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Monday, 24 November 2003
Page: 17548

Senator SHERRY (5:15 PM) —Labor oppose the government regulations seeking to excise thousands of Australian islands from our migration zone. Labor have opposed the government's attempt to excise islands before. We will do so on this occasion, and we will do so again. The reasons Labor will vote to disallow these regulations are simple: they are not an effective way to protect our borders and they simply do not make sense. Furthermore, Labor will not vote for regulations that are based on lies and misleading the public.

In the weeks since these regulations were rushed into law, the Liberal government experts have woven another web of deceit. If the government's strategy is so good, why does it have to lie to the public about the facts? If the legislation was really about border protection and national security, why did the first press release on the issue by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Vanstone, run under the heading `Labor must decide on illegal immigrants'? The reality is that these regulations are all about politics of the worst kind and provide nothing about effective measures to protect our borders.

Whichever way you look at it, the government's proposal is wrong. It does not protect our borders and it does not treat people fairly. It is an admission that the current border controls do not work and that our existing migration system cannot cope with processing 14 people's claims. Most importantly, the government has not taken any steps to really combat people-smuggling by detaining and prosecuting the crew involved. The government has jumped straight to this diversion of excising our island territories—cutting them out of the Australian jurisdiction—which will not deliver security or equity. We saw Senator Vanstone admit today in question time that the government had let the crews go. The people that you need to provide evidence about the people smugglers were let go. It let the crooks go back to Indonesia, where there are no anti-people-smuggling laws. What an incredible indictment on this government that claims to want to protect against and to put a stop to people-smuggling. You let the crooks go. If the crooks are not kept here, you do not have any witnesses to provide evidence about who is engaged in the people-smuggling exercise. What a weak and pathetic government we have got: sending the crooks back, letting them go, knowing that they will not be prosecuted in Indonesia.

The regulations would have had the impact of cutting out thousands of islands not just to our north but all along the coast of Queensland as well. All of the Torres Strait islands plus islands as far down as off Mackay on the Queensland coast, including Magnetic Island off Townsville and many of the tourist resort islands along the Great Barrier Reef, would be excised—cut out. Clearly, none of these are relevant to the seas between Australia's northern coast and the people smugglers' source country of Indonesia, yet they are included in this regulation. The Liberal government's immediate reaction to news of a boat off Melville Island was not to ask why it had not been detected, nor to ascertain who the people were or what claims were being made. Its immediate response was to change the laws affecting our territory and sovereignty, giving away bits of Australia. That is the Liberal Party's strength—giving away bits of Australia.

We know that the Minasa Bone travelled all the way from Indonesia without once being spotted by Australian surveillance—not once. It is almost unbelievable that this boat was able to land less than 80 kilometres north of Darwin without a single Coastwatch vessel or border patrol aircraft seeing it. Labor has already exposed through the Senate estimates process that this Liberal government has severely wound back its primary tool for detecting people smugglers through the Defence Force's Operation Relex. The Liberal government has cut the budget for coastal surveillance in this area by 40 per cent compared to the previous year. What another example of a weak and wimpy government and a weak and wimpy minister! It has cut by 40 per cent the moneys allocated to watching and protecting our northern coastline by winding back on aircraft and seacraft that were at the front-line of surveillance and interception. This Liberal government has put up the white flag to vessels both big and small coming across the seas to our northern coastline.

From initial reports, it appears the closest navel vessel to Melville Island was more than eight hours away. Eventually two naval vessels were deployed and a host of other agencies were brought together to deal with this breach of our borders. However, it hardly inspires confidence that the seas to the north of the capital city of Darwin are being closely monitored. Yet the Liberal government has ignored this central issue. In fact, Senator Vanstone's comments have made it quite clear she believes Australia cannot patrol all of our northern border. Labor is totally committed to strong border protection, but, simply put, you do not protect your borders by surrendering them, by removing your borders and cutting out islands.

