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Thursday, 20 June 2013
Page: 3650

Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (17:34): It is really amazing that those on the other side have taken such attitudes to this most serious issue. I do not think they are very serious or very honest in their approach to this important issue. If they were really serious about this motion why did Senator Mason—who I really quite like and respect and spend a lot of time in estimates with—start his discussion on this debate with a discussion on the carbon tax? Why would they raise the carbon tax in this debate, as if this debate was nothing but a shameful act of political opportunism? Why did he then move onto the mining tax? Why did he then talk about debt and Greece? Why did it take Senator Mason six minutes and 20 seconds before he mentioned the substance of the debate?

The opposition in this place today have demonstrated that they have no wish to discuss this issue seriously and they have shown this parliament complete and utter contempt. The Australian people deserve better from those opposite. They preach and pontificate on this issue as though they have the silver bullet to solve the problem of Australia's irregular maritime arrivals. But what they really have is a political strategy to strike fear into the hearts of Australians—with talk of 'illegal boats' and a 'peaceful invasion' at the expense of desperate people who are fleeing persecution and trying to make a better life for themselves.

While people smugglers trade in human misery, those opposite seek to make political capital out of the issue. If the federal opposition were even remotely interested in finding a solution, they would listen to the experts. Three eminent Australians, for example, who have strong expertise in this area, examined all the available evidence and provided advice to the government on what needed to be done to stop the flow of irregular maritime arrivals. The Houston report clearly stated that the old policies no longer worked and that a cooperative regional framework was a key component of the solution. It said that Australia should continue to develop cooperation with Malaysia on asylum issues. But the opposition rejected the Malaysia solution—instead of seeking to strengthen Australia's ties with our region over asylum issues, they sought to undermine them. In the time I have been in this place, I do not think I have ever seen such a brazen exercise in rank hypocrisy.

Senator Stephens mentioned that we on both sides agree on most of the policy. We agree on offshore processing. We agree on mandatory detention for the purposes of assessment. We both support working with countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the other countries that are critical to stopping this heinous trade in people. But those opposite continue to attack the government over irregular maritime arrivals, when the continuation of the problem is a product of their obstruction in this place. Last year they stood in this place and voted against the policy that the expert panel said would work to stop irregular maritime arrivals. They voted against the compromise bill put forward by Mr Oakeshott. They rejected compromise and a solution that the experts said would be effective. Shame on them.

Despite all their excuses, there can really only be one plausible reason why the opposition rejected the Malaysian arrangement. Do you know why that is? It is because they were worried that it might have worked. It suited their opportunistic political interests for the boats to keep coming. The coalition's rejection of the Malaysian solution was a victory for the people smugglers—I admit that. But it was because those on the other side would not support it. Why did they constantly ignore expert advice and reject a regional solution?

When you pick apart their so-called policy on the issue, all that remains is a series of three-word slogans. The policy that the Leader of the Opposition espouses that he would 'turn back the boats' is a complete fantasy. We know what happened in the Howard era when this policy was attempted before. We know that in their desperation to get to Australia, asylum seekers are willing to disable or even sink their vessels, risking not only their own lives but those of the staff on the boats that were sent out there. How many boats were turned back successfully? Only four. Four boats were turned back successfully, and every subsequent attempt had to be abandoned because of riots, fires or threats of violence towards Navy personnel. Australia's Border Protection Commander, Rear Admiral David Johnston, and other experts have warned that turning back the boats presents a risk to the lives and safety of defence personnel and asylum seekers. The policies of those opposite fly in the face of that expert opinion.

I would draw the chamber's attention to comments that Admiral Chris Barrie made very recently—in fact I think I heard him comment this week. He said: 'You can imagine that the opposition in government might be able to secure an arrangement with Indonesia. It might be possible for two armed forces to work together to execute some sort of policy. What worries me is that we have not got that far and we are making statements about what we are going to do without the agreement of the government of Indonesia. I connected the dots on this. When I look at the numbers that are starting to arrive in boats now, I wonder to myself if this is connected to the 14 September election date. Furthermore, it puts our people in the Navy, Border Protection Command and Customs in a very difficult situation—being, if you like, between the jaws of dealing compassionately with these people who want to come to Australia and policy being driven by people who, frankly, really do not want to see the problems for what they are. Putting our commanders and ships' companies in that situation, I think, is a terrible position for us to be in.'

I would also like to draw the chamber's attention to an article published in The Canberra Times on 13 February 2012, which stated:

The Coalition's pledge to turn back asylum seekers' boats is illegal, costly and would expose Australian naval personnel to harm, formerly secret Customs advice says.

The advice also shows the Howard government's attempts to forcibly return boats often failed, and details how the policy had relied on assuming, without evidence, that Indonesia agreed with it.

…   …   …   

It showed Customs and naval staff only tried to return 12 of the 173 vessels they intercepted, and fewer than half of those attempts resulted in the boats returning to Indonesian waters. In at least two cases, the interventions led to deaths, either through drownings or fires on board the boats.

