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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8572


Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (20:20): It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Herbert, who has a way of lucidly and cogently explaining matters. He made some excellent points about post-war migration in particular and the great record that Australia has in post-war migration—which included my family, who emigrated from Greece.

In the current debate about immigration that we see before us in the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 we have quite a serious situation in that the government has been completely exposed on its agenda. Its agenda on coming to office in 2007 was to dismantle the system of the previous government, the Howard government, on migration in terms of our obligations to refugees. We know from various statements of Labor ministers, the government and the then Deputy Prime Minister and now current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in their own words that they took great delight in dismantling the Howard government's system, that they felt there was a fundamental unfairness about the offshore processing system and border protection system of the Howard government and that they felt that something had to be done to alter the arrangements.

Here we are four years later and the government have run out of speakers after half-a-dozen because we have exposed them today as having no principles.

We have here in this chamber now, unlike four years ago, the member for Melbourne, from the Australian Greens. I am going to say something unusual: he has principle. I do not agree with the Greens principles. I do not agree with the member for Melbourne's principles on this matter and I do not agree with his amendment in relation to this bill, but it is a principled approach. The Leader of the Opposition has principle. The opposition has principle. We have a tough approach here in opposition. There is a compassionate approach over there from the member for Melbourne and the Australian Greens. What is the government's approach? One may well ask what the government's approach is in this empty, silent chamber. Silence is often more powerful than words, and the silence from the government means they have been exposed as having no principles and having no agenda that anybody can really point to. All of us in this place understand it.

When a government abdicates its principles and abdicates its role in leadership in relation to what the country needs, we end up in a situation where we have a very regrettable and ugly mood in Australia today, because the government is not pursuing what it believes in, not following policy that it has long advocated and worked towards. We have this shameless abandonment of principle and policy position in favour of absolute pragmatism. Take the comments of the Prime Minister today that this was the advice of the experts. For the last two years we have heard that the experts said that Nauru could not be reopened. For the last two years we have been told—we have been beaten and berated by members of the government—that the experts say that the boats cannot be turned back. So which experts are we in this House to believe? Does the Prime Minister have an answer as to why she has chosen one group of experts over another? I will give the answer to the House, and it is that the policy has failed. It is easily identifiable by the media, by the government, by members of the opposition and by members of the Greens that this policy is not working.

This is a tough but compassionate approach. That is what is at the heart of the failure of the government's approach. Kevin Rudd came to office as Prime Minister on the promise that he would be tough but compassionate. He would walk both sides of the street on the immigration debate. What is valuable about being in politics and why I am in politics is that you have to have principles. You have to advocate for them, articulate them and stand by them when they are popular and when they are not popular. If you want to be compassionate, be compassionate. If you want to say, like the Greens do, that we should have onshore processing, say we should have onshore processing. If you want to have offshore processing, advocate for offshore processing. But coming to office on a promise that you could do both, that you could walk both sides of the street, that you could somehow say, 'We are tough but compassionate,' is completely ridiculous. It has ended up in absolute and abject policy failure.

Not only do we have this embarrassing spectacle before the House here today, but we also have a very real human and financial toll on the Australian public and the taxpayers of Australia, who have been the unfortunate victims in many ways of government failure. When government fails, when it fails from the grassroots, when it tries to do too much, when it gets into a policy tangle, when it is unclear about what it is doing, there are very real implications. At a minimum, we are talking about the $4.7 billion of the asylum budget blow-out. That is what it has cost this nation since this government came to office. I know 'billion' is a very trendy word that everybody loves to use today, but I am a little old fashioned and I think a billion dollars is a lot of money. It is a billion dollars of people's hard-earned money that was taken from them in the form of tax and appropriated by the government. To spend it in this way is reckless. It does not benefit anybody. Nobody appreciates spending $4.7 billion on detention centres, which are in effect prisons for people. This system is not working.

The number of people arriving on boats illegally is now at some 20,000. The fact that there were none or very few at the end of the Howard government and that today we are having records broken each half-year is evidence of policy failure. This ongoing situation has become untenable. The government, after doggedly pursuing years and years of policy failure, after sticking to it and saying, 'Our approach will be not to change course or compromise,' after demonising the opposition for its position and saying, 'You are wrong, you are wrong, you are wrong,' has led to where we are today, which is a very difficult situation.

The people smuggling business, as the Prime Minister said today, is an adaptive model. It does react quickly. It does take advantage of weakness. These people smugglers—and you can speak to any AFP officer or anyone around the world and they will tell you—follow Australian politics. They listen to this chamber. They watch developments here. What would they have made of Kevin Rudd coming to office saying he was going to be tough but compassionate but unwind offshore processing? 'Fantastic—we're back in business!' What then would these people smugglers, these criminals, these people trading in human misery have made of developments in this chamber when the government went further and said that we had to change the legislation permanently to make sure that offshore processing was no longer a part of Australia's regime? They would have said, 'Fantastic!'

