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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4771

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (09:36): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

In bringing the bill before the chamber today, can I indicate firstly that this bill, the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012, was moved by Mr Oakeshott in the House of Representatives yesterday and gained the support of that chamber and has been forwarded to the Senate for consideration for the purpose of facilitating the debate I, as Leader of the Government in the Senate, have formally moved.

I thank the Senate for its cooperation in allowing this bill to be debated today. I thank Senator Abetz, Senator Milne and all other senators for their cooperation in doing that. I think the Senate recognises that there is an expectation in the Australian public that we will deal with this matter today, that we will deal with it seriously and that we will resolve it one way or another during today's sitting. There is also a very strong public expectation that this parliament will find a way to do something about addressing the very serious occurrences to our north. There is great public concern and great concern in this parliament about the loss of life, as we have seen at least two incidents in the last few days where people have lost their lives while trying to come to Australia to seek asylum. People are shocked by the images of those horrible deaths. They are concerned that this practice continues and they want something done about it.

I think everyone in this parliament wants to see a stop to the practice of people moving unlawfully and seeking asylum in Australia by getting into rickety boats where they put their lives at risk. Everyone wants to see that stopped. The debate today is about how we best do that. I do not question anyone's motives in addressing this issue. Everyone wants to see that stopped. We know there is a people-smuggling business model that convinces people to take on that journey and that they pay little attention to the risks that are involved. The really sobering aspect of the last few days is that, despite the large amount of publicity around the deaths of 90 or so people the other day, people are continuing to get on boats. People are not heeding the message of those drownings and are continuing to undertake that journey. The drownings are not sending back a message that people ought not undertake that journey. I suspect that is a reflection of those people's desperation, their desire to seek a better life and that they are willing to continue to take those risks. But it does highlight the depth of that desperation and the reality that even such severe incidents as the one we saw at Christmas Island last year and the drownings in recent days will not stop that flow of people prepared to undertake that journey. That is what this what this parliament has to deal with.

I know this debate has always been emotional. As a former immigration minister I am only too well aware of the challenges and the problems that these issues confront us with. I know that many senators, as with many members of the House of Representatives, hold very strong personal views about these issues and have agonised over what the appropriate solution is. Everyone wants to respond in a humane and appropriate way; but, equally, people know that we have to provide a deterrence to this trade. The challenge for us is to provide a deterrence that is in keeping with Australia's principles of compassion and fairness while doing something to prevent loss of life and to undercut the business model that allows those tragedies to continue. We have to focus with clarity on that problem.

Many of the speeches in the House of Representatives yesterday were very fine, very personal and very emotional. But, to be honest, many of them lacked clarity. They lacked clear thinking about what the parliament has been asked to do, and I do not want to see the Senate repeat those contributions today. Not to disparage anyone's contribution, but we have one opportunity in this place, today, to try to do something to help prevent those deaths continuing. We have one opportunity. We have one bill, we have one debate where this Senate and this parliament more generally have to try to make a difference to what is occurring. All those other issues that surround this debate have to be put aside while we seek that clarity. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by political considerations, by the emotional considerations, by the baggage that we all bring to this debate, we will not do what the Australian people expect us to do. The Australian people expect us to take measures, to pass laws which will assist in ending the continuing loss of life. That is their expectation of us, and it is not an unreasonable expectation.

I urge those seeking to contribute to the debate today and to shaping our legislative response to focus with clarity on that challenge, to open their minds to compromise, to look at what is possible and ask what we can do as a parliament, as a Senate, to influence this terrible event, to influence the decisions of those seeking to put their lives at risk with the obvious consequences that we have seen in recent days.

Yesterday the House of Representatives did find a way through the views and the conflicting attitudes of many members of the House of Representatives to bring this bill to us. This is our one chance to get this right, to find a way through, and I think we ought to seize it. I think the Australian people expect us to seize it. So I would urge all senators to take that opportunity. It is not about the baggage you bring to it. It is not about the emotional history you have with the issue, it is not about your personal experiences, it is not about your political or philosophical views; it is about what we can do in this parliament today that might make a difference. I say to you: this bill can make a difference. This can help prevent more people getting on boats, putting their lives at risk and many of them drowning. That is why I argue for it.

There is much about this bill that challenges some of my philosophical positions, my history—my baggage, if you like. I was the one who closed Nauru. I was the one who ended temporary protection visas on behalf of this government. I find a lot of this debate very difficult. But one thing I know is that this parliament has the capacity to come together and to respond to this issue. I was here in this parliament when Kim Beazley provided the leadership inside the Labor Party to respond to John Howard's legislation. It was a very difficult time for the Labor Party, a very difficult time for me and the other members of the caucus, but we accepted that the government had the right to respond, to take a policy position that allowed them to deal with that issue, and we supported that.

We are in the position now where the government has put forward a response centred on the arrangements with Malaysia to return some people seeking asylum to Malaysia. I know it is controversial but it has been adopted by this government and supported by me personally because I actually think it will make a difference. I actually believe this will make a serious dent in the people-smuggling model and will undercut the business of the people smugglers. That is why I support it. I have had reservations about this and we worked it through in cabinet, we worked it through inside the government. I think it will work.

In order to get the parliament to support a measure such as that we have offered compromise. We have taken a step back in relation to Nauru and supported a bill that includes the reopening of Nauru. That is a big step for this government and something that has caused many of our members quite a deal of angst. But we have done it in an attempt to try and find a way through this impasse, to try and find a way through the impasse not for political posturing purposes, not for the capacity to say that we have passed a bill, but for the capacity to make a difference to boats leaving and people dying. That is what this bill is about. That is why it is important that the parliament supports this bill today and that we get a result that allows us to impact on what is occurring with people leaving Indonesia and Malaysia and Sri Lanka and putting their lives at risk.

