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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11627


Mr CLARE (BlaxlandMinister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence Materiel) (18:01): In August the expert panel on asylum seekers, headed up by Angus Houston, made 22 recommendations to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia. This is one of those recommendations—to establish a capacity on Papua New Guinea to process the claims of asylum seekers.

The Houston report recommended that a capacity be established in Papua New Guinea as soon as possible to process the claims of irregular maritime arrivals transferred from Australia in ways consistent with the responsibilities of Australia and Papua New Guinea under international law. The Houston report made it clear that, in addition to Nauru, similar arrangements needed to be put in place elsewhere in the region to address the rising number of irregular maritime arrivals to Australia. The Papua New Guinea government has facilitated these arrangements in the past and entered into a memorandum of understanding with Australia on 19 August 2011 for the processing of asylum claims of irregular maritime arrivals at an assessment centre on Manus Island.

The Houston report suggested that if a processing centre for asylum claims were to be re-established in PNG, similar arrangements to those proposed in the report in relation to Nauru should be negotiated with the PNG government—and that is what has occurred. These negotiations have taken place and the declaration now before the parliament gives effect to the recommendation of the Houston report. This means that offshore processing can occur at both Nauru and Manus Island.

But this is just the beginning of our work. The Houston report made 22 recommendations, not two. They also made it clear that they must all be implemented—we cannot just implement some of them. This includes offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Island. It also includes regional processing in Malaysia. The Houston report recommended that the Malaysia agreement be built on and not be discarded. At page 51 of the Houston report it says:

The Malaysia arrangement is an important initiative in bilateral cooperation between Australia and Malaysia on the issue of great significance for both countries and for the broader region. It is also a potential building block for a stronger framework of regional cooperation on protection and asylum claims.

It goes on and says at page 52:

… the arrangement would be able to play a vital and necessary role in supplementing the processing facilities in Nauru and PNG.

In the subsequent media interviews that members of the expert panel gave, they commented about how important in their view the Malaysia agreement would be. The chair of the panel, Angus Houston, said, in relation to Malaysia:

This is absolutely 100 per cent what we have to do if we want to stop boats in the long term.

He also said that Malaysia was the best plan for the future. Paris Aristotle, a member of the panel, was interviewed by Sabra Lane on the ABC on 14 August, and he concurred with the views of the former Chief of the Defence Force. He said: 'I think Malaysia is absolutely vital to this'. When asked by Sabra Lane, 'Can this work without Malaysia?' Paris Aristotle said, 'I think in the long run, no—I think Malaysia is absolutely vital to this.' In the same interview he also said, 'Malaysia is an important plank in building a regional arrangement.' Michael L'Estrange, the third member of the expert panel, was interviewed by Samantha Hawley on the ABC on 13 August and was also asked about the Malaysia agreement. He said, amongst other things, that 'the Malaysia agreement is an important undertaking'. He said:

We think that this negotiation with Malaysia needs to be built on, not discarded. We think, actually, in the future it is going to be very important to have this kind of arrangement with regional countries that are not signatories to the refugee convention, and most countries in our region are not signatories.

The government agrees with the comments, the thoughts and the recommendations of those three men. We strongly support the Malaysia agreement. The Liberal Party strongly supports offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Island. In December last year, when I was five days into the job, when 200 people died when their vessel capsized off the coast of Indonesia, the government put a compromise proposal to the opposition and said: 'The government believes in Malaysia; the opposition strongly believes in Nauru and Manus Island for offshore processing. Well, let's simply do both—let's do all of that.' It was a compromise, but it was rejected—so, through the course of the debates that we have had in this place and elsewhere over the course of this year, the government have agreed to a further compromise: to commence offshore processing first in Nauru and now in Manus Island.

We did that because it is the only thing that could get through this parliament. The alternative to passing legislation to allow offshore processing in Nauru and in Manus Island is that we do not do it at all—we do nothing. If we nothing, as we have seen too much of over the course of the past 12 months, people will die.

Ultimately, we need to do Nauru, Manus Island and Malaysia. Doing Nauru and Manus Island is a good start; Nauru, Manus Island and Malaysia would be better. That is what Angus Houston has said, that is what all members of the expert panel have said, but that is what the Liberal Party and the Greens party have refused to do. The Houston report looked at all three, and it accepted one, Nauru, and rejected the other two—TPVs and turn backs. The Houston report makes 22 recommendations. A number of them are relevant to my portfolio, so let me use this opportunity to talk a little bit about those recommendations and where things are currently at.

Recommendation 20 and part of recommendation 4 concern bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with regional countries, including Indonesia, to address search and rescue issues. Australia and Indonesia have a very strong interest in effective search and rescue for people travelling by sea in our region. Too often, as I have said, we have seen the tragic consequences of people risking their lives by getting on unseaworthy vessels. Last month I travelled to Indonesia with the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport to have discussions with our Indonesian counterparts about ways to improve search and rescue efforts between Australia and Indonesia. We agreed to expand the $38 million Indonesia Transport Safety Assistance Package, which began in 2007, to provide for additional bilateral coordination on search and rescue activities.

