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Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Page: 9902


Ms JULIE BISHOP (CurtinDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (16:00): The debacle that is this government's border protection policy is a sorry tale of gross incompetence with shocking consequences of the type that has come to define this Labor government. The sad truth is that it was all avoidable: the revival of the people-smuggling trade; the overcrowding of the detention centres; the capsized boats; the deaths at sea; and the blow-out in costs as the government lurched from crisis to crisis. This was all of their own making. There was no shortage of advice—expert advice—warning this government that weakening the coalition's strong border protection laws would result in a boost to the people-smuggling trade. The boat arrivals had virtually ceased under the Howard government. The people-smuggling trade had been disrupted. But the government could not leave well enough alone—oh, no. They had to dismantle the Howard government policies that had worked.

Documents released under freedom of information laws to News Limited showed that on 25 February 2008 the government was officially warned by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship about weakening the Howard government's policies. The government was formally, officially warned by its own department that closing the processing centre on Nauru would lead to an increase in people-smuggling, and the government went ahead in any event. We know that the Australian Federal Police warned this government that changing the laws would make Australia a target for the international criminal syndicates behind the people-smuggling trade, but this government dismissed that expert advice. It could not resist the temptation to change the laws, such was its smug confidence that the coalition had got it wrong.

The government so took for granted the fact that the Howard government had stopped the boats and that there were about half a dozen boat arrivals in our detention network at the time the Rudd government took over that the government ridiculed and denigrated the Christmas Island arrangement. The member for Melbourne Ports, in July 2008, visited the Christmas Island detention centre, and this is what the member for Melbourne Ports had to say about the Christmas Island detention centre: he declared it to be akin to a stalag—a German prisoner of war camp—and to be an 'enormous white elephant'. One wonders how the member for Melbourne Ports views the camps in Malaysia to which this Prime Minister intends to send people who are seeking asylum in Australia. How does the member for Melbourne Ports describe the camps in Malaysia if that is how he described Christmas Island? Presumably the member for Melbourne Ports will vote against the Prime Minister's Malaysia five-for-one people swap. How could he—or any member of the government who criticised Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island—now support this Prime Minister's desperate and despicable attempts to cling to power by sending asylum seekers to Malaysia?

Within weeks of the visit by the member for Melbourne Ports, the government weakened the laws that had been in place since 2001, which reduced the boats to a trickle—in some years there were no boats. And then what happened upon Labor's dismantling of the coalition policies? The boats started arriving almost immediately, as the government had been warned. The government reacted with assurances that the boat arrivals had nothing to do with the change in laws. Labor ministers argued that it was a coincidence that the changes in the laws occurred at a time when there was an increase in push factors. The driver, they argued, was push factors in other countries—factors beyond the control of the Australian government. But the boats kept coming, and in increasing numbers. Before long the 'enormous white elephant' on Christmas island had to be reopened, and still the boats kept coming. The number of arrivals soon swamped capacity on Christmas Island, and then work began on opening detention centres on the mainland. That was in clear breach of Labor's pre-election promises and commitments. And still the boats kept coming.

The pressure from the people smugglers had grown and grown and grown on this hapless government. The impact of this government's decision to weaken Australia's border protection has started to impact on international relations, and that was an obvious consequence. Australia's relationship with Indonesia was still recovering from this government's arrogant handling of the Oceanic Viking crisis in October and November of 2009 when this Prime Minister announced her ludicrous East Timor solution without informing the government of Indonesia. Given the blundering of her predecessor in this area, one could reasonably have expected the new Prime Minister to tread far more carefully and diplomatically in the regional minefield of people-smuggling and processing of asylum seekers. But not only did she not warn Indonesia of what she planned to do; she did not bother to tell East Timor. The Prime Minister clearly took no expert advice. She certainly did not take any advice from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had warned her on the very day that she took his job that plans to build a new regional processing centre in East Timor for asylum seekers would be very badly received in East Timor. But, with breathtaking ignorance and arrogance, the Prime Minister announced to the Australian media that East Timor would host a regional processing centre. Members will note that she pointedly singled out East Timor because it was a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In her speech, with the original title of 'Moving Australia forward', the Prime Minister spoke of East Timor as the place for a regional processing centre because it was a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. She did make one quick call to President Jose Ramos-Horta but was ignorant of the fact that the president was not the head of the government of East Timor. It might have come as a surprise to some, but the fact that the Prime Minister made only one phone call, and to the wrong person, just brought this government's ineptitude to a new level. It might have made her a laughing stock in East Timor, but at least the Prime Minister of East Timor showed the diplomatic skill that this Prime Minister lacked by quietly distancing his government from this proposal.

Then the Prime Minister revealed her really tricky side after it became clear that the East Timorese were impressed by neither her plan for their country nor the manner of its announcement. She claimed that she had not referred to East Timor as a location for the centre at all. This was too much for most people, even veteran press gallery journalist Laurie Oakes, who said:

Julia Gillard just looks silly and slippery and slimy and shifty in all that and it is a very, very bad start to her prime ministerial career.

It has only gotten worse. The Prime Minister attempted to back down from her back down, insisting that she was in fact in discussion with East Timor but with no other nation. Then the parliament of East Timor passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the Prime Minister's proposal. The East Timorese representatives made repeated statements, using careful diplomacy, that they did not want this regional processing centre foisted upon them, but the Prime Minister refused to acknowledge these concerns. Her behaviour verged on bullying as she maintained for months that negotiations were underway. One commentator dubbed it 'zombie diplomacy', an initiative that is technically dead but which the government is unable to officially kill because of the embarrassment and political fallout. Like Monty Python's parrot, the Prime Minister insisted the East Timor solution was not dead, merely resting.

This government has been caught out doing precisely what the Prime Minister said she would never do. She said that the government would reject any sending of asylum seekers to a country that was not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In fact, the Prime Minister ruled it out prior to the last election. Now she has announced the Malaysia solution. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. This is no solution. It is temporary. It is not legally binding. It is a one-off arrangement. It represents no long-term solution to ending the people-smuggling trade at all. It will be exhausted once 800 people are sent to Malaysia. