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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8673


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (11:12): Earlier today the Prime Minister welcomed back Australia's Olympic team. With great fanfare she immersed herself in the celebration of Australia's sporting achievements. Many stories have come out of the Olympic Games, but few can rival the silver medal won by Australia's youngest Olympian, 16-year-old platform diver Brittany Broben. After an assortment of handstands and backflips, it took Brittany a 2½ somersault with a 1½ twist to ultimately claim second place. I am sure our Prime Minister looks at this young athlete with great envy as, despite Brittany's tender years, it seems even she has learnt to master the backflip better than our nation's most senior political leader.

For many years we have heard the cry from our Prime Minister that she would never support the coalition's policy of an offshore processing centre in Nauru, that she would tear the place down, that it did not work and that she would never call the Nauru Prime Minister to discuss the matter. Yet now, with a backflip which puts her in the bronze medal position, the Prime Minister has put her pride aside, picked up the diplomatic phone and announced to our nation that the coalition was right all along.

Prime Minister, we welcome your backflip. It may have taken four years too long, but we are glad you finally accept that this is a crucial part of the policy that works, a policy that stops people from taking that forsaken boat journey, from risking their lives and the lives of their families.

As any of Brittany Broben's year 11 classmates can tell you, the numbers do not lie. Since you started dismantling offshore processing, 22,000 people have arrived by boat and nearly 1,000 have lost their lives at sea. In the six years prior to that—the duration of the Howard government's offshore processing policy—only 272 people arrived by boat.

This is an extraordinary discrepancy that is shamefully stained with the blood of those 1,000 lives. It is little wonder that even refugee advocate Paris Aristotle has embraced offshore processing—because it works. Our goal is to stop people risking their lives, to stop people dying at sea.

We can be generous in our humanitarian program, we can lift our intake to 20,000 people a year and do our bit to help the most vulnerable people in the region, but we also need to manage policies that deter people from taking that dangerous journey. It was the trifecta of policies under the Howard government that achieved this goal and saved countless lives. Prime Minister, we applaud your backflip but, as I said before, this is only enough for bronze. There are three legs to this policy stool, and it is only the complete package that will win you a gold medal. Temporary protection visas and turning the boats around are crucial elements in achieving the goal you so desperately yearn for. Surely, the first backflip—that little taste of humble pie—has taught you the joy of a bronze medal.

Prime Minister, year 11 students will tell you that the triple backflip is the only policy that works. It is time to go one up on Brittany Broben; it is time to go for policy gold. Prime Minister, the nation awaits your decision. In unison we cry, 'Prime Minister, don't let us down; don't let any more drown.' Stopping the boats, and therefore stopping the loss of life at sea, is just the first step in this lengthy process of policy debate. It is only when this problem is resolved—when we can process a humanitarian intake in an orderly manner and fulfil our duties under the refugee convention—that we as policy makers can turn productively and proactively to even better policies. Once we can move on from the daily scramble to rescue lives in leaky boats, we can then explore ways in which we can help our nation grow, to take the next step in the 21st century and to make our electorate proud of both our achievements and our ability to help those less fortunate.

The challenge before us is to implement a policy that will deter economic migrants from taking a dangerous journey in search of a better life, while balancing our domestic economic needs and our international humanitarian obligations. The varying incarnations of Australian asylum seekers policy over the past four decades have raised more questions than answers. How does a government act in the best interests of its people while remaining true to its core values? Is deterrence the best, the most important, element of our policy? What cultural foundations are we laying down for the applicants that pass through our detention system and are finally accepted as genuine refugees? Is our country full? Or do we stand by our national anthem and have boundless plains to share? Are there other options?

What have we learnt from our own history and from the example of other nations? In 1949, the first year of the Menzies government, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act was passed by this House. What became the most significant engineering achievement in our nation's history was built with great assistance from people fleeing war-torn Europe. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people were crammed into refugee camps across Europe, patiently waiting for the opportunity of a better life. The Australian government balanced our humanitarian obligations with our national responsibilities, and a simple negotiation was made—priority in our refugee program was given to those that had the skills to assist in the construction of the Snowy Hydro and would make a commitment to work and live in the surrounding community. We would never be in a position to offer salvation to everyone who needed it, so instead we attracted people with the ability and the willingness to contribute to the building of our nation, those who wanted to earn a stake in our nation's future. The result speaks for itself.

I offer this little trip down memory lane with a view towards the future debate on this vexed issue of refugee policy. Once our Prime Minister has accepted to implement the only raft of policies proven to stop the boats and save lives, perhaps we as a nation can embark on a new conversation. We have so many challenges that sit patiently awaiting forthright leadership and policy direction. What methods can we use to finally deliver high-speed rail to our nation, 50 years after the Japanese began using this nation-building technology? How can we invest in half of our nation's land mass and make the desert bloom, just as the Israelis have done for the past 60 years? When we have a wet season creating floods in the north of our country and drought causing irreparable damage to our southern food bowl, why can't we find the manpower to redress the balance?

Many of us look forward to the day when the implementation of good policy to patch up our nation's problems can lead to clear air so that these kinds of productive nation-building conversations can return to our pubs and clubs and to the halls of this great institution. In the meantime we are still standing on the diving platform, staring down at the water below and trying to convince our Prime Minister that even a year 11 student knows that a triple backflip is the only answer.