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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11182


Ms JULIE BISHOP (CurtinDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (10:53): This government is mired in confusion and chaos on this issue and has demonstrated over a number of years that it is without principle, without conviction and without consistency when it comes to border protection and the treatment of asylum seekers. The mess in which the government finds itself today over its various failed asylum seeker policies is entirely of its own making. The coalition has a solution. Before I turn to that, let me suggest that if the Prime Minister wants to find a solution she should take heed of the words of Albert Einstein. He said, 'We can't solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.'

Let us consider the sorry saga of how the government arrived at the position it finds itself in today. Australia has experienced several waves of boat arrivals carrying asylum seekers since the 1970s. The first wave was from 1976 to 1981 when just over 2,000 Vietnamese arrived by boat in the wake of the Vietnam War. The second wave occurred from 1989 to 1998 when about 300 asylum seekers per year arrived, with most coming from South-East Asia and China. It was during this wave that the Keating Labor government introduced mandatory detention in 1992. That is something some on the Labor side often find uncomfortable, but it is a fact.

It was around 1999 that asylum seekers, mainly from the Middle East, began to arrive in Australia in larger numbers with the involvement of the people-smuggling networks. It is important to note the numbers. In 1999, 86 boats carrying 3,721 asylum seekers arrived; in the year 2000, 51 boats arrived with 2,939 people aboard; in 2001, 43 boats with 5,516 people arrived. The Howard government responded with a range of measures that included the introduction of temporary protection visas, excising some parts of Australia's territories from the migration zone, including Christmas Island, and the establishment of offshore processing on Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Amendments were made to the Migration Act to enable offshore processing, subject to a number of protections for those seeking asylum. This was consistent with Australia's obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. The Howard government inserted into the Migration Act protections for asylum seekers and a reference to human rights for those that Australia was sending offshore for processing. The Howard government also had a policy of turning boats around if they were intercepted in international waters and returning them to Indonesia where it was safe to do so, and we did that on a number of occasions. Overall, these measures combined to provide a strong deterrent to the people-smuggling trade. The coalition's response at that time was driven in large part by the tragic drowning of 353 people when SIEVX sank off the coast of Indonesia.

There was an immediate response from people smugglers to the laws and policies that the Howard government put in place. In 2002, after these policies had been put in place, just one boat arrived with just one asylum seeker aboard. In 2003, there was one boat with 53 people aboard, yet the now Prime Minister, then in opposition, claimed at the time that this was a case of 'another boat, another policy failure'. In 2004, one boat arrived with 15 people aboard; in 2005, four boats with 11 people; in 2006, six boats with 60 people; and, in 2007, five boats with 148 people.

Just before the 2007 election the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith and the present Minister for Foreign Affairs, promised that if elected his government would also turn back the boats. I think this is important. His then deputy, the now Prime Minister, claimed credit for this policy and said at the time, 'I was shadow minister for immigration and developed the policy'—in 2002—'which remains Labor's policy now.' Labor won the election. In early 2008, this new Labor government was warned in writing by officials of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that:

… any weakening of the coalition's border protection laws including the closure of Nauru, would result in an increase in people smuggling.

The government was warned by the Australian Federal Police, and the coalition provided many warnings, week after week, that if the coalition's policies were dismantled the inevitable result would be a flood of boats via the people-smuggling trade. But, no, the government knew best. The government ignored all of the expert advice that it had received and scrapped temporary protection visas, closed down the processing centre on Nauru and ended offshore processing for asylum seekers. The government ended offshore processing. Of course, there was an immediate response from a reinvigorated people-smuggling trade and boats began arriving again within weeks of the changes in the law. As of today, more than 240 boats have arrived with about 12,000 asylum seekers on board. We have seen overcrowding in the detention centres—the very detention centre on Christmas Island that the member for Melbourne Ports described as a 'white elephant' and likened to a gulag or a concentration camp. When this Prime Minister knifed the member for Griffith in the leadership coup in June 2010 she nominated border protection as one of the three critical policy areas where the government had 'lost its way'. She was conveniently ignoring, it seems, that she was, in fact, the author of the border protection policy upon which she claimed the government had lost its way. On 6 July last year the Prime Minister announced that the government would be reintroducing offshore processing, nominating East Timor as the host of a regional processing centre and specifically pointing out in her speech that East Timor was a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. That was important for the Prime Minister in announcing the East Timor solution. It was important for her to point out that East Timor was a signatory to the UN convention on refugees; therefore Labor could reintroduce offshore processing.

