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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 5793

Senator BERNARDI (8:21 PM) —In rising to make my contribution to the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009, I feel compelled to respond to some of the allegations that Senator Bilyk has made. Her speech was like another book of Alice in Wonderland, I have to tell you, or perhaps Senator Bilyk in Ruddland, because it was full of contradictions, nothing in it was as it seemed and everything in it did not mean what she said. Senator Bilyk spent 15 minutes defending the actions of illegal entrants to this country—people who have come to this country prepared to break the law. They come to this country and overstay their visas or they pay people smugglers—who were rightly condemned by Senator Bilyk—thousands of dollars to hop into boats to jump the queue to get here. And Senator Bilyk wants to defend that.

What Senator Bilyk neglected to mention was that those who are found to be genuine refugees inevitably upon application have their bills waived. Senator Bilyk went on to say that it does not act as a deterrent because it does not make any difference for those who are removed from the country. Then she contradicted herself by giving an example of a man who will not be allowed re-entry into Australia because he has a debt. So what is it? Is it working or not? Senator Bilyk does not seem to know; no-one on the government side seems to know. They are living in a fantasy land. By watering down the laws and regulations that had absolutely stopped the traffic in illegal immigrants, they are encouraging people to come to this country illegally.

I know that this is a very sensitive issue. When we speak strongly about it, we risk being called callous or mean spirited. But the simple fact is that there are tens of thousands of people who are seeking to do the right thing by coming to this country through the proper processes and the proper channels. This government seems to ignore their plight and is more interested in rewarding those who are prepared to break the law to come here in the first place. They say that those people are going to be great citizens, because they are prepared to break the law to jump the queue. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The coalition cannot allow the government to continue to weaken the integrity of Australia’s migration, borders and programs. It would simply be immoral for us to do so. Australia’s immigration program is fair, just and humane. We look after those who try and do the right thing. Indeed, we look after those who enter this country illegally and are found to be refugees—we do. But this government wants to make it easier. It is as though the government wants to waive the double jeopardy rule so that those people can continue to try to come in. ‘Your debts will be waived.’ They say that they are tough on illegal fishers and tough on people smugglers, but they have not caught too many people smugglers. And they just send the illegal fishers home. They have not been very successful.

The Rudd government continues to peel back the integrity measures that were aimed at keeping our borders secure. The Rudd government is sending a very clear message to people smugglers that business is open in Australia. They can get as many people as they like, put them on a boat and send them out here and they will be treated humanely and respectfully and there face no downside. Currently, the safeguards in the legislation are there to ensure that those who are seeking asylum in Australia and are found to be refugees but who do not have the means to pay are given manageable repayment schedules or they have their detention debts waived or indeed written off.

Rather unkindly, the government seeks to characterise the coalition as wanting to punish refugees by forcing them to pay debt. This is not true. As I have already stated, and as I will restate for the record, those who are found to be genuine refugees can apply to the minister to have their debts waived. Every minister that I am aware of has waived these debts in cases of genuine need or where the person is found to be a genuine refugee. Perhaps the Labor government does not have the same confidence in their minister. Frankly, this is a ministerial discretion that should remain, because there are few clear-cut or absolute cases. There has to be not only an appropriate deterrent, but there has to be appropriate consideration of the circumstances of each individual.

Speaking of deterrents, abolishing or watering down any of our current migration laws simply says, ‘We’re not that interested in deterring people from breaking the law to get into this country; we’re not interested in closing down the people smugglers who are making hay at the ALP’s soft approach.’ There are so many reports of people smugglers opening for business and sending boats out here in record numbers. Since this government came into power, they have come out here in record numbers. And this government maintains, in their Ruddland fantasy, that nothing they have done is encouraging it. Gee, it must just be coincidence that boatloads of people have been prepared to breach Australia’s borders since this government came to power!

The coalition will stand firm in this. We will not support a watering down of our migration programs. That will only serve to embolden people smugglers, leading them to put at risk even more lives as they continue encouraging and abetting others to break Australia’s law while profiting from it. The coalition will continue to oppose any changes by the Rudd Labor government that will encourage people smugglers and that will make our borders less secure.

A few months ago, I was privy to a report by a journalist. It quoted a number of department figures on how some of the illegal asylum seekers who have entered our country are treated in various circumstances. This was in April. In reading that report, I found out some of the benefits that accrue to asylum seekers. This report said that a family of four—a mother, a father and two children—who were detained on Christmas Island would receive $1,066 in cash or in a card to spend at the local store per fortnight for food, more than many Australian resident families would receive from the government when faced with extreme economic hardship.