''There were very few benign or compliant boardings under the policy, and a pattern of objectionable and belligerent behaviour quickly became evident ... PIIs [potential irregular immigrants] frequently became hostile and occasionally inflicted self-harm,'' the brief says.

I repeat that the coalition's pledge to turn back asylum seekers boats is illegal, costly and would expose Australian naval personnel to harm and cause potential irregular immigrants to frequently become hostile and occasionally inflict self-harm.

I would like to quote one more section of the aforementioned article, which went on to say:

''Even if there was consent to the vessel being 'turned back', Border Protection Command notes that when it boards these vessels, nearly all of the vessels are found in a poor condition and poorly maintained. It is therefore difficult in many situations to properly determine that the vessel would be seaworthy enough to allow the vessel to continue on without the loss of life.''

Mr Abbott and those opposite know that their 'tow back the boats' policy is in tatters but they are just not game enough to admit it to the Australian people. I would like to know how the coalition plans to tow boats back to Indonesia without the country's cooperation. The Indonesian ambassador made it clear in a statement on 31 May that Indonesia would not cooperate with attempts to return asylum seekers to Indonesia. The Indonesian ambassador said: 'I think it's not possible for the coalition to say that it has to go back to Indonesia, because Indonesia is not the origin country of these people. No such collaboration will happen between Indonesia and Australia to bring back the people to Indonesia.' The ambassador could not have put it more clearly.

When pressed on this in an interview for The Guardian, shadow foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop, said:

… professional diplomats are paid to present particular views but what goes on behind the scenes can be quite different. What people say privately can be different to what they say publicly…

Maybe in the opposition, but I do not think that the federal opposition is brazen enough to accuse a senior diplomat of being duplicitous—or maybe they are. I think she did. What does this say though about the future of any relationship with Indonesia if the coalition wins government? It is something that I think the people out there listening really need to think about.

We on this side understand the importance of a strong relationship with Indonesia. Indonesia is a major partner for Australian regional border security and in related forums that sponsor Australia's participation in annual consultations between ASEAN directors-general of immigration and DIAC senior officials. Indonesia is also co-chair of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, commonly known as the Bali process. The Prime Minister's visit to Indonesia will build on Australia's strong and productive partnership with Indonesia in combating people-smuggling activities.

As I said earlier, our governments agree on and share the view that people smuggling is an abhorrent activity that has to be stopped. Our governments have worked closely in addressing this serious issue bilaterally and in regional focused initiatives, including the Bali process. The criminalisation of people smuggling in Indonesian law, strongly supported by the government, was a significant step forward in the push to disrupt people-smuggling activity regionally. We have worked cooperatively with our Indonesian neighbours.

Our government has worked closely with Indonesian authorities to combat people-smuggling activities for many years. It has renewed the memorandum of understanding on immigration, cooperation and border control management between the Australian and Indonesian governments. Our government's engagement in Indonesia is focused on supporting whole-of-government efforts to combat people-smuggling activity and irregular people movement. It is focused on collaboration on immigration matters at the operational and technical level and it is focused on ongoing work to increase protection space in the region. This includes: working with the Indonesian immigration authorities to enhance analytical, intelligence and biometric matching capabilities to assist in identifying people who may not be travelling to Indonesia for bona fide purposes; providing training to Indonesian immigration officials on documentation examination, immigration intelligence and facial recognition; and an ongoing border management systems partnership to enable reliable detection of people of concern to Indonesian authorities.

The Leader of the Opposition knows his flawed policy is detested by the Indonesians, which is why he did not have the courage to raise this dangerous policy when he visited Indonesia. It is time for the coalition to give up their political opportunism on this issue. It is time for them to come clean with the Australian people and fess up to a few simple truths—like the truth that this is a complicated challenge without a simple solution, like the truth that a regional framework has to be part of that solution and Australia cannot address this problem by going it alone, like the truth that asylum policy cannot be conducted through a series of thought bubbles and three-word slogans. I condemn this motion by Senator Fifield today, I condemn the rank hypocrisy, and I condemn the opportunism.

I would like to reiterate the words that Senator Stephens quoted from Paris Aristotle on 7:30 earlier this week:

… the first thing it's going to take is for the Parliament, as a whole, not just the Government, but the Parliament as a whole to come together and agree on a strategy for addressing this issue. But it has to be a comprehensive strategy, one that builds a better regional system that engages Indonesia and Malaysia and other countries in our region to try to provide an alternative pathway but also to disrupt and intercept the activities of people smugglers. In order to reduce the numbers of people that one, feel compelled that they have to get on boats and two, don't have another option other than doing that at the moment.

As I said, I strongly condemn this motion by Senator Fifield today and the rank hypocrisy and opportunism taken by those on the other side on this issue. As long as those on the other side think that they can gain any political advantage from this issue, it will take a long time to extract even an ounce of honesty from them.