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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11165


Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (09:37): This is important legislation, let us be in no doubt about that. Let us also be in no doubt that this is not so much about offshore processing but, fundamentally, about a lifeline for a stubborn Prime Minister who has long been in denial about the one policy which has been proven to work when it comes to stopping the boats.

There is only one party that is preventing offshore processing in this country and that is the government, which closed down offshore processing in 2008. There is only one party which has obstructed Australia from processing boat people offshore and that is the government, which has not processed a single boat person offshore since it closed down offshore processing in 2008. This is a government that could have had offshore processing at any time if the Prime Minister had been prepared to swallow her pride and pick up the phone to the President of Nauru. This is a government that could have offshore processing today if it were prepared to accept the opposition's amendment, an amendment which will secure offshore processing and will also secure offshore protections, because while we need offshore processing—let there be no doubt about that—a decent country also puts in place decent protections for people who are sent from this country to another one.

Let there be absolutely no doubt about where the coalition stands on offshore processing. We support offshore processing. We invented offshore processing. We have the patent on offshore processing. But I'll tell you what, Mr Deputy Speaker, it was never offshore dumping. We specifically amended the Migration Act back in 2001 to ensure that the minister, the government—the country, in effect—had a responsibility to ensure that people who had come into our care and who left our country were properly looked after.

There is another question which is, in effect, before the parliament today. It is: who do you trust, who does this parliament trust and who does this country trust to stop the boats? Do you trust the party—the coalition—that did stop the boats or do you trust the party—the government—that started them up again? That is the fundamental question before this parliament and before this country. This is a coalition which has a very strong record when it comes to border protection. This is a coalition which has been totally consistent for more than a decade. That is a government, over there, which over the last few years has had every single imaginable policy, except the one that has actually worked.

Do you trust a coalition that has had a clear and consistent policy on this for a decade, a policy that has worked, or do you trust a government, a Labor Party, that has every policy except the one that would actually stop the boats?

This bill from the government is essentially about its Malaysia people swap. I want to make three points about the Malaysia people swap. First, it is a bad deal; second, it is a cruel deal; and third, it is a dud deal. It is a bad deal because no serious, competent, self-respecting government would go to another country and offer a deal on such disadvantageous terms to itself. No serious, self-respecting country would allow itself to be a dumping ground for other countries' problems—and yet that is what this desperate Prime Minister has done. No decent country would expose people who once had its protection to the kind of treatment that they would get in Malaysia.

I want to be absolutely crystal clear about this. Malaysia is a friend of Australia's. Malaysia is an ally of Australia's. But their standards are not our standards. I make no comment on their standards other than to say that they are different from ours and our responsibility with the people who have come into our care is to ensure that the standards they are going to are acceptable to us, not merely acceptable to others.

The Malaysia swap is a dud deal because it has simply not worked. Since the Malaysia people swap was announced we have had more than 1,000 illegal arrivals. Since it was signed we have had 400 illegal arrivals. That is 1,000 reasons why this deal will not work and it is 1,000 reasons why the policies of the coalition—which have been proven to work—are better for the Australian people.

Let us review the history of this whole business. Back in 2001 Australia had a problem, a very serious problem of border protection. It was not easy for the Howard government. Everything the Howard government did was ferociously attacked by, among others, members opposite. We were cruel, we were brutal and we were racist! That is what they said about us. But we put a series of policies in place that did stop the boats. There were three elements to our policy: Nauru, temporary protection visas and turning boats around where it was safe to do so. From that time to this the policy of the coalition has been absolutely consistent and absolutely clear. And it worked.

From 2002 until 2007 there were fewer than three boats a year. The policies that we put in place worked. Then there was a change of government, a change of government to people who thought they knew better and a change of government to people who thought that they were so good, so competent, that they did not need to leave well enough alone. In fact, we had the then minister for immigration say that the day that the Pacific solution was formally dismantled was the proudest day of his life.

I wonder how proud he feels now, given that, since then, we have had 241 boats and 12,000 illegal arrivals. But we have not just had the boats and the arrivals; we have had the deaths, we have had the riots and we have had the suffering. I do not blame everything that has happened since on the government. That would be unfair. The government did not intend, and did not cause, all of the tragedies which have flowed from this terrible mistake. But a terrible mistake it was. Yet, at any time, they could have reopened Nauru. At any time they could have put back in place temporary protection visas and at any time they could have talked to the Indonesians about reinstituting the sorts of informal arrangements which allow boats to be turned around.

The problem is that this government has had every policy on this subject but none has ever worked. On temporary protection visas, the Prime Minister has been for them and against them. On turning boats around, she has been for it and she has been against it, and now she wants to do it again—as long as it is a virtual turnaround. On offshore processing, she was against it and now she is for it.

On the question of the United Nations convention, first it was absolutely essential that people only be sent offshore to countries that had signed the refugee convention and then it was just the merest scrap of paper—it did not matter at all. The Prime Minister has had every policy except one that worked. She supported everything because she believes in nothing. It is worth quoting the words of the Prime Minister; they should be on the record in this parliament. On turning boats around, Gillard said in a press conference on 3 December 2002:

The Navy has turned back four boats to Indonesia … It has made a very big difference … It has disrupted people-smuggling operations tremendously … We think that it is important … that we do everything we can to disrupt people-smuggling. And we think turning boats around that are seaworthy, that can make the return journey, and are in international waters, fits in with that.

