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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 29

Senator LUDWIG (10:57 AM) —Senator Kirk is right. The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs brought these regulations forward when the Senate was not sitting. Think of the gall of it all: you have a department that is in complete disarray because of her mismanagement. You would imagine that, after 9½ long years, this government would have got the management of the migration area right. We have seen failure upon failure by the government in this area, and it still does not stop. Here they are again, serving up another failed piece of legislation and using regulations to do it. You would really start to wonder, but there is no longer time to wonder.

This minister should take responsibility and do the right thing. Rather than that, she serves this up as a way of saying, ‘Here is another fiasco to add to all the other fiascos, failures and mismanagement.’ I am referring, of course, to Migration Amendment Regulations 2005 (No. 6). These regulations prescribe islands that form part of Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Coral Sea Islands Territory as excised offshore places under the Migration Act 1958. This decision by the minister for immigration is to excise a number of islands from Australia’s migration zone. It is again indicative of a government that is not willing to implement cultural change. It is a government that fails to recognise what it needs to do. This minister simply will not take responsibility, will not manage her department, and uses this as a cloak to try to take her other issues off the boil. They are not going to go off the boil, and this just adds one more to them.

This latest attempt to excise these islands raises alarm bells about whether the government has any intention of changing the culture of the immigration department at all. The latest excision is an appalling example of the government’s surrendering the full rights of territory as a stunt. It is another attempt by the Liberal government to divert attention away from the minister’s lazy mismanagement of the immigration portfolio instead of doing what needs to be done. Sidelining the minister for immigration would be a good start.

The government is again attempting to excise a few thousand Australian islands from the migration zone. The Howard government seems to have abandoned the concept of border protection and replaced it with border surrender. The excision does not strengthen Australia’s border protection; it weakens it. How does writing off parts of Australia strengthen border protection? That is not the way to do it. Border protection does not just involve people smuggling; it also requires stopping firearms, drugs, plants, animals and diseases.

What has the government done to address the real problem of border protection? Mr Philip Ruddock, in his capacity then as the minister for immigration, admitted that none of the government policies had any effect on the number of unauthorised arrivals in Australia. The removal of even more islands from Australia’s migration zone is not a step towards tougher border protection policy; it is a step back.

The Howard government initially excised or removed over 3,000 islands from Australia’s migration zone by regulations made in 2002. These regulations were rightly disallowed in the Senate. The Howard government then introduced the Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill—to which I would add the words ‘not true’—into the House. The Senate rightly rejected that bill on 9 December 2002. On 26 March 2003 Mr Philip Ruddock, the then minister, tried again and introduced the Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill 2002 [No. 2] into the House of Representatives. Again, and appropriately, the Senate rejected that bill.

Here we are, a couple of days into the sitting of the new Senate, where the government has a majority, and this bill has turned up again—another stunt by this government. All the platitudes and assurances that it was softening its hardline administration of immigration have been forgotten. The minister seems to think we have moved on and it is old news. It is not old news; it is still current. The minister has not addressed it. She has done nothing to correct the record, to ensure proper administration in the migration area and her department and to take responsibility.

These regulations are similar to the previous bills. The regulations excise or remove from the Australian migration zone the following: all islands that are part of Queensland and are north of latitude 21 degrees south, all islands that are part of Western Australia and are north of latitude 23 degrees south, all islands that are part of the Northern Territory and are north of latitude 16 degrees south, and the Coral Islands territory. They are seeking to make all of these islands not part of Australia. They are excising them for the purposes of the migration legislation.

Many of the islands in the proposed expanded excision zone are small and uninhabited. It should be noted that in any event many of them lie very close to the Australian mainland. Many of the islands which are caught in the excision or removal are not in the direct path of the likely border interdiction or where the people smugglers and boat people are going to come. This is an unnecessary carte blanche excision of 3,000 islands, and it can only be a stunt.

It is important to look at the legal effect of the excision as well. Let us assume that these regulations are passed. With the government majority, I am sure they are going to crunch it through. What would happen if a boat reached the islands? Excision is not a stop sign; it does not turn a boat around. It is a different processing regime in a different place. Presumably, the asylum seekers involved would be taken to Nauru for processing, which the government cites as being in line with the UNHCR standards. People would get processed there and sorted into refugees and non-refugees, but they would not have access to medical care, including mental health care, which is so desperately required by many people caught up in the government’s policy of indefinite detention.

Let us not forget that four years on there are still people left on Nauru. In 2001, 1,547 asylum seekers were taken to Nauru and PNG, with almost 1,000 being resettled. Just fewer than 600 refugees have been granted visas to settle in Australia, while New Zealand was quick to respond by resettling around 360 refugees. The Nauru experience has been that Australia generally takes the refugees and resettles them here, despite the government’s rhetoric time and time again leading the Australian people to believe that this would not happen.

We remember the Prime Minister carrying on about the asylum seekers on the Tampa. He said that not one of them would set foot on Australian soil. Remember the Prime Minister saying that the asylum seekers involved in the ‘children overboard’ web of lies were not the sort of people he wanted in Australia? He was not being honest with Australian people then—and he is still not being honest today—about the ‘children overboard’ affair or about what would happen to asylum seekers caught up in the so-called Pacific solution. So much for the Prime Minister’s claim that not one refugee would be allowed to set foot in Australia.

The Senator Vanstone express is moving through, but it is not only about these regulations that came before us in the break; it is about other things that happened in the break which should be being addressed and are not. If you were going to look at regulations that should be brought forward, why not look at regulations to deal with one of the other issues that occurred that the minister still has not come into this parliament and provided a cogent ministerial statement about?

