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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4840

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (15:27): I also rise to speak in the second reading debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I guarantee to Senator Abetz on behalf of the government that we are not filibustering on this particular bill. There are people on this side in government who are genuine about seeing this bill passed. Some of us over here have a strong appreciation and involvement in this particular area and as a member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee I consider it my right to have the opportunity to speak on this particular bill.

Today is an opportunity for all of us to put an end to the unnecessary loss of life we have seen, and not just this past week. There is a history of loss of life on our seas, for more than a decade now. I can cast my mind back to the seventies, when many Vietnamese people were coming down the coast of my home state of Queensland trying to escape the oppression and difficulties in their homeland. The number of lives lost then was around the same that we are seeing at present in terms of the capsizing and loss of boats on our shores.

As I said, this is an opportunity to stop people making the decision to risk their lives by getting into a boat in the hopes of being settled in Australia. I know that it is a very attractive destination. A lot of my migrant friends tell me quite often how proud they are, how lucky they feel, to be in this country. It is easy to understand why people wish to travel to this country to escape the oppression, conflict or other terrible situation in their homeland. This is a real opportunity to break the people-smuggling model, by showing there is no point in their risking the lives of others. When I say risking the lives of others, I am referring directly to our men and women in the Australian Defence Force and to our men and women in the Customs service and other agencies who deal with these poor refugees who arrive on our shores as a result of those filthy people smugglers. People smugglers are in it only for the sake of a dishonest dollar and have no regard for the lives and future of the refugees they pour into those disgraceful sinking boats. We believe that this bill is the right way to move forward. We call on those opposite and on the Greens to compromise, as we have, and join us. We have put in an effective border protection policy and we know that it will work. All it needs is a commitment, some compassion and willingness and no more bloody mindedness or belligerence from those opposite. They should come forward today and do something about this terrible situation we face.

Without the support of the other parties we will leave this place with no solution to an issue that will escalate over the winter break and with no deterrent to the people smugglers, who have no respect for human life, only for the money that desperate people in search of a better life pay them to be taken across dangerous seas. How many more lives will be lost before an effective policy is implemented by this parliament?

I referred earlier to the tragedies involving loss of life among those escaping South Vietnam in the 1970s. Let us look more recently, say, at the last decade. In 2011, SIEV10 sank with the loss of 353 men, women and children, in 2001 a couple of elderly asylum seekers died when their boat sank near Ashmore Reef and in 2009, an explosion on board SIEV36 resulted in five men dying, several asylum seekers suffering serious burns and several Australian personnel receiving serious injuries and narrowly avoiding death. I will get back to the issue of the effect on our brave men and women in the Australian Defence Force later. Also in 2009, 12 Sri Lankans died in the Indian Ocean when their boat sank. In 2010, north of Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, five men died when they left their stricken vessel. I do not think anyone will ever forget the terrible scene on our television screens in December 2010 when SIEV221 was crashing onto rocks on Christmas Island, killing 30 men, women and children along with a possible 20 more. More recently, just in the last week or so, on 21 June, up to 90 people lost their lives in a capsized boat, followed by around four losses just the other day.

During the estimates hearings, we on the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee hear quite often about the experiences the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has when dealing with issues associated with refugees and border protection. In fact, the department has indicated at estimates that up to possibly 1,000 people have lost their lives in our waters—1,000 people, don't those opposite think it is time we acted on this issue?

Earlier today, we heard from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, speaking on this bill. He hit the nail on the head when he said that people tend to focus regionally on this issue, but this is a global matter that is affecting many countries. In fact, around 43 million people around the globe are displaced, more than a quarter of whom are refugees. He said there are two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and one million in Iraq and there are refugees from Sri Lanka, Syria and Iraq. We are not the only nation in the world that is dealing with asylum seekers. We need to remember that we have a duty of care to assist these people who are seeking asylum and to ensure that no more lives are lost.

The opposition say that they do not support our Malaysian policy because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. However, when they were in government Nauru was not a signatory to the convention. At the last election, when they used it as their policy, it was still not a signatory to the convention. Mr Abbott is happy to turn the boats back to Indonesia, but it is not a signatory to the convention. That has implications for our relationship with Indonesia. We have built up a healthy and cohesive working relationship with that country and its government. Suggesting that we can turn boats back or turn them around will cause all sorts of diplomatic problems for the relationship we have with Indonesia.

In fact, the countries from which many asylum seekers are fleeing are signatories to the UN convention, including Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, just to name a few—there are a lot more. This proves that protection is not always available from a country that is a signatory to the UN refugee convention. It is a flawed argument that those opposite make on this issue.

I will reflect on evidence that has been provided through estimates, because it is relevant to this debate. One example comes from Mr Andrew Metcalfe, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, who told us in February this year that an offshore-processing solution would deter the boats. He said:

It is not just my view but also the department's and other experts' clear view that that would have had a very high chance of success and would have made a very substantial difference to the number of boat people coming to Australia and the number of people dying as a result.

He later indicated to the committee:

It is inevitable that we will continue to see boat arrivals, and we have factored that into the forward estimates for that very reason. Sadly, given the history of the last 10 years, we have seen hundreds of people drown, and there is no reason to believe that the people smugglers are not going to put people in that position. The danger of the voyage is inherently risky. The seas can be very deceptive. The seas near Java can appear calm, and further out into the Indian Ocean towards Christmas Island it can be very dangerous, as we saw with SIEV221 that crashed at Christmas Island. Sadly, I suspect that if we continue to see arrivals we will continue to see people drowning.

That is coming from the longstanding Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Andrew Metcalfe. He has now resigned his position. I understand that he is having a bit of break.

