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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7085

Mr HAWKE (7:00 PM) —I rise tonight so my voice joins those opposing the changes that have been proposed by the government today in the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. I welcome the member for Canning’s wise remarks. I think he made some excellent points about border protection. Indeed, it does seem that the debate that we are having about this legislation is somewhat of a furphy as it appears that the government is struggling to portray to its left-wing constituency that it is doing something tough to repeal the strong border protection regime of the Howard government.

So we have this piece of legislation before us today, which is an attempt to portray the government as somehow unwinding the Howard government legacy. There are a number of problems with that theory of the government. The first one is that this legislation was the product of a Labor government. Indeed, this was a product of the Hawke government. In question time today, in answering a question about the government’s legislative agenda, the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government told the House that this bill was an important plank of the government’s legislative agenda. He said this would undo an injustice that had been created in our system. He neglected to mention that this was the product of a Labor government and a Labor minister attempting to deal and wrestle with very serious border protection challenges at the time. Indeed, the Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Gerry Hand, made several remarks at the time including that the primary objective of the Migration Act is ‘to regulate, in the national interest, the entry and presence in Australia of persons who are not Australian citizens’. We all warmly welcome Minister Gerry Hand’s remarks in that regard.

Underscoring the seriousness of this debate and the signals that the government is sending to the broader community, to people smugglers and to people abroad who are watching events here in Australia, it is important to note that in recent times there has been a surge in arrivals in Australia. Indeed, on the eve of this legislation being introduced abolishing detention debt we saw another arrival—an interception on Ashmore Reef of 49 passengers and four crew. Almost 800 asylum seekers have arrived by boat since last August, since the Rudd government softened the regime, with, as we know, 1,000 intercepted on Australia’s behalf by the Indonesians. It does appear that people smugglers have developed the view that they are back in business as we have seen a big surge in arrivals in Australia. The Prime Minister has expressed his view, describing people smugglers as the ‘scum of the earth’, and we support and welcome the Prime Minister’s comment in relation to people smugglers because they are indeed the scum of the earth who operate without any regard for the safety and wellbeing of people and for the very difficult circumstances that the people whom they are purporting to transport to a better life find themselves in.

If you look at the Howard government’s strong border protection policy and the integrity of the borders during that era, you see that we had a world-leading standard. One of the members here remarked that we were the only nation to seek to charge a debt in relation to a person’s accommodation while they were awaiting processing of their application. We were one of the few nations in the world to have a very strong border protection regime that actually worked. That has been noted by many countries in Europe which face challenges with migration and border security and have sought out Australia as a model for investigation. They saw Australia under the Howard government as a place which had successfully changed border protection measures to ensure that illegal arrivals dropped off. Of course, we did see during the period of the Howard government a 20-year low in arrivals, which underscores how seriously we took border protection and what a record we produced.

Addressing the legislation before us, the reason that I say this debate is somewhat of a furphy is that the purpose of this legislation is to remove the government’s ability to recover a debt from people who are found to be refugees; however, among the provisions that already exist in the act there is a provision for the minister to waive the requirement and there are other provisions for the debt to be waived. We know most of all of the moneys sought are actually waived. Less than 2.5 per cent of the debts that have been levied since 2004-05 have been recovered. The rest have been waived or written off. That is an exceptionally important statistic for us to note. Of course we understand this is not a measure designed to collect that money. Why then would we say that this is important and why would we seek to continue the operation of the act?

My answer to that would have a number of points. Firstly, we have already seen that the government has moved in a number of ways to soften the border protection regime that had been put into place under the previous government, sending out further signals to people smugglers and to others who watch these events—and they do watch these events—that we are open for business and we are a soft touch. So there is a continuing theme that is being built up that somehow Australia is again a destination. Many members here would not be convinced by that argument. Many members here would challenge that, saying, ‘Look, the current legislation is really a complete waste of time.’ I would question that. I feel that this is an important signal to those people who are given asylum in Australia. I think it is important to understand that. We levy people in this country for education. We load up our young people with higher education contribution debts in recognition of the fact that debt is an important concept: you are getting something of value.

When you are given the gift of staying in this country after leaving a very difficult part of the world—and the gift is ours to give on recognition that you are a genuine refugee and you have met genuine criteria—there is a cost associated with that. That cost is borne by the Australian taxpayers.

