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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5628


Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital TerritoryMinister Assisting for Industry and Innovation, Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Sport) (16:58): I would like to thank all honourable senators for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill. I remind senators that this bill has two very clear purposes. The first purpose is to tackle people-smuggling and reduce the tragic loss of life at sea that is too often a consequence of people making the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. Secondly, these amendments will ensure that those people who arrive by boat will receive no advantage in their processing. The background to this bill is long and, in many ways, unfortunate. This bill was first introduced in the wake of a High Court decision that turned on its head the common understanding of the executive power to transfer offshore entry persons to third countries for processing of their claims. That decision belied past practice and belied the government's legal advice.

 

In response, the government moved immediately to legislate to restore to the executive the power that had previously been understood to exist. I remind senators that the rationale for these amendments was to tackle people smuggling, the distressing consequences of which we have seen repeatedly in the months since. The government believed, and believes, that arrangements such as the one struck with Malaysia are the best way of going about this. These arrangements ensure proper protections in the recipient country, provide more refugees in need with effective protection, and discharge Australia's moral and legal obligations.

However, the opposition sought to quibble with the Malaysia arrangement. So, instead of passing the government's previous bill, the coalition set about a course of obstructionism under the fig leaf of an amendment that Australia should only deal with countries that have signed the refugee convention. No matter that Nauru had not signed the convention when John Howard sent asylum seekers there from 2001; no matter that convention signatory countries include our largest source countries, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as countries such as Sudan and Somalia; no matter that the opposition's own policy is to tow asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the convention; and no matter that most of the countries in which most asylum seekers in our region wake up in the morning are not signatories to the convention. The government engaged in all manner of efforts to broker a compromise, in the same way that John Howard had enlisted Kim Beazley's cooperation in 2001 to permit the transfer of asylum seekers to Nauru.

I remind the Senate that, if Mr Beazley had not given the Howard government his support in 2001, there would have been no offshore processing at Nauru and no Pacific solution. The Senate needs to be reminded that, since January this year, the government, in the spirit of compromise, put offshore processing at Nauru on the table, as boats continued to arrive and lives were put at risk, and the current opposition continued to oppose in what has become a well-earned trademark of the word 'no'.

The opposition calculated that the national interest was secondary to political ambitions, to a desire to see boats arrive or not arrive for their own narrow interests. So the government sought a new approach; a fresh approach. We engaged a panel of undisputed experts to prepare a holistic report and provide recommendations on the best way forward. Former Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Liberal Party policy adviser, Michael L'Estrange, and a man who has made caring for refugees his life, Mr Paris Aristotle, worked intensively and single-mindedly on their report over the past six weeks. The government received their report on Monday and has given in principle support to all 22 recommendations.

As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship summed up yesterday in the House, this key principle, which underpinned the Houston panel recommendations, means that those people who can afford to come or are inclined to come to Australia by boat are not given advantageous treatment over those who are waiting elsewhere for resettlement in Australia. I remind senators that this bill will achieve these objectives by giving effect to recommendation 7 of the Houston panel report, which recommended that:

… legislation to support the transfer of people to regional processing arrangements be introduced into the Australian Parliament as a matter of urgency.

The bill before the Senate today, passed by the House yesterday, is designed to enable the government to transfer asylum seekers arriving at excised offshore places to designated regional processing countries for the processing of their claims while ensuring their protection from refoulement.

These amendments will allow the government to lawfully work with regional partners to implement regional offshore processing. These amendments are one part of a regional solution and the government will pursue a holistic approach, as the Houston panel report makes clear, by measures such as progressing processing on PNG and Nauru, increasing the number of places under the humanitarian program and pursuing the introduction of the Malaysia agreement. With this holistic approach we will save people's lives and break the trade of people smuggling. I commend the bill, as amended by the government's amendments, to the Senate.