Once again concentrating on estimates, on 22 May this year, Ms Vicki Parker from DIAC told us that the Malaysia solution was the safer option to towing boats back to Indonesia. She said:

In terms of the comparison between tow-backs to Indonesia and the arrangement with Malaysia, I guess they are similar except that one is a virtual tow-back in terms of Malaysia in that it is returned by air—or not necessarily returned, because the people may not have come through Malaysia. But it is using a safe means of taking people back.

The government relies upon the evidence and views of its departments to deal with particular issues. Here is another example of a department giving competent advice on how to deal with people smugglers and boat arrivals.

Also during estimates, we heard from the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who has been involved in towing boats back. He told the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Legislation Committee on 19 October 2011 that in his experience:

There are risks involved in this whole endeavour. As I said, there were incidents during these activities, as there have been incidents subsequently, which have been risky. There have been fires lit, there have been attempts to storm the engine compartment of these boats, there have been people jumping in the water and that sort of thing. Again, I am going back to 2001.

Not only does turning boats back put the asylum seekers' lives on the line but also those of our defence personnel. Vice Admiral Griggs told the committee this happens when the boats are set on fire. I can relate to that.

As Chair of the Defence Subcommittee, I take an active role in defence engagements in our sphere. I think it was in 2009 when I took the opportunity to go on the Australian Defence Parliamentary Program on Operation Resolute in Darwin. It was an amazing opportunity. On this occasion, two Liberal members of the House of Representatives also participated in that particular experience. Unfortunately, there were no Liberal or coalition senators. I was the only senator from the government on that trip. It gave me an opportunity to see what the men and women do up there, in Darwin, during Operation Resolute, in dealing with people smuggling, boat arrivals and border protection.

There is a three-partisan commitment of the Navy, the Air Force and the Army to deal with this issue. They have been dealing with it for many, many years now, and they do an excellent job. We were fortunate enough to go out on one of the Armidale class ships to see firsthand a training exercise on how they deal with an illegal fishing boat. They had an old SIEV, which they had captured. They use it for this exercise. They came up alongside it and went through a number of procedures, such as instructing it to pull aside, stop their motors and so on. Naturally, the exercise shows you what can happen in circumstances where those on the boat could set it on fire or start putting sharp objects out the side of the boat and making it difficult for the boarding party to arrive on the boat to take control.

These were live examples in the training exercise that we were fortunate to experience during Operation Resolute. But what struck me as odd was this: you do not have to be a rocket scientist to work out what could happen in an engagement on an unsafe part of the waters, miles out from the harbour of Darwin where you cannot see land, and one of the opposition Liberal members asked the captain or one of the senior crew what would happen if they reached a situation where they decided to tow the boat back to its place of departure. I thought to myself: naturally, you are going to see what we just saw; people are going to be setting fire to the boat; they are going to be wrecking the engines and so on. They were the exact the words that the senior naval personnel spoke to the Liberal member for my seat of Dickson, Mr Peter Dutton. People who are on the ground, doing this job day in day out, know that tow-backs will have no advantage. It will it put their lives at risk. I have just informed the Senate that Vice Admiral Griggs indicated that that is an issue in itself. So we do not want a situation where we are going to put our men and women at risk as a result of tow-backs—but that is certainly the policy of the opposition. It will not work, it has not worked and it certainly will not work in the future.

Also during the recent estimates, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Martin Bowles, told us in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee that boats are sabotaged so that they are unable to return to Indonesia. He said:

We have seen a range of boats that are disabled, which makes it exceptionally difficult in a practical sense to turn them around. It is still happening—we get a lot of calls from boats in distress ...

He continued:

An observation I have made since I have been around is that there are a lot of boats that appear to be disabled for one reason or another. I cannot speculate really on whether it is happenstance or deliberate, but there are a lot of them.

He also told the committee that he believed cooperation was the key to effective policy. He said:

Based on what I have seen to date, I believe the solution lies within a regional context.

He also noted a decline in irregular maritime arrivals after the government released its proposed Malaysian solution. So, there you have it once again: the experience of a senior person who is involved in this particular area indicating that as a result of our release, just last year, of a policy that will work, he experienced a decline in attempted arrivals onto our shores. In noting a decline in irregular maritime arrivals after we released that policy he said:

What I said yesterday in relation to Malaysia, particularly in relation to what the flow of irregular maritime arrivals in Australia has been like, was: with the announcement of the Malaysia arrangement, we saw quite a significant drop in the number of arrivals for a period of time. The High Court intervened in that process, and then there was a protracted period of discussion around: is it possible to get legislation through and things like that?

I am not going to go into that particular space but as soon as it was quite clear that the legislation would not proceed we saw quite a significant jump in activity in November and December of last year.

You can see there is a need to ensure we get this policy right so that it will deter the people smugglers and the boat arrivals onto our shores.

On the issue of what we as a government have been doing with respect to border protection, we have committed to an increase of more than $2 billion over the last three budgets to bolster the Australian border security regime. We have enforced the law. We have disrupted potential maritime ventures involving more than 7,400 potential irregular immigrants and there have been more than 280 arrests offshore. We have also detected and intercepted more than 99 per cent of boat arrivals before they reach the mainland. That compares with 90 per cent when the Liberals were in government.

The key message we need to make today in reaching an outcome is that there needs to be a compromise. No longer can we be belligerent or bloody minded, and incessantly say 'no'. We need to come to this chamber and compromise. It is for the opposition to ensure that they consider a compromise and reach a suitable outcome to ensure that people are deterred from reaching our shores— (Time expired)