That was what the Prime Minister said then. Then, last year, she said turning around the boats is some kind of a joke. On offshore processing, on the Pacific solution, in this very House on 13 May 2003, she said:

Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.

Well, since then, there has hardly been a Pacific island that she has not turned to to beg them to take boat people from Australia. On temporary protection visas, Julia Gillard said in a press conference on 3 December 2002:

… Labor’s policy, is that a unauthorised arrival who does have a genuine refugee claim would in the first instance get a short Temporary Protection Visa.

Really and truly, this Prime Minister, who gets on her moral high horse regularly in this parliament, has ridden every policy horse possible.

On the subject of the UN convention, we had the Prime Minister on radio 6PR on 8 July last year state:

I would rule out anywhere that is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

Let's mark these words: 'I would rule out anywhere that is not a signatory to the refugee convention'. You just cannot have a Prime Minister who makes categorical statements one day and then says the exact opposite another day when it suits her political purpose. Now the view of this government is:

… being a signatory to the Refugee Convention is important, but it's not the be all and end all …

Mr Robert: They've developed their thinking.

Mr ABBOTT: Yes, their thinking has developed, as the minister told us in this parliament. The one thing that it has never developed into is a firm and consistent policy to stop the boats. The one thing that it has never developed into is a policy that the people of this country have the right to expect: a policy that stops the boats.

We then have the statement from July last year from the current Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, who said that boat people had to be sent to countries that are signatories to the refugee convention 'for the sake of decency'.

Mr Robert: It's no wonder he wanted to resign.

Mr ABBOTT: It is no wonder that he wanted to resign, because the policy which his government is now pursuing, the policy which he is now required to implement, is, by his own standards, in his own words, an indecent policy.

Let's consider in more detail the sorry history of this government's handling of this issue, which not only betrays a lack of principle but shows a complete lack of competence. Since the Prime Minister belatedly 'lurched to the right', in the words of her predecessor—since the Prime Minister was convinced that this lurch to the right, as Kevin Rudd, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, put it, was necessary—we have had the so-called East Timor solution, and that did not work because the Prime Minister did not understand that the head of the government in East Timor is actually the Prime Minister and not the President. She called the President, not the Prime Minister—the one who is actually in control of these matters.

Then, of course, we had the Manus Island proposal, and that did not work; the Prime Minister sent a parliamentary secretary to supplicate the PNG government and the PNG government rather understandably thought, 'If this is important, come yourself.' Not only was she too proud to pick up the phone to the President of Nauru; she was too proud to send Kevin Rudd to PNG because he had a vital engagement in Kazakhstan at the time. Then we had the Malaysian people swap, which is unworthy of a self-respecting and serious country.

Then we had the events of this week, which demonstrated that the government are incapable of holding a position from Friday evening until Monday morning. On Friday evening, the Prime Minister dispatched senior officials of the immigration department, plus the Solicitor-General and another senior lawyer from that department, to brief the coalition on what the government had in mind. What the government had in mind was a truly remarkable abandonment of the principles which have always governed offshore processing in this country. What the government had in mind was to completely strip out of the Migration Act the requirement that Philip Ruddock, the member for Berowra, put in there back in 2001 that the countries to which Australia sent people had to observe relevant human rights standards. That was our position. That was our law. Yes, we believed in offshore processing, but we did not believe in offshore processing 'anywhere under any circumstances'. They stripped out the protections, because what they were on about in the legislation that they gave to us last Friday was not offshore processing but offshore dumping.

We made those points. The shadow Attorney-General, the shadow foreign affairs minister, the shadow minister for immigration and I, in a spirit of candour and constructive cooperation with the government, made the point that it would be very difficult for us to support legislation that did not retain the requirements for human rights to be protected and for people to be properly processed offshore. So I went and saw the Prime Minister late on Monday morning, as requested, and there was a new draft proposal, new legislation. But this legislation—

Opposition members interjecting

Mr ABBOTT: As one of my colleagues says, 'Even a weekend is a long time in politics when it comes to this government.' The new legislation that we were presented with on Monday morning paid lip-service to the protections that we had talked about on the Friday evening, but it did not guarantee them. In fact the advice that we had from former Solicitor-General David Bennett QC was that the Monday morning position was in fact worse than the Friday evening position, because the Monday morning position was just as deficient on protections but was much worse when it came to legal certainty. That is why this legislation deserves to be defeated if it is not amended.

