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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8529

Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (17:03): We are dealing with an issue that has clearly been Labor's biggest policy fiasco and debating the reintroduction of migration measures that Labor were so proud to abolish four years ago when they came to office. Even during that four years the consequences of that decision were obvious to anybody with a passing interest in this issue. Surely this is evidence that this is their most serious policy misstep, a policy they have clung to for far too long when all the evidence showed us how it was encouraging people smuggling. As the Leader of the Opposition said in his comments, it is the people smugglers who have on their hands the blood of those people who have lost their lives making this very dangerous journey. Sadly it is the government that has refused to take action after it was its policy decisions that resulted in a surge in people smuggling.

People smugglers are vicious criminals. The member for Fowler correctly said that they would probably be engaged in smuggling other contraband if they were not involved in smuggling people, and they care absolutely nothing for the lives and welfare of the people they put on the high seas in rickety boats in extraordinarily dangerous conditions. You hear stories about people being abandoned mid-journey. We should never fall for the trap that they are somehow modern day Oscar Schindlers, rescuing people—they are vicious criminals who must be closed down in the interests of Australia and also in the interests of the people they are smuggling.

We need to be clear that this is not an area of public policy where any good deed goes unpunished. No good intention goes unpunished. People smugglers see our idea of compassion as a business opportunity and they see what is a natural Australian desire to help vulnerable people as just another weakness that they can exploit. We must acknowledge this reality if we are going to effectively close down this evil trade. The great tragedy of Labor's policy since the government changed in 2007 is that they have let pride and politics get in the way of recognising what their decision when they came to office unleashed.

I want to go through some history up to the point of our dealing with this government backflip today. I am not doing this to say 'I told you so' or anything like that; I am doing it because it makes the point that what we are discussing here today is a step in the right direction but sadly not the whole solution. We need to encourage the government to take the further steps that it needs to take to bring down the wall on people smugglers and drive them from their evil trade. We need to understand why we are here—why is it that we have had an upsurge in people smuggling; why is it that we have had 22,000 people arrive illegally; why is it that we have had these tragedies at sea; why is it that the Australian taxpayer has been shelling out literally billions of dollars to deal with this failure?

Australia has, for a long time—for many decades—faced the problem of people arriving in Australia illegally. We faced it in the seventies under the Fraser government and they dealt with it—although of course that was a regional problem. We faced an upsurge again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Howard government was in office. When people smugglers are successful in smuggling people down here, success breeds success. So what started as a trickle became a flood—to the point where the government knew action was needed to stop this from happening. They took a series of decisive yet controversial measures, one of which was known as the Pacific solution. Those measures unarguably and unambiguously closed down people smuggling.

If you look at the empirical evidence, you cannot argue against that proposition. From 2002 onwards, after those decisions were made and implemented, illegal boat arrivals averaged three per year. When the government changed in 2007, there were four people on Christmas Island. Those policies, which were unarguably successful, which achieved the policy result we were seeking—closing down people smuggling—were, at the time, deeply controversial in the Australian community. Very importantly, they were criticised very heavily by the Labor opposition at the time.

I will highlight to the House the sorts of things Labor were saying at the time—in particular, the sorts of things this Prime Minister was saying. She was, at that time, the Labor opposition's immigration spokesperson. In 2002 the Prime Minister, in her capacity as the opposition spokesperson, said:

The so-called Pacific solution—

which was offshore processing on PNG's Manus Island and in Nauru—

is nothing more than the world's most expensive detour sign. It does not stop you getting to Australia; it just puts you through a detour on the way while Australian taxpayers pay for it and pay for it.

She went on to say:

To that end Labor has given the following commitments. Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.

Earlier in 2002, she had said:

The so-called Pacific solution—stripped of the other policies that the government has scrambled around and tried to put in place since the Tampa—is really no more than the processing of people offshore in third countries. It is a policy that Labor does not support, because it achieves nothing and costs so much in so many ways—in money, in goodwill in our region and in division in our community. I would like briefly to take the House to the three principal problems with the so-called Pacific solution: costs, unsustainability and the fact that it delivers no outcomes.

I could go on with other quotes—not only from the current Prime Minister but also from other members of the opposition—criticising the Pacific solution, even though it is empirically impossible to argue that it did not do what we wanted it to do, which was to stop people smuggling. In particular, I have one here from when the Prime Minister, then the opposition immigration spokesperson, was talking about the arrival of SIEV4—suspected illegal entry vessel 4. We are now up to SIEV386.

When SIEV4 arrived, the then opposition spokesperson, Julia Gillard, now our Prime Minister, said that the arrival of SIEV4 asylum seekers in Australia had made a mockery of the expensive Pacific solution and that the so-called Pacific solution was nothing more than a very expensive detour sign. This is reminiscent of other comments she had made. I think it is fair to say that the government's heart is hardly in offshore processing, and I think that is the problem with some of what we are discussing today.

