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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 3132

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (16:00): Today we have before us a matter that has been put forward as a mean-spirited political stunt. Those opposite are deter­mined to contribute nothing more than criticism, scaremongering and misinforma­tion to the asylum seeker debate. This debate that we are having here today is just another example of these tactics. When have those opposite ever offered a humane, truly collaborative and achievable approach for how Australia should deal with people seeking asylum? What did they ever offer in the way of a substantive policy aimed at breaking the business model of people smugglers? They can hardly argue that turning away the boats and dumping people on Nauru only to settle them in Australia after protracted periods of time was a credible, humane and effective policy. How does the Nauru solution secure Australia's border or deny people smugglers the 'product'—as these asylum seekers are described in the matter before us—they sell?

Those opposite refuse to acknowledge that Australia cannot go it alone on the problems of people smuggling and irregular migration. While this government works hard in collaboration with our neighbours to develop and implement an approach to asylum seekers which balances our humanitarian obligations, the protection of our borders and a plan to end the profitability of people smuggling, those opposite seek to demonise asylum seekers for their own political self-interest. Mr Abbott's latest trip to Nauru is just another example—another political stunt. The fact that Mr Abbott continues to mislead the Australian people on this issue is evident in the fact that he refuses to answer how much his new Nauru solution would cost. Nauru did not work to stop the people smugglers' business model, and it was not a truly regional and cooperative solution to tackling people smuggling. What is more, the coalition left people on Nauru for extended periods of time only to settle the great majority in Australia anyway.

The UNHCR have also made it clear that Nauru is not a good option. Let us consider what the UNHCR spokesperson, Jennifer Pagonis said in 2008, when Nauru closed:

… in our view, today's closure of the centre on Nauru signals the end of a difficult chapter in Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty—and prolonged separation from their families.

That is the former Howard government's record.

Further, just last week a UNHCR spokesperson rejected the Liberals' claims that Nauru had been overseen and approved by the UNHCR. They have said:

UNHCR was not involved and, indeed, distanced itself from any role in overseeing or managing the processing facilities on Nauru under the Pacific Solution. Recent media reports that the centre on Nauru was approved by and run under the auspices of the UN are factually incorrect.

Just this morning on AM Agenda on Sky News, Minister Bowen talked about reports of the long-term psychological damage that Nauru caused those asylum seekers who were left there. There are still people in Australia today who are suffering that psychological damage, yet all we have seen in the House of Representatives this morning is another cheap attempt by Mr Abbott and his coalition. Their support for the motion on Malaysia does not represent a substantive policy shift for the opposition; it is just a deliberate and deceitful move to masquerade the Nauru solution as a more humane and credible alternative.

Let's set the record straight. The Gillard government has always had a plan for the strong management of our borders, and we have made significant progress towards a comprehensive and people focused care plan for asylum seekers in Australia. Let me first outline the significant progress towards the development of a regional cooperation framework for dealing with asylum seekers entering our region by boat. At the Bali process in March this year, we reached an agreement with our neighbours for a regional protection framework. That regional frame­work fits within Australia's respon­sibilities as a signatory to the refugee convention and was a response endorsed by the UNHCR. Since Bali, there have been ongoing discussions with our neighbours about how as a region we deal with those who are seeking asylum. As a result, the government is negotiating with Malaysia to prevent people smugglers profiteering out of asylum seekers trying to reach our country. The agreement will finally be agreed and signed in the coming weeks, and that will happen with the close involvement of the UNHCR.

As the minister has outlined at length, appropriate protections will be in place for those being transferred, and they will not be caned or subject to other penalties imposed on illegal immigrants. The Malaysian Prime Minister has agreed to treat any asylum seekers transferred from Australia with dignity and respect and in line with human rights standards. Whilst negotiations continue, we can be assured that this is a firm commitment. Just as the UNHCR is involved in the development of the agreement, the UNHCR will also be assisting and processing asylum seekers who are transferred. The UNHCR has publicly supported the arrangements as an opportunity to better protect refugees in our region.

The reality is that this agreement with Malaysia breaks the business model of people smugglers by removing their ability to sell a guaranteed ticket to Australia. Through this approach we hope that people seeking asylum do not continue to be treated as a commodity by people smugglers who have effectively traded their freedom. Our framework represents a more orderly and humanitarian approach to the way in which our region deals with those seeking asylum. The Prime Minister has stated that we will be working with Malaysia to conclude an agreement where the human rights of the asylum seekers we return to Malaysia will be respected. Time and time again you have heard the government give a commitment to breaking the people smugglers' business case.

The policies being negotiated are squarely aimed at removing the product that people smugglers sell and therefore stopping people from getting on boats and risking perilous sea journeys to reach Australia. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Chris Bowen, is on the record as saying that this is an agreement which will break the people smugglers' business model and at the same time mean that Australia increases its humanitarian intake. Our humanitarian intake will now be the highest it has been since 1996, when the Labor Party was last in office. This agreement means that our humanitarian intake will be increased by 1,000, from 13,750 to 14,750 each year. That is an additional 4,000 refugees that we will take in over the next four years, a commitment which those opposite do not support.

It is not good enough to peddle a policy on asylum seekers that involves sending away people who are seeking refuge and being done with it. We have the capacity to increase our humanitarian intake and that is what this agreement enables. The agreement with Malaysia is in line with Australia's international obligations, and we will remain committed signatories to the refugee convention. Genuine refugees will not be returned to dangerous circumstances under the new arrangements. The government's discussions with Papua New Guinea also remain ongoing.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that there are no quick fixes in how we respond to asylum seekers. The government has said time and time again that we are determined to end the profitability of people smuggling and develop a regional solution to a truly regional problem. To do that we are working with the UNHCR and Malaysia to (a) ensure that we break the people smugglers' business model, and (b) ensure more consistent protection outcomes across the region. It is a much more holistic approach and a truly regional and cooperative approach, unlike the bilateral agreement with Nauru those opposite cannot seem to move past. The Nauru approach involved simply sending away asylum seekers in the hope that they would go away. This was done in the knowledge that those asylum seekers would in fact be resettled in Australia after some time and, what is worse, that they would suffer significant psychological damage along the way.

In Australia we have also taken steps to ensure we have the infrastructure in place to house and support asylum seekers who are here whilst their claims are being processed. The government has planned expansions to some immigration detention facilities. (Time expired)