Our search rescue agencies, BASARNAS and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, have been working together very closely over a period of years to improve their capability and coordination. Activities undertaken to date include search and rescue exercises, short-term officer secondment, and training in aeronautical search and rescue operations. Under the agreement we reached in Indonesia last month, the Australian government will make an additional $4½ million available to enhance coordination between the two search and rescue agencies.

We agreed to six key measures. The first is the exchange of officers between BASARNAS and AMSA. This will involve embedding officers in their counterpart agencies, starting this financial year. That will be very important in assisting in actual search and rescue operations, but it will also play an important role in training and mentoring, and allowing officers to gain exposure to their counterpart agency's operating environment. The second measure is the enhancement of ship-tracking information. This capability will provide BASARNAS with an accurate near real-time picture of ships that are operating in or transiting through the Indonesian search and rescue region.

As I mentioned when we had this debate a couple of weeks ago, we learned in Indonesia that there are approximately 1,000 merchant vessels travelling through the Indonesian search and rescue zone on any given day—an enormous number of vessels. The key to harnessing the availability of those vessels when needed, when there is a search and rescue operation, is having that information in a near real-time environment and being able to communicate with that vessel. Therefore, the third thing we agreed on was enhancing the maritime satellite communications ability of the Indonesian search and rescue authority. This will allow BASARNAS to rapidly communicate via satellite communications with merchant vessels identified from the vessel picture and make them available to do search and rescue operations.

The fourth measure is additional search and rescue exercises between BASARNAS and AMSA. This will provide more advanced and challenging search and rescue exercises to build on the capabilities developed over the last few years. The exercises will allow for deployment of search and rescue assets and coordination of assets from multiple agencies. The fifth is regular search and rescue discussions. It is planned that a regular series of meetings and workshops between AMSA and BASARNAS to share technical information and promote mutual understanding are to commence. These meetings will be held alternatively in Australia and Indonesia and promote best search and rescue practice.

The sixth and final part of the package was aircraft access. We have agreed to explore further rapid clearance for Australian aircraft to operate in Indonesian territorial airspace and to land to refuel at suitable airfields when engaged in search and rescue activities in cooperation with Indonesia. These are all important reforms that help to implement the recommendations embedded in the Houston report.

Another recommendation which is very important and often underappreciated is the recommendation that has to do with the disruption of people-smuggling activities in the countries of our region. The report recommends that disruption strategies be continued as part of any comprehensive approach to the challenges posed by people-smuggling and that relevant Australian agencies be resourced with appropriate funding on a continuing basis for this purpose. This is a very important recommendation.

The work law enforcement agencies do to disrupt people-smuggling vessels, as I said, is often not properly appreciated and certainly not widely reported, but it is very important. The Australian Federal Police work closely and successfully with other law enforcement agencies across our region. Since 2008, there have been 498 disruptions involving more than 15, 000 potential asylum seekers. So far this year there have been 178 disruptions involving 6,572 people. That includes 108 disruptions in Indonesia, five disruptions in Malaysia, 60 disruptions in Sri Lanka, four disruptions in India and one disruption in Vietnam. This is very important work and it must continue.

Obviously there is still a lot more work to do in implementing the recommendations of the Houston report and beyond. It is also important that we communicate the changes that we are making here in this place. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship as well as my agency, Customs and Border Protection, have jointly developed a communications strategy to discourage people from taking the dangerous boat journey to Australia. The government has committed $1½ million for an overseas communications campaign and a further $915,000 in administered funding this year to Customs and Border Protection.

This includes work being undertaken by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship as part of its 'no advantage' campaign. The campaign involves distributing messages in multiple languages, both locally and via the internet. The messages are targeted at asylum seekers in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East.

Information has also been shared with the International Organization for Migration, which is working in Indonesia to inform people of the recent policy changes and discourage people from getting onto boats.

In many of these countries, there is no recognised media landscape in which to 'advertise'. Instead, Customs and Border Protection works with local communities to get the message out. This includes activities such as liaising with local media outlets, including radio, television and newspapers and online media, and conducting grass roots community activities. The message is: do not get on a boat to Australia; you will get no advantage and no special treatment by getting onto a boat and, what is worse, you will risk losing your life at sea.

The information we get from people who have sought asylum in Australia, and have been intercepted by boat and arrived at Christmas Island, indicates to us that people smugglers are still telling lies—telling people that they will only be in Nauru for a short period of time. We have to counter those lies with the truth and get that information out.

This motion is important because it is about saving lives. More than 400 people have died in the last 10 months. They have died while we have fought over this issue. As I have said many times, we need to put down our swords and agree to implement all the recommendations in the Houston report. That is what the people of Australia expect of us, and that is what they deserve.