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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4775


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (09:56): The tragic loss of life at sea occasioned by the behaviour of corrupt, unprincipled people smugglers has been broadcast into our living rooms in what can only be described as very confronting TV footage. It is clear that these tragedies have led to this flurry of legislative activity which has seen the coalition cooperate with the government to bring the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 on for immediate debate.

But first some history: when the coalition was confronted with an influx of illegal arrivals, we took decisive action, action that worked. Why did we take that action? Because, as a coalition, we fully support refugee intake into Australia. The figure of 13,700, as the Leader of the Government in the Senate indicated, is, by world standards, per capita a very generous figure. What is more, it is not only in the raw numbers of the intake where Australia has been generous; it has also been exceptionally generous in the services provided to assist those people to resettle.

The issue that confronted the Howard government was: to whom should we as a nation give priority? Should we give priority to those that deliberately bypass safe haven after safe haven after safe haven to get a resettlement opportunity that they want, having destroyed their papers on the way and having engaged criminals to assist them, or should we give priority to those who have languished in refugee camps for year after year, for well over a decade? You can talk especially to our black African refugee brothers and sisters who have had that experience. They have waited sometimes for 15 years or more for resettlement. The question therefore is: to whom should we give priority? Should we give priority to those who do not have the financial wherewithal, those who went to the immediate first safe haven available, or should we give priority to those who have the financial capacity to buy their way into Australia, courtesy of the assistance of criminals?

We have said we support refugee intake, but make no mistake; when illegal arrivals enter into Australia, they displace the orderly resettlement of refugees around the world. We believe that there is a better way, and it should be via the UNHCR and through the United Nations processes, to ensure that we assist those who are genuinely in need. Indeed, Australia's dealing with some of these asylum seekers has not been as it might be, as witnessed by a recent TV program indicating that somebody residing in this very city who was engaged in that activity had convinced authorities that he was a genuine refugee when in fact he had been living in Kuala Lumpur before.

Just to set it on the record: we do support a refugee intake, but we support an orderly one and one that does not give priority to those with the financial capacity to engage smugglers to assist their cause. We as a coalition were confronted with a huge influx of illegal arrivals which unsettled the refugee program. We took decisive action, action that worked, as a result of which, in the last five years of the Howard government, we reduced the boats coming to Australia to fewer than three per annum. We stopped the criminals. We stopped the people smugglers. They no longer had a commodity to sell.

Mr Rudd, as history records, came into government in 2007. Slowly but surely the numbers increased. So, whereas in the last five years of the Howard government there were less than three arrivals per annum on average—there were some two years, in fact, with zero arrivals, a great result—after the election of the Rudd government we saw the number of boats increase from five to seven to 61 to 135 and ever escalating. Mr Rudd undertook a wilful dismantling of the coalition's policy. It was deliberate and it was wilful. Whilst we warned of the consequences, we were dismissed because 'the Howard solution had not worked; it was for a whole host of other reasons that the boats stopped'. We now know that that was, regrettably, an empty promise. In fact, the dismantling of the Howard policy has led to this influx.

So great was the influx that, when Ms Gillard became Prime Minister, she said that one of the issues that the government had lost its way on and something that she needed to fix was the influx of boat people. We know what happened there. First of all, it was the East Timor solution, which did not work. Then we had the so-called Malaysian solution, where we were going to take 4,000 refugees from Malaysia in exchange for 800 illegal arrivals. Since the announcement of that so-called Malaysian solution, 8,000—10 times the original number—have already arrived in Australia. We now know that the Malaysian solution, so called, is in fact no solution.

As a result, we have now moved to the Oakeshott solution, which—if I might say so, with respect—is not a solution, because we know that, if that policy were implemented, given that the government have already said that they would not return to Malaysia women and children, the criminal people smugglers would simply change their model and ensure that women and children are sent out on the boats. We know that that would be the case, and as a result it would not work.

There has been a lot of talk in recent times that compromise is the answer. Regrettably, history is littered with example after example after example of compromise not working. Indeed, compromise often means the lowest common denominator, which then ultimately leaves a much, much larger problem to resolve. Simply, compromise per se is never and never has been a substitute for good, sound public policy.

Senator Evans has said we should put aside all our philosophical baggage et cetera. The coalition came to this debate, back when it was in government, not on the basis of necessarily some high and mighty philosophy—like, with respect, Mr Rudd seems to have had—but with a focus on a practical solution, a solution that worked, a solution that stopped the boats, a solution that allowed the orderly intake of refugees into this country, some who had waited for well over a decade for placement, for whom the indignity of a refugee camp was not an indignity but in fact a safe haven. To those, we in the coalition say that we would seek to give priority.