A couple of those issues are worth reiterating. One is the GSL debacle. How could you end up with the GSL operated van tour of Australia? Those unfortunate travelling detainees under the minister’s responsibility ended up in what can only be described as a horror ride. Detainees were locked in the back of a van for 10 hours, apparently with no food and certainly not sufficient water and without toilet breaks for an extraordinary length of time. These issues should be addressed by the minister, but they are not. What we find is another stunt in terms of the excision. In its management of migration centres and of contracts in the migration field this government can only be described as morally bankrupt.

Rather than punish GSL for their appalling record, it appears the government is planning in fact to reward them. The Financial Review of 14 August 2005 said that the outcome of the Palmer report may deliver a ‘handsome financial windfall to the owners of private detention centres’. If that is not right, then the minister should correct the record. The minister should come down here and say, ‘This is not going to happen. I am the responsible minister and I am going to fix it.’ She should not leave it to the departmental secretary to come out and say, ‘It is my job now to fix it.’ It is another sidelining of these issues by this minister. She is not prepared to tackle them head-on and deal with them. It is a clear case of government rewarding incompetence when it should be punishing it.

At the same time we heard the minister argue that the fact that 56 people were detained was old news. Let me say that I think they would have had a different view about having been detained for 21 days plus. That is how the answer to my question came back—21 days plus, not 21 days for X number, or 30, 40 or 50. We do not know how long they were detained. We do not know what nationalities they were, whether they were Australians or whether they have been returned or whether they have been provided with a clear explanation. It might be the case that at the point of detention it might have been reasonable. But after 21 days plus how can she say it continued to be reasonable to detain these people without explanation?

We do not know the full story yet, because the minister has not been able to provide the answer. I am hopeful that she will provide it today. Certainly she has got the opportunity before we rise today to come down and tell us what went on and how long those people were there. She has the opportunity to inform us so that we can then ask what she has done about it. It is not sustainable to argue that at the point of detention it may have been reasonable. After 21 days plus how can she say it has continued to be reasonable to detain these people without explaining to them what she is doing and how she is working through the issue?

These people were subsequently released as people who should not have been detained, as far as I can tell from the record. At some point the minister has failed to recognise that you have to ask the question not once at the point of detention; you have to continue to ask the question every day at every point to ascertain whether or not it continues to be reasonable to detain people. At 21 days plus the big question mark would have to rise in the mind of bureaucracy and in the minister’s mind whether it was still reasonable to continue detention. You cannot detain people just because you do not know who they are or because you are trying to resolve their identity. You have to say that they are unlawful noncitizens or they are not. That is the point of it all, and in these instances the minister has not provided the explanation about their detention—what efforts were made to determine their identity and at what point she determined they were not unlawfully detained and what happened to them after that.

It is indicative of a government not committed to openness and accountability. That is what it is about and that is what the minister needs to address. She has failed to address it by all accounts when you look at the record. Instead, we have a willingness to deny, hide, obfuscate, misdirect, fudge, distract, mislead and probably cover up and distort as well. Rather, the minister should confront the truth in this. This culture of concealment keeps coming up. But it does not stop with the department. It seems to go right up the chain and the minister must be part of it. You ask whether the culture started in the department and crept upwards or whether it started with the government and the minister and crept downwards. I suspect it is a top-down outcome rather than a bottom-up one.

The so-called Pacific solution is nothing more than an expensive detour sign. It is not a stop sign. When you look at excision with this regulation, it is not going to affect the outcome that the minister wants. It can only be a way of taking the parliament and using a regulation to say, ‘What I would rather you argue about is excision over here,’ rather than the minister accounting for her department, for the Palmer inquiry, for the GSL contract, for the Wang children, for the 201 people who were—as far as we can make out—detained, and for those 56 who were detained for more than 21 days. Those are the things that the minister needs to come and account for. The minister also needs to account for the ANAO report and the contracts which indicate some god-awful failings within the department. That is what the minister needs to come and account for. We have not heard her account for any of that. A ministerial statement would be nice. We could at least take note of that and argue about those issues. Instead, we have to argue about the delegated legislation, this regulation. It is not even a bill. She is not even game to put a bill back in here so that we can argue about that. She had to use the cover of recess to sneak the regulation through.

Labor understands the concerns of Australians and shares their view that unauthorised boat arrivals are the worst of all possible outcomes both from the Australian point of view as a nation managing its borders and from the point of view of the asylum seekers who risk, and all too often lose, their lives on the journey. Australians rightly all want a managed and fair system. But are we going to get that from this government? I think not when you look at the minister’s ability to run the immigration detention system.

Labor would run a quick, fair and transparent processing regime on Christmas Island and on mainland Australia that would determine 90 per cent of refugee claims in 90 days. Genuine refugees would be quickly identified and released, while failed claimants would be quickly returned to their place of origin. Labor would administer better health and security checks. More importantly, Labor would initiate ASIO security checks on the lodgment of a claim for asylum, rather than the steps this government takes.

We have GSL as well. Labor would immediately end the contracts with Global Solutions and it would seek not to have a profit motivated private company running Australian detention centres. The operation and management of these facilities would be immediately returned to public hands under a Labor government. That is where they should sit. The minister still has not looked at that other than, as I said earlier, coming back down to this parliament and saying: ‘We’ve had a look at the contracts. We might penalise them over that horror journey those detention persons were in. We might take a bit of money off GSL for that but, in the scheme of things, we are going to reward GSL with a bigger slice of the pie.’ Not to pick on the particular company—they are motivated by profit—but what we really need is people who are going to look after a detention system, care about a detention system, who have administration and are able to be publicly checked as to how things go on, with clear lines of accountability back to the minister. That is what is required. Instead, we have the minister serving up another piece of delegated legislation seeking to excise 3,000 islands. It is a shame that this minister will not take responsibility for her portfolio.