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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5626


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:48): How often have we heard it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That, I think, is what has characterised this debate, which tragically has waged now for four years and which tragically has cost an unknowable number of lives. But we do know that that number is in excess of 600. It may be many more.

I do not have any doubt about the good intentions of Senator Chris Evans when, I remember, he stood up in this chamber in August 2008, almost exactly four years ago, and said how proud he was to be announcing the abandonment of what he called the inhumane policies of the Howard government. I do not doubt his good intentions and I do not doubt his good faith.

But good intentions are not enough. If you are to govern, you have to make hard decisions; and, sadly, four years ago the government, then led by Mr Kevin Rudd, found itself incapable of making a hard decision. It made a self-indulgent decision. It decided in the name of a phony appeal to humanitarian values to abandon policies which demonstrably worked and to instate policies which I am bound to say the opposition warned at the time would imperil lives. And what is even worse and more culpable is the fact that with the passage of the years, as it has become clear beyond argument that a terrible policy error was made in August of 2008, that the warnings the opposition sounded in August 2008 had tragically turned out to be true, this government, under two successive prime ministers—Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard—adhered stubbornly to those failed policies as people were drowning and as Australia's borders came to be out of control.

Do you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, how many unlawful asylum seekers have come to Australia during the life of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments? As of today, as best we can estimate, 22,718. And that does not include the more than 600 souls who perished at sea. The number of boats that have arrived since the election of the Labor government in the last less than five years is 389. In the six years during which the policies of the Howard government were in operation—the policies that Senator Evans was so proud, in the name of humanitarianism, to repeal—there were 16. That is fewer than three a year. Those figures are not in controversy; they are not in dispute. They are the empirical evidence of a catastrophic policy failure with unimaginable human consequences. Yet through four long years, under two prime ministers, this Labor government adhered stubbornly to that catastrophic policy failure.

I am glad that at least in respect of one of the three elements of Mr Howard's successful policies—that is, offshore processing and the reopening of the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres—the government has finally seen the light. I cannot begin to understand why the government still stubbornly refuses to adopt the other two of what has been called the three-legged stool of policies that as a suite, as a group of policies, worked—that is, temporary protection visas and turn-back of boats when it is safe to do so, as it sometimes though not commonly is. I do not understand why a government that admits that its policy has failed, admits it has to go back to the Howard government's policies, would adopt only one of the suite of three. But, nevertheless, the opposition supports this bill because it is some progress.

I do not want to rehash arguments that I made in this place when the matter was last debated before the winter recess, but I listened carefully and respectfully to Senator Bob Carr's contribution a moment ago and I could not help thinking to myself: 'Senator Carr, why didn't you say that seven weeks ago when the matter was last before the Senate? What has changed in seven weeks?' All that has happened is that the government at long last has realised that it was wrong, and yet it has lacked the grace to say so.

We as members of parliament are all fallible human beings. We all make mistakes. Governments of both political persuasions sometimes make mistakes. This was a particularly catastrophic mistake. It had unimaginably sad human consequences. But, having accepted that a mistake was made, having accepted the need to go back to at least one of the key Howard government policies after four years defiantly hurling every insult and all manner of abuse at the opposition for advancing the very argument the government now accepts, why wouldn't you at least have the grace to acknowledge to the Australian people that you got it wrong? I do not think people would think less of the government if they did that. I actually think they would think more of the government if they did that. But, in any event, we have had the same level of intellectual dishonesty after the backflip as we had for four years before the backflip.

The opposition welcomes the government's decision to restore one of the important elements of its successful policy. We hope it works. We have no confidence in the absence of the other two elements of what was a package of policies that it will work, but we hope it does. But we cannot, I am bound to say, have a great deal of respect for a government which, having embraced policies for four years in the face of all evidence and all reason, which it roundly and utterly condemned, now embraces that very policy and yet still decides to politicise this issue by attacking the opposition.