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Monday, 19 November 2012
Page: 8999

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (16:13): I rise also to contribute to this matter of public importance on the alleged failure to stop the boats and secure Australian borders. I think we should take the politics out of this debate. We should sit down and have a sensible debate over this issue. Partisan politics should be removed. We should be working in bipartisanship on this matter to get some sort of resolution around it. But, no, all we hear from those opposite is this view that there is some issue about stopping the boats. We know what their policy is when it comes to stopping the boats—and that is turning the boats around, towing them back into international waters. That won't work. I am surprised that Senator Cash comes into this chamber and proclaims that this sort of policy—for once we have an opposition that has some sort of policy—will work, because she is one of the key opposition spokespeople on the migration portfolio that she and I sit on each estimates, and we hear time and time again evidence from key specialised people in this area why it will not work. Let's have a look at that.

Let us reflect on some of that evidence that was provided at estimates. I go back to Mr Metcalfe, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, in answer to questions from me. In respect to the key opposition policy on tow-backs, he said:

… I do not believe that tow-backs are operationally feasible. Indonesia has made it very clear that they do not welcome tow-backs. There is no agreement with Indonesia.

This is quite clear. We know categorically that Indonesia will not agree to this policy. Mr Deputy President, why would you question it? Why does the opposition keep peddling this line that it will work? Mr Metcalfe went on to indicate the concerns about safety. I have spoken quite often in this chamber about safety. Mr Deputy President, you know very well that I have been up at Border Protection Command on defence programs. I have gone out on the water with our brave men and women and seen the particular issues that they work with and have heard firsthand from them why it is not feasible to consider any example or opportunity for tow-back. Mr Metcalfe went on to say:

Operational discussions with operational agencies also indicate that they think it is extremely likely that a tow-back would not be operationally possible because of the great risk of harm either to Australian crew—Australian sailors: Navy or Customs—or the passengers of the vessels themselves.

Once again, here is expert evidence provided before Senate estimates that tow-backs, which is the key policy of the opposition, will not work and that they will put our sailors—the men and women who work on our Customs boats—at risk. Mr Metcalfe, in his expert evidence, went on to say:

… we have seen numerous efforts—some successful—to sabotage or to sink vessels and we have seen an explosion on a vessel that killed five people. So the collective view of the senior departmental officials—not just in my department—who advise on this issue is that it would be extremely unlikely that an Australian patrol boat captain would be able to safely secure a vessel, bring the people onto his vessel, sail it back to the waters adjacent to Indonesia and for there not to be a major diplomatic incident in the absence of an express agreement with Indonesia, which is not present.

This is also an issue. It is fine having a belief or a policy on towing boats back but trying to get a diplomatic position or agreement on it with the Indonesian government is impossible. Mr Tony Abbott went to Indonesia recently and he was reluctant, unable or frightened—I do not know what the case was but he did not have the intestinal fortitude—to ask the Indonesian President whether he could sit down and have a discussion with him about a tow-back policy with his country. The only reason behind that would be that he knows for a fact, as we all know here, that it is not an area on which we will reach agreement with the Indonesians.

Furthermore, Mr Metcalfe has said on record that the Malaysian solution would be effective. That is the solution that we are still able and still willing to put up, but those belligerents on the other side are not willing to even consider it. Mr Metcalfe indicated that the Malaysian agreement was effectively a virtual tow-back. It effectively has the means of taking people back to a country but one in which arrangements are in place for asylum seekers to access UNHCR processes.

Once again, we have a situation where we have heard evidence on this opposition policy, we know that it will not work and we know that we need to look at some sort of arrangement like the one that we have suggested and that has been supported. It is a matter that we worked through in the Houston report. As we work through each of the policies and principles in the package of recommendations in the report we will meet each of its recommendations and arrive at solutions to the issues. A particular recommendation was the consideration of the Malaysian solution. As I indicated recently, it is supported by government officials. It is on the Hansard record, through the estimates process, that we should look at a Malaysian solution, hand-in-hand with the Nauru and the Manus Island centres that were proposed and are working.

I want to spend a little bit of time going through some of the numbers showing why we need to stop this terrible trade. This is the trade of the people-smugglers. They should be considered as murders for what they do to the innocent people who have come from terrible places and who board their craft. If we go back to 2001, there was the SIEVX incident in which 353 men, women and children were lost. Also in 2001, there were several elderly asylum seekers who died near Ashmore Reef when their boat sank. In 2009, an on-board explosion on SIEV36 resulted in five men dying, seven other asylum seekers suffering serious burns and several Australian personnel also receiving serious injuries. They narrowly avoided death. Hence, my suggestion that we cannot have a tow-back policy which puts our men and women, whether they are from the Australian Navy or Customs, at risk. Also in 2009, 12 Sri Lankans died in the Indian Ocean when their boat sank. In 2010, five men died north of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean when they left their stricken vessel. In December 2010, there was the horrendous accident involving SIEV221, which we all know about. We saw the crashing of this boat off Christmas Island, with 30 men, women and children, along with a possible 20 more, killed. More recently, on 21 June 2012, up to 90 people lost their lives when their boat capsized, and then there were a further four lives lost the other day.

We heard during estimates that approximately 1,000 people have lost their lives in our surrounding waters. Recent reports indicate that about 400 people have drowned in the last 11 months. We cannot afford to allow this horrendous trade to continue. This is why we need to have some consideration from those opposite. They need to sit down and look at the possibility of the Malaysian solution and the other initiatives that we are putting in place, which have been endorsed by the Houston report and put together by expert witnesses for consideration in order to stop this terrible trade.

The opposition felt that consideration should be given to the Nauru solution, which we did. We capitulated in that regard and allowed that to be put forward. Fortunately, it passed through both houses, but now we are reaching a point where we need to look at further initiatives, as have been endorsed by the Houston report. We need to look at solutions like the Malaysian solution, which no doubt will have a reasonable objective being a distant centre from which people launch themselves on those terrible leaky craft to come to our shores.

We want to work together but, once again, there are some people in the Liberal Party who do not seem to want to get involved and assist. They would rather keep fighting and keep playing politics, and that is not the position we in the government take. We want to work through a solution whereby we stop this terrible trade and make sure we see an end is put to those mass-murderers, people-smugglers who put people on those terrible leaky boats to make their way to our shores and our waters. We do not want that situation to continue. We need to make sure that the opposition comes good and is willing to sit down to reach a solution to this terrible trade. (Time expired)