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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13531


Mr BOWEN (McMahonMinister for Immigration and Citizenship) (19:16): I thank members for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012. This bill amends the Migration Act 1958 in accordance with recommendation 14 of the report of the expert panel on asylum seekers which stated that arrival anywhere in Australia by irregular maritime means should provide individuals with the same status. That is, irregular arrival by sea anywhere in Australia should make a person liable to regional processing arrangements. At the forefront of the panel's reasoning in making this recommendation was the need to reduce any incentive for people to take even greater risks with their lives—such as staying longer on a boat to avoid Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef or some other excised place—in seeking to reach the Australian mainland and avoid being subject to regional processing arrangements.

As the panel emphasised, and as the government has acknowledged, the recommendations in this report are an integrated package. We have not accepted or rejected each recommendation; we accepted them all as a whole. Therefore, we are moving to implement every single recommendation. This is something that I have freely acknowledged many times publicly and it is indicative of the fact that we are the only party—not those opposite and not the Greens party—implementing all the recommendations of the expert panel's report.

Yes, this bill is directed squarely at boat arrivals, but so is the expert panel's report. As members would recall from the emotional but ultimately fruitless parliamentary debate of some months ago, the expert panel was prompted by people getting on boats and dying at sea. Hence the government implemented this as a circuit-breaker to get a breakthrough. We got the recommendations and we have been implementing them. Those arriving by plane are not the ones dying en route to Australia and are not the focus of this bill. Those arriving by plane are not risking their lives to get here. The very clear and universally agreed aim of the policy changes underlined by the expert panel's recommendations is the need to remove the incentive for people to take the dangerous journey by boat.

Clearly the expert panel makes a very strong recommendation for this bill, as I say, in order to remove what could be a perverse incentive to stay longer on boats. This bill is not about excising the Australian mainland from the migration zone. The definition of the migration zone is not being amended in this bill. Rather, a person will be subject to regional processing based on their status as an unauthorised maritime arrival—that is, by arriving in Australia, in the migration zone, by sea without a valid visa. This is in contrast to the current situation where an individual is only subject to regional processing if they enter Australia at an excised offshore place such as Christmas Island.

I have freely admitted and acknowledged that people will very obviously take a range of views on this issue—about this issue in particular and about the general issue more broadly. As I have said in other places, if after deeply considering all the issues people reach a different position and their moral compass points a different way, I will acknowledge and respect it. But people who argue entirely for onshore processing must acknowledge that that will continue to provide an incentive to come to Australia by boat. Without taking difficult decisions such as this, it would mean, inevitably, more deaths at sea. That is the simple fact.

I want to deal with the contribution of the member for Melbourne. In his speech he said that this government has not implemented extra pathways to Australia. He said, 'If only this government would implement some way for people to get to Australia more safely, if only this government would provide more places for those people in Indonesia, that would be the right thing to do.' The member for Melbourne seems unaware that we are doing exactly that. The member for Melbourne seems unaware or chooses to ignore the fact that this government has increased the humanitarian program to 20,000 places—the biggest increase in the humanitarian program in 30 years. As has been noted publicly this week, that is not a universal position across this chamber anymore. It was for a little while. It is not anymore. This government is committed to increasing the humanitarian program. In fact, we have done so. More visas have been issued offshore as a result of the increase to the humanitarian program.

What we will not do is focus that increase in the program entirely and exclusively on Indonesia. That would be to say that Australia's entire humanitarian program should be focused on those who can at least get to Indonesia, if not to Australia, because they can afford a people smuggler to get them to Indonesia or can get to Indonesia under their own steam. Our humanitarian program is about much more than that. It is about providing those alternative pathways, but it is also about providing hope to people who could not possibly afford a people smuggler—people in camps in Africa, people in camps in the Middle East, people in camps in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia—and other people who cannot make it to Indonesia. The Greens take a short-sighted approach that says, 'We're focused on Indonesia.' That is ignoring our moral responsibility to those in different parts of the world who deserve at least the chance of resettlement in Australia. So I completely reject the assertions of the honourable member for Melbourne, who just wilfully ignores the fact that this government has increased the humanitarian program to 20,000 places—yes, at some substantial cost to the budget because of the substantial resettlement support that we provide. The member for Melbourne seems to have not noticed this in the public debate in recent weeks, as the Greens regularly ignore things which are inconvenient to their argument. I suggest perhaps they are not alone there in this House occasionally.

The government continues to implement the panel recommendations and more. Today we saw another transfer of people back to Sri Lanka, people who are not exercising Australia's international obligations. We are swiftly returning them to Sri Lanka. So people who are coming to Australia for economic reasons are clearly being dealt with by our law and being returned to Sri Lanka—something that the Howard government was never able to achieve. Swift returns to Sri Lanka, in some cases within days of arrival, are being done by this government, because we have seen an increase in people arriving in Australia from Sri Lanka and a lot of this is clearly for economic purposes. But what we will not do is ignore our obligations under the refugee convention. We will at least hear the reasons for people's travel to Australia.

I know the opposition would turn boats around on the high seas—in my view, a breach of the refugee convention. We will not do that. But what we are doing is safely returning people to Sri Lanka. We are not conducting difficult and unsafe operations on the high seas but safely returning people by aeroplane to Sri Lanka. We have returned a very considerable number of people in recent weeks and we will continue to do so. We have also seen some voluntary returns, to Sri Lanka in particular but other nations as well—Iran in particular. But Sri Lanka is the nation which has received the most voluntary returns. Since 30 August more than 600 Sri Lankans have returned home, which I think underlines the point that people smugglers are selling false promises about what awaits people in Australia. They are selling the false promise of a fast track to a visa and what we are very clearly doing is giving the lie to that promise, taking action which is swift and which clearly shows the message.

The Australian government's policy is clear. We want to resettle more refugees in Australia. We want to give more people the chance of life in Australia. We want to see 20,000 refugees resettled in Australia every year, which would make us the largest resettlement country in the world per capita and the second largest in absolute terms for UNHCR referred refugees. Certainly on some of the measures we are very close to Canada in terms of resettlement. It is this side of the House which is doing that. It is this side of the House which is committed to doing that. It is only this side of the House which is committed to giving more people the chance of life in Australia while also taking the difficult decisions to dissuade people from risking their lives to get to Australia by sea. It is very easy to say that that is not necessary. It is the government which has a responsibility to do so and we will continue to do so.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Order! The question is that the bill be read a second time. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing order 133 the division is deferred until after 8 pm.

Debate adjourned.