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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4857


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (16:42): I thank all senators who have contributed to this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I think it has generally been a positive debate, but I think we risk missing the opportunity to do something positive here. During the debate, people have expressed their views, their concerns and their attitudes—and that is an important part of the public debate. But today is a debate about a bill and about a response. It is about whether we do something or do nothing.

I fear the Senate is about to do nothing. I want to urge all senators to think again, to focus on the challenge before us, to focus on their deep concern at the deaths that have been occurring—people losing their lives in tragic boat incidents. I urge senators to focus on that and to ask themselves what our role here today is. Is it to debate temporary protection visas? Is it to debate which government has a better record on boat arrivals and managing our borders? Is it about our views on detention? No, it is about none of those things. It is a bill about allowing the government to respond to a situation which has worsened and allowing the government to make decisions aimed at stopping the sorts of tragedies we have seen in the last few days. I acknowledge that many members have been moved by those experiences. A number of members cried in the House of Representatives. I know a couple of senators here today were tearful. I understand the depth of feeling but we do not come here to express our feelings. We do not come here to express our view that somehow we would prefer the world to be different. We have to focus on the challenge at hand and the challenge at hand to allow the government to make a response which will help us tackle the problem. That means passing a bill which allows us to make arrangements with Malaysia to provide a deterrence to people undertaking these risky journeys at the hands of people smugglers, who care nothing about the lives they lose. We know the organisers do not get on the boats themselves. They push the boats off, having taken the money from passengers, and care not whether they survive at sea. We have to focus on that. If we do not focus on that, we will leave the parliament today having failed to meet the challenge, a challenge the Australian people expect us to meet, a challenge I think we all expect us to meet.

I pay tribute to those senators who sought over the last few days to bring this issue to a more positive conclusion and to overcome the impasse we have had in this parliament for many months. The government has tried all day to get this bill through. The Prime Minister has engaged with anyone who would talk to her about their concerns, about their ideas, in order to get us to a point where we can pass this bill. The indications to me are that we may not be successful in that endeavour and that will be a crying shame. It will be a lost opportunity. It will mean that we will leave this place without having an adequate response, something that may assist us to save lives and to undermine the evil people-smuggling trade that is flourishing at the moment in South-East Asia.

I note that Senator Xenophon, who has been unwell, has, in his normal flamboyant and eye-catching way, made a contribution to the debate despite not being here. He has sought to be paired with the Labor Party when it comes to a vote on the bill. I understand he is seeking to support a number of amendments moved by the Greens and the coalition, if the bill survives the second reading. He has made it clear that, despite his reservations, he supports us doing something. He says, 'To do nothing is far worse.' He is dead right. He is removed from the atmosphere of Parliament House, he is in his sick bed in Adelaide but he understands from a distance what the Australian public want and what they expect of the parliament. He has asked to be paired and I appreciate the coalition have paired him to vote with the government in support of this bill. He makes it clear, as do many others, that this is a challenging decision for him, that he has reservations, but he centres on the key point I want to make to all senators—that is, we have to focus on doing something. While some people will argue that they prefer we did it this way or that way, they would prefer we try this or try that, we have a stark option today: do something, as contained in the bill, and do something positive, something as advised by the people responsible for the management of this in the Public Service who say that this has a chance of working and that this is our best option.

The Howard government started us down this path when they began the Bali process. They recognised that one-nation-only responses will not deal with the challenges we face. They recognised that we had to engage more closely in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and all through the region. They brought together, through the Bali process, 40 countries with an interest in people-smuggling issues and irregular people movement in the region. That organisation has been focused on our challenges and the challenges of other countries.

Importantly, we need to have a broader perspective in Australia. The debate in Australia always assumes that we are the only ones facing this challenge. The irregular people movement and asylum seeking movement across the world is a massive issue. It affects Europe, the Americas and Asia. We have to work with other nations to try to manage that flow, to assist people who are fleeing persecution or war or just straight poverty. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, to understand their position and try to respond in a humane and compassionate way which will serve Australia's national interest. I think this bill does that. This bill gives us the opportunity to provide strong deterrence, which I know some people regard as hard and which I have found to be a difficult issue to come to terms with. This bill gives us an opportunity to increase our intake of refugees from Malaysia and to support them in their much larger problem than ours in managing refugee populations. I have not seen the latest UNHCR figures, but they have hundreds of thousands of people in their country who are refugees or people moving through and seeking somewhere safe. Our problems are small by comparison. By working with them I think we can come to answers which will suit both our countries and helps stabilise the region. We do have strong engagement with Indonesia. Over many years they have been assisting us in trying to manage these issues. Some of the criticism made of Indonesia is very misplaced. They have challenges, like us, in managing this problem, but they have engaged constructively with us to deal with these issues. So I urge the opposition and the Greens to think again, to focus on the challenge of today's debate—not on the broader issue that will be with us for many years but on the opportunity today to make a difference, to do something that might help, something that might eventually save lives, by preventing further people from embarking on that journey.

