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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11211


Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (13:06): I strongly support the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill and I have strongly supported it since we first started discussing it. In 2007 this country decided to give compassion a go. The Labor Party were not alone in this. The coalition did not oppose the end of temporary protection visas. They had the option of moving a disallowance motion in the Senate and in the House, but they never did it. Indeed, in 2009 Sharman Stone, who was then the shadow minister for immigration, said on Lateline:

We don't need the Pacific Solution now, that's Nauru Island and Manus Island, because we have the Christmas Island centre completed.

She went on to say:

So we don't need alternatives to Nauru and Manus island, we have Christmas Island.

It is untrue to say that it was just the Labor Party who supported these changes. The opposition did as well, by their actions and by the fact that they did not act, did not disallow regulations and did not attempt to oppose the changes in this parliament.

Obviously since that time we have had increased boat arrivals and we have had a terrible tragedy on our coast at Christmas Island. I was on the committee that looked into the Christmas Island tragedy and I was profoundly affected by it. If those listening want to know what has changed Labor Party opinion, I think it has been that tragedy. It is a graphic reminder of the risks that are taken. There were 30 dead, and there was evidence from people like Mr Raymond Murray, who on page 35 of the hearing transcript says:

Standing right out on the edge of the rocks, there were times … that the boat was closer than you are to me now. I will never forget seeing a woman holding up a baby, obviously wanting me to take it, and not being able to do anything. It was just a feeling of absolute hopelessness.

It is testimony like that that has changed my mind, and I think it has changed the mind of many in our country. After hearing the evidence to that committee, I greatly worry about the risks taken by our border protection forces—people in the ADF, in Customs and in the Federal Police. We heard testimony from Mr Mathew Saunders, who says on page 5 of the Hansard transcript:

… that is the thin line of risking your life to save someone else's. I think we were right on the edge of that …

That echoes Lieutenant General Hurley's high praise for those involved on the Triton and on HMAS Pirie; he said:

They put their own lives at risk in extremely dangerous circumstances to rescue 41 people from the sea.

So this is not an easy debate. It has not been an easy debate for a decade; I think the member for Mayo was right about that. It has excited people's passions, and unfortunately there has been a lot of politics in it, and there has been a lot of politics in the debate today—a sickening amount of politics. What has changed my mind is that tragedy and hearing the evidence before that committee.

There has been a lot said about the Malaysian transfer agreement by the minister and by our opponents, and I do not think recounting that or going over it will do much good, but I would like to point out that the UNHCR has said:

… the Arrangement will with time deliver further protection dividends in the two countries, as well as the region …

That is what the UNHCR has said about it. With all this talk about human rights from those opposite, they do not talk about what the UNHCR has said about it. The UNHCR has also said about the arrangement with Malaysia:

The Arrangement and its implementing guidelines contain important protection safeguards, including respect for the principle of non-refoulement; the right to asylum; the principle of family unity and best interests of the child; humane reception conditions including protection against arbitrary detention; lawful status to remain in Malaysia until a durable solution is found; and the ability to receive education, access to health care, and a right to employment.

The right to employment is a pretty important right. It is a right that is not there in Nauru. One of the problems with Nauru was that people were just left there; that was the deterrent. We just left people on an island for years, going crazy and doing nothing, with no option to work or to have their claims advanced. They were just sitting there for years and years and years.

When you get right down to it, with the Malaysian transfer agreement the proof will be in the pudding. If we are allowed to implement it by this parliament—if the Liberal Party would just get out of the way and let us implement it—we will be judged on its effects, and we are happy to be judged on its effects. I am proud of what the minister has done in this area since his appointment. I think he has done a very good job of getting people out of detention and forming an agreement which deters people from taking a dangerous journey that risks their lives and the lives of others and which will dismantle the people-smuggling rings and stop their trade, at the same time as increasing our humanitarian intake. That is the right approach. It might not please those opposite and it might not please the Greens, but it does do those things.

I heard the member for Melbourne, 'Captain Compassion', talking about Vietnam. He talked a bit about how 2,000 people came here by sea, and he said there was not the same reaction that there is today. He is quite wrong, of course; it is a very selective view of history. In actual fact there was quite a bit of consternation in the public arena. But both sides of politics decided to resettle a large number of people, some 55,000 people, by processing them in other countries—places like Thailand and Malaysia—and we dramatically increased the intake to do that. The Greens move an amendment and they say that all of our problems will be fixed and people will stop taking boats if we process more people in Indonesia and Malaysia. But their own policy only increases the humanitarian intake to 20,000 a year, and that is simply not enough if you are going to stop the boats. If Poindexter really wants to stop the boats by increasing our humanitarian intake, it is going to have to be a lot more than 20,000. So I think the challenge to the Greens is that there are four million refugees in our region. If they are really serious about stopping the boats through increasing our humanitarian intake, they have to increase it a lot more. Otherwise their claims to compassion are just politics. They are the politics of gesture and emotion and they are not a practical plan to really stop the boats. He ended his speech talking about votes and talking about seats, because that is what it is about for the Greens. It is not about practical solutions to these problems; it is not about deterrence; it is certainly not really about increasing our humanitarian intake, because what we got is this token increase to solve a very big problem. If he is serious he is going to have to talk about resettling hundreds of thousands of people, not 8,000 a year. So the test for the Greens is to come up with a real, workable policy. If they claim they can stop the boats through increasing the humanitarian intake they had better start working a lot harder at it now, otherwise it is cant, otherwise it is politics.

