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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Page: 5866


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (16:22): I do appreciate that. But when you are listening to a minister who tragically cannot provide even the remotest defence for his policy, not even one fig leaf within 15 minutes, then clearly that is pretty substantial provocation. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sorry that I tried your patience under those circumstances.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ):

I hope you are not reflecting on the chair.

Mr KEENAN: The minister had an opportunity. He comes to this House and he pretends that he is concerned about the welfare of asylum seekers. Just let the record show that he will not even stay for this debate and he is returning to his office to pray for a reshuffle.

Mr Bowen interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The minister will not interject as he is walking out.

Mr KEENAN: What he might like to find out whilst he is there and what he might like to come and update the House on is whether he can provide for those people who go to Malaysia the guarantees that we can provide for people who would be sent to Nauru. Will those people be caned? Will they be fed? Will their children go to school? Will they get comprehensive medical care, including—since he seems to be so concerned—comprehensive mental health care? That he cannot provide answers to those questions is the reason why we have even had such harsh critics of the previous government's past policies, such as Julian Burnside and Marion Le, come out and say that, compared to the policies that we pursued, the Malaysian solution is vastly worse.

If you were to ask people how they might sum up this government I think most Australians would probably offer one word, and that would be 'incompetence'. The inability of this government to shape events or offer a coherent policy program has made the Prime Minister and her ministers standing national jokes. History is going to record this government as nothing more than a tragic footnote. Just as we use the Whitlam government as a metaphor for fiscal irresponsibility, for future generations the Gillard government will be a metaphor for complete and utter government incompetence.

We find this manifesting itself in many different ways. Sometimes the government is just too paralysed to act and it obviously does not know what to do when faced with difficult circumstances. But the worst thing is when this government gets involved in things because anything it turns its attention to becomes manifestly worse. When they respond to a problem they make it much worse. You can think of some recent examples like the banning of live cattle exports to Indonesia and the misguided ban on banking exit fees. When they gave away free insulation they managed to burn down houses and it even lead to deaths. There are the massively overpriced school halls. The list of incompetence goes on and on.

But the gold standard for this incompetence and their ability to take a problem, get involved and make it much worse still remains their border protection policy. When they came to office they were faced with a situation where we had had on average three boats arrive per calendar year in the last six years of the Howard government. On those boats there were fewer people than on the last six boats that have come to Australia since the government announced its Malaysian people-swap deal. When Labor came to power in 2007 there were just four people in detention who had illegally arrived by boat. The people-smuggling trade had been tackled, it had been stared down and it had been smashed by the Howard government—in particular, the member for Berowra.

The government changed and in stumbled the Labor Party. They had no clue, no idea and no understanding about how their decisions would work in the real world. They unwound the Pacific solution. When we used the word 'solution' it actually was a solution as opposed to some commentators who seem to be using the phrase 'the Malaysian solution' for something that has not even been finalised yet. So they unwound the Pacific solution and they liberated people smugglers to go back into business bringing people down to Australia illegally. Almost instantaneously we saw the boats start to return. That is exactly what we warned would happen when they came into the parliament with these policies to wind back the robust system of border protection that they inherited when they came to government. But, like someone who is drowning in quicksand, they thrashed about and it got worse and worse and they continue to drown. The trickle of boats subsequently became a flood and the government went into a tailspin and pursued more and more ill-fated policy responses as their political panic increased. We saw a group of asylum seekers hijack an Australian vessel, the Oceanic Viking. The government, instead of staring them down, blinked and gave them a special deal to come here to Australia. That special deal, extraordinarily, involved the Australian government chartering a private jet, flying it to Indonesia, picking up people who were deemed by ASIO to be security risks and then flying them on that private jet down to Australia. These are people who still remain in detention.

Then the government moved on to the absurd processing freeze on Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, which resulted in the massive overcrowding we have seen within our detention network and the subsequent violence and riots that we have seen on Christmas Island and at Villawood. Then they moved on to the East Timor proposal, a proposal that was so ludicrous and so damaging to Australia's regional policy that it paralysed Australian foreign policy and diplomacy as diplomats were forced to pursue this clumsy thought bubble that Julia Gillard dreamt up in the lead-up to the last election.

Next came the reopening of Manus Island but, as usual, the government got in the way of itself. The foreign minister refused to touch it, so they sent up the parliamentary secretary, which was deemed to be a grave insult to the authorities there and the Papua New Guinean government refused to move forward on this issue. Finally, they moved to the Malaysian proposal, which is without a doubt the worst proposal yet. It is a proposal that is so bad, so expensive and so inhumane that it really does beggar belief that it managed to pass cabinet scrutiny from people who, quite frankly, should know better. Whilst these policy contortions are going on, whilst they move from disastrous policy to disastrous policy, there is a ready solution sitting there for this government. If they were prepared to swallow their pride, they could take it and address this problem tomorrow.

We know that this solution works because we have used it in the past and we have used it successfully to drive the people smugglers out of business. People being smuggled illegally into Australia is not a new problem. Australia has faced it in the past and when the government has shown some resolve, when it has set a policy direction that actually works, and when it is prepared to see that policy direction through, it can legitimately break the people smugglers. That is what happened in the past and that is an option that is still open to the Labor Party if they were prepared to take it.

I want to compare the two options that are on the table: the option that we have, which is to send people to Nauru for processing, to reintroduce temporary protection visas, and to turn the boats back as appropriate, and the government's Malaysian solution. The government's Malaysian proposal manages to negotiate only a five-for-one people swap deal in which Australia pays all the bills, yet Labor still has not been able to pin down the final details of this policy. Apparently, we are still involved in negotiations with Malaysia. If Hansard could incorporate air quotes, I would have done them around 'negotiations'. You can imagine what it must be like for the Australian delegation going to negotiate with Malaysia. They would sit there, probably sweating profusely with absolutely no leverage whatsoever, while the Malaysian delegation can just sit there, filing their nails or ordering tea, because they know the Australian government is so desperate to conclude this deal—it has already announced it and given away any possible leverage it might have—that the Malaysians will be able to dictate whatever terms they like.

We know that Julia Gillard is so desperate for this arrangement that she is going to be forced to give the Malaysians everything they desire. What they clearly do not desire is people coming to Malaysia who have been singled out for special treatment, because once they do that then that would be an implicit criticism of their own system.

It is possible we might get a deal, but, if we do, it will be so one-sided and so embarrassing for Australia—a country that used to conduct itself with self-respect within our region under the previous government. It will contain only vague and generalised wording on the treatment of the people being sent there. There will be no guarantee of their human rights, there will be no guarantee that children will have proper protections, there will be no guarantee that people will be properly fed or that children will be educated. The truth is that anyone sent to Malaysia under this deal will be at the mercy of the Malaysian authorities.

All of this is in marked contrast to the proposal that we have to send people to Nauru, where we can guarantee the treatment that people will receive. Under any circumstances, it would be dire to send people to Malaysia who have arrived in Australia seeking our protection or who have arrived in Australia in an illegal manner. But to do so when there is a ready solution available—one that is superior—and to do so purely for political pride is unconscionable and I call on this government to reconsider. (Time expired)