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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2957

Ms SAFFIN (4:16 PM) —In politics people often say that if you say something often enough, long enough and hard enough—if you repeat it over and over—people will get to believing it. That is what I have heard from the coalition over the years. They keep saying: ‘Under the Howard government we had the solution and we stopped the boats. We stopped the people coming.’ It is simply not true, and the evidence does not support it. I will turn to that later on in my contribution, but I wanted to state that at the outset. I am sure some of the honourable members opposite now believe it, because they have said it long enough that they have deluded themselves. It is a fact that it just did not work.

With this debate what causes me concern is to have to be debating such a critical humanitarian issue in an atmosphere of attack and demonisation. Both planks—attack and demonisation—are there for one reason only. The honourable member for Cook raises this MPI today, but he and his coalition colleagues are doing it simply to try to gain political support by pretending to have solutions and demonising the others. It is always easy to demonise people we consider to be the others—people who are different from us, who are boat people, who come here differently. Gone are the days when there was bipartisan support on this issue. I hope that one day we can return to that, because the people around the world who are refugees and who are seeking asylum in countries around the world, particularly the wealthy developed countries, deserve better.

The honourable member for Cook talks about a crisis. There is a crisis, and it is an international crisis. It is a crisis for the tens of millions of refugees worldwide. A large percentage of those are women and children, so there is clearly a crisis, but it is in the international area. In talking about this issue there sometimes is also the charge that if you express some support for common decency you are a bleeding heart. I am happy to be accused and wear that badge. If talking about and acting on common decency means I am a bleeding heart, so be it.

I want to turn to the issue of the honourable member for Cook and others saying that under the Howard government they stopped the boats and they have the solutions or the suite of measures that the honourable member for Cook refers to. There were 240 boats that arrived under the Howard government. They carried over 13,600 asylum seekers. It is all within the timing. We have to look at the timing and at what is happening internationally and in our region. The boats stopped coming because global circumstances changed, and that is a fact. That happens because of what is happening in the international community with the conflicts in our region and the conflicts around the globe. The Taliban regime fell at the end of 2001, and millions of Afghans were able to return home. That is a fact. In 2003—

Mr Christensen interjecting

Mr McCormack interjecting

Ms SAFFIN —Mr Deputy Speaker, I cannot hear. The honourable members opposite are disturbing me.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—I think the honourable member has raised a valid issue with me, and I would ask the honourable members for Dawson and Riverina to observe the standing orders.

Ms SAFFIN —Thank you. In 2003, the Howard government started to build a detention centre on Christmas Island that cost $400 million. They were planning for more boat arrivals; otherwise, why would you build a detention centre? They were anticipating that the people would come. The opposition, through the honourable member for Cook, say that their suite of measures will fix the problem of turning back boats ‘where circumstances permit’. That is a hollow promise too. Of the 240 boats that arrived under the Howard government, only seven were turned back. And that was given up, too, because they realised under the Howard government that that did not work. No boats were turned back after 2003. The practical reality is that there is nowhere to turn the boats back to. Who are you going to turn them back to? Send them back to where? To avoid being turned back, boats are sabotaged, putting Australian Customs and Border Protection and Defence personnel at risk. We have seen it and do not want to do that.

Then temporary protection visas were introduced. We have heard that the temporary protection visas worked, that they stopped the people coming by boat. They were introduced, to the best of my memory, in 1999 and, after that, still about another 8½ thousand people came on boats, so I have not seen the evidence that temporary protection visas worked. Yet here we are being told that if we reintroduce them that will fix it again. The reality is there is no easy fix for this issue. Whether you are in government or in opposition, the position has to be that it is a work in progress, that we have to work through it and come to reasonable solutions to shared problems, because the issue of refugees is a shared problem.

Of the people who did come here and were granted temporary protection visas—about 11,000 people—only three per cent ever left Australia. We said to about 11,000 people, ‘You’ll have a temporary protection visa and, even though you’ve fled a country with conflict and you fear persecution, you can live here with this uncertainty under a temporary protection visa.’ Yet only three per cent of them ever went back. It is cruel, apart from being a failed solution to that problem.

The opposition also talk about going it alone on offshore processing. Mr Abbott has agreed with the government on the need for a regional processing centre—I have heard him say it. But the federal Labor government is committed to getting it right. What we are talking about is establishing a regional centre with the cooperation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a country which is a signatory to the international Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. That is critical because if we are going to have a shared solution to a shared problem, to have it in the region with the cooperation of the appropriate body, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and, I would imagine, working with the International Organisation for Migration, then it has to be done within that framework. That is where the conversation is taking place at the moment.

I have a couple of points about East Timor. The President of East Timor, His Excellency Jose Ramos-Horta, has been given carriage of this matter for Timor-Leste. He said that Timor-Leste accepts in principle to accommodate a regional assessment centre, but the opinions of all East Timorese sensibilities will be listened to before a final response is given on the Australian proposal. They are involved in those conversations about that issue. A meeting is coming up soon in Bali where I am sure that issue will be on the table.

There is one person I think of who sets quite a moral barometer for this issue, the late Peter Andren. I remember that he was a very popular member in his own area. He spoke on this always from the point of a moral position. Yes, when you are in government you have to have practical solutions, sensible solutions, but we are looking at people—(Time expired)