In fact on 27 July 2010 the now Minister for Immigration and Citizenship said:

… the regional processing centre—

referring to East Timor—

would need to be, for the sake of decency, at a country which is a signatory to the refugee convention.

What has happened in the space of 12 months? If, in July 2010, for the decency a regional processing centre had to be in a country which is a signatory to the refugee convention has Labor now thrown decency to the wind? Indeed, the Prime Minister also said:

I would rule out anywhere that is not a signatory to the refugee convention.

What has happened in 12 months? The Prime Minister said she would rule out anywhere that was not a signatory to the refugee convention. That was a strongly stated policy by the Prime Minister. This was Labor Party policy until 7 May this year when the Prime Minister suddenly, on the eve of the budget, announced a five for one asylum seeker swap deal with Malaysia—a nation which is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees.

It became embarrassingly evident that the East Timor solution would fail notwithstanding the Prime Minister's protestations that negotiations were underway. With whom one has to ask because East Timor made it clear that they were not negotiating to host a regional processing centre? And as the boats kept on coming the government also announced plans to reopen the Manus Island detention centre, which had been part of the Howard government's Pacific solution. This was an embarrassing backdown for the government because the Prime Minister had previously dismissed the Pacific solution, the Manus Island solution, as 'an unsustainable fiasco.' The Prime Minister now embraces what she once claimed was an unsustainable fiasco as part of Labor's policy on border protection.

There were concerns raised about the legality of the Malaysia swap arrangement and they were dismissed by the immigration minister who repeatedly declared it was on 'very, very strong legal grounds'. The government has never released the expert advice it claims it relied upon to inform the Australian people that its Malaysia swap arrangement was on 'very, very strong legal grounds'. This House condemned the Malaysia swap agreement. This parliament condemned the agreement yet still this government went ahead. The High Court disagreed with the minister's claim that it was on very, very strong legal grounds and found that, in relation to this Malaysia swap deal, this minister had not satisfied the human rights protections for asylum seekers as was required by the Howard government's provisions in the legislation, the very provisions that underpinned offshore processing under the Howard government. The Prime Minister is now proposing that we amend the Migration Act to strip away all of the human rights protections for asylum seekers who are sent to another country for processing. I did not think that I would live to see the day a Labor government would seek to walk away from the 1951 refugee convention, that this government would seek to legislate away Australia's obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees.

The coalition has a solution. We propose an amendment that supports offshore processing. We were the ones who came up with the idea of offshore processing in the first place. We propose an amendment that will support offshore processing with the proviso that the country to which Australia sends asylum seekers must be a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees or the protocol. This is precisely the same position that the Prime Minister had adopted before the last election. This is precisely Labor's policy before the last election. This is what it took to the last election. It had ruled out processing offshore in any country that was not a signatory to the convention. If the government adopted the coalition's proposed amendment, it could immediately recommence offshore processing on Nauru. Nauru has offered the government its assistance in this regard. In fact, Nauru has had an offer on the table for over 12 months. It is ready, willing and able to reinstate the detention centre for offshore processing. And, if the government adopted the coalition's proposed amendment, offshore processing could also recommence on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea because both Nauru and Papua New Guinea are signatory countries. All it would take is for this Prime Minister to admit for once that she got it wrong on border protection. Yes, it would be the final humiliating backdown for the Prime Minister but it would be in the national interest. I fear this Prime Minister is not capable of acting in the national interest on this issue.

The true cost of Labor's 2008 decision to weaken Australia's border protection laws is not only in relation to the tragic loss of life that we have witnessed. It is not only in relation to the overcrowding in the detention centres which has led to riots and the damage to property but the Treasurer has also revealed a budget cost blowout of more than $1.7 billion for offshore asylum seeker management. The thousands of people including children in detention are placing enormous strains on the ability of our institutions and our officials to cope. There has been dangerous overcrowding and there have been outbreaks of violence and rioting.

The saga of Labor's response to border protection would resemble a plot of a farcical comedy were it not such a deeply serious issue with, at times, tragic consequences. The Prime Minister spent almost a year maintaining that her solution to the people-smuggling trade and increase in asylum seekers arriving on our shores was the East Timor solution. When after a year it was evident that this was not going to work, she backflipped on her backflip and came up with the Malaysia solution.

I am afraid that, as a result of the High Court ruling, the minister has been shown incapable of applying the laws correctly. That is why this government finds itself in the position it does. It is a case of overwhelming hypocrisy for Labor to repeatedly rule out sending asylum seekers to Nauru because Nauru was not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. It now is. (Time expired)