The bill seeks to allow the government to do that and to find a way through. I congratulate Mr Oakeshott on his initiative and his commitment to try to break the deadlock that we have seen in this parliament. That is the sort of leadership we should all take very seriously. It is in all respects a compromise. It is not a perfect match to anyone's particular philosophical approach, not a perfect match to any of the parties' particular policy positions, but it does enable the government to take measures which we think will make a difference. Quite frankly, the differences between the parties on this issue are much less real than many argue. We all agree that there is a need to break the people-smuggling model. We need to stop people embarking on these dangerous journeys and we need to provide deterrence. You have to provide a deterrence to people departing. You cannot just deal with this issue at the country of end point, you have to deal with this issue at the country of source and the country of transit. The Bali process which was commenced under the previous government had that very much at its heart—the need to get all countries in the region together to deal with the issue of people smuggling, recognising that unilateral action by any one country would not provide a proper or adequate response, that we needed to deal with the issues at source, at transit and at end point and that we needed to work together to stop the flow of people through the region, stop people putting their lives at risk and find a way of allowing people's proper claims for asylum to be assessed and processed and, if found to be refugees, to find resettlement.

Australia has a very proud history of refugee resettlement. Per capita we are one of the largest, if not the largest, resettler of refugees in the world. That has continued under successive governments of both persuasions. So when people focus on the differences in the debate, they forget that the underpinning of our whole system is one that is bipartisan, which is that Australia ought to play its role in providing settlement for those people found to be refugees in the world and that we have to make that commitment as part of our commitment to peace and order and providing opportunity to people in the world. We have done that consistently. We have a very proud record.

One of the things that has come in this debate is that by changing the size of our permanent program we will somehow remove the incentive for people to seek to travel unlawfully seeking asylum. That is a nonsense. I know it is a genuinely held view, I have heard the Greens and others inside my party argue this case, but it is a nonsense. By all means argue for an increase in the size of our humanitarian program. I am a big supporter of that and I will vote for that. I have argued for it in cabinet and we increased it while I was minister. But to think that that will somehow stop people-smuggling in the region is a nonsense. It has to be part of the response. I heard Senator Milne on radio this morning talking about resettling people out of Malaysia and Indonesia. She is right: that has to be part of the response. It has been part of this government's response, seeking to resettle people out of those transit countries. That is part of the commitment we have to make if we are to seek their cooperation in helping manage these problems. We have engaged with Malaysia, Indonesia and others about it. In fact, that is what is at the heart of the Malaysian proposal, that we help them manage their flow of migrants inside their country in return for them helping us build a deterrent. That is what it is about.

I know that people want to focus on other things such as the convention and I can happily engage in that debate but time does not allow. The reality in the world is that very few countries have signed the convention. If we restrict ourselves to dealing only with those countries that have signed the convention, we will not make real progress on these matters. The key of the convention is the non-refoulement obligation. That is very much enshrined in the proposals in relation to Malaysia, it is a core part of the agreement. That is why the UNHCR and the IOM are prepared to be part of the arrangements. They accept that the central plank of the UN convention is protected in that agreement.

Those arguments are all important—they are all part of the broader debate—but today is the time for focus; today is the time for clarity. It is not a time for emotion; it is not a time for baggage; it is not a time for philosophy; it is not a time for political positioning; it is a time to say: what can this parliament do today that helps make a difference? We know that this bill will help make a difference. It is not a magic solution. It will not end the problems of people smuggling around the world. It will not end the fact that there are millions of people in the world seeking asylum, millions of people who will never find a settlement place, who will never be safe. It does not solve all those problems. But what it does do is make a serious contribution to undercutting people smuggling in our region. It makes a serious contribution to providing some deterrence to that business, some deterrence to those seeking to engage people smugglers, but at the same time it takes forward a positive framework for engaging in the region, in the longer term, broader solutions to the problems of people smuggling, asylum seeking and people movement more generally.

This is an international problem. It is not going to go away overnight. One of the great things about Australia is that we have a country where people want to come. One of the big issues of this century for us is going to be migration, lawful and unlawful, because we are one of the few places in the world that is safe, prosperous and provides opportunity. There will always be people seeking to come to Australia. In a sense, we would not want it to be any other way. If they stop wanting to come here, then things have gone bad for us. So we will always have a problem with people seeking to come to Australia. The challenge is to provide humane, compassionate and practical solutions to managing those challenges. We want more migrants, but we want them to come in an orderly way. We want to play our part in humanitarian settlement, but we want to do that in an orderly way.

We have to find a way of managing these issues better than they are being managed at the moment. That requires us to find something that undercuts the business model of the people smugglers in Malaysia and Indonesia. The government argues that the Malaysian arrangements will do that. The opposition argues that re-opening Nauru will do that. I do not believe that, because what happened with Nauru was not based on where people were sent; it was based on a message that the Howard government was able to send, which was: 'You will never be resettled in Australia.' That was the basis on which Nauru worked. Unless we are prepared to say to people who have been sent to Nauru, 'You will never be resettled in Australia,' it will not work again; it will not make a contribution.

But this government has been prepared to compromise, to try to get a bill through this parliament that allows us to make a difference in this terrible unfolding tragedy. We have compromised. We have accepted the opposition's contribution to try to get this bill through. So I urge all senators to focus on the task at hand, to meet the public's expectations that we do something serious that makes a difference, that we take up the challenge that they have provided to us and that we do not walk out of here today having failed that challenge. I urge senators to support the bill and to give the government the opportunity to help prevent the terrible tragedies that we have seen in recent weeks. I table a revised explanatory memorandum to the bill.