Senator Conroy —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order of relevance. I am not sure if it is relevant for the senator to mislead the Senate with information that has been absolutely repudiated by the department. I do not mind the flourishes but to actually propagate information which you already know to be false is beneath you, Senator Bernardi. So, on relevance, I am not sure he is relevant to this bill because he is actually making things up.

Senator BERNARDI —On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President, I am simply repeating what was quoted in the newspaper article quoting members of the department. Nothing I have heard from the department refutes this at all.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ryan)—Senator Conroy, you would be aware that I have just stepped into the chair and these are debating points I think more appropriate for the debate we are undertaking, so I call Senator Bernardi to continue.

Senator BERNARDI —As I said, one report had a family of four who were detained on Christmas Island receiving $1,066 per fortnight for food or other expenses. This is more than many Australian resident families would receive from the government when faced with extreme economic hardship. The payment that was made to these illegal arrivals reportedly does not include the accommodation, which is a house or a home in the community. That is right—it is not a jail cell or anything else; it is a home in the community. They are offered internet access and an unrestricted phone card so that they can contact family and friends.

One can only imagine that these people, who have fled impoverished circumstances and who have paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers to enter into this country illegally, must think they have hit the land of milk and honey when they are getting $1,066 to spend at the local shop every fortnight, when they are getting internet access, a phone card and free accommodation and electricity. You tell me that that is a deterrent to people smugglers. You tell me that that is a deterrent to people coming into this country illegally. And this government wants to water down the laws even more and offer them more incentives, whether they are legitimate refugees or they are not. Frankly, I am appalled at this information.

I know that puts me at risk of being called heartless, but these people who may or may not be legitimate refugees have already demonstrated their willingness to break the law to get here. They are prepared to break the law to get into Australian territory. What, then, are they prepared to do when they are here? And yet now, when we find that they are not legitimate refugees, this government in its great wisdom wants to waive any debt that they owe. It wants to waive any disincentive for them to come back a second or a third time, something which we have seen under this government already. People have come back here after being rejected by the previous government.

Of course, there will always be the emotional cries, and I understand there is a great deal of sympathy for those who are trying to jump the legal migration queue and who are so desperate to escape a life-threatening situation that they are forced to take the illegal and risky venture of coming to Australia in a leaky boat. I say that is nonsense. I cannot recall a single instance—and I am happy to have one pointed out to me—where an illegal boatperson entering Australian territory had embarked uninterrupted from their original country of residence. I throw that challenge out there. I am happy to accept it and I am happy to say, ‘Yes, there has been one or two,’ if someone can point it out. The recently reported Afghani or Iranian citizens who have travelled to our country illegally have been through Pakistan or Malaysia or Indonesia before paying a people smuggler tens of thousands of dollars for illegal passage to Australia. It is hardly the conduct of someone fleeing for their life if they are already in a safe country.

Recently I heard of a group of 70 Afghans who were detained in a hotel in Indonesia because they were abandoned by the people smugglers whom they had paid for passage to Australia—abandoned in a hotel. They must have been in fear for their life as they sat around the pool wondering when the boat was going to be leaving for Australia. But of course the Rudd government, as I mentioned before, denies that their policies have encouraged the new wave of illegal arrivals into our territorial waters. I offer that perhaps it is just coincidence. Once again, perhaps it is just a coincidence that since the immigration laws were softened there has been an influx of illegal boats. Some of these voyages have regrettably met with a tragic loss of life and it has reinforced the perception that the Rudd government is not being straight with the Australian people. I say enough is enough.

It is time for a reality check. We have more boats filled with illegal immigrants coming every week. Alarmingly, as I have said, there are reports that when they arrive here the passengers are offered greater financial support than some Australian citizens, and still the government is in denial. But as my colleague, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, mentioned before, a great many of the people that will be affected by this bill are not those that are coming here in leaky boats. They are the illegal overstayers: the 48,000 or so people that have overstayed their visa and come to this country legitimately. Not those who are fleeing for their lives, as Senator Bilyk said; not those who are impoverished—these are people that have flown out here and decided that they like Australia and are just going to stay on for a while. And, when they are incarcerated because they are illegally in our country, this government wants to waive their debts. This government wants to say: ‘That’s okay, mate. We understand. We can accept that. You can break our laws whenever you like. Just go home and you can come back and you owe us nothing.’

Enough is enough. It is time for this government to wake up and recognise the fact that what they are doing is encouraging illegal behaviour in this country. It is encouraging people who are prepared to break the law to break the law. It is encouraging those who want to come to this country in an illegal manner to do so, and all the time it is discouraging those who are prepared to go through fair, reasonable, open and accessible channels—the channels that have served this country so well. This is a policy that is flawed. It is a policy driven around some weird left-wing ideology that simply does not stack up and pass the commonsense test. This is a bill that needs to be rejected, and the coalition will stand firm and reject this bill.