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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11188


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (11:23): I rise to talk on the Migration Act amendments that the House is considering today. I believe the way the debate has been framed by the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Cook—it is about trust and about who the Australian people trust to protect our borders—is the right way for the House to be looking at it today. It comes down to a judgment about whether you trust the people who have had a consistent policy for the past decade, a policy we have actually tried out and which has worked, or whether you trust the Labor Party, who on this issue have had every single policy except one that actually works.

It is not just the Australian people who make a judgment about Australia's border protection policies; it is the people smugglers as well. People smugglers are very sophisticated criminal gangs. They understand what is going on in terms of the policy debate in Australia. When the Labor Party 'develop their thinking' on these issues, as the immigration minister memorably put it—which, of course, is just another way of saying that they are consistently inconsistent—the people smugglers look at this inconsistency and make a judgment about whether the government have the policies and the resolve to protect Australia's borders. The way they respond to that is either to continue to send people to Australia illegally or to cease sending people to Australia illegally.

In 2001, when the people smugglers had sent a lot of people down to Australia illegally—we had a wave of illegal arrivals in the years leading up to 2001—the then government, the Howard government, decided that enough was enough and they showed some resolve. They took tough and controversial decisions to drive the people smugglers from their evil business. At the time, the Labor opposition heavily criticised the government for that. They called the Pacific solution, which was one plank of that policy, immoral; they said we were racist for pursuing these policies. There was a lot of controversy within the community about them, but I do not think that anyone could reasonably argue that they were not successful. They were extremely successful in stopping the people smugglers from deciding who came to Australia. They were successful in breaking the people smugglers' model, which is to go out into communities where people are in much more difficult conditions than we find here in Australia and to sell to those people at great expense—up to $15,000 per head—a passage to Australia. If there is a reasonable expectation that people can come to Australia and be resettled here permanently, then clearly that remains a very potent product for the people smugglers to sell.

You need to embrace a policy prescription that is as tough as necessary to break that model. You do not need to subject people to greater hardship than is reasonable; you only need to take away that product that the people smugglers are selling. The people smugglers will of course test the resolve of a government when policy changes. Unfortunately, what they have found is that, every time they have tested this government, it has been the government that has blinked—it has been the Labor Party that has always folded. We need to go back and look at the history of its policy backflips and changes since it came into government to understand that we are now in this blind alley that the Labor Party has led us down in discussing this legislation here today. This legislation seeks to strip away all the protections that the Howard government put in place within our Migration Act, some of which last year it was saying it held so dear.

When the government changed in 2007, the Labor Party had held many contrary positions in relation to border protection. As I said, they criticised the Howard government's policy of border protection very heavily. They were in favour of temporary protection visas and then they were against them. They were in favour of towing boats back to Indonesia and then they were against it. They have been in favour of offshore processing and they have been against it. We have watched them dismantle the successful policies that they inherited from the Howard government and we have warned them that the people smugglers will be emboldened to bring people back down to Australia illegally and very dangerously on leaky boats. Of course, when they came to office they went ahead in a fit of moral vanity and dismantled the Pacific solution.

The then immigration minister, who still serves as a senior minister in this government, Senator Chris Evans, said that dismantling the Pacific solution was his proudest day in politics. He remains, despite the terrible consequences that his moral vanity has had for our border protection policies, the third most senior minister in Australia. He said that offshore processing on Nauru was expensive and a failure. Those decisions went out as a signal that Australia was once again a soft touch for people smugglers. People smugglers picked up on that signal straightaway and went back into the business of bringing people down to Australia illegally. It is empirically impossible to argue that those decisions did not have an impact on the people smugglers' business model. In 2007 there were four people detained on Christmas Island; under this government there have been up to 3,000. As soon as those decisions were made in August 2008, people smugglers started to bring people down to Australia illegally. In September 2008, we had a trickle of illegal boat arrivals. That increased through 2009 and 2010 and the government's response was not that they had a policy problem but that they had a political problem. They have subsequently looked at it in that way. They have understood that Australians expect the federal government to provide a robust system of border protection and, therefore, they have seen this issue as an enormous political problem for them.

