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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12519


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (15:54): The intervention of the member for Berowra in this matter of public importance reminds us in this House that Australia once had a government that was able to pursue a border protection policy for more than five minutes that worked and showed some resolve to break down the people smugglers' business model. That is opposed to the Labor government whose defining feature on border protection and so many other things is sheer incompetence. At every turn they have been exposed as out of their depth, unable to provide any vision for the nation and just incapable of responding in any coherent fashion to events that occur in our country. They seem to embrace a strategy—not just today but on other days—about hoping and praying that no-one realises they are supposed to be in charge. They have a childlike inability to take responsibility for events and, like a child when things go wrong, as they inevitably do under these Clouseau-like ministers, their first response to a problem is to say, 'It was not me,' and to cast around for something or somebody else to blame. Finally, they will go for the big distraction in the hope that nobody notices they are supposed to be in charge.

The worst of this incompetence is the government's border protection failure. The problem with the pattern of behaviour that I outlined before, where they were unable to take responsibility for their actions and for things they should take responsibility for as the government of Australia, is that you need to be able to understand the causes of a problem if you are going to be able to solve it. You cannot fix a problem if you refuse to acknowledge it is broken and you cannot solve problems when your first instinct to everything that arises is to try to deflect blame. These characteristics are writ large in Labor's response to their border protection failures.

The previous Howard government had solved the problem of illegal arrivals when the Labor Party came to office in 2007. Through a series of resolute policies that were controversial at the time but were consistently held by the then government, the Howard government showed the people smugglers that they were not going to accept them controlling who came to Australia. As a result, the illegal arrivals virtually ceased. The people smugglers understood that they could not test the Howard government and win. They were not given mixed signals by the Howard government. They were not given mixed signals by the member for Berowra. They faced a consistent policy approach which left them in no doubt that Australia was not going to be a soft touch for their evil trade.

That was the situation that the Labor Party inherited when they came to office in 2007, yet in a fit of vanity they dismantled those successful policies and they celebrated their insane position and crowed about the moral superiority that their soft touch border protection was compared with the previous evil and racist policies of the Howard government. That was the moment that Labor broke Australia's border protection system. If they want to solve the problems that they have created, they should first admit that fact. Their foolishness instantly reinvigorated the people-smuggling trade and almost instantly the illegal boats started to arrive. Labor's response was in line with their characteristics that I outlined before—this childlike response that they refused to take responsibility for their own actions. Firstly, they refused to acknowledge that Australia had a problem. Anyone who mentioned illegal arrivals was immediately branded a racist.

It was not that long ago that Labor members in this House would simulate dog whistling if anyone from the opposition dared to get up and ask a question about their broken border protection system. So when opposition members rose to ask a question Labor members opposite simulated dog whistling to somehow express that this was just a dark strategy of the coalition to appeal to the worst aspects of the Australian nature. Of course, that says a lot about the way they feel about their fellow Australians.

It was not long ago that illegal arrivals in illegal boats were not even considered a legitimate concern by the Labor Party. But as the problem got worse they could not continue to pretend that it did not exist, so they moved to the next stage of their childlike pathological behaviour, and that is finding somebody else or something else to blame. The Prime Minister got up and said, 'It has nothing to do with us, it has nothing to do with our policy changes; it is all about push factors, it is all about the international situation that has somehow significantly got worse since the Labor Party was elected.' By refusing to admit what everyone else could see—that it was their dismantling of the border protection system that was actually the pull factor causing this crisis—Labor then reverted to type and said: 'It wasn't us. Yes, we dismantled the tough border protection system that we inherited. Yes, we crowed about our more humane approach.' The minister at the time, Minister Chris Evans, said that it was his proudest day in politics when he dismantled the Howard government's successful border protection solution. They refused to acknowledge that it was their approach that resulted in the reinvigoration of the people-smuggling trade—it was all out of their control and it had nothing to do with them. The sheer silliness of this argument finally saw Labor abandon it, and the damage it had done to then Prime Minister Rudd saw him replaced by Prime Minister Gillard. She nominated border protection as one of the serious areas where her predecessor had failed and said that they would be taking a different approach.

Under Prime Minister Gillard, Labor finally accepted—at least within their own internal thinking—that it was their policies that had created this border protection crisis. So she moved to embrace offshore processing, a policy that she had previously vilified and that she had said was expensive and wrong in principle. But she did it in a typically incompetent way by talking to the head of state of East Timor, the country she nominated for the regional processing centre, without once talking to the government of East Timor. As soon as that was announced, there was a predictable response in East Timor. They said that they were not interested, and they made it very clear that they were not interested in hosting Julia Gillard's election-era thought bubble.

But the government still clung to it. They clung to the fiction that somehow they were negotiating with the East Timorese, much to the embarrassment of Australian diplomats and other Australians who had to go out and pretend that they were continuing to argue or negotiate for this policy. It was finally abandoned when she came up with some further offshore processing solutions—or alleged solutions.

The next one was PNG, re-embracing the Manus Island detention centre, a policy approach that she had vilified when it was pursued by the Howard government. But again, the government so badly mishandled it—even though the Papua New Guinea government was prepared to talk to the Australian government about reopening that facility—that they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as they always do, by sending up such a low-level functionary to Papua New Guinea that the Papua New Guinea government considered it a grave insult and refused to take the negotiations any further.

Then they came up with the Malaysian solution, a five-for-one people swap with the Malaysian government that had the Australian taxpayer paying all the costs and whose cap would have already been reached by the 1,170 arrivals we have seen since July, when they signed this arrangement.

It is the border protection authorities, of course, that pay the price for Labor's incompetence. We have seen today the low morale and the problems within border protection's fleet. Customs and Border Protection Command have consistently been asked by this government to do significantly more with significantly less. It is those people who are paying the price for Labor's failures here in Canberra to get this policy right.

You cannot solve a problem that you do not acknowledge exists, and you cannot solve a problem if you cannot work out what the root causes of that problem are. The root causes of Australia's current vacuum in border protection policy are the actions that the Labor Party have taken since they came into office to dismantle the robust system of border protection that they inherited. They abolished the offshore processing that they now apparently so vehemently believe in. They abolished temporary protection visas and they did not have the courage to implement their stated policy before the 2007 election, which was to tow the boats back when it was safe and appropriate to do so.

The Labor Party has options to fix this mess. All they need to do is accept the coalition's sensible amendment to their migration amendments—one sensible amendment, an amendment that they said was so vital just a year ago—and they could solve this problem by re-embracing the proven three-pronged approach of the coalition. It is an approach we have tried when we faced this problem in the past and an approach that we know has succeeded: the reintroduction of temporary protection visas; offshore processing on the island nation of Nauru; and towing the boats back, as is appropriate. The option is there to have a successful policy that works to restore Australia's border protection sovereignty. (Time expired)