In the application of some of these migration policies there is a disconnect between the Australian government and the Australian people, and that is because it is the Australian people who pay the bills. The Australian people pay the taxes in order to pay the bills. So while there is a good argument, a good contention, that people in very distressed situations who have arrived here with nothing ought not to be laden with debt—that is a fair proposition that most people would agree with—it is important that those refugees recognise that there is a cost being borne by the Australian taxpayer. I think the current operation of the act goes some way to saying that.

When a genuine refugee arrives here, is granted asylum and applies to have their debt waived, that is a good system. Further, they recognise that the Australian people—the taxpayers of Australia—have said, ‘We agree that you have come from a difficult part of the world. We have paid for your accommodation and all the expenses of your internment here; now, go and make something of yourself.’ If I was a refugee I feel that I would be very grateful to the people who had paid that money. Refugees would not have a way of paying that, and certainly we do not expect it, and that is why we have a situation where only 2.5 per cent of the debt is recovered. So the question we have to ask is: what problem is this bill trying to solve? If only 2.5 per cent of the debt is being recovered then there are not an inordinate number of refugees who are being unfairly burdened with debt and who are struggling to cope with the system. That is not the problem.

Of course members would say—and we have heard some of the arguments here—that the problem is that if we keep the act as it is it would not be cost-effective; it does not do anything, so why not just get rid of it? I wish I heard that argument in relation to more pieces of Commonwealth legislation, because there are plenty of pieces of Commonwealth legislation which do not do anything or which cause a great deal of grievance to the Australian people. But we do not hear that argument made very often, especially in relation to small business, to entrepreneurship and to people trying to struggle to get ahead for themselves and their families. We rarely hear the argument that there is too much legislation or that legislation is ineffective, inefficient or needs to be removed. In fact, I never hear that in this chamber. So it is interesting to hear that argument expounded in relation to this bill.

I feel that the passing of this bill through this House and the Senate and the enacting of it would send a further signal that there is a change of government and a change of system in Australia. It could lead to more arrivals. It could signal to people smugglers that they are more open to carry out business under this government and therefore they should send more people at great risk—great peril—to Australia. I feel that that would not be a good outcome for Australia. I feel it would not be a good outcome for genuine refugees. I feel that we ought to pause and consider this very carefully.

I think we ought to be committed to strong border protection here in Australia. I will stand up in this place over many years to oppose changes that will weaken the integrity of our borders and encourage back into business these people smugglers, whom the Prime Minister has rightly labelled the scum of the earth. We have to take very seriously that there has been a big surge in the number of arrivals in the past year. We have had 13 boatloads—580 people—intercepted off Australian waters since 2009. That compares to seven boats and 161 people in 2008. This represents an approximately 360 per cent increase. Examining that evidence, we now know we have a greater challenge in front of us.

With this legislation we are unwinding measures for no good reason—for no real reason. Many members are getting up and talking about the awful debt that we are burdening arrivals with, which is a complete furphy when almost all of these debts are waived. When I hear people putting forward that furphy at a time when we face great challenges to the integrity of our borders, I feel that this whole debate has been constructed in a completely phoney way by a government that is seeking to show its supporters that it is doing something or anything in order to continue to get their political support, when actually very little is changing through this legislation. I am sure I would have the support of some left-wing activists in that argument.

I do want to dismiss the idea—it was a contention that was built in the lifetime of the Howard government—that somehow we are a mean nation and that we do not take our obligations as a global citizen well. That contention was expounded, built and activated. Certainly it was brought up throughout the election campaign so that people could mobilise their supporters. But actually I think it is incredibly important for us to note in this debate that, per capita, Australia has the third biggest refugee resettlement program in the world. We are a generous nation and it is wrong to label us as mean or tricky.

We have, per capita, the third biggest refugee resettlement program in the world. This year we will settle in our country 13,750 people from some of the darkest corners of the planet. Six thousand of those will be refugees who are judged by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be in urgent need of resettlement. We do not want to encourage any abuse of Australia’s migration and humanitarian programs. None of these 13,750 people whom, as I have said, we will resettle this year could afford to pay a people smuggler. I believe that our resettlement program, and those people, must remain our highest priorities.

Examining all of the arguments and hearing many of the positions that have been put in relation to this bill, I am more convinced than ever that this will only go to weaken our border integrity. It will show that Australia is a soft touch in relation to people-smuggling, and I am unconvinced that this will do anything to help genuine people, who ought to be very much the focus of our concern.