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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8544


Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (18:07): Movement of refugee and migrant populations throughout the Asia-Pacific is not a new or insubstantial issue. The Asia-Pacific region currently has 3.6 million refugees, accounting for 24 per cent of the world's refugee population. The migration flows that occur in our region are heavily weighted by movement through irregular channels, principally within the region itself. The inevitable by-product of this large-scale, unregulated and dangerous movement of people is an increasing death toll and the development of criminal people smuggling networks that seek to exploit vulnerable people.

Based on the record number of boats, the record number of refugees and the very sad record number of deaths that occurred this year alone, you would think that this government would admit that it was wrong in undoing the proven measures of the Howard government. But this is a very stubborn government and a very proud Prime Minister, and they will not admit their wrongdoing. Instead of moving on and implementing the coalition's proven border protection policies, which they dismantled, Gillard has chosen to adopt the policies of the Greens and further soften our borders. This further demonstrates that the Greens-Labor alliance is counterproductive to our nation's growth and prosperity. It places unnecessary burdens on our Defence personnel and it puts at risk the lives of refugees who are taking extreme measures to gain access to this great nation.

Due to the current conditions that have been brought about by the ongoing poor policy decisions of this government, too many lives have been lost and too many others are in danger. This is the same situation this parliament was faced with in June. It has taken this government six weeks and a panel to realise what the coalition has known for years. Since November 2007, when Labor was elected to government, there have been a staggering 386 boats, 246 of which have arrived under the current Prime Minister. Alarmingly, more boats have arrived under the Gillard government than arrived during the 11 years John Howard was Prime Minister. There were 239 boats in 11 years under sensible and comprehensive policy, as opposed to 246 boats in just under two years. This demonstrates that the Gillard government's strategy has not worked.

As the shadow minister said yesterday, it makes you wonder just what could have been avoided if this government had listened to the coalition and the High Court and simply put back in place policies that would have provided a real deterrent for those people who are taking their lives in their own hands and braving the sea on a rickety boat. The coalition understands the need to protect the lives of these refugees, protect the integrity of our borders and deliver fairness to those who seek lawfully to come to Australia. Clear and sustained policymaking both in Australia and bilaterally at a regional level are required to change the balance of risk and opportunity.

The Houston panel report has endorsed in very large part the approach that the coalition has been advocating. It has given the green light to Nauru and the red light to Malaysia. Fundamentally the report states what the coalition has said all along. That is, firstly, that Australia needs a comprehensive suite of policies to deter these people, these families, these men, women and children, from taking their lives into their own hands and braving the sea to travel here illegally and through harsh and unforeseen conditions. Secondly, the only viable way forward is one that shifts the balance of risk and incentive in favour of regular migration pathways and established international protections and against high-risk maritime migration.

Putting the partisan politics of this tragic situation aside, I believe it is central to this debate that we consider the human rights elements of offshore processing—basic rights that would not be protected under the Malaysian solution. The government continues to debate and stall on this issue, speaking of these refugees as nothing but mere tokens, or pawns lost in a political chess game. These are people, members of families, women and children. Even if they have sought asylum in Australia through unlawful means, that does not mean that we should send them to a country like Malaysia where their basic human rights would not be protected. There is nothing ethical about that. There is nothing ethical about the historical Labor policies of people swapping. These are human lives and they should be treated with dignity. I am grateful that the report goes some way to recognising that. Malaysia as it stands is not a solution; it should never have been targeted as an option. It says a lot about this government's stubbornness and its ethical compass for it to have even put this on the table to begin with.

In regard to Malaysia, the High Court advised the government of all of these details in August last year. The coalition has repeatedly told the government that Malaysia is not a humane solution, and now the Houston report has confirmed and repeated this advice. It is astounding the number of times that this government needs to be told that the Malaysian solution was not and is not an ethical or humane answer to this ongoing problem before it receives the message. It is yet another example of how disconnected the Gillard government really is. Think of the number of lives that have been lost. Think of the number of warnings and the amount of advice the Gillard government has received. Think of the inaction and the consequential injustices that have been put on those seeking asylum as a result of this government. The 'all talk and no action' strategy has cost hundreds of refugee lives.

