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Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Page: 11270


Ms JULIE BISHOP (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (4:21 PM) —The Prime Minister has lost control of Australia’s border protection system. He refuses to take responsibility for the chaos that he has caused. If we needed any further evidence that the government’s border protection policy is in chaos, just look at what has happened over the last 10 days. An Australian Customs vessel has on board 78 asylum seekers. According to the Prime Minister, he made a deal with the President of Indonesia for those asylum seekers to be taken onshore in Indonesia. Ten days later, the Australian Customs vessel is still at sea, the 78 asylum seekers are still on board and there is no solution in sight. There is no leadership and no responsibility.

Take question time over the last couple of days. The Prime Minister has refused to state the terms of the arrangements he made with the Indonesian President to take the 78 asylum seekers on board. He could not state when he knew that those arrangements would change because the Indonesians would not allow the boat to dock in Merak. He could not state what arrangements are currently in place for the 78 asylum seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking even though his foreign minister has been out every day saying it is about to dock, and that does not materialise.

The Prime Minister has been unable to state what arrangements are occurring now for the 78 asylum seekers on board an Australian government vessel. The Prime Minister could not state how many people are on board the vessel. He could not give any details as to the current health and welfare of the Australian crew, the Customs officers or the 78 asylum seekers. Ten days ago he said it was a humanitarian crisis because there was a sick child on board. Ten days later he cannot tell the Australian people about the current health and wellbeing of any of the people on board the Oceanic Viking.

As the Australian Customs vessel spends its 10th day, heading into its 11th day, at sea, as another boat carrying 255 asylum seekers that was on its way to Australia sits in the port of Merak, after a boat arrived undetected earlier this year at Christmas Island and after another boat made its way halfway down the Western Australian coast earlier this year before being detected, and as now 45 boats have made the treacherous journey to Australia before being intercepted or brought to Christmas Island, the Australian people are entitled to ask, ‘Who is now in control of Australia’s border protection policy?’ It is certainly not the Prime Minister of this country. Is it the people smugglers? Is it the Indonesian President? Is it the regional governors of Indonesia? Who is in charge of this border protection policy?

The Prime Minister knows that his shambolic, chaotic handling of the border protection policy is starting to affect his image of all control. The controlling Prime Minister is now out of control. And because the Prime Minister steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that the softening of Australia’s border protection laws in August 2008 has made Australia a target for people smugglers, the border protection policy will continue to fail. Until he acknowledges that he made a mistake and seeks to rectify it, this border protection policy will continue to be in chaos.

To refuse to accept the link between the softening of the border protection laws and the massive surge in people smuggling just defies belief. In 14 months, 45 boats have been intercepted or have arrived on Christmas Island. The numbers are self-evident. But there is also evidence out of the mouths of the people smugglers themselves, who have told journalists who have interviewed them that the changes in the laws have encouraged them to take more clients on board to make the treacherous journey to Australia. The asylum seekers themselves have said that the changes in the government’s policies have encouraged them to take that journey.

The sheer numbers equate to a colossal policy failure based on the standards the Labor Party, when in opposition, set for the Howard government—their own standards that they set for the Howard government but have refused to meet themselves. Between 2002 and 2008, when the Howard government’s border protection policy laws were in place, there was an average of three boats a year. But in the period 2002 to 2005 there were three boats in three years. When the first boat arrived in early 2003 the Deputy Prime Minister, who was then the shadow immigration minister, said ‘Boat proves government has no solutions’. If one boat proves that a government has no solutions, what do 45 boats prove?

When the second boat arrived in 2003 the Deputy Prime Minister, then the shadow immigration minister, said, ‘Another boat on the way, another policy failure’. Two boats equate to a policy failure according to the Labor Party when in opposition. Then a third boat arrived 12 months later—three boats in three years. In early 2004 another boat arrived—the third boat. The Foreign Minister, then the shadow minister for immigration, said this was a wake-up call for the Howard government. If three boats in three years is a wake-up call, 45 boats mean that this government is asleep, that this government is in a coma when it comes to the border protection policies of this country.

The Prime Minister refuses—incredibly, unbelievably—to acknowledge any pull factors at all as a result of his changes to the border protection policies. And it was not just three changes; this government has made a whole raft of changes over a period of time. But in the face of the evidence from the people smugglers, from the asylum seekers and from the Australian Federal Police report—which the minister at the table obviously still has not read and which warned the government that its changes in border protection policies would attract the people-smuggling trade—in the face of the Indonesian ambassador’s specific warnings that the changes in policies would be used as a marketing tool and in the face of the International Organisation for Migration’s statement that the people smugglers were pushing the envelope as a result of the government’s changes in border protection laws, all the Prime Minister can do is refer to push factors. He says that since 2005 there has been a massive increase in asylum seekers and refugees around the world.

If there was a massive increase from 2005, why did the Prime Minister then decide to soften Australia’s border protection laws so that Australia became a soft target for the people-smuggling trade? He says, on his moral high ground, how much he despises this vile people-smuggling trade. So why did he soften the border protection laws so that the people smugglers could be back in business? He had no answer for that today in question time when he was asked why he softened our border protection laws if, on his version of the facts, there has been this massive surge out of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

As each boat appears on the horizon another crisis is triggered within the Rudd government. The Prime Minister is refusing to take responsibility for the crisis. The incident involving the Oceanic Viking is an appalling case in point. The Prime Minister says that he personally intervened and asked the Indonesian President to accept the 78 asylum seekers on board, and that was over a week ago. Yet he would have the Australian people believe that he has not made one further inquiry and that he had no other involvement in the fate of an Australian government Customs vessel, the crew, the Customs officers and 78 asylum seekers onboard.

What deal was actually done with the Indonesian President? What commitment did the Prime Minister give to the Indonesian government? The Prime Minister has made public Indonesia’s commitment to take the 78 asylum seekers, but he has not made public what commitment he gave on behalf of Australia in return. Has the Prime Minister agreed to toughen Australia’s border protection policies to stop the people smugglers targeting Australia? If he admits that that is what he has been asked to do, he has to admit that he has been misleading the Australian public all along about the pull factors resulting from his softening of the border protection laws.

When was the Prime Minister informed that the Indonesian President could not deliver on the commitment to take the 78 asylum seekers on board? The Prime Minister is in a state of denial. He has been most evasive, and unconvincing in question time. He says he cannot recall what he was told just last week, or when he was told. We are not talking about events of 12 months or two years ago; we are talking about events of last week—events that are on the front page of our national newspapers, events that are on the nightly news every night, and the Prime Minister wants the Australian people to believe that he cannot recall what was discussed or what was agreed. After 10 days at sea. This Prime Minister has absolved himself of responsibility for the Oceanic Viking and our border protection policies.(Time expired)