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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 5804

Senator CASH (9:05 PM) —I rise to speak against the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. There are two classic issues which differentiate the former Howard government from the current Rudd Labor government. Firstly, there is the issue of national security. Secondly, there is the issue of economic management. Unlike the Howard government, the Rudd government continues to fail in both of these areas.

It is well recognised by serious policymakers that a fundamental responsibility of a government is to ensure the security of its nation and its people. Protecting Australia’s borders against illegal immigration is therefore a fundamental responsibility of a Commonwealth government. In addressing this fundamental responsibility relating to border protection, there is a need to recognise that there are organised criminal gangs within the global community who specialise in people-smuggling, the organised illegal movement of individuals across international borders. These people smugglers make massive profits by trading in human misery and are constantly on the look-out for impending signs of weakness in border protection policies. In order to win the battle against people-smuggling and to win the battle against illegal immigration, we as a country need to not only send the right message, a strong message; we need to send a consistent message to people smugglers, to those who may wish to come here illegally and to those who wish to overstay their visas.

Under the Howard government Australia sent a strong, consistent message. Our doors were closed to unlawful entry. This was reflected in the decrease in the number of illegal arrivals on our shores. Clearly, the criminal gangs who specialised in people-smuggling were aware that under the Howard government this type of activity would not be tolerated. Regrettably, following the election of Rudd Labor in 2008 the government made it clear that it would not continue the strong border protection regime that was implemented by the Howard government. Clearly, Rudd Labor was sending a clear message to the people smugglers that under its government there would be a significant weakening of Australia’s border protection policy. The effect of the watering down by Labor of Australia’s previously strong border protection policy has resulted in a corresponding increase in unlawful boat traffic coming to Australia numbers.

If there were any doubt as to whether or not this was actually the case, one need only look as far as the latest interception of asylum seekers, apprehended about 21 nautical miles north of Christmas Island by a Navy patrol boat, HMAS Pirie, approximately three weeks ago. We understand from media reports that the boat was carrying 77 people and was believed to have come from Sri Lanka. The panicked and clearly desperate response of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, to this, as reported in the West Australian newspaper on 14 August 2009, was to point to the ‘growing unrest in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq as the reason more boats were heading for Australia’. The article went on to say that the minister had been warned that it was likely there would be more boats as the situation worsened, particularly from Afghanistan. It might surprise Minister Evans to actually learn that there has been intense conflict in Afghanistan since 2001, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It might also surprise Minister Evans to learn that, following the military intervention of Australia and other countries in Afghanistan, no asylum seekers arrived in Australia during the 2002-03 financial year. Surely, even Minister Evans would have to concede that in reality the first major military intervention after 9/11 would have been more likely to provoke a flood of asylum seekers to Australia, rather than the situation now, many years later, after an extensive reconstruction and securitisation effort by the international community.

Perhaps there is another reason for the increase in unlawful boat traffic since Rudd Labor was elected. Perhaps it is Labor’s softening of our border protection laws. As the left-leaning minister tries to explain away the abject failure of Rudd Labor’s soft border protection policy, it is clear that what we now have under the Rudd government is a failure to properly discharge a fundamental national responsibility: ensuring the security of the nation. The weakening of immigration policy by the Labor government since its election has stimulated the biggest surge in people-smuggling since 2001-2002, when the coalition’s tough strategy on border protection put people smugglers out of business. What Labor is doing with this bill is giving people smugglers a new marketing edge. If for no other reason, this bill should be opposed because it provides one less barrier, one less hurdle, for those human beings who peddle in human misery—people smugglers and people traffickers—to continue with their despicable trade. It is to these criminals that the Labor government is giving the green light.

Quite simply, by removing yet another layer of our tried and proven border protection regime, a regime that has been built up over many years and statistically has proven to be effective, we are allowing people smugglers to further peddle their despicable trade and tell potential unlawful asylum seekers that the doors to Australia are open for business. In watering down our strong border protection policies, there is the potential, from more people attempting to come to Australia unlawfully because our doors are open for trading, that more people’s lives will be put at risk and more people will loose everything to these despicable people smugglers.

The numbers now speak for themselves. There is an increasing awareness that Australia’s borders are being seen as vulnerable. Since the election of the Labor government, since the Labor government rolled out the welcome mat to unlawful arrivals, we have seen more boats arrive illegally in Australia than in 2003 to 2007 combined. In the financial years of 2002-03 and 2004-05 under the Howard government, do you know how many boats arrived in Australia? None. No boats arrived in Australia. I will say that again for the benefit of those listening. No boats arrived in Australia. Why? It does not take much for a reasonable person to conclude that people smugglers simply could not hide the fact that Australia’s doors were not open for business. We had a strong border protection regime that made it clear that we would only accept asylum seekers who came here in an appropriate manner that did not disadvantage other migrants attempting to use the existing legal channels. It is unsurprising therefore, with the changes already made by Labor to our border protection laws and with the changes like those that are the subject of this bill, that unlawful immigration is once again increasing.

