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Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Page: 11263


Mr TURNBULL (Leader of the Opposition) (3:51 PM) —Today, and for the past 10 days, our nation has been watching the distressing, disturbing outcome of a colossal policy failure by the Rudd government. It is a fundamental responsibility of any government to secure and protect Australia’s borders and in particular to eliminate entirely, as far as possible, people-smuggling and the unauthorised maritime arrivals of their asylum-seeking passengers.

Another fundamental responsibility is to honour fully our international obligations and our long and distinguished traditions as a nation generous to those who seek refuge from war and persecution. Achieving these two objectives simultaneously is a critical test for any government. This government is failing that test abysmally. Its border protection policies have descended into chaos. Today, 78 asylum seekers sit aboard an Australian Customs vessel, the Oceanic Viking, in waters off the Indonesian island of Bintan, their fate uncertain.

This sorry saga is emblematic of a policy debacle for which the Prime Minister and this government are refusing to accept responsibility. Not one question about the Oceanic Viking has been answered other than with a contemptuous, savage and sneering attack on the opposition. The truth is that this debacle is a disaster entirely of the government’s own making. Against the advice of the Australian Federal Police, against the advice of the opposition, against warnings from the Indonesian Police and the International Organisation for Migration about the consequences of changes to Australia’s immigration rules, this government chose deliberately to unpick the fabric of the coalition’s strong border protection policy—a policy that had worked. The outcome is now there for all to see.

Labor’s policies have undermined the strength and integrity of our border protection. They have had the effect of outsourcing Australia’s generous refugee program to people smugglers. They have placed unacceptable stresses on our Navy personnel and Customs officers as they attempt to do their job and stop this illegal trade. They have had the effect of relegating further back in the queue thousands of deserving people waiting to have their claims for asylum processed in the normal, legal and appropriate way. Labor’s policies are imposing intense pressures on our friends in Indonesia, concerned that they have come to be seen in the words of the provincial governor Abdullah as ‘a dumping ground for asylum seekers’.

How did it all come to this? From June through to August last year this government chose deliberately and with much fanfare to adopt a new policy approach—a softly, softly approach to Australia’s border protection regime. This had the effect of unwinding a cluster of policy measures put in place over many years by the previous government to stem the flow of unauthorised arrivals to Australia. These policies had been controversial; they had been, from time to time, amended and refined—but they had also been effective. But Labor decided the time had come to put its own stamp on immigration policy. The policy changes included the abolition of temporary protection visas, the relaxation of immigration detention policy, the abolition of detention debt, the abolition of the 45-day rule, and the relaxation of the citizenship test.

The government said this would make Australia’s treatment of refugees more humane and more generous. But they also said that none of these changes would have any effect or impact whatsoever on the flow of asylum seekers. Indeed, they said they could abolish the Howard government’s policies but maintain the Howard government’s record of no boats. In short, the government believed it could have its cake and eat it too. Instead, the clear message sent out to the world was that the border protection policies of the Howard era had been weakened. That message—that perception—was heard loud and clear, mostly by the racketeers and criminals who make huge profits by encouraging vulnerable people to take to the oceans in unseaworthy vessels in the hope of being rescued and then taken to Australia.

We in the opposition were warning the government a year ago that they risked reaping a bitter harvest with these reckless and ill-considered changes to our border protection policies. On 17 November last year, the member for Murray, as shadow minister for immigration, issued a media statement on the interception of a fifth boat since Labor’s policy changes, warning:

… the people smugglers are back in business taking advantage of those with the cash and the contacts, who are willing to risk all in a sea dash to the nearest landing place in Australia.

On 1 December in this House she asked the following question to the Prime Minister:

I refer the Prime Minister to the recent surge in the number of boat people attempting to reach Australia and the statement by the chief of mission in Indonesia of the International Organisation for Migration, Mr Steve Cook: ‘People smugglers have clearly noted that there has been a change in policy and they’re testing the envelope.’

The member for Murray then asked the Prime Minister:

… isn’t the government giving a green light to people smugglers?

This, I remind the House, was 1 December last year. The opposition’s questions at the time cited not only the concerns of the International Organisation for Migration but also the warning from Mr Paulus Purwoko, the deputy chief of criminal investigation for the Indonesian National Police. In November Mr Purwoko said attempted boat crossings to Australia were increasing significantly, causing Indonesia grave concern. These were genuine concerns raised by serious people focussed on the task at hand.

So how did the government respond? Consistent with his demeanour throughout this spectacular policy failure, the Prime Minister treated all warnings contemptuously. Rather than addressing seriously and earnestly the policy issues raised by the opposition, he resorted, as he has done every day this week and last week, to mockery and scorn, seeking to ridicule all who dared to hold him to account for his policy failings. He responded to the member for Murray as follows:

In 2008 there have been four boats with 48 passengers. In 2007 there were five boats with 148 passengers. If this year we have had a surge, that was a deluge.

