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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5728

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (15:46): Immigration and border protection policy is an area of public policy that is very important, very complicated and detailed. But it is also an area that requires leadership to develop and implement a policy that ensures our nation meets the international commitments to which we are a signatory, including our humanitarian obligations under the United Nations conventions dealing with the treatment of refugees. It requires leadership to ensure a policy that provides an effective deterrent to the insidious trade of people smuggling and playing on the lives of the vulnerable and asking them to risk their lives on the high seas in unsafe and unseaworthy boats. Countries benefit from a multipartisan or a bipartisan approach to dealing with issues such as this.

Today's matter of public importance demonstrates, on behalf of the coalition, a complete lack of leadership on this important issue, an inability to analyse the recent decision of the High Court and an unwillingness to work with the government and implement a workable, effective and long-term policy solution to what is a difficult and very complex area of public policy. In the wake of the High Court's decision, Tony Abbott said:

I think that our country should have the best border protection policy that the government of the day thinks that it needs and I’m [pleased] to work constructively to give the government, to restore to the government, the option of third country offshore processing which it says the High Court and the Solicitor-General have denied to it.

When we heard that quote from the Leader of the Opposition, those on this side thought, 'Finally we have some logic, finally we have some thoughtfulness, finally we have a constructive approach to what is a very difficult policy area, and finally we have some leadership from the coalition.' We welcomed the commitment from the Leader of the Opposition. We provided a depart­mental briefing and we provided access to the experts regarding both the immigration issues and the legal issues associated with the High Court decision. In that briefing, the Leader of the Opposition was told of the High Court's judgment and the new interpretation of the law that the High Court had given to this issue. In that briefing, the Leader of the Opposition was told of the legal advice from the Solicitor-General, which cast further doubt on offshore processing of asylum seekers—wherever that may be. Indeed, the past declarations of Nauru under the Howard government would, in all likelihood, have been invalid under this decision of the High Court.

The Leader of the Opposition was also informed that a legislative response is required—that is, an amendment to the Migration Act is required to ensure that our country has an effective long-term policy to deal with this very difficult policy issue. A number of days after the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, he began backing away from them. He began to say that he opposed a bipartisan approach to this. He resorted to type on this particular issue, he resorted to the opposition's policy of Nauru. He ignored the departmental advice, the expert advice, of those who have worked in this particular policy area for many years. In particular, he ignored the advice of the head of the department, Andrew Metcalfe, who, I note on Friday last week, former immi­gration minister in the Howard govern­ment Amanda Vanstone described as a 'first-class public servant'. Well, the Leader of the Opposition has ignored his advice showing a complete lack of leadership on this issue. In the wake of the High Court's decision, the government did what any good government would do—reacted quickly. We considered the advice of the departmental experts and the legal experts. We consulted the opposi­tion and other groups in society and, indeed, the executive consulted government MPs this morning. We have developed a legislative response that will overcome the difficulties identified in the High Court's decision. This legislative response will ensure that we continue to meet our international obli­gations in this policy area yet, at the same time, provide a very effective deterrent to people smuggling and stop people smugglers trading on the vulnerability of those seeking a better life by asking them to get on unsafe boats and undertake unsafe journeys.

The government has developed such an approach in consultation, based on the advice of experts. Yet the opposition come in here today and raise a matter of public importance in which they claim that the government has failed to find its way on this important policy issue. The only ones who have failed to find their way on this important policy issue are the opposition. Despite the advice of experts, first class public servants and the government's legal advisers in the wake of the High Court decision, they refuse to move away from their commitment to a policy that has been demonstrated not to work. It will not provide an effective deterrent. Experts have advised the government that it will not work. Indeed, 95 per cent of those who were housed on Nauru, who were found to be genuine refugees, ended up in Australia or New Zealand. This policy is not an effective deterrent.

What is needed to deal with this issue is a regional architecture with regional consultation. We need to work with our neighbours to ensure that in our region there is an effective deterrent to people smuggling that allows a nation such as Australia to ensure it meets its international commitments and gives priority to those in need. Many of those have been mentioned in the Senate today—those in the Horn of Africa and in Burma, some of whom have been waiting in camps for 16 to 20 years.

The government's policy will ensure that we meet those international commitments yet provide a sensible, logical approach to the trade of people smuggling and an effective deterrent. The government has offered the opposition a commitment to work in a bipartisan manner on this issue. On several occasions we have said to the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and the relevant shadow spokesperson that we will work in a bipartisan manner and that this issue requires a legislative response. That legislative response will ensure that we provide an effective deterrent to people smuggling and continue to meet humanitarian commitments that our nation has pledged to meet in a manner that will see priority given to those in need. The government stands ready and willing to work with the opposition on this important issue. We oppose the claim by the opposition in the Senate this afternoon that the government has lost its way on this issue. The opposition has lost its way on this issue. (Time expired)