The Howard government is running up the white flag. Far from protecting our borders by excising these islands, it is encouraging people smugglers to be more audacious and inviting them to head for the mainland. If you know a bit of Australia has been excised or cut out, you will head for the bit that has not been cut out—mainland Australia. It is logical. In fact, the minister responsible for border protection even admitted the government's new policy is going to encourage more boats to come directly to the mainland. In a media interview a day or so after the boat landed the minister said:

If you want to come in illegally you have to make it to the mainland.

With this policy of excising and cutting out islands, the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, is saying that he will decide which bits of Australia to hand over next to the people smugglers and how much will be handed over each time.

Labor say there is a better and more effective way to protect our borders. We want laws that stop people smugglers leaving countries, not invite them to head for Australia. We want laws that process asylum seekers in the country they first land in, not the last country they head to, putting their lives at risk and allowing people smugglers to rip them off by thousands of dollars. We want the people smugglers arrested before they leave Australia and if they do get here we want them prosecuted—put in jail, Minister, not just sent back home to Indonesia ready to ply their trade again. There are no anti-people-smuggling laws in Indonesia. Labor want a US style coastguard patrolling our borders. Any of these options could have had an effect in helping to stop unauthorised entrants. But the Liberal government's answer is to cut out bits of Australia—let us flick away the islands that are part of Australian territory, part of this nation, and have been since European settlement.

Instead of tackling content and substance the government opt for lies and diversions. We know the Howard government cannot be trusted on these issues. They lied about the children being thrown overboard. They lied about the full knowledge of the sunken vessel SIEVX. Now we can add the Minasa Bone to the list. The government claimed Melville Island is a convenient spot for people smugglers to drop off their cargo—but the government were not patrolling the area. There were no patrol vessels there. Yet, supposedly, it is a convenient area.

The government claimed they detected a pattern of events that suggests people smuggling was involved in this incident and then they failed to even question or charge the crew involved, who could provide evidence about people-smuggling into this country. Several ministers advised that the people did not seek asylum, including the minister sitting here in the chamber today, Senator Vanstone. She said they did not seek asylum. And the PM thinks that it is `irrelevant'. It seems ministerial standards are now so low that the Prime Minister cannot see a problem with his ministers lying to the public. The government say they have an agreement with Indonesia and Indonesia say that they would not have a bar of it. Why do the government think it is okay to lie about asylum seekers?

Senator Vanstone —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. The allegation has just been made that ministers have lied.

Senator SHERRY —Yes, correct!

Senator Vanstone —Thank you for reminding me what you just said a minute ago—and if you don't loosen something you'll get a bit tense! The government has made that point very clear and I will come to the debating issue of that when I get the opportunity to speak. Nonetheless, I am objecting to the use of `lie' with respect to the ministers involved because it is clearly understood and not disputed by anybody that the ministers said what they believed to be true at the time on the basis of advice given them by public servants. A lie is something—

Opposition senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall)—Senator, have you made your point of order?

Senator Vanstone —Can I finish the point? A lie is when someone intentionally tells a mistruth and intentionally misleads. There is no dispute that that is not what happened here.

Senator SHERRY —I withdraw any unparliamentary reference to lying. Why does the government think it is okay to lie about asylum seekers? On top of the lies we have inaction too. According to media reports, each of the people on this boat paid about $10,000 to the people smugglers to get them from Turkey to Australia via Indonesia. That is $140,000 that went into the pockets of various people along the way, including the crew of the Minasa Bone. Whether or not they were the `Mr Bigs' of the operation, it is fair for the Australian public to expect that the crew of this boat would at least have been held for questioning by the Australian authorities. If the Howard government is so keen to deter people smugglers from seeking out our shores, you would think they would use the domestic powers that they have to at least apprehend and put into custody and question these individuals. If the Howard government was so serious it would use its powers to charge these people with people-smuggling under Australian law and they would face fines of up to $110,000 and time in jail. But they are not even questioned and not even detained. However, this government seems to think that returning the little fish back to the seas in order for them to become bigger fish is a more effective treatment.

Labor says this is simply not good enough and it highlights the lack of the Liberal government's real commitment in this area. Staggeringly, the Howard government do not even appear to know where the Minasa Bone or its crew now are. But the one thing that they did know right from the beginning is that Indonesia does not have any legislation for charging people with people-smuggling and therefore by returning the Minasa Bone crew to Indonesia they have guaranteed that these people smugglers would never be charged.