Does anyone in the House need reminding of what has happened since the Prime Minister responded so dismissively to the questions we asked of him around this same time last year? Since 1 December, 41 boats have arrived carrying 2,012 people. As I said earlier, that makes a grand total of 45 unauthorised boat arrivals since Labor changed Australia’s border protection policies with well over 2,000 asylum seekers having reached our shores. A deluge indeed, in the words of the Prime Minister himself. Looking back on those remarks by the Prime Minister almost a year ago, we are reminded of the notorious one-liner delivered by the former British Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, back in 1979. Flying back from a trip to the Caribbean, he returned to a nation reeling from strike action across all the major industries during Britain’s so-called ‘winter of discontent’. Asked at the airport what he intended to do to end the crisis, Mr Callaghan answered, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ The British never forgave Jim Callaghan the smug complacency evident in that one remark.

Today this Prime Minister should be taking heed of that lesson. He must abandon immediately his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the failings of policy that have led to this sorry state of affairs. The Prime Minister has insisted throughout that the policy changes he effected will have no impact on the number of unauthorised arrivals—no impact whatsoever. Pull factors are irrelevant, according to the Prime Minister. He asks us to believe it is just a complete coincidence that within months of the policies introduced by him the trickle of asylum seekers became a steady stream and now, in his own words, ‘a deluge’. The numbers speak for themselves. Yet the Prime Minster remains in denial. His government remains in denial.

Rather than confront his own failings, the Prime Minister seeks refuge in misrepresentation and spin. He would much rather hold the opposition to account for the government’s failings, and his appetite for moral posturing knows no bounds. He says he will not accept criticism or scrutiny from those who put children behind bars. What the Prime Minister never acknowledges is that it was the Keating Labor government that introduced mandatory detention for unlawful asylum seekers, including women and children, in 1992. In this selective airbrushing of history, he also fails to acknowledge it was the Howard government in 2005 that amended the laws to provide for families and children to be removed from detention. I remind the Prime Minister of this as Australians watch the television footage of the conditions at the Tanjung Pinang detention centre on Bintan Island. I remind him of this as Australians see on their televisions the images of the razor wire. I remind him of this as we ponder the fate of those aboard the Oceanic Viking, five children and an elderly woman among them. I remind him of who is ultimately responsible for this outcome. Those 78 asylum seekers have been on that vessel for 10 days. This is a debacle. More than that, it is a disgrace.

Yet now all of a sudden the Prime Minister’s memory fails him. All of a sudden he does not remember the detail of the negotiations about how and why that vessel sailed for Indonesia, why it could not dock at the port of Merak, who decided it should be redirected to Bintan Island, and who decided that those 78 passengers should be transferred to the Tanjung Pinang detention centre. He does not know, as we have seen in the House today, how many people there are actually on the boat. He was not able to find out in the course of question time how many Customs officials and sailors are on the boat. He does not know that. He is not interested. He professes no interest or concern whatsoever in the welfare of the Customs officials, the crew or the asylum seekers. When given the opportunity to do so, he declined to answer the question.

Further to that, it has become quite apparent in his numerous nonanswers to our many questions about this that, as far we can see, the only involvement he has had himself as Prime Minster in this whole sorry affair that has captured the attention and concern of the entire nation is one conversation with the President of Indonesia. Beyond that he professes to have had no involvement at all and is unable to recall or account for the Australian officials and departments that are involved. This is just appalling obfuscation by the Prime Minster, the most notorious control freak we have seen in that office. The idea that he has no involvement with this other than a discussion with the Indonesian President is absurd. He is simply seeking to wash his hands of all responsibility for a fiasco entirely of his own making.

It is time for the Prime Minister to face up to the facts. He cannot escape responsibility for the people aboard that Customs vessel. He cannot refuse to answer for how his policies have led to this outcome. He says his policies are tough and humane. ‘Tough but humane’ is just another one of the phoney formulas dreamed up by the Winston Smith wannabes in his office to create an impression that the government’s border protection policies are something that they are not. In fact, this government’s policies are neither tough nor humane. They are dysfunctional. They do not work. They fail to achieve the object of the policy, which is to stop the people-smuggling. They have failed and they will continue to fail. Australians know that because they see with their own eyes how these policies are unravelling as each and every day passes.

Yet the Prime Minster arrogantly believes that, if he refuses to listen to this chorus of dissent, the issue will somehow go away, that Indonesia will solve the problem for him, that someone somewhere will take responsibility for him and that he will not have to take responsibility for his own actions. Australians want to see these issues addressed honestly and competently. They want this tragic farce to end. They do not want our generous humanitarian immigration program outsourced to criminal syndicates running people-smuggling rackets, and they do not want to see a Prime Minister seeking to evade any scrutiny over the Oceanic Viking debacle by attaching a confidentiality clause to his own role in the negotiations. They want to see this government, this Prime Minster, recognise the error of his ways and for once take the action needed to make our borders once again strong and secure.