not Australia.

The Australian government had some interest in the matter because the Rudd Labor government—the second one—actually established the detention centre at Manus Island. You might recall, Mr Deputy President, that the deal to reopen Manus Island was made by Mr Rudd. I think it was Mr Rudd, but I forget when Mr Rudd took over from Ms Gillard. If it was not Mr Rudd who made the deal, it was Ms Gillard. But I am pretty certain it was Mr Rudd who made the deal to reopen the Manus Island detention centre. Unfortunately, this deal was done by the Labor government with the responsible people at Manus Island very, very quickly. We were approaching an election in Australia when illegal maritime arrivals had become a major political issue for the then Rudd Labor government. You will recall that, when the Gillard government first took office, there were no boats coming to Australia with illegal maritime arrivals—and, I might add, there were no children in detention.

As a result of the activities of the Labor government—supported, I might say, by the Greens political party—the borders were thrown open and, from memory, we had over 50,000 illegal maritime arrivals end up in Australia. More than 1,000 people—the real figure will never be known—lost their lives in trying to get to Australia because the Labor government had opened the door to the people smugglers and people were coming into Australia in any sort of vessel, safe or unsafe. As a result of that, we know that more than 1,000 people lost their lives—and we will never know the real figure.

For years and years the then opposition had been saying: 'Go back to John Howard's approach where we did not have illegal maritime arrivals and we did not have children in detention. Do something about it!' It became a major political issue for the Labor government, as a result of which they threw together at very short notice this dodgy deal to reopen the Manus Island detention centre. Because it happened so quickly the department was not prepared for it, the facilities needed to re-open the Manus Island detention centre were not available and it was thrown together in a slapdash way. The evidence given at this inquiry did show quite clearly that corners were cut, the proper processes were not put in place and the proper facilities were not put in place. As a result of that, there was a lot of unrest on that island and at that detention centre. That all related back to the fact that this dodgy deal was done in double-quick time and without preparation. As a result of that, there was a lot of unrest, which culminated in the unfortunate death that I mentioned.

Sensible members of that committee said that the whole issue was being properly investigated by the relevant authorities in the country where this occurred. The Australian government had a very distinguished Australian, a very distinguished former public servant, look into the matter very carefully and there were police authorities in Australia looking into the matter. And yet the majority of that committee—that is, of course, the Greens and Labor members on that committee—decided that we should have a Senate committee conduct another inquiry into a matter that was already being very carefully and minutely considered by the proper authorities, the people who are trained investigators, who knew what it was all about and had the facilities to look into the incident and give various reports. Notwithstanding that, the majority of the committee—that is, the Labor and Greens members—went ahead with this inquiry, which I participated in as the deputy chairman.

It became clear that the Senate committee was not the appropriate place—it was not the right place; it did not have the investigative powers or the jurisdiction—to deal with what was, effectively, a criminal investigation. Notwithstanding that, the committee spent a lot of time hearing from various witnesses. Most of the witnesses—well-meaning people that they were—came to the committee with a preconceived idea of the whole question. Their evidence was by and large—there were some exceptions—hardly telling. It certainly was not the sort of thing that might lead to any real conclusion by the committee as to what happened and why it happened.

All that did come out from the committee hearing, and from the evidence given, was that this was an arrangement that was shoved together by the previous, Labor government—the Rudd Labor government—in double-quick time to address a political problem that the Rudd government had in the run-up to the 2013 election. The report before us does not really add much to what the proper investigations have already determined, and what the proper authorities have already said.

In concluding, I thank the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. They were the first to admit that these things had been rushed together under the term of the Labor government. I know a lot of the officers of that department were under enormous pressure. In six years they had dealt with over 50,000 illegal maritime arrivals. They were working at very intense rates to try and deal with this influx of illegal maritime arrivals to our shores, and there was this deal done just before the election by the Labor government to try and set up this Manus Island detention centre, just to fix a political problem. There was never any intention of fixing the real problem; this was to fix the political problem which the then Labor government had found itself embroiled in.

I thank the departmental officers. I thank the committee staff who contributed to this inquiry. They, as always, did their professional work, and did it very well. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Ketter, you were seeking leave to continue your remarks on that document as well?

Senator Ketter: Yes.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.