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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8652

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (09:38): I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This bill removes section 198A of the Migration Act as well as doing some other things consequent upon the amendments the government has just proposed. Section 198A has been a very important section and at the centre of the approach taken by the Howard government when it introduced the Pacific solution to deal with the sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Section 198A sets out the safeguards that Australia would insist upon before sending asylum seekers to a third country to reside while their asylum claim was being heard. The section sets out the safeguards that the minister is required to declare exist, including that the relevant country provides access to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection, provides protection for persons seeking asylum, provides protection to persons who are given refugee status and meets relevant human rights standards.

When the bill before the House was first introduced we opposed it because of its provision which would have removed section 198A. In our view, section 198A was a critical safeguard that was an important part of the overall policy framework the Howard government introduced. It was a safeguard to ensure that Australia was meeting our obligations to asylum seekers while we also sought to achieve the critically important policy objective of maintaining control of Australia's borders and maintaining control of our immigration program. Therefore in the form that this bill was originally introduced and in the form in which it was debated in this House a few weeks ago we were not satisfied that the regime that the present government proposes to introduce in place of section 198A was a satisfactory regime. That proposed new regime is the one set out in subdivision B of the bill, originally to be entitled 'Offshore Processing'. In our view, that subdivision set out materially lower standards which the minister was required to meet before he or she could declare an offshore country as suitable for Australia to send asylum seekers to. Following the debate in this parliament a few weeks ago, the government subsequently commissioned and has now received the report of the expert panel on asylum seekers and the government has now reintroduced this bill together with, very importantly, some amendments.

There are two main classes of amendment that the government has introduced. One class, as is so typical of this government, is to deal with the window dressing, and throughout the bill the term 'offshore processing' is replaced with the term 'regional processing'. The substantive amendment is the one that would add proposed subsections 198AB(1A) and (1B). The important thing about those amendments is that they require that before the minister can give effect to his declaration that a particular country could be a regional processing country—that is to say, before the minister's declaration could come into effect and before therefore the minister could implement the decision and begin sending asylum seekers to that third country for them to stay while their claims for asylum were considered—there would have to be either a resolution passed by both houses of parliament or a period of five sitting days in which the minister's declaration had been laid before each house and during which no disallowance motion had been passed by either house. So that is an important additional safeguard which has been added in and is a material difference from what was in the form of the bill that was previously considered.

The government is seeking to give the impression that all of this is part of it moving immediately to restore offshore processing in Nauru and in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the same locations where processing occurred for several years under the Howard government as part of a policy framework which was demonstrably successful in materially reducing and essentially eliminating the flow of asylum seekers by boat. The important point about the amendment and the bill before the House this morning is that to reopen offshore processing in Manus Island and in Nauru does not require this bill or this amendment. The minister could make a declaration to that effect under the existing act. Nevertheless, the coalition have indicated that we will support the bill as amended. But we also make the point that this has been a long, painful, convoluted process to get to this point.

In the first phase of what has effectively been a three-stage process, between 2000 and 2007, the Howard government developed and implemented an effective policy to reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to very low numbers indeed—from 4,137 in 2000-01, over the five years to 2006-07 the annual arrival numbers dropped to 0, 82, 0, 61 and 133.

The second phase of the convoluted process by which we have come to have this bill before the House is that Labor came to power in 2007 promising a complete reversal of policy. I looked at its 2007 party platform yesterday. One of the items in that party platform was as follows:

Labor will end the so-called 'Pacific Solution', with its huge cost to Australian taxpayers.

Consequent upon that, once in power the Labor government set about rapidly dismantling the Howard government's policy framework and shredding the hard-won credibility that Australia had built up on this topic with people smugglers and with people who might be considering making the risky and dangerous journey to Australia by boat. The people smugglers got the new message very quickly, and arrival numbers soared. By 2009-10 there were over 1,000, and in the three subsequent years it has been around five times that number.

The third stage in getting to the provisions in the bill before the House this morning has been the far-too-slowly dawning recognition that the Rudd-Gillard government has made a huge mistake. It has harmed Australia's national interest and has also given extraordinary encouragement to people smugglers. The predictable but tragic consequences have been that many more people chose to make the highly dangerous voyage to Australia by boat. One of the most disturbing parts of the expert group's report is table 7, on page 84, which sets out what is known about the deaths of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. That shows a total number of 964 deaths that are known to have occurred since 2000, over 600 of which have occurred since Labor came to power and changed the policy.

The other very unfortunate consequence of what has happened in the long road to the bill that is now before us is that the Labor government has effectively abandoned control of the Australian government's humanitarian program, which, as the expert panel's report notes, currently stands at 13,750 places. Control of that program has essentially been abandoned to the people smugglers so that, rather than Australia and its government deciding who amongst the world's 15 million refugees should come into Australia under that humanitarian program, we have effectively subcontracted that decision making to international criminals.

The long and convoluted road to the bill before the House this morning is a powerful illustration of a lesson that applies in so many areas of public policy. It takes hard work and detailed analysis and thinking, based on the evidence, to develop a good policy. It also takes time to put it in place and have it work. In an area like the asylum seeker debate, where emotions—for understandable reasons—run very high, it is particularly incumbent on governments to carefully and responsibly assess the evidence and the data, to implement policies which have a clear objective and which have a reasonable prospect of achieving that objective. Unfortunately, over the last five years the current government has abandoned evidence based policymaking in this area, and it is only now that we are starting to see a return to a more sensible approach. The expert panel report does bring together a substantial body of evidence, but all of that has been available to the Rudd-Gillard government for the last five years. Unfortunately, thanks to this inglorious episode in Australian public policy, many people have suffered very significantly. The most obvious category is the hundreds of people who have tragically died as a result of taking very risky and dangerous voyages to Australia due to policy settings which have encouraged them to do so and which have in particular encouraged people smugglers to operate businesses running people to Australia.

Another group that has suffered are the thousands of people in refugee camps around the world who might already now be in Australia under our special humanitarian program had we not effectively subcontracted management of that program to international criminals. And of course, as many of my colleagues have noted, a significant amount of public money has been squandered due to mismanagement in this area—money that could have been spent on the many other important priorities government faces.

This has been an inglorious episode in Australian public policy. The coalition will support the bill that is before the House today. It is a matter for deep regret that it has been such a painful and convoluted process to get to this point.