The Greens have moved a second reading amendment. I indicate on behalf of the government that we will not be supporting that amendment, and that has been conveyed to the Greens leader, Senator Milne, I understand. The government have a longstanding commitment to improving company operation with the international community to enhance the treatment of refugees across the region. As I say, we worked strongly through the Bali process to achieve that. Many of the points in the Greens amendment are, I know, directed at improving the lot of refugees and our management of migration issues, but many of them are in fact things that this government have been actively engaged in. One aspect of the Malaysian arrangement is that we are trying to settle more refugees from Malaysia as part of that attempt to stop the flow of people and provide options for the settlement of those populations. I am advised we have taken 1,500 refugees out of Indonesia and Malaysia in 2011-12. I know that when I was minister for immigration we started the process of taking more refugees from those countries as part of a broader response to ensure that there was less movement organised by people smugglers and that people had genuine pathways to have their claims for asylum assessed. So, while I understand the sentiments behind the Greens amendment, the government will not be supporting it. We think it diverts us, if you like, from the key consideration today, what we want to focus on.

The debate has wandered far and wide, and some people have made political points about who is 'purer' than whom, but none of this matters. None of that is of any interest to the Australian public and none of that goes to the heart of finding a response to the terrible circumstances we are confronting. So it is important that today we focus with some clarity on this challenge.

I think we will have let the Australian people down if we leave here saying that we have again reached an impasse, that we have again failed to implement a measure that would help prevent further tragedies. There has been goodwill from a lot of people to try to break that impasse in the parliament, and I think we have made progress. But, at the end of the day, people here will be held accountable for whether they acted today or not. Saying that they would prefer the world to be a better place where there could be more settlement of asylum seekers, and that they think they have a better solution, does not answer the fundamental challenge, which is: what did you do when you had the chance to act? Where were you when you had the opportunity to do something? Were you hiding behind a political stance? Were you hiding behind the politics of the day? Were you expressing compassion but doing nothing? That is where we are today. We have the opportunity to act. We have one chance in this sitting of the parliament to provide a response that assists. There are no options other than action or inaction, making a difference or not making a difference. I urge all senators to put aside their feelings and their politics, and ask themselves: 'Do I think that this would make a difference to the number of people getting on boats?'

Senator Cash: No, it won't assist. That's the point.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: Senator, I do not know that you have argued that the Malaysian arrangement will not assist stopping people getting on boats; if so, that is the first time I have heard you put that argument.

Senator Abetz: No, it's not!

Senator CHRIS EVANS: You have said you will not support it. You have said you will not support it. I have not heard you say it would not assist.

Senator Cash interjecting

Senator Abetz: No, it won't.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: Well, that is an interesting position.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator CHRIS EVANS: I do not want to get into a slanging match with the opposition. I just want to ask them to think again about whether or not their actions today will serve Australia well—whether their actions today are in the best interests of Australia and of the people getting on those boats to seek asylum here. This is a tough decision for a lot of people—

Senator Fifield: What about the 2007 changes?

Senator CHRIS EVANS: Senator, I am happy to debate those changes with you. I am happy to do that at any time. But today you have the opportunity to do one thing. You have the opportunity to do something or to just sit there and say: 'We won again, because we stopped anyone doing anything positive. We were negative and we stopped anything effective happening.' You take great pride, it seems, in saying that. What I ask you to do, Senator, is put aside your politics and your self-interest, and do something that all the people who provide advice to government have said will assist in slowing the flow of people to this country. That is what I ask of you.

We have bent over backwards in accepting the amendments regarding Nauru. We accepted a proposition that provides some compromise. But what we are asking you to do today is to vote for a bill that has a one-year sunset clause. We are asking you to rise above the politics and say to yourselves, 'It's a bill that lasts for one year that allows us to try to see if we can't make a difference.' That is all we ask of you—to support a bill for one year that allows the elected government of the day to try to make a difference and prevent people drowning. We are asking you to give us that cooperation for one year. It does not stop you arguing your political position. It does not stop you doing or saying whatever you like. But it does allow the government—

Senator Abetz: Mr Acting Deputy President, regrettably, the tone of the debate has been lowered by the continual reference by the Leader of the Government in the Senate to you—

Senator Marshall: What point of order is this?

Senator Abetz: The point of order is very clear, and everybody knows what it is: you cannot refer directly across the chamber. One of the reasons we have that in our standing orders is that invites interjection and lowers the tone of debate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Mark Bishop ): Thank you, Senator Abetz. All remarks should be addressed to the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: When there is a call for statesmanship, that is what we get from Senator Abetz. That is what we get as leadership—some narky little debating point.

Senator Abetz: Very personal.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: Senator, you do yourself no favours. Mr Acting Deputy President, I urge senators to focus on the challenge and say that we get one chance in this session of parliament to make something happen that may work. I urge the Senate to support the bill and give the government the opportunity to make a difference, to implement something that may well save lives.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Milne be agreed to.