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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8551


Mr IAN MACFARLANE (Groom) (18:43): I rise tonight to speak to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011. It is with some relief that I see common sense finally prevailing on the other side in relation to this bill. None of us have been happy with the refugee situation in Australia.

I come from the city of Toowoomba, I represent the fine seat of Groom, and in my time as their local member, since 1998, there have been a number of issues relating to refugees. I speak about, in particular, the Sudanese who have come to our city since the member for Berowra, the Hon. Philip Ruddock, first made a decision about that back in 1999, if my memory is correct, and about the need for our city and our state, as part of this nation, to play our role in assisting those people who, for a whole range of reasons, including threats to their lives, had to flee their home country. I can think of nothing harder than having to flee your home country, sometimes without all of your relatives, and go to another country. Toowoomba has been very accommodating of those people.

I think there are about 2,000 Sudanese and African refugees in Toowoomba, and I am absolutely sure that every one of them has come because they needed to and every one of them has come because they followed the proper process.

I think one of the most disturbing things that has happened to me as a member of parliament was when, early in my time in this place, I was approached by an Iranian woman whose sister and whose sister's husband were seeking refugee status in Australia. That is not an overnight process. If you do not want to jump the queue, if you do not want to pay people smugglers $10,000 to jump the queue and come here by boat, that takes a little while. Every time someone jumps the queue, your position in that queue gets pushed back one. So I had the situation that this woman kept coming to see me and I kept pushing to try to get her sister out here, until one day she came and said, 'You don't have to worry anymore; she's dead.' That person had had to wait because people had got in front of her in the queue and we were not able to get her out in time.

So I have always been an extraordinarily strong supporter of having a policy whereby you can control the method by which you bring in refugees. I am all for refugees. I am a populationist. I believe in people coming to Australia. Whether they are refugees or businesspeople or all those people in between who want to make Australia their home, I believe in that. The member for Berowra will bear witness, although I will not disclose the confidentiality of the cabinet room, that I always sided with him in terms of ensuring that we took in as many as we could. It is never an easy process in Australia, and I know that Australians do not accept easily at times bringing people of any sort from overseas into this country, under any circumstances. But I have always felt that Australia is a better place because of that. Of course, not for all of us but for most of us our forebears came here, perhaps not as refugees—and I can say with all honesty not as convicts either in my case, but I know that there are some in this place who claim that heritage.

It is important that, if we do decide to bring people here and if we do decide to bring refugees here, which we must, we do so in an orderly fashion so that there is fairness. At the bottom of this bill and at the bottom of what the coalition wants to do with refugee policy is fairness. It is not about picking and choosing and it is not about saying that we want them from here but not from there. It is that we want to make sure that the system is fair, that if you are in a refugee camp in Kenya and you have been there for three or four years you know you are moving up the queue. If you are in a refugee camp in Malaysia, you may be a Burmese Christian or something like that who has been in a refugee camp with no hope of going anywhere, you want to believe that Australia has a system in which your turn will come.

What we have seen in the last five years is the removal of fairness from the refugee process in Australia. That has come at a horrendous cost. I am not just talking about the impact in terms of those people who have missed their turn because we have taken tens of thousands of refugees via the boat system, via the people smuggler system. I am talking more about the horrendous loss of life that has occurred because the system broke down and people thought the easy way, albeit the far more dangerous way, to come here was to fly to Indonesia, pay a people smuggler and take that treacherous voyage. None of us wants to see that voyage happen.

We may see the reason in people trying to escape persecution or whatever in their homeland and we may support the principle of their coming here, but we do not want them to endanger their lives in doing so and we certainly do not want them to come in a way that is unfair to others. Australia is a country that is based on fairness and so, after five years of chaos, after five years where every year was worse than the year before, after five years of having no predictability in the way our refugee intake process worked, we have arrived at today. We have arrived here because the Prime Minister, who was unable to make the decision herself, decided to ask Air Chief Marshal Houston to set up a committee and hand down a report, which he and his committee did yesterday, Monday, 13 August.

Of course, as we now know, those recommendations are fundamentally the position that the coalition has adopted all along. So, while those in government, the Labor Party, have ebbed and flowed and wavered and wandered through refugee policy in the last five years, the coalition's position has always been the same. I am sure that the member for Berowra, who will follow me in this debate, will enunciate that in a far clearer fashion because he was at the front line for the whole time. I came in 1998 and went into cabinet at the end of 2001. I watched those hard decisions being made. I watched the vote in this House on the Tampa. I watched the Howard government from that day forward slowly gain control again over who came to Australia in terms of refugees but, more importantly, who came under what process. There is only one process that you can have, and that is an orderly process.

So we saw the committee's report yesterday, which basically endorsed the coalition's approach to stopping the boats. That approach is a proven approach. I remind the members of this House that, in our last year of government, three boats came to Australia. We had made it so difficult. Yes, we were taking more and more refugees, as we should, but we took them in a way that gave everyone a fair chance of getting to Australia. Had the government, and particularly the Prime Minister, not been so stubborn, the horrific loss of life and the cost we have seen associated with this shattered policy of the current Labor government would not have occurred. Had those opposite realised that what the Howard government had put in place was a system that not only worked but was fair, the disaster in human lives over the last five years could have been avoided.

Australians have every right to condemn this government for what has happened. They have every right to say, 'Why did they take a system that worked and break it into small pieces until it didn't work at all, until there was a pull factor to come to Australia in terms of refugees making this perilous trip and paying this huge amount of money?'

For a refugee in Afghanistan $10,000 is a huge amount of money. So we saw the situation arise where we finally got the government to realise that this is the solution—or part of it.

That is the bit that worries me the most, because this is like a tripod: it will not stand on one leg; it needs three strong supports for it to work. The first is offshore processing, and Nauru and Manus Island are certainly a step in the right direction. But we do need to ensure that people understand that if you come here under that method that it is only a temporary reprieve. If they are genuine refugees, then that is fine, but we should go back to issuing temporary protection visas until it is clearly and absolutely established that it is not going to be safe for them to return home any time soon. As part of the cabinet that made the decision, although we did not talk about it publicly, to turn boats back under circumstances where it was safe, there is no doubt that that works, and that is the final leg that needs to be put in place.

I am optimistic that this may help, but I am fearful that it is only one step of three steps that have to be taken, because in the end I would hope that now, having been through the turmoil, particularly of the last 18 months, no-one in this House disagrees that what we need in place is a fair system that works. We need a system that works and ensures that Australia takes refugees in an orderly fashion; that we take them in a way that ensures that our borders remain secure; that we take them in a way that ensures that our refugee program is sustainable so that the hostility that I am sure many of us feel out in the community towards genuine refugees as distinct from queuejumpers goes away—so that all Australians, no matter how long they have been here or from what race, colour or creed they come from, support Australia taking refugees and making the refugees' options in terms of coming to Australia one which they understand one which is fair. If we do that Australia will be a better place.

I hope that this government has learned a lesson, because it needs to. It needs to learn that when you meddle with something that was right all you do is destroy things. Unfortunately, in this case, some of those things have been people's lives. I am not attributing blame other than to say that if it is not the government's fault then whose is it? They are the ones who changed a system that had worked so well that we only had three boats in 12 months to a system in which we were getting almost three boats a day—certainly two a day. That says to me that this government, as it does in so many policy areas, lost control of the issue, became confused, became the servant of minority causes and allowed the security of this nation to fall and the fairness that we established in the Howard government under the refugee program to go out the door. I commend the bill to the House.