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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4836

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (15:08): I have been listening all day to the contributions on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 from senators on all sides of politics. It seems to me there is fundamental agreement that there has to be some way through, some way to break this impasse. For me, without reflecting on the position of any individual person or on the concerns they have raised—I believe the issues raised have been heartfelt—it now comes down to a public policy issue. I know that probably sounds a bit corny. But, when you think about where we are, the issue of asylum seeker policy in Australia and the fate of boat people seeking refuge is what, in public policy terms, would be called a 'wicked problem'.

A wicked problem is a complex policy issue which goes beyond the capacity of any one organisation, individual or group to resolve, understand or respond to. A wicked problem is one that is very difficult to define because it has many factors, multiple causes and a lot of interdependent issues. The issues in a wicked problem are very unstable and unpredictable, as we have seen in this case. Since the debate started yesterday, yet another boat has appeared on the horizon—another issue for us to factor into our considerations. A wicked problem is one that is socially and politically—and, in this case, internationally—complex. A wicked problem is one the responsibility for which cannot be sheeted home to just one individual, one organisation or, in this situation, one nation. Wicked problems are often characterised by chronic policy failure and that is certainly the case with what we are being confronted with here.

Importantly, wicked policy problems are often immune to being resolved by appealing to the facts, because disagreement about the facts is merely a ruse to mask the underlying politics of the issues. I think that very fairly describes what this debate has been reduced to. It is a hugely concerning issue. When an issue is simplified into competing stories, as we have seen in this debate, and each story is used to propose a different policy solution, the truth is that none of the stories are completely wrong—but none of the stories are completely right either. Each story focuses on some partial aspect of the debate. That is what we are confronted with today. No individual and no party can take the moral high ground here—frankly, there is no moral high ground to take.

The Oakeshott bill we have in front of us is a genuine effort to resolve the political impasse, to address this wicked problem. If we do not conclude this and allow government agencies to move on a regional solution, we will remain with a political impasse that is about the life and death of hundreds of men, women and children. These are people deserving of the same dignity and respect every person deserves and they are the same people whom every speaker today and yesterday has expressed concern about. For me, that is the wickedness of this problem.

Australians are worried. They watched the debate unfold yesterday and they are watching us today. As is everyone else in this chamber, I am getting hundreds of calls and emails in my office at the moment. People are saying: 'For goodness sake, do what you are elected to do and fix this now. Take some decisive action. Stop playing petty politics with people's lives and do the right thing.' Every one of us is getting those messages all day, every day—in our inboxes, over the telephone, in our electorate offices and here at Parliament House. This morning, among the many we have been receiving, all New South Wales senators got this email, one which captures what so many of us are concerned about:

Dear Senator

I know this morning you will be discussing and hopefully voting on the Oakeshott bill regarding the safety and arrival of asylum seekers by boat. As a voter in NSW I wanted to let you know that I want you to vote for the bill and pass it. I don't believe the bill contains all the answers to this important issue, and I do have concerns about some aspects of it. But not voting for it will allow the status quo to continue, that is two boats sinking and more than 100 people dying in the last week. I know you will consider all the information, and will do some soul searching. Please, as senators, work together, put aside party politics, and DO SOMETHING! Pass this bill, and review its effectiveness in a year.

Again, as a NSW voter, I WANT YOU TO PASS THIS BILL.

I have to say that, like many of my colleagues, I wish we could resolve this complex, wicked problem through onshore processing. I accept that few in this parliament support that view, but it does not stop me arguing for it and, even though I advocate an onshore solution, I am supporting this bill simply because it allows the executive government to take decisive action. I am reminded in all this of the observation that all it takes for evil to win is for good, decent folk to do nothing. I believe I am surrounded by good, decent folk in this place and it makes me ashamed, on behalf of Australians, that the parliament has been reduced to inaction, that partisan politics has created this paralysis, because I believe the nation deserves better—in fact, humanity deserves better.

What we are confronted with today is the statistics we have heard throughout the debate. Minister Carr spoke in the chamber about the UNHCR's global trends. They go to the heart of the enormity of the problem which is being confronted globally. He spoke about his pride and I share his pride that Australia is a generous nation—we are proud of our nation's record of resettling people who are seeking refuge from persecution and strife; that we have a long history in this country of doing it well; and, that we are acknowledged around the world for being generous about these issues. As he said, we rank in the top three resettlement countries world wide.

Our nation has been built on refuge and asylum from the earliest days. From the first colonial settlement, that is what Australia has been built on. We have always said as a government that the asylum seeker case load would change according to the factors in asylum seekers' home countries. So when I talked earlier about a wicked problem I was trying to say that there is no black and white here, that the asylum seeker debate shifts constantly depending upon the failed states around the globe, persecuted minorities and the outcome of the Arab spring. The issue is not fixed; it is a transient, complex issue. It is not one we can contain, it is not one we can manage; it is a challenge that we have as a nation to do the right thing by people who are seeking asylum and to manage the expectations Australians have that we will do our best to deter people smuggling and people risking their lives in these boats.

When we had this debate last year about the High Court decision and the report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee about Australia's agreement with Malaysia in relation to asylum seekers, quite a bit of information was put into the public domain for the first time about the potential number of people who have drowned taking this perilous journey on the boats we do not even know about, the ones that disappear off the radar, the ones that initial intelligence tells us are planning to leave Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia and head for Australia. The biggest conundrum we have, I think, is to understand that we do not even know the numbers. That in itself is a horrific responsibility for us—that we do not even know how many people have drowned. They are lost to their own countries and they are lost to us and nobody can even register the fact that they no longer exist. What an extraordinary responsibility that should bring to all of us.

I ask all of my colleagues in this place to say: 'This impasse has to be broken. We have to do something.' The proposition before us in the Oakeshott bill is a very genuine attempt to resolve this issue, to give it our best shot, to come to the way in which we can remain committed to the Malaysia agreement, which everybody says is the best way to break the people-smuggling trade and to take away the avenue that allows desperate asylum seekers to embark on that horrible journey. At the time the minister dealt with the Malaysian government, he satisfied himself about many of the issues which have been raised here today—the way in which we can work so closely with the UNHCR, how he takes seriously his responsibility as the guardian of minors who are part of this process. These are all hugely humane issues which have been taken into account.

For me, the biggest disappointment is the partisan political nature of the way in which the debate has sunk into hyperbole and hypocrisy. Partisan politics forget the fact that we are talking about real people, real lives, families who have dreams, hopes and aspirations. We cannot just remain the privileged ones who are allowed to follow our dreams, our hopes and our aspirations. The Australian people expect us to step up to the mark, to make sure that there are orderly arrangements, to provide a framework that allows the best humanitarian considerations to be brought into play under a regional cooperation agreement, to effectively find a way to get rid of the people smugglers' product—this trade in human misery; that is what they are doing. We have a responsibility to do what we can to stop that trade. We have a responsibility to step up to the mark with regard to taking genuine refugees and asylum seekers, so our consideration of increasing the number of refugee places in Australia is a really important concession.

We have been discussing Nauru. Ten thousand people live in Nauru, with barely enough water or food to feed themselves, and no economic opportunity—yet we have now agreed, as part of this compromise, to reopen Nauru as a processing centre. And we all know what happened when Nauru was previously used as a processing centre, don't we? Almost all of the people who were placed in Nauru eventually came to Australia anyway. So Nauru will be used as a processing and transfer base. This is at the same time that we are trying to put into place protections under the agreement that will allow people to be treated with some dignity and respect, and allow us to step up to the mark in terms of our human rights considerations. It will allow us to think about the challenging issues of education, health care and employment, and about how we, now suffering a skills shortage, can start to work with countries to build some economic capacity in a population that may one day go back.

We cannot just leave the parliament today, whatever time we get out, without having resolved this, without having broken this impasse, without giving the executive government—and it would not matter which colour it was—which has responsibility for dealing with these issues, the authority and the opportunity to work with our regional partners. In the Bali process, we had the opportunity—and the Prime Minister is meeting with the Indonesian Prime Minister and President next week—to say, 'We're looking for a regional cooperation agreement that is in all of our interests.' If we do not do that today, well, shame on all of us, because we will have let down the people of Australia who elected us to come in here and be decent legislators. If we cannot do that, then, really, it is a pox on all our houses.

It is distressing to me that, on a matter of principle like this, there is no absolute, right answer and no absolute, perfect solution. We all have to compromise. We all have to come to a position where we commit to working in the national interest and in the interests of these wretched, desperate asylum seekers, and work our damnedest to break this horrible trade that is peddling human misery. As I said, it takes good, decent folk to do something, and I am asking all of you as good, decent folk to support this bill.

Senator Abetz: Mr Deputy President, on a point of order, if I may: the coalition has been faultless in its cooperation with the government to facilitate this bill. I was wondering if the minister might be able to advise us why we now have nine government speakers on the speakers list that were not there this morning. We had pulled people from the list to facilitate the government, and we would just like an explanation, because otherwise I can indicate that the coalition will insert speaker for speaker. We will not forgo speaking positions so that the government can filibuster on the basis of doing a deal somewhere behind the scenes. I know that happens from time to time, but there are other bills that need consideration.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Abetz, I will take that as seeking leave to make a comment, which you have done—

Senator Abetz: Which is fair enough.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: rather than as a point of order.

Senator Abetz: So we're not going to get a response?