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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7190

Mr SLIPPER (12:02 PM) —I am opposed very strongly to the provisions of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 which send this message to the world: ‘Come over here. We are, in fact, lowering our border protection policy. Anyone who wants to come here can come here.’ By abolishing the debts of former detainees, the taxpayer of Australia is saying to these people, who broke our law in coming to Australia, that it was, in a retrospective sense, the right thing to do.

We must have border policies with integrity; we must have border policies with compassion. The former Howard Liberal-National Party government was a government that said to the world that the only people who were going to be allowed to come to Australia were those who the people of Australia wanted to come here. We had a policy with a very strong deterrent. In fact, the number of boats arriving diminished to zero. The current government has sent the message to the world that Australia is open to the world and the message to people smugglers: ‘Bring the boats over here.’ Since that message has got out to people who trade in people, people smugglers, 22 boats have arrived. The election of the Rudd government was good news for people smugglers, good news for people who want to jump the queue and good news for people who want to circumvent the immigration system.

During the height of the controversy over our detention policies when we were in government, I was privileged to visit the detention centre at Baxter in South Australia. I spoke to some detainees. One particular family was quite outraged over the fact that they were in detention. They apparently flew from Jordan to Jakarta using their passports; they threw away their passports when they got to Jakarta and negotiated a package. For them it was a commercial transaction. They had paid US$20,000 to people smugglers to come to Australia and they were outraged. They felt that their contractual rights had been broken because they ended up in the Baxter detention centre—because they had broken the laws of Australia. I do not know what ultimately happened to that particular family. They certainly seemed to be nice people and it was good to sit down and talk with them. You can understand that they paid US$20,000 to come to Australia and ended up in detention.

Having said that, should we be watering down our policies? Should we be making it easier for people to evade their financial obligations to the Australian people? Under the former Howard Liberal-National Party government the reason we had such effective border protection policies was that we told the world: ‘Come over here illegally and we’ll lock you up. We’ll lock you up while your matter is being processed.’ When people are in detention it is a very expensive process. Why on earth should the taxpayers of Australia, through the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009, take on the financial cost of those people who, in fact, ended up in detention only because they broke the laws of Australia?

The government is totally out of touch on this issue. I challenge the government to consult with the Australian people on this issue. I would encourage government members to walk down the main street of any town or city in Australia and ask people: do you believe that the people who were in detention, people who jumped the queue, people who broke Australia’s laws, people who arrived on boats, should have their detention debt waived? Already this government has built up a huge debt for future generations of Australians—a government debt of more than $315 billion. They are mortgaging the future of young Australians; they are mortgaging the future of children and Australians not yet born, through their typical borrow-and-spend policies that we have seen during their so-called spending packages, which have been outlined.

But they are going further now. They are saying to people who were illegally in Australia, people who broke our immigration laws and ended up in detention as a result of their breaching the laws of Australia, that the taxpayers of Australia should add further to the debt that each of us has—and it is now close to $10,000 for every man woman and child in Australia as a result of the spending policy of this government. They are actually adding more to that debt as a result of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009.

We have more than a million people knocking on the door of Australia to come here every year. We are a country that has freedom, stability and a way of life that makes us the envy of people throughout the world. We are a country which has the rule of law. We are a young country, and yet I am told that we are possibly the sixth oldest democracy in the world. The reason for that is that we have since day one had a system of evolving constitutional development. People have always had democratic rights in Australia. We have the right to choose the government that we want at state or federal level, and whether or not we argue with the outcome, we certainly cannot argue with the process. It is no wonder that people seek to come from around the world to join our Australian family. We are a nation of immigrants, along with our Indigenous people. Together we have very successfully forged a society where people come from around the world to help create an Australian that is, as I said, a country which is the envy of people throughout the world. So I am not surprised that a million people seek to come to join us.

We ought to have an immigration policy which has integrity. Under the former Howard Liberal-National government that is exactly what we had. We said to the world that we are a welcoming and compassionate society. People can apply to come and we have a range of categories under which we accept people. I think we also took a higher number of refugees per capita than any country in the world other than Canada. So we did have in place a policy which brought in the people we needed. Our birth rate was lower than it should be and we actually had to top-up the population by inviting people from around the world. But you need a migration system with integrity.

