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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8520


Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (16:18): At the end of the last sitting period in this debate on what to do about asylum seekers and the recent upsurge in drownings off Christmas Island, I stated that I was wrong—wrong not to have previously supported an element of offshore processing, wrong not to recognise the potential for a humane regional processing of asylum seekers, as former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke had done following the Vietnam War. Now the opposition are trying to seek a political benefit from this report and this legislation, which we both agree on and which seek in a decent and humane way to deal with these dreadful problems of asylum seekers being lost at sea—67 recently in a boat which has been lost without trace. It is a tragedy for those 67 people and their families.

This parliament cannot let what the coalition wishes to slip down the memory hole be not remembered, about the closure of Nauru. Sharman Stone, the member for Murray and the then spokesman on immigration, on behalf of the coalition supported the closure of Nauru and Manus Island. I would like to read to the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Cook some quotes from their spokesman in 2008 and 2009. On Radio 2SM, the coalition's immigration spokesman said:

The closure of Nauru and Manus Island … of course they had basically—what shall we say—outlived their need … I don't think we need to again have Nauru and Manus Island operating, because we've got of course Christmas Island.

On 16 April 2009, Sharman Stone, as immigration spokesman for the opposition, told the Australian:

We no longer have that requirement because we've got an alternative place, which is excised from our migration zone, Christmas Island.

Of course, so much has changed in the circumstances that Australia faces since both the government and the opposition sought to undo the cruelty of some of the Howard government's treatment of people both onshore and offshore. Let's not have revisionist history. That is what most of the policy of the earlier variant of this government, that of Mr Rudd, and the migration committee which I chaired sought to focus on. We were focusing on the treatment of people in onshore facilities like Woomera, where people had been kept without knowledge of when they would get out and kept under cruel circumstances. The then government's policy attempted to handle those issues. It was looking backwards, not to this future problem of so many people trying to get here by boat.

The veteran—and, indeed, venerated—refugee advocate Paris Aristotle said on Lateline last night and both the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Bowen, and Mr Clare have made clear this morning that Nauru and Manus Island will not be locations for detention centres. Accommodation will be established on these islands for refugees and asylum seekers. The Houston-report-initiated legislation, which has the opposition's support, will seek a regional solution in the vein of those of the Fraser and Hawke governments. Unlike the Pacific solution, under these recommendations, which will be legislated, there will be independent monitoring and oversight mechanisms through a high-level group of experts including cross-party membership and experts from the non-government sector. This group will ensure the monitoring and oversight of offshore processing in these places and their adherence to conditions of any transfer arrangements and international obligations that Australia has.

Despite the hope that we would have an end to political partisanship today, that that compromise would be supported in the parliament, we have seen today also the intransigence of the Greens political party which, having done with attacking the government, has moved on to attack the refugee advocate Mr Paris Aristotle. We remember when, six weeks ago, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition was over in the corner of the chamber with the Greens political party working to sabotage compromise in this House. I have a very rare picture of that little conclave. It is a picture you cannot get anywhere on a Murdoch website of the Greens political party working intensely with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to sabotage the proposal for Nauru and Malaysia that had the support of the House of Representatives in the last session. The Greens political party in its zealotry continues to attack Mr Aristotle. He said, rightly, in response to those criticisms:

I'm not sure how many refugees or survivors of torture Sarah—

by which he means Senator Hanson-Young—

has actually worked with over the years. I'm not sure how many people she's managed to get out of detention or the resources she's been able to generate.

Late last year, Senator Hanson-Young, representing the Greens as their immigration spokesperson, said after the Christmas Island tragedy—which moved me to say that I was wrong and moved many members of this parliament and many members of the government across all factions to review their attitude, because we do not want people to drown—'tragedies happen, accidents happen' in explaining the Greens refusal to accept that their opposition to compromise blocked legislation from being passed in this parliament.

There are a number of ironies with this report and with the coalition's support of the compromise that has been put up by the government and that has now been accepted by the opposition. First of all, for those of us who are strong supporters of refugees, of asylum seekers and of people's being treated fairly and justly, this legislation is going to see an increase in the number of people coming to Australia. Our annual intake will increase to 20,000. That is a big plus for those who have a humanitarian view of things and who look at the big picture of the issues involved. The intake will later increase to 27,000. The opposition has signed on to this. I wonder what Ray Hadley and the chorus of right-wing cranks on Sydney radio will think of that.

