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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11171


Mr MARLES (CorioParliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs) (10:07): What we have just heard, over the last 25 minutes, is the total abandonment by this Leader of the Opposition of any desire to pursue public policy. We have heard from the Leader of the Opposition that there is a desire on their part not to vote for failure, but everybody on that side of the House and everybody who is listening to this broadcast today knows that they desperately hope that, in the pursuit of solving a very complex problem, this country fails. They are precisely voting for failure and that is exactly what they are about here.

We have seen a Leader of the Opposition—the author of Battlelines; a man who saw himself as a self-proclaimed conviction politician acting in the national interest—reduced to nothing other than a peddler of rank politics, dedicated to his own self-interest. Let me tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there are a large number of people on the opposition benches today who privately agree absolutely with that proposition. They joined a conservative party wanting to engage in policy and they have found that they are being led by a man who is utterly opposed to any policy at all. We thought there might be some suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition acting in good faith when the High Court decision was made, but since then we have seen Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, crab-crawling away from that commitment to a place of base hypocrisy. We see him on the one hand saying that for a decade he has supported the proposition of offshore processing, and now he is voting for a proposition which is dedicated to stopping it. For a decade we have seen him talking about trying to disrupt people smuggling; now all he is about is trying to disrupt the government from dealing with people smuggling.

There are in this debate people who are trying to solve a complex and difficult problem of public policy and there are people who are engaging in base politics. The vote that we will have in relation to this debate is all about letting the Australian people know on which side of the fence every parliamentarian stands on this question. I stand today in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011, and I do so because the purpose of this bill is to restore the law in this country as we understood it to exist prior to the High Court's decision in Plaintiff M70/2011 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship on 31 August 2011.

This is a complex problem. No-one would suggest it is anything other than that. We live in a wonderful society in Australia. It is a society which, by international standards, has extremely high standards of living: excellent education, an excellent health system, democracy as its core value, fundamental freedoms and human rights as the basis of government action. This problem essentially takes all that is good about Australia and abuts it with those who come from parts of the world where all is not good—where people do seek to leave and do want to come to Australia, for many reasons. How we deal with those who want to come is a difficult issue. How we perform our role as a good international citizen and respond to that need in an appropriate way, whilst at the same time maintaining an organised and balanced system of migration which plays a role in contributing to Australian society—which we have done so wonderfully since Federation—rather than doing the opposite, is a complex matter. We do that by taking 13,750 people each year who seek refuge in this country, people who are asylum seekers, through a system of processing by the UNHCR which is undertaken in camps around the world. That is the normal basis by which people come here. Because that processing occurs offshore, it enables those people who seek refuge in this country to be settled within our communities very quickly. In addition to that, we have an extensive skilled and family migration program.

We all understand that when we are talking about this area of public policy we are engaging in the act of saying who can come to Australia and who cannot. Decisions in that space are about determining the very quality of lives of people in an extremely significant way, and these are therefore very hard and difficult decisions. This is an area which has been made even more complex by the decision of the High Court, and it is an area which is being made even more complex by a very difficult political landscape which is laden as heavily with political baggage as any landscape in the political arena. From the point of view of Labor, both in opposition and in government, we have approached this problem with a very consistent sets of ideals. We want to meet our international obligations, so as a matter of principle we deal with this problem by working with the UNHCR and the International Organization of Migration, and we work through with them the things that we can do to meet the global demand of those who are seeking asylum.

We seek to approach this problem from the point of view of having an orderly and safe way of people coming to this country. As soon as you talk about providing an orderly and safe migration process, you immediately say that it does matter that we stop the boats coming to Northern Australia. It matters because we need to stop the appalling death rate which accompanies people who come on those boats. By some estimates, as many as four per cent of people who decide to get on one of those boats—four people in 100—to come to Australia lose their lives. The fact of the boats coming also means that the principal agent for those people who come to Australia in that way is not the UNHCR but a systematic group of people smugglers. Of course, it also requires those people coming in that way until this point to be processed onshore, which creates a burden to our processing system in Australia.

In dealing with this issue it has been very important to Labor that it is argued to the Australian people in a way which is dignified and appropriate, which emphasises the very positive role migration has played in modern-day Australia, which celebrates those people who have come to Australia in that way, and which sees that migration and all the benefits that come from it are inherent to the culture that we have in this country today—that multiculturalism is a wonderful thing and that we do not vilify people who come here as asylum seekers or in any other way. How you argue this debate matters, and we have argued it in a way which celebrates diversity and multiculturalism rather than the opposite.