You also need a migration system with compassion. The people who got locked up in the various detention centres, by and large, were people who broke the law. They were overstayers or they were people who arrived on boats or people who were queue jumpers—people who certainly did not deserve any extra consideration from the Australian people. Certainly, they are not people who deserve to have their detention debts taken up by the Australian people. They certainly do not deserve to have their detention debts waived in a way that the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 seeks to do.

When you look at what this country has achieved and the wonderful contribution that migrants have made you can see how really important it is for us to gain people from around the world. We have had many migrants who have been leading Australians. Some have been Australians of the Year. They have contributed to building this country and making it even better than it was. But we are concerned about the integrity of our border protection policies when the government is effectively saying to people who owe the taxpayers of Australia a lot of money, because they were necessarily detained, that somehow the Australian taxpayer is going to pick up the cost of that. That is a policy which, I believe, the people of Australia would very strongly reject. It is important that we have sensible processes in place and for those people who do claim to be refugees it is vital that their claims be processed as quickly as possible.

When I was visiting a detention centre I spoke to the administration. I discovered that there were people who claimed to be Afghans but who actually had Pakistani nationality. They might have been ethnic Afghans but they held Pakistani passports and were Pakistani citizens. It was only when a former Pakistani High Commissioner went to this particular detention centre that these people admitted to being Pakistani and not Afghans, and then they were repatriated voluntarily to their home country.

The reason that a substantial number of people spent as long as they did in detention was because they would not tell the immigration authorities where they were from or what their history was. They had thrown away their papers and, effectively, they challenged the department to find out all of the necessary details about them. They would not cooperate, and that was why they continued in custody. This is exactly where they should be, and where most Australians should say they should be until their case is able to be appropriately dealt with. Overwhelmingly, the cases of those people who were in detention who did cooperate were expeditiously dealt with so that we were able to determine whether they were in fact genuine refugees or not.

We have a situation at the moment where the government is sending, as a result of this bill, a message of encouragement to those people who organise leaky and rotten boats, those people who solicit for desperate clients, those people who schedule the dodgy voyages across treacherous seas, those people who are people smugglers, who traffic in people—one of the most iniquitous and evil occupations anywhere in the world—that this is yet another encouragement for them to go out there and con even more people into seeking to come to Australia. This bill is absolutely appalling. It indicates how completely this government is out of touch. The sad thing about this particular bill is that it will further encourage people to come. We will have more boats arriving off the Australian coastline and it means that Australia is seen around the world as a country which is a soft touch.

I think that the government ought to reconsider this strongly. The government tells us that most of the money being waived would not have been recovered in any event, but the fact that it remains a debt on the books, I think, sends a powerful and compelling message to people smugglers and their clients around the world. Australia has very strong border protection policies, but the passage of this bill, along with other policies of the current government, indicates that the strong border protection policies we once had are in fact dissolving.

The abolition of the detention debt system is like taking away one of the arrows in the quiver of our border protection system, thereby weakening the whole system and in fact tearing up the integrity of the system. The Liberal-National opposition is committed to the protection of Australia’s borders, the protection of our way of life and the protection of what we are as a country. The detention debt system sends a very clear message to those planning unauthorised arrivals into Australia that there is much more to consider before attempting such a venture.

I oppose any legislation which will weaken our border protection, any legislation which encourages people smugglers, any change in the law which undermines the very effective policy which was inherited by this government but which is now being torn up by it. I think it is an absolute tragedy that, given the success of a number of immigration ministers in the Liberal-National government in reducing and eliminating the number of boats arriving, the government is in effect saying to people around the world, ‘Come to any harbour in Australia. We’ll only lock you up for a little while.’ And then, with the abolition of detention debt, you will find that people ultimately will not be out of pocket for breaking the law of Australia. This bill is a despicable bill. It is a bill which is completely out of touch with the thinking of ordinary, decent Australians. This bill is one of the reasons why I think this government will be in diabolical trouble at the next election, as indeed it deserves to be.