We have had some significant missed steps because of that. We had the debacle of the Oceanic Viking, where asylum seekers literally took control of a Commonwealth vessel and refused to be taken back to Indonesia. Subsequently, they matched wills with the federal government and, astonishingly, it was the Labor government that blinked. It did a secret deal with Indonesia to bring those people down to Australia, the culmination of which was to send a private plane up to Indonesia to collect people who had been deemed by our own domestic security agency to be security risks to this country. Subsequently, because of the political panic that has come with the collapse of Australia's border protection system, we have seen a gradual policy retreat from this government. It axed Kevin Rudd because he was unable to protect Australia's borders and the new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, nominated border protection as one of the areas where she believed that the previous government had lost its way.

During the subsequent election campaign she said that the policy of the Labor government was to go back to offshore processing but to do so on East Timor. She never spoke to the government of East Timor about it. She made a perfunctory call to the head of state of East Timor and the East Timorese, from the word go, did not want a processing centre within their territory. As is their right, they did not want to host such a facility. The Australian government continued with the fiction that it was in negotiation with the East Timorese government, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Embarrassingly, Australian diplomats were sent out into the region to argue the case for a policy that everybody in the region knew was a dead duck. It was an albatross around the necks of anyone practising Australian foreign policy. This farcical East Timorese processing solution had collapsed—it was dead on arrival; it was dead as soon as it was announced—yet for months and months Australia had it as one of its key planks in its foreign policy.

Finally, the government succumbed to reality and admitted that the East Timorese processing centre was not going to go ahead. So the government talked about reopening the Manus Island processing centre in Papua New Guinea, one of the evil planks of the Howard government's policy. It is actually a good idea, an idea that the opposition would support, but like everything this government does it cannot competently put any plan into action. The Papua New Guinea government, which is apparently amenable to reopening Manus Island, was gravely insulted by the fact that the Labor government sent up the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. Surely, if you were serious about getting something done, you would send someone more senior to negotiate what apparently is one of the most important policy proposals that the government is pursuing. The Papua New Guineans were rightly insulted by such a low-level official going up to talk to them about reopening Manus Island. The Minister for Foreign Affairs would not go; the Prime Minister would not go. Of course, that policy has now languished. It is a good idea and is an idea that is worth pursuing. The government of Papua New Guinea was apparently amenable to it being pursued; but, like so much of what this government does, it cannot competently pursue any policy proposal, and now the Manus Island proposal appears to have languished.

In the meantime we have had the collapse of our detention network. The government's policy was not to process people onshore but to process people on Christmas Island. But the sheer volume of people coming to Australia illegally meant that that centre was so full—and subject to riots and violence—that it has had to go back on other commitments about processing people onshore in a way that has led to a massive expansion of onshore processing.

Illegal boats have arrived by the dozen. The government has searched for any policy but the coalition's policy that has actually worked. Finally, it came up with this proposal with the Malaysian government to send people to Malaysia in what is a five-for-one people swap. This was announced in May, just before the budget, and since that announcement 1,000 people have been smuggled into Australia illegally. Since the agreement was signed, 400 people have come to Australia illegally. Clearly, the Malaysian policy is deeply ineffective, and not only for the human rights consequences that have been outlined by previous speakers. The government has no answer to the legitimate question of what its policy will be once that 800 cap has been reached. We have asked that in this parliament on many, many occasions and the government has absolutely no answer to it.

Our problem with the Malaysia arrangement is that it is unnecessarily cruel. Despite the government's protestations, the people we send there will surely not have their human rights protected in a way we would expect if they were processed in an Australian-run facility. The government has absolutely no response to the reasonable question about what it is going to do once that policy reaches its use-by date. It is only 800 people. We have had 1,000 people arrive since the policy was announced and 600 people arrive since the agreement was signed.

The response of the government to the High Court ruling, which was that the Malaysian arrangement was not in keeping with Australian legislation, was to march into this place and ask the parliament to accept amendments to the Migration Act that strip away all of the basic protections that the Howard government had put into that act when we faced similar policy dilemmas in 2001. This is a government that has shown incredible incompetence and a complete inability to have any resolve or conviction about its border protection policies, that has literally embraced every available policy except one that is going to work and that has marched into this place and asked this parliament to give it unfettered powers with no safeguards under the Migration Act. The opposition say no, we are not going to accept that proposal, although we will of course facilitate this government doing offshore processing. But we insist that it be done—as Labor has said on many, many occasions—in a country that is a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

If you are going to protect Australia's borders then you need to send a very strong message to the criminal gangs that smuggle people here. You need to have some resolve and you need to have a policy platform that is going to work and that you are prepared to stick to when it comes under criticism or under pressure. We have had the same policy for 10 years. We know that it works because it has worked in the past. (Time expired)