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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12840

Mr LYONS (Bass) (16:15): It is no secret that the cost of accommodating and processing asylum seekers is high. Yesterday the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship introduced two bills to the parliament requesting the appropriation of the funds needed to implement the recommendations of the Houston report, a total of $1.67 billion in 2012-13. We all know that the only way to reduce that cost is to have fewer boats arriving in Australia, and the Australian Labor government is acting to reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

We are implementing every recommendation of the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers—the Houston report—something that both the Liberals and the Greens have refused to do. There should be no question of the Labor government's commitment to stopping the boats and putting people smugglers out of business. The report recommended that Australia's humanitarian program be increased. The Labor government has increased Australia's humanitarian visa program from 13,750 places to 20,000 places in 2012-13. This increase is targeted at those asylum seekers who are most in need: those vulnerable people offshore, not those getting on boats. By increasing the size of our humanitarian visa program and allocating specific places for asylum seekers from Indonesia, the government has shown that there are established pathways for asylum seekers in our region to seek protection in Australia, rather than risking their lives on dangerous and perilous boat journeys at the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers.

The panel also recommended:

… that the Migration Act 1958 be amended so that arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular maritime means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place.

We have seen legislation to this effect introduced into the House today. This amendment will mean that arrival anywhere in Australia by sea in these circumstances makes the person subject to regional processing arrangements, subject to specific exclusions.

Through implementing the recommendations of the expert panel the Australian Labor government is taking decisive action to break the people smugglers' business model and stop people dying at sea. The Liberals' answer to boat arrivals in Australia is to turn the boats around and send them to back to Indonesia. Their leader has claimed that he will work with Indonesia as a 'candid friend' to achieve such a result. However, the Leader of the Opposition had not one but two opportunities to raise the asylum seeker issue with the President of Indonesia and failed to do so both times. How does the Leader of the Opposition expect to even implement such a policy, if he ever gets the chance, if he cannot even bring up the issue in a meeting with the very country he needs on side? The coalition's turn-back policy is both dangerous and unworkable—that is according to Navy personnel, Indonesian officials and, now, South-East Asian diplomats. The government is not prepared to recklessly endanger the lives of Navy personnel to score political points.

The opposition should drop its dangerous turn-back policy and instead focus on a durable regional solution to the problem of people smuggling and irregular migration, as the government is doing. But that is the problem with the opposition: they are not concerned with sensible, forward-thinking solutions, because they are stuck in the past. It was the Leader of the Opposition who said, 'If you want to look at the direction for the future, you've got to look in the past.' This is not the sort of statement you would expect to hear from a visionary would-be Prime Minister. It is, however, the sort of statement you would expect to hear from someone who is solely concerned with the past and with opposition for opposition's sake.

The opposition appear unable to see the positives of any situation—for example, the issue at hand of asylum seekers. When I think of refugees, I think of all the fantastic things they have offered to my community and my country. Often when I am asked about this issue I tell the story of one of the surgeons at the Launceston General Hospital. This particular surgeon is a specialist who has saved countless lives. The contribution that Dr Hung Nguyen has made to the medical community and the greater communities of Launceston and Tasmania cannot be measured in economic terms. Hung came to Australia on a boat from Vietnam when he was a child.

There is a significant economic cost involved with accommodating and processing asylum seekers, but we should not forget that there is potentially much to be gained from assisting those who make the treacherous journey by boat to Australia. Australia has emerged as a multicultural nation. Its refugee communities have made a significant contribution to what it means to be Australian in terms of food, music, art, sport, culture, science, medicine, religion and society in general.

On ABC Radio in Perth the Leader of the Opposition described asylum seekers as being un-Christian for trying 'to come in by the back door'. I do not think it is un-Christian to try and achieve a better life for your family, as the opposition leader claimed. Does this mean that he does not value what refugees can offer to our nation? It would appear so. Wasn’t Jesus Christ a refugee? Of course, as a proud Tasmanian I have come to hope that statements made by Leader of the Opposition in Perth have little meaning. But it was there that he pledged to modify the GST to a per capita system, which would effectively devastate the Tasmanian economy with the loss of at least $600 million.

The opposition leader went on to make more misleading claims, this time about the electricity bill of a Western Australian pensioner. He told the House that there was an $800 increase in just one bill, of which 70 per cent was due to the carbon tax. But when you examine this bill it is clear that the proportion of the increase which is due to the carbon price is a small fraction of his claimed 70 per cent. This is lazy. This is deceitful. This treats pensioners disrespectfully, as nothing but fodder for a political scare campaign. If the opposition leader really cared about pensioners, he would have established the facts about this bill rather than rushed in here to distort it for political ends.

But the Leader of the Opposition's complete disregard for Tasmania is not the issue here; nor is his use of pensioners for political gain. The issue is the cost of managing boat arrivals and accommodating and processing asylum seekers. As I have said, managing boat arrivals is expensive. The only way to reduce these asylum seeker costs is to have fewer people arriving by boat. If the coalition was really concerned about the cost of processing and accommodating boat arrivals, it would not for so long have stood in the way of offshore processing legislation.

As the expert panel's report pointed out, while the cost of processing arrivals is substantial, as the recommendations are implemented we will see these costs decrease. These recommendations must be implemented for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the economically responsible thing to do. But all we hear from the opposition on this matter is negativity—no feasible alternative solutions, just destructive negativity. The Australian people can see through that. They are looking to us to come up with real solutions. They are looking forward to a bright future, with an economically responsible Labor government, not an opposition offering nothing but negativity and unfunded promises.