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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 13763


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (10:30): If I may, I will begin, like other speakers have begun today, by paying tribute to the outgoing Speaker, who has now joined us in the chamber. I think all members of the House would acknowledge what a wonderful job he has done in his four years in the chair, and we certainly wish him well as he returns to being the more humble member for Scullin. We wish him well for his future parliamentary career and we acknowledge the authority and the grace with which he presided over the House. And, certainly, Mr Acting Speaker, we would hope that that authority and grace would be something that could be vested in whoever is going to be elected as his successor.

I am very pleased to respond on behalf of the coalition to the statement from the Minister for Home Affairs as to the government's response to people trafficking. The coalition welcomes moves to strengthen the law in relation to people-trafficking offences announced yesterday as part of the fourth national roundtable on people trafficking that the minister convened with his colleagues the Minister for the Status of Women and the Minister for Immigration. It certainly builds upon the strong work that was started under the previous Howard government and which has been continued since the government changed in 2007. We must however be careful to ensure that the government gets the balance right and that the people-trafficking net does not unintentionally capture those who do the right thing.

As this is a government whose record on delivery is littered with failure, blunder and error, this must be one area where the government finally gets it right. The minister refers to circumstances where those who have come to Australia have been promised educational opportunities or work opportunities and he refers to civil remedies available, including activities undertaken by the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We should be careful to ensure that those who operate lawfully and do the right thing are not penalised or discouraged from pursuing lawful options.

Many employers, particularly in the agriculture, tourism and mining sectors, are complaining loudly about the shortage of skilled labour and the large number of vacant positions that simply cannot be filled. In my home state of Western Australia the labour shortage is particularly acute, and we would hate to see a repeat of the circumstances that we saw prior to the global financial crisis, where I was personally aware of businesses that literally closed their doors because of their inability to find labour so that they could run that business.

Additionally, the vocational and higher education sectors are large exporters of Australian services, and Australia has a strong international reputation for delivering a high-standard, quality education. The value of this to the Australian economy is between $17 billion and $19 billion every year; indeed, it remains one of our most important exports. We need to encourage the overseas education sector to grow and prosper, not to blunt it. Many in the sector, particularly private education providers, have complained that the Labor government changes have simply gone too far and have directly contributed to a decline in student enrolment numbers.

The always present danger is that this Labor government is addicted to doing the bidding of its union masters. Unions like the CFMEU and the AMWU, for example, have openly complained about the use of overseas labour and demand a return to protectionist labour market measures—measures that would be disastrous for Australia's already flagging productivity. Caving in to these demands can have unintentional consequences, including the loss of productivity and the foregoing of opportunities for growth and expansion. Yes, the coalition agrees with the government that people should not come to Australia with false hope and under false pretences, with promises of jobs and qualifications. But at the same time there must be a balance struck between addressing the lawful desire to export education services and fill jobs that remain empty and ensuring that situations like those that the minister has just described are stopped and eliminated.

The contribution of the union movement to the roundtable, particularly as they are currently enjoying a return to 1970s policy positions, should be examined and carefully considered to ensure that there is no blurring of the line between the need to stamp out trafficking and exploitation and the desire to implement protectionist measures to pursue unrelated aims. That is why it is vitally important to get this right. Trafficking and exploitation are unacceptable in any circumstance and would never be condoned by any government or political party. But it is crucial for us to get these policy settings right and not to allow measures implemented to be viewed as a means to pursue other unrelated ends.

The opposition is well known for its strong stance on all matters relating to border protection. We equally have a longstanding interest and record in combating cross-border crime. We therefore welcome the opportunity to support any measures that will further this aim and further the important fight against trafficking that has resulted from the roundtable process on people trafficking. The coalition believe that we not only have to make laws that criminalise and punish this behaviour but also must ensure that we enforce these laws and that our police, immigration and border protection agencies have the resources to support them to do that job.

The coalition is particularly concerned about sustained and deep cuts to enforcement agencies, including the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, which has been savaged under this government, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Crime Commission—agencies which are integral to the fight against people trafficking and agencies that are going to find it harder to that job with less money and fewer personnel. People trafficking is a complex crime and a major violation of human rights. It takes place for a variety of reasons, including sexual servitude, domestic labour, forced marriage and sweatshop labour. Women, men and children can be victims. While there is limited hard information on the number of people trafficked and the target industry in which they are trafficked, evidence suggests that the trafficking of women into prostitution is the major and certainly most visible form of trafficking taking place.

It is widely recognised that people trafficking has become well established and, sadly, an enormously lucrative business throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Australia, sadly, is viewed as a destination country for persons trafficked out of South-East Asia. There are several reports of immigrants, particularly from India, the People's Republic of China and South Korea, who voluntarily migrate to work in Australia but who are later coerced into exploitative conditions.

At this point I would like to acknowledge the work of the former, Howard government in this area. The former, coalition government's response to people trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region has included developing anti-trafficking initiatives between governments and providing aid to the region which is aimed at alleviating the economic and social conditions that allow trafficking to flourish. In particular, the Howard government and Indonesia co-chaired two regional ministerial conferences on trafficking and smuggling in the years 2000 and 2003, now commonly referred to as the Bali process, which the minister briefly touched on in his address. In October 2003 the former, coalition government announced additional anti-trafficking measures, with a $20 million package targeting sex trafficking in particular.

The package included a new Australian Federal Police unit, the Transnational Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking Teams; new visa arrangements for victims of trafficking; victim support measures including counselling and legal and medical support, to be administered by the Office for Women; improvements to legislation, making people trafficking punishable by up to 20 years in jail; and a promise to ratify the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Notably, Australia was already a signatory, and this treaty was subsequently ratified in 2005. In 2004, the former, coalition government produced an action plan to eradicate trafficking in persons in support of the 2003 announcement. In the last budget of the coalition government, a further $38.3 million over four years was allocated, including $26.3 million for new initiatives.

Since then, the coalition has continued to consider the issue a serious one and has supported a range of anti-people-trafficking measures, most of which have a sex-trafficking focus. The newly renamed Human Trafficking Teams of the Australian Federal Police are at the front line of tackling this problem. On behalf of the opposition, I wish to pay tribute to the teams' men and women, who work so hard in very difficult circumstances, investigating trafficking cases and bringing them to court. Of course, we share their terrible disappointment when these prosecutions are not successful. We must remember that, where you find this type of crime, you will find other types of crime, and it is vitally important that the Australian Federal Police is properly resourced to do the job that is asked of it.

I am sure all members of this place will acknowledge that it is completely unacceptable for even one person to fall victim to this heinous crime of people trafficking. The coalition broadly supports the minister's statement and believes that Australia does have a very important regional leadership role to play in this area and will continue to support any moves that this parliament adopts to combat this hideous crime.