Meanwhile, millions of people, many of them unprotected children, wait in refugee camps all over the globe. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are currently 42.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including refugees and asylum seekers. As a consequence of the ongoing boat arrivals, Australia continues to give second priority to the desperate need of the people in these refugee camps, people who have sound, regularly executed claims to seek asylum in Australia.

The government is favouring those who seek asylum illegally over those who seek it legally—those who cannot afford to pay people smugglers thousands and thousands of dollars to get on a boat.

Since October 2009, 604 people have died seeking to reach Australia by irregular maritime channels. As stated by the report, those who survive the sinking of these unseaworthy boats must live with their memories for the rest of their lives—the cries of lost fellow passengers forever sketched in their memories. Personally, after being involved in the inquiry into the tragedy that occurred at Christmas Island, I believe that the parliament need to do everything we can to deter these vulnerable people from getting on these boats to begin with. The misery that I witnessed was not the inevitable by-product of the desire felt by many from around the world to strive for a better life in Australia. Until this government dismantled them, strong, functional and highly successful immigration management policies protected both the security of the Australian border and the physical safety of the many people willing to go to great and dangerous lengths to reach this country. Those 604 deaths are the direct result of the ideologically driven, blind and pointless abandonment of effective policies.

People smuggling is not, as members of the Labor government would lead us to believe, simply a matter of impoverished fishermen accepting a pittance from several families in order to ride to Christmas Island. It is a sophisticated, ruthless, extensive international criminal operation. Like all major criminal enterprises, people smuggling has its large and small players, each performing their own roles. But each and every person involved in these operations gains financial reward from taking advantage of supremely vulnerable people, and each participant in the fulfilment of these operations is responsible, by some measure, for the death of every single one of those 604 people. The current ineffective policy of this government has created a situation where often lethal enterprises are allowed to flourish and ruthless criminality is developed and sustained.

The tireless effort that the Australian Navy are investing in order to assist with this issue should also be noted. Our Defence personnel continue to do a tremendous job in protecting our borders but are continuously burdened by a bad government that has forced them to run a taxi service. Sadly, the continued record number of boat arrivals demands even more taxpayer dollars to be thrown at Labor's border crisis. People recognise that the unprecedented rate of illegal boat arrivals is placing a significant strain on our Navy. As I have said, people smugglers run a smart operation. They know that if they put out a distress call, be it in Australian or Indonesian waters, our Australian Navy personnel will answer the call. It is in our very nature to help each other out—we always have. This criminal ring is taking advantage of our compassion and Labor's inaction on our borders, and the Prime Minister is sitting back and has watched it happen.

Australian maritime ships are spending an unprecedented amount of time out at sea rescuing those seeking asylum. This is the right thing to do, but when our ships do take the opportunity to return to the nearest port in Darwin they regularly need to turn around to rescue yet another boat. Because of this, they face harsher conditions and risk running out of supplies to go and rescue the boats that continue to come. This is just another example of this government's perception of our Defence Force and, in my opinion, the vital services that they provide to our nation. We have seen ongoing cuts to Defence spending, the removal of the Australian Defence Force travel allowance and now our Navy being treated with a lack of respect. Prime Minister, why do you continue to cut and punish the members of the Australian Defence Force, who every day put their lives on the line for our nation, who every day make the sacrifice of being away from their families and friends to serve our nation and to serve in our waters? Prime Minister, this is not good enough, and these men and women who are serving our country deserve better.

At the end of the day, our responsibility as elected representatives, and our humanitarian duty, is to find solutions that safeguard lives, combat exploitative international criminal networks and secure Australia's borders. The coalition for a long time have advocated for this, and the conclusions and recommendations of the report vindicate our proven policies. Australia needs action. Today it is clear that we need a direct action plan to deter refugees from seeking asylum. In fact, to the coalition, that was clear weeks and even years ago.

Only a coalition government can restore the proven policies that protect Australia's borders and also protect refugees. Unfortunately, this government has failed to take action. Australian families are realising this across all areas of their day-to-day lives. Only a coalition government can provide the response for Australian families. Only a coalition government can restore good governance. On this note, I can only hope that this government now understands what measures it needs and must take in order to protect Australian borders and protect refugees. It may have taken a High Court ruling, ongoing urging from the opposition, hundreds of lives and families lost, and a six-week investigation, but let us hope that the message has finally sunk in.