I want to turn briefly to the expert advice which the Prime Minister often refers to in this parliament. There is, in my judgment, no persuasive case that offshore processing in Nauru cannot work in the future; because it has worked in the past. Again and again we hear from members of the government that 90 or 95 per cent of the people sent to Nauru ended up in Australia. Dead wrong. I am not allowed in this parliament to call it a lie, but it is not a truth. And if I were not in this parliament I would say that it is a lie. The truth, which members opposite well know, is that 30 per cent of the people who went to Nauru ended up in their home country; 27 per cent ended up in a third country; and only 43 per cent ended up in Australia, and they often came here after a delay of up to five years. It was a very powerful deterrent. It was a powerful deterrent then; it can be a powerful deterrent again. The final point I make about Nauru is that it was a decent thing for the Australian government and the Australian people to do because, at all times, we knew that people being sent to Nauru were being looked after in accordance with decent standards, our standards, that were being supervised by Australians.

It is claimed that the expert advice is that boats could no longer be turned around. How can they say that when the government just has not tried? Kevin Rudd, back in 2007, said that he would be tough enough to turn the boats around, but not once has the government since then actually tried to turn boats around. Then it said that temporary protection visas would no longer be effective because most of the people on temporary protection visas were eventually given permanent residency. If temporary protection visas are not effective, why have there not been any more boats in Canada since temporary protection visas were put in place there?

It is very clear: Nauru is a proven success; Malaysia is a proven failure. Having put before us this proven failure, having asked this parliament to vote for a proven failure, they have absolutely no plan B. Again and again in this parliament members on this side of the House have asked the Prime Minister what happens when the 801st person arrives, and she has absolutely no answer. I have a clear message for the Australian people and for members opposite: this coalition does not vote for failure. This coalition votes for success. That is why this coalition is determined to vote for our amendment and, if our amendment fails, to vote against this bill.

When I saw the Prime Minister on Monday she said that the legislation would be introduced on Wednesday but then it would not actually be debated in the parliament until the following sitting fortnight because they had a very important bill before the parliament—the carbon tax bill—and it was so important that this particular amendment was going to have to wait. Now we are debating this amendment today and all of us in this parliament know why we are debating it today—because the Prime Minister is not sure of her numbers. Daily her numbers are crumbling and that is why we are debating this bill today. The one thing that the Prime Minister does not want is to have the Minister for Foreign Affairs back in this parliament. She does not want to risk this parliament having to decide this matter with the foreign minister present in the parliament. You can just imagine the Prime Minister's little speech to her cronies in the caucus, 'Let's not have a lurch to the Left,' because that is what we might have if the foreign minister comes back.

The other message we have heard again and again from the Prime Minister in the course of the last few weeks is that somehow the coalition is betraying the national interest by failing to support bad policy from a bad government. I say to this Prime Minister: it is never the opposition's job to support bad policy from a bad government. It is never the job of the parliament to give a blank cheque to the executive government. Does this Prime Minister not know any constitutional history at all? Has she no understanding of Westminster whatsoever? It is simply wrong for this Prime Minister to repeat, as she does time and time again, that somehow the opposition leader is required to assemble a parliamentary majority for the Prime Minister's legislation. She is only the Prime Minister because she says that she can command a majority for her legislation. If in fact she cannot command a majority for the important legislation of this government, there are options open to her and she should take them. If the Prime Minister cannot command the confidence of this House and of this parliament on an issue as important as this, the question then arises: should she have the confidence to remain as Prime Minister?

Let me conclude by reminding the House of where this government and this country will be left should the Prime Minister fail to accept the amendment that the coalition is putting before it. Remember: this amendment guarantees offshore processing, but it guarantees offshore processing with the protection that it must take place in a country which is a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Our amendment secures offshore processing, but it also does the best we can to secure human decency and to protect human rights, subject to the kind of legal certainty that the government now thinks is necessary in the wake of the High Court decision. If the government fails to accept our amendment, we will have no choice but to oppose the legislation. The likelihood is that, on the basis of that opposition, the legislation will fail to pass through the parliament. That will mean that the government has no capacity in its assessment to send people offshore. That is not an assessment that this coalition shares. We believe that, even under the existing legislation, offshore processing at Nauru is possible and desirable.

What the government will have left itself with is its strong assessment, its categorical conviction, that offshore processing is no longer possible combined with its constant statements over the last few weeks that without offshore processing our borders are simply uncontrollable. This will be a government that has put itself in the position of failing to do what is the first duty of any government, namely, to protect the borders of our country. A government which cannot protect the borders of our country is a government that is incapable of doing its job. A Prime Minister who is incapable of protecting the borders of our country is a Prime Minister who has manifestly failed in the highest task she has. Frankly, it is a government and a Prime Minister who should resign and not engage in the kind vituperation that I am sure we are going to get again and again in this parliament on this matter.

This is a Prime Minister and a government which now say that without offshore processing border protection is impossible. I wonder what they were thinking then in 2008, when the government closed down offshore processing. I wonder what the government has been doing for the last 12 months, when it has not sent a single person offshore to be processed. I say this is a government that can have offshore processing today. All it has to do is to accept the amendment that the opposition is quite sensibly and quite properly putting forward. It can have offshore processing in 148 countries, if that is what it wants. There are 148 countries to choose from. Certainly, it can have offshore processing in Nauru, which worked, and it can have offshore processing on Manus, which was its own policy until it seems to have been forgotten just a few weeks ago. This is a government which can have what it wants. It just has to say, 'Yes, we will accept the opposition's amendment.'