The extraordinary chain of events that led this crew to be towed back to Indonesia and let off scot-free also involves a further murky chapter concerned with whether or not the Howard government misled the Indonesian authorities and other international agencies about their intentions in this matter. Indonesian immigration officials clearly believe they were misled about the Australian government's intention when they turned this vessel around. They advised that they would be launching their own investigation into Australia's actions, particularly those that led to Indonesia, as a non-signatory to the refugee convention, being left with 14 potential asylum seekers to protect and process. Unhappy about their deception in this matter, one Indonesian official commented:

What do they think Indonesia is—a trash bin for these people?

Today in this chamber I am going to spell out briefly for the Liberal government yet again what the real solutions—Labor's solutions—involve. The first part of the solution is to deal with people smugglers at their country of source. We must get countries in our region to sign onto the relevant international conventions that aim to prevent the flow of asylum seekers. More importantly, eight countries in the pipeline between the Middle East and Australia are not signatories to the 1967 protocol to the refugees convention. Seven of them are Commonwealth countries. The eighth is Indonesia. These countries form a continuous chain between the major source countries in the Middle East and Australia. This is the pipeline that needs to be shut down.

The Prime Minister has had numerous opportunities to press this with these countries, including at the Bali conference in February last year and at the CHOGM last March, but he has failed. The process must be reactivated. Labor have made the offer countless times over the past two years to the Liberal government to work with us to find a comprehensive solution that will stop the people smugglers, and on behalf of Labor I again make the offer.

The second part of the solution is to get Indonesia and other transit countries to make people smuggling a crime and to arrest people smugglers. Already, several people smugglers have been arrested in Thailand and in Australia, and no doubt this is already having an effect on the flow. Apparently Indonesia has such legislation drafted and Australia should be working with them to get it into law, not pressuring the relationship with the bungled handling of this case. The People Smuggling Task Force has told us that arresting people smugglers is the best deterrent. Yet we saw in this instance there was absolutely no attempt to arrest the Minasa Bone crew so it seems the Liberal government's handling of the matter was a total rejection of this most effective tool in dealing with people smugglers.

The third part is to create a coastguard to intercept boats before they get here. It is affordable. Look at how much the Pacific solution has cost. We are now talking about something like $1 billion allocated to this farcical non-solution. A coastguard is needed not just for people smugglers. It is also to get the drug runners and the quarantine evaders. It is about making our country safer and more secure from those events and people seeking to threaten our sovereignty and break our laws. The fourth part of the solution is to ensure that the asylum seekers are processed in the countries they first arrive in, not in the country they last head to. The fifth part of the solution is to better handle claims that are made in Australia. We must improve the processing of asylum seekers' claims and the system of mandatory detention.

Senator Kemp —What was the second part?

Senator SHERRY —Senator Kemp should concern himself with protecting Australian artists and the Australian film industry rather than making stupid interjections like that. We all know he hates Kath and Kim, and wants to give away Australian culture to the total domination by the United States. Stick to your own issues, Senator Kemp!

We must keep mandatory detention to ensure that identity, security and health checks are undertaken, but processing should be fast and fair. The detention centres must be returned to government control and opened to public scrutiny. We must also get children and their families urgently out from behind the razor wire.

The sixth solution is to quickly repatriate people who have been found not to be refugees. This is a comprehensive plan of action that does not involve giving away territory or legal nonsense. Not one of these steps outlined above is being taken by the Liberal government. Excising islands from Australian sovereignty is just the start. What will come next? The Liberal government is saying to the people smugglers, `The more you come, the more we will give up.' Once the people smugglers start coming to the mainland the next logical move in this game is to excise parts of the mainland. That is not pride in your country. It is defeatism in the name of politics. People will get border protection from Labor but they will also get a fair system and they will get the truth. Under the Howard government they will get none of these. These regulations fail on all tests and Labor will not support them now or in the future. That is why we will be voting to disallow the regulations presented before the Senate.