The coalition has also of course denigrated Malaysia. No-one in this parliament has been as great a critic of human rights in Malaysia as me. I organised for 70 senators and members of parliament to criticise the Malaysian government. I had demonstrations organised against me over Malaysia's abuse of its opposition leader. But, when the Australian government came up with a proposal to transfer people back to Malaysia with an agreement that would have looked after their work, education and health rights and that was supported by UNHCR, suddenly the benches opposite became full of advocates for human rights in Malaysia and of concerns about caning et cetera. We had never heard anything from these people before. I exclude the members for Wentworth and Flinders, who are honourable men and who had spoken before then about Malaysia's human rights.

There are other ironies in the political situation we find ourselves in. People are arriving off the shores of Australia, and the coalition have, through their opposition to the Malaysian suggestions, effectively blocked any immediate action that would deal with these problems. Nauru will take some weeks or months to get up and running. The effect of the cacophony from the opposition and their mates in the Murdoch press and the Sydney hysterical radio is to block any immediate action of the kind that this government had proposed—again, a wonderful triumph for the member for Cook.

The other political irony in this situation is that the conservative ranks normally rail against judicial activists in all jurisdictions and in all kinds of courts taking public policy and changing it beyond what parliaments might do. Of course, the conservatives have sought to benefit from the unexpected decision of the High Court on this issue. Normally, especially if it affected them, they would have been railing against the judicial activists on the High Court.

Again, when we look at the government's responsibility on issues of immigration, foreign affairs and defence, we remember that over the last decade we have voted 152 times with the coalition on matters of national security or the national interest. On Malaysia we asked the coalition to vote with us once. Of course, they put the political benefit of playing to the hysteria about refugees and asylum seekers above that.

Now they are crying for the Navy. We all know that Admiral Griggs and the Navy said that the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia without the support of Indonesia, as Mr Houston clearly outlines in his report, would put lives at risk. I say we have to be prepared to separate the contrived populist talkback hysteria from the facts.

Following the increasing number of deaths at sea and the increasing arrival of boats, this government has shown that it is flexible. We must not succumb to the lies, however, that distort the foundation of this debate and opportunities for reasoned compromise. Despite the parochial ranters who talk about refugees flooding our country, in fact asylum seekers are deducted from the 13,700 people slated by our immigration program to come here under humanitarian refugee quotas.

I am pleased we have accepted the in-principle recommendation to increase Australia's humanitarian program to 20,000 places per annum. We are committed to taking more refugees and, as the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has said, we will be one of the highest ranked countries in the world through the effect of our policy. We will be welcoming more refugees than practically any other country. It should be a point of pride to Australians that others wish to come to Australia and start a new life. We are a country of immigrants. We cannot stand by while people drown at sea.

Again, it is extremely ironic to me that it has not been put up, in the debates that one sees in the populist media ranting about these boat people, that the minister for immigration has produced a report that shows that people arriving under the humanitarian and refugee program are the highest achievers for Australia after two or three years of residency. They are the highest achievers. Of course, it is quite logical because these people, coming from the circumstances that they do, seek to benefit in a wonderful country like Australia and they struggle and strive the hardest. It is not surprising at all. It is not the kind of hysteria that the coalition has sought to benefit from and to use to sabotage previous suggestions and the minister for immigration's proposals on Malaysia.

The recommendations of the Houston report are measured, responsible and pragmatic. They accept that Australia alone cannot solve the asylum seeker flow in South-East Asia. There must be a comprehensive regional system in the vein of the Fraser and Hawke systems. We have to work with Indonesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and indeed Malaysia, as the Houston report very clearly says, towards achieving these ends. Of course, we have to work with settlement countries. It is not simply a matter of working with countries where these people come. We have to work to make sure that all of these people have a place, like the Vietnamese refugees, where eventually they will be able to go to.

Six weeks ago we offered a compromise on Nauru. We said to those opposite that we were willing to put Nauru on the table. We compromised, expecting a little give from those opposite. Now we have the recommendations of an expert panel. Despite agreeing to back the recommendations of the independent panel, we have the coalition glorying with their friends in the media in the so-called embarrassment to the government. I agree with the Prime Minister. If this compromise is what is necessary to deal with the new circumstances then it is what we have to do. This report and this policy are driven by humanity and fairness. They are driven by the need to find a solution to act. Through this legislation we have done so.