And what about the policy paralysis as this government plunged from leadership crisis to leadership crisis, with constant distraction from focus on what is a very real, fundamental concern of any national government—that is, border protection and national security? It is a fundamental reason why we have a national government, why all our states federated in 1900. We needed a national government to protect our borders and have a national identity. It is one of the fundamentals of governance in Australia today, the fundamental reason that we have a national government.

These people smuggling businesses and criminals watched as our parliament roiled in paralysis, in inaction, as the government defended a policy that was clearly not working. I think they have taken great delight in taking advantage of the great weakness and the failure of this government. I am not here today to take delight in that failure. I do not think anyone on this side takes delight in the failure of this government. It is quite unedifying to watch what is happening to our national border protection system, to see what is happening to our brave men and women who man the boats, who go out there every single day, it seems now, to pick up refugees. It is quite unedifying having our patrol boats and Navy turned into a taxi service or an escort service for people who have learnt that they can simply call a false alarm and get a free ride to Australia. That is how adaptive and reactive this business model has become.

It is unedifying for anybody to watch our naval personnel risk their lives. We have seen the patrol boats and the system cracking under the pressure. The strain that must be placed on the human beings we ask to implement this is severe.

That is why whenever somebody approaches me—and I go to many different electorates in western Sydney and New South Wales—and says, 'We should do something harsher to people coming by boats or we should take it out on them,' I always say, 'No, we shouldn't.' Because anybody who is on the front lines who is asked to do something like that would tell you that, when you are confronted with real human beings—men, women, children—in leaky boats who are facing drowning and death, it is a natural human reaction to extend compassion, look after them, save them, rescue them and do what we can for them. And it is what we do as a country, as a humanitarian country. That is why we reject all of those people who say that we should get into those extreme sorts of measures.

But, equally so, in our policy settings, in our legislation that is before us today, we must have a system which discourages people from getting on those boats. We know that the risks are great. We know that many of them die. We know that the people who benefit the most are the criminals, the people smugglers, and the misery that they trade in. We know that the only winners are those people who engage in this perfidious trade, not those people who came here after taking risky journeys and playing Russian roulette with their lives. That is why the opposition has been so strident in defence of its policy position.

People in this country who say today that there is no difference between the major political parties, I ask you to listen to this debate. I ask you to understand that there is fundamental policy difference in Australia today. Just because the government, after four years, is abandoning its hopeless and mixed approach and adopting the opposition's position does not mean the parties are the same. It is an acknowledgement that this opposition and the Howard government had their policy settings about right. While the circumstances may be slightly varied, we are returning to the fundamentals—offshore processing—and the government is calling on us to adopt all of those things.

It is not unreasonable in those circumstances for the shadow minister for immigration to call on the government to implement those things that we know will also make the system work again. Turning boats back when it is safe to do so, doing the things that the Howard government did in completion and also enhancing what the government is proposing are a very reasonable position for us to take. We have been right on Nauru. We have been right on offshore processing. We now have an expert panel which has told us we were right on those things and we were right to hold on this policy position—not that we should take any glee in it. But we were right, from a technocratic, ideological and policy perspective, to hold firm.

The government is adopting the opposition's approach. It is reasonable, in that circumstance, for us to call on the government to adopt all the other elements of this approach that can make the system work again. What is the point of that system? To stop people putting their lives at risk on leaky boats by paying money to people smugglers and ensuring that our migration and immigration programs are handled by Australians in an orderly fashion with a compassionate approach to refugees. Also, as the member for Herbert eloquently put, we do recognise that there is an international market for labour, skilled labour and people of intellect and that we want to compete for new migrants. I am very happy to expand our migration program. I think our migration program is a wonderful thing. All the migrants in this country add great value and capacity to our country. It is something I think we will continue to do as a nation in years to come.

What is happening here is that the government's trying to walk both sides of the street—evidencing great policy failure, abandoning principle—is giving immigration a bad name. There are many people in Australia today who have confused what is going on, because of this government recklessness with principle on migration. I want to totally disassociate those concepts. We have a government failure here, not a failure of experts, not a failure of principle. We have a failure of a particular government.

The only recourse a citizen has in our country to do something about this is to vote the government out of office at the next election, to hold them to account for the position that they have taken over four years. They have completely abandoned their principles. The government have completely failed to handle one very key element of a national government—in fact, one of the reasons we have a national government in Australia. And the Australian public should hold them to account and put in a government that knows what it is doing and can protect our borders.