Needless to say, when Labor came to office, this is one promise they did make good on—they did abolish the Pacific solution in August 2008. The then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship was quoted as saying that it was his proudest moment in politics. The abolition of these successful policies which had stopped people smuggling was the then immigration minister's proudest moment in politics. He said that the policy in relation to offshore processing in Nauru was not only 'morally wrong and outrageously expensive—it failed.' When they abolished the Pacific solution, he said:

Australians can feel confident that we have in place and will maintain strong border security measures.

This happened in August 2008. But literally the next month, in September 2008, the people smugglers were back in business. They watch what is happening in Australian policymaking and they know a business opportunity when they see it. The Labor Party provided that business opportunity and the people smugglers restarted the following month. Subsequently, it has got worse. People started arriving in September 2008, it got worse in 2009, it got worse in 2010, it got worse in 2011, and this year is the worst year for illegal arrivals on record—and we are only in the middle of August.

It is clearly obvious to anybody with a passing interest in the facts that, when Labor abolished these policies in August 2008, the consequence of that decision was to put the people smugglers back in business. Yet it has taken four years for the government to acknowledge that. During those four years, we have had arguments from government ministers—the minister at the table for one—along the lines of: 'There is nothing we can do. It is just push factors. There are things happening in the world. We can't address them. We are just going to have to accept that people smugglers are going to bring people down to Australia illegally.'

When we used to raise this issue in the parliament at question time, the government benches would whistle. The idea behind that was that somehow we were dog whistling—appealing to what they see as the darker nature of their fellow Australians. That says a lot about the way they see their fellow Australians. They said that it was dog whistling. You do not hear that any more. Somehow, according to the government, raising this issue was illegitimate—it was not a legitimate issue for us to be concerned about. They implied that we should not be concerned about people smugglers bringing people to Australia and that we should not be concerned about the consequences for Australia. They have abandoned those arguments after being mugged by reality.

That is the history of this issue. For four years, as the problem got worse, the government have looked around for excuses and to deflect attention from the bleeding obvious: that abolishing the Pacific solution, that abolishing temporary protection visas, that refusing to turn boats around—even though that was their stated policy prior to the 2007 election—has allowed people smugglers to sell the amazing product of permanent residence in Australia and that those people smugglers have been making literally millions of dollars on the back of Labor's failed policies.

That is how we find ourselves here today with this monumental backflip. But the Australian people have to be asking themselves, 'Why has it taken us so long to get to this point?' How bad did things have to become before Labor faced the reality of what they unleashed in 2008? This is absolutely Labor's biggest policy fiasco. The fact that we are debating this bill today is a testament to their complete lack of judgment on these issues. Sadly, this lack of judgment is still on display because, whilst accepting the need, finally, for offshore processing in Nauru and in PNG, and abandoning the reality of their Malaysia solution—which I do not have time to go into but the flaws of which were obvious to most members of this House—they are still not going all the way. They are still refusing to embrace the full suite of policies that would have the desired and required effect, which is stopping people-smuggling. They are adopting just one of the three elements of the coalition policy that we must adopt if we are serious.

We must turn boats back around when it is safe and appropriate to do so. The Australian Navy has done it more than half-a-dozen times. Other navies around the world do it. The Sri Lankan Navy is doing it as we speak, as is the US Coast Guard. Importantly, the Houston report, as the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers is now being called, said that it is feasible to do it and that it would act as a deterrent if it were done. Now, that is different from what the government have been saying. They have been saying, 'It's impossible; the Navy can't do it,' even though it has done it before. So the Houston panel has said explicitly that it is possible and, if it were done, it would act as a deterrent.

What the government have said is that they do not believe that, at the moment, all of the conditions are in place for that to happen. But, surely, the challenge for the government is to go out and make those conditions happen, to go out and talk to our regional neighbours, to get over the remaining hurdles, to make sure that we can turn the boats back around when it is safe and appropriate to do so, and to acknowledge that if we do so it will be a significant deterrent. It was a significant deterrent in the past. Nothing could undermine people-smugglers more, when they go out and try and sell their product, than people understanding that if you get on a boat and you are intercepted by the Australian Navy you are not going to be taken directly to Australia; you going to be turned back around to return to the port from which you came.

The final part of our suite of policies that must be embraced is temporary protection visas, and it needs to be embraced for two reasons. Again, it is a very powerful way of undermining the people-smugglers' business model, and surely the whole purpose of our policies is to do everything we can to undermine that. A temporary protection visa system does that because it takes away the product they are selling, which is permanent residence in Australia. People-smugglers could no longer say, 'If you pay me $10,000, I can get you to Australia and you can stay there.' People will know they might get to Australia but they will not get permanent residence. Of course, being a refugee is not necessarily a permanent condition. Conditions in home countries can change; Sri Lanka is probably a reasonable example of that. If conditions in your home country do improve, then you should be able to return, once the Australian government have provided the protection that we are obligated to provide.

The government's policy, sadly, only goes a third of the way that we need to go. It is a step in the right direction, but we must go further. They must embrace the whole suite of coalition policies if we are to smash people-smuggling. (Time expired)