The politics of this is difficult and has been made more complex in the last 10 years. For those who are listening to this broadcast seeking to understand the complex nature of this political debate, have a look at the way people are motivated when it comes to the politics. Let me say before I go into that that there are very, very good people in conservative politics and certainly in Labor politics who have been trying to deal with this problem in good faith. But when politics takes hold the motivations can become very dark. When politics takes hold the motivations start to become clearer.

From the Labor side our political motivation is completely equated with trying to substantively resolve this issue. But, when politics overtakes the behaviour of those on the opposite side, you see the Liberal Party seeking to do everything they can to not see this issue resolved. They want to see this issue being talked about as much as possible within the media. A resolution to this problem, one which sees this go away from the front pages, is not in their political interest at all, and that is what is driving their behaviour in this House today. It is as plain and simple as this: the mob opposite have stopped trying to solve this problem and they are now simply engaged in rank politics and, in turn, that is leading them to rank hypocrisy.

At the outset of their criticism of the Malaysia deal—and we heard a little bit from the opposition leader just before—they said that five for one was a bad deal. That was the basis on which we heard the rhetoric against the Malaysian deal then. But now they have found their bleeding heart and they are telling us that in fact what is going on here is that there are not the right protections in Malaysia. Those two things are inconsistent. What we see is rank hypocrisy. They say to us is that what now matters in their view is the refugee convention and that is now what is wrong with Malaysia. Yet they still pursue a policy of turning boats around if they can and sending them to Indonesia—a country which is not a signatory to the refugee convention and does not have in place all the protections that have been negotiated in the context of the Malaysian arrangement. They say that they see offshore processing as an important part of their policies, and now they stand in this House today doing everything they can to stop it.

In holding those values to deal with this issue our response since being in government has been as follows. We brought to an end what was occurring in Nauru because it was bad policy. It was bad policy because it was costly and because people were being allowed to linger in Nauru without resolution of their status, which was simply not an act of humanity. One person was in Nauru for as long as five years; 120 people were there for more than three years. That ought to have been stopped and we did stop it. Another reason we stopped it was that it had simply ceased to become a deterrent.

We saw this as being as a regional problem which required a regional process. At the Bali ministerial conference on 30 March this year we agreed to the regional cooperation framework. Under that process we then entered into an arrangement with the Malaysian government that would see people coming from Indonesia by boat to this country seeking asylum transferred to Malaysia. In return for 800 of these people we would take 4,000 people over four years who had been processed by the UNHCR in Malaysia and our intake would increase per annum from 13,750 to 14,750.

The effect of that arrangement was really a breakthrough in terms of providing a significant deterrent because it meant that people returned to Malaysia under this arrangement would in effect be put at the end of a very long queue. There are 94,000 refugees in Malaysia. They would have paid their money to a people smuggler and not taken one step closer to this country. Therefore the people smuggler had nothing to sell and the model of the people smugglers would have been broken. In the process, though, significant safeguards were negotiated with Malaysia to make sure that, in relation to those 800 people, there would be no return to the country from which they had fled; there was a commitment to see their claims processed by the UNHCR; their lawful stay within Malaysia would be facilitated; minimum standards of employment, education and health would be allowed; and a commitment would be made to treat them with dignity and respect. Importantly, this was a proposal that was worked through with the support of the UNHCR and with the International Organisation for Migration. To supplement that we entered into a memorandum of understanding with the government of PNG on 19 August 2011 to establish a processing centre on Manus.

All of this represented a breakthrough—something that would actually see the boats stop, something that would put governments back in charge and defeat the model of the people smugglers, and something that would increase our share of dealing with the significant asylum seeking burden which is out there in the world today. The High Court changed that and by virtue of that we now stand before this parliament seeking to restore the law to a position which would allow executive government to make the decisions that it needs to make. Those opposite, as we have heard the opposition leader articulate, support a different proposal—and, were the opposition in government, that would be fair enough. We, in seeking to change the Migration Act, are trying to enable the opposition, if and when they come into government, to put in place their policy and for this government, while in government, to put in place its policy. We are trying to solve a complex problem; but we have just heard from the opposition leader that he stands opposed to that—and we will hear the same thing again and again from speakers on the other side. They stand for the failure of any attempt by government to resolve the asylum seeker issue.