What is the solution? We know that we need a three-pronged solution. We do need to have within our armoury the turning back of boats if it is safe. What we have regrettably had now is a huge condemnation of that one proposal. I simply indicate—and we have not demanded this, might I add, in this debate and in this bill—that one Ms Gillard, at a joint press conference on 3 December 2002, as the coalition government was grappling with a huge influx of illegal entrants, said: 'We think turning boats around that are seaworthy that can make the return journey and are in international waters fits in with that.' That referred to destroying the people-smuggling model. We adopt the words of Ms Gillard as being vitally important in the policy mix. Having said that, with the amendments that I have circulated on behalf of the coalition we do not insist on that being part of the mix. But we know, from Ms Gillard's own mouth in 2002, that it was part of the solution and that it did work. Somehow, a decade later, we are to believe that it no longer works. We in the coalition believe that it does work.

The second point in our armoury is temporary protection visas, which are vitally important and part of the armoury that worked so effectively. In this bill, and in the amendments moved in the other place, we are willing to forego the issue of temporary protection visas, although we believe they are vital ingredients of any workable solution. We have foregone those in our spirit of wanting something that works.

And of course the third point in our armoury is that of offshore processing, something which was so roundly condemned by those opposite and which we said was important. When they stopped the offshore processing the boats started coming, and the greater the number of boats that come the greater the number of tragedies there are. Do I blame those on the other side for the tragedies? Absolutely not. As I said at the outset, the only people to blame are the criminal people smugglers. But I think we have a duty to ensure that we put those people smugglers out of business once and for all, as we did previously.

So we do have a three-pronged approach. What is more, we have put to the government that we would agree to a sunset clause in relation to these matters. We have agreed that processing of claims should be done within 12 months. We have agreed with establishing a multiparty committee to work out how to successfully resettle an increased refugee intake, which, in the spirit of compromise, we have now said should be increased to 20,000 a year within a three-year period. We have put matters on the table: basically everything the government wants but one thing—that is, not having people put into places where the UN convention for refugees does not apply. That was such a strong point of the Australian Labor Party. That is in fact why they condemned our Pacific solution, especially Nauru. The huge difference between Nauru and Malaysia is this: Nauru now is a signatory. That aside, we accept that under us Nauru was not a signatory. But the big difference, which is so often regrettably—I will simply say regrettably; I trust it is not deliberately—overlooked, is that we actually ran the show on Nauru; therefore, the detention centre was run according to Australian standards. And, can I say, if I had a choice between Australian standards or UN standards I would always go for Australian standards. But we now have a belt and brace situation with Nauru. Not only would it be run according to Australian standards; they are now signatories to the refugee convention. Malaysia, regrettably, is not. If we were to return 800 people to Malaysia we would not be looking after them as we did in Nauru. They would be looked after under Malaysian standards.

I do not want to talk about that much more, other than to say that something which was such a core principle of the Australian Labor Party that they sought to attack us over it has now, all of a sudden, become acceptable. We believe that Australia does have a humanitarian responsibility, which is why, if we are not to process people onshore but offshore, we should deal with them in a humane manner. That was guaranteed on Manus Island and Nauru because we ran the show. Placing these people in Malaysia would not provide them with the protection of being looked after by Australians, nor would they have the protection of the convention to which I referred earlier.

In the past—and, might I add, especially under us—very inflammatory language was used by those opposite. I do not want to engage in or repeat that language against those opposite today. But I want to remind them of the extreme language that they used and the suggestion that we were somehow responsible for the deaths of people at sea—and that was back in 2002, as the Howard government was coming to a solution. Indeed, one quote that I will refer to is the one by Ms Gillard where she said that every boat arrival is another policy failure. We agreed that every boat is a policy failure and we put policies in place to ensure the boats stopped. Now, under Ms Gillard's watch, the boats have been arriving not two or three per year but two or three per week. That is the policy failure of the Labor-Greens alliance: being unable to deal with the very real humanitarian problem that we face.

Can I repeat on behalf of the coalition: we support a refugee intake. Indeed, if there is one man in this parliament who has visited more refugee centres around the world than, chances are, all of us put together it is the father of the house, Mr Phil Ruddock. He has had a compassion and a commitment to looking after refugees on the world scene, but he also knows that compassion is not the only ingredient. You also need practical solutions, and that is what he delivered in such an effective way and which Labor has now, regrettably, so deliberately dismantled.

As a result, we now have this influx of people, or as Ms Gillard said, policy failure after policy failure. It is not the responsibility of an opposition to come up with a solution, albeit that we have. It is a solution that has worked in the past—true, tried and tested—and there is no reason to believe that it would not work again in the future. Having said that, in the spirit of seeking to ensure that we put these criminals who are responsible for the deaths at sea—make no mistake: it is not even the Greens or the Labor Party who are responsible or us on this side. No Australian parliamentarian is responsible. It is the criminals who are responsible but we have the responsibility to put them out of business.

That is why we have a true, tried and tested policy solution. The government clearly cannot bring itself to adopt that solution in whole. We have therefore said that subject to some amendments—vital amendments, core amendments—we would not be able to support this legislation without those amendments. So, in short, this bill may be a compromise but it is never a solution. It is not good public policy to just go for something because it is a compromise. We support refugee resettlement to Australia but we believe in it being conducted in an orderly fashion.