If we now look at the specific measures of the bill and we look at the outcomes it aims to achieve, on reviewing the bill it becomes apparent that this legislation has misinterpreted the prime intention of imposing a detention debt—an intention that was apparent to the Keating Labor government back in 1992 when it introduced the measures. Detention debt is not ultimately about the collection of money. It was intended by the Keating government, when it first introduced it, to represent an additional deterrent to potential illegal immigrants and was designed to send a strong, clear signal to the rest of the world that people who attempt to enter Australia unlawfully are unwelcome and that if they try to enter Australia unlawfully, then there are potential penalties that they will face if they do.

Remember: those who are incurring this debt arrived on our shores unlawfully. And the bulk of those who incur this detention debt are people who have overstayed their visa conditions. They have overstayed and have become illegal after breaching their conditions. This legislation has nothing to do with people who come to Australia using the front door, people who come to Australia using the lawful channels. And despite the Labor Party and the Greens thinking that with this legislation they somehow have the monopoly on compassion, that is not true. If ultimately unlawful immigrants are found to be genuine refugees, there already exists in the current legislation provisions enabling the waiving or the writing off of the debt that these people accrue while in detention.

The coalition fully supports the provision in the current legislation enabling the waiving or writing off of the detention debts for asylum seekers ultimately found to be genuine refugees after being detained lawfully at the expense of the Australian taxpayer. And the evidence shows that in the majority of cases the debt incurred is either waived or written off. The findings of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration in its report entitled Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning, December 2008, support this. Paragraph 5.60 of the report states:

In practice, recovery of many detention debts is not pursued but is waived or written-off.

As set out in the explanatory memorandum, for the period 2006-07 and 2007-08 only 3.3 per cent of immigration debt raised was actually recovered. Approximately 88.8 per cent was written off as uneconomical to pursue and 7.4 per cent was waived. These figures are cited by Minister Evans in his second reading speech—or rather, in his case, his second reading excuse for this legislation—but the conclusion he then draws is fallacious. Minister Evans said:

Making immigration detainees primarily responsible for the costs associated with their detention, has not, in any significant way, contributed to minimising costs to the Australian community. And in the meantime, the Department is required to meet the high cost of administering a debt that it is largely unable to collect.

In relation to the first part of the minister’s statement, that is completely true:

Making immigration detainees primarily responsible for the costs associated with their detention, has not, in any significant way, contributed to minimising costs to the Australian community.

But it must be remembered that this measure is not a revenue raising measure, that was never the intention of this measure. It is a policy, originally introduced by the Keating Labor government, which was designed to act as a deterrent to those who wanted to enter Australia unlawfully. If it does recoup some costs incurred by the Australian taxpayer, that is well and good, but that is not, and it has never been, the primary intention of that provision.

In relation to the minister’s comment regarding the ‘high cost of administering a debt that is largely unable to be collected’—to abandon the current policy because the administration of the policy is wanting sets an extraordinary precedent. I say again for the minister’s benefit: this policy is not a revenue raising measure. It was not a revenue raising measure under the Keating government and it certainly was not a revenue raising measure under the Howard government. Both of these governments recognised that it was aimed firmly at deterring the ‘pull’ factors which influence people smugglers in luring asylum seekers to Australia.

The Rudd government, on the other hand, the left-leaning Labor government, resolutely refuses to recognise that pull factors, or internal Australian factors, have any influence on those in the people-smuggling trade. Rather, the left-leaning Labor government blames everything, including the rise of people-smuggling, on ‘push’ or external factors. It blames everything and everyone, other than the steps that it has taken as a government to soften our previously strong and effective border protection regime.

And so it is that, with the ability to waive or write off a debt incurred in detention—which in the current legislation—and with evidence that in the majority of cases the detention debt is waived or written off, it is very difficult to see how the government can justify this piece of legislation on humanitarian grounds. Watering down, as this bill will, our strong border protection regime will not only have the effect of sending a strong signal to the criminal people smugglers but will also send a strong message to potential unlawful immigrants that Australia is open for business. The only agenda driving the legislation before us is a political agenda: the left-leaning Labor Party are soft on border protection. It is an absolute furphy that these changes are required for humanitarian reasons. Why? Because the so-called humanitarian option is already available in the current legislation.

As we all witness the devastating consequences of the Rudd government’s soft border protection policies in action, it is truly horrifying that they would, in effect, roll out the welcome mat and provide criminal people smugglers with additional impetus to entice even more victims onto boats to meet an uncertain fate. In order to win the battle against people-smuggling, unlawful immigration and the people who decide to overstay their visas, we as a country need to send not only the right message and not only a strong message but also a consistent message to people smugglers and those who wish to come here illegally: the doors to Australia are not open for business. Part of that strong message is contained in the current legislation. Any watering down of our strong border protection policies should not be supported.