We see a lot of that; we certainly see it in the opposition. As I said before, in 2007 they were quite happy to go along with the changes moved by this government. They were quite happy to see Nauru closed, to see Manus Island closed and to see TPVs removed. That is the reality. They did not move a disallowance motion and they did not campaign against it.

Mr Simpkins: You claimed a mandate.

Mr CHAMPION: But you did not do anything. For all their talk now, they say they have been consistent, but it is not true. They and the rest of the country, to be fair—we did this together, but events have since proved that we have to take a different approach.

The Liberals, Tony Abbott and all the backbench, have been going on like a broken record about stopping the boats. They have been talking tough, demanding government action. I have never heard them talk about the UN before—never. I have never heard them talk about humanitarian concerns. And now, on the grounds of compassion and the UN fiat and officialdom, they say they are going to oppose offshore processing. There was an interview with Bob Brown on Meet the Press on 18 September and he said:

What happens if Tony Abbott votes down the Gillard position and we will be, you end up by default with Tony Abbott supporting the Greens position, now that's where this country should be. The majority of people should want that—wrong motive, right outcome.

So we will have the Liberal Party basically endorsing the minority position. That is what Bob Brown says; that is where he sees this going. He is only too happy for the Liberal Party to block this amendment bill.

It is a very dangerous position for the opposition to take, given their rhetoric of 'stop the boats, stop the boats, stop the boats'. And, given their rhetoric about the Greens, they now propose to join an unholy alliance with them, just as they did around carbon trading in the last parliament, defeating sensible action on climate change through the emissions trading system. It was not that different—and I note the member for Wentworth was interviewed on Lateline the other night—from what we are debating in the parliament today. The systems were broadly the same but an unholy alliance of the Liberals and the Greens blocked action on climate change. Now they are blocking offshore processing and preventing an effective deterrent against taking a dangerous boat journey.

I do not think the Australian people are going to be terribly impressed when they see Abbott and Bandt, after all this rhetoric, voting together in the House of Representatives. And I do not think they are going to be very impressed when they see Brandis and Bob Brown together in the Senate, and it will be more than one vote, voting together to end offshore processing. The dangers are pretty apparent, given the Christmas Island tragedy. This is not an issue that you can delay on or play politics with. It is not an issue that you can afford some partisanship on. It is an issue of critical importance. It is an issue of life and death.

The one thing the member for Mayo said that was right was that this has been a difficult journey for the Labor Party. We have agonised over it; we have agonised over the debate. It was a tough debate to have, but we are not playing politics with it. Frankly, it would be easier to do what the Greens want to do and it would be easier to do what the Liberals want to do. There is just one problem: neither of those policy outcomes will work. They are high on emotive political appeal. They are not practical, though; they just will not work and they will be counterproductive.

Perhaps the Liberal Party should pay some heed not to me but to Bill Hassell, who is a former Western Australia state leader of the Liberal Party. He said in an opinion piece in the West Australian today:

This would not prevent the Opposition from expressing reservations, exposing the deficiencies of the plan and putting forward an alternative solution.

He proposes that the bill should be passed. As he says, that will not stop those opposite criticising. He goes on to say:

The Australian public will not thank the Opposition for more boats and onshore processing, the inevitable outcome of their unholy alliance with the Greens.

That is what conservatives are saying. The former leader of the Western Australian Liberals is saying that it is an unholy alliance, that it will not be welcomed by the Australian people. That is true.

The Liberals' position is fundamentally inconsistent. They claim now that the UN convention is all the reassurance that one needs, and yet they never used it in government. Their speeches are full of cant and politics and humbug, and the speech of the member for Melbourne was full of the same—emotive appeals aiming at getting votes. One party, the Greens, is aiming at the inner city, and the other, the Liberal Party, is aiming at the outer suburbs.

We in the Labor Party, however difficult and agonising this debate is, are determined to do the right thing because these are life and death issues. They are issues which tug at the heart, but we are determined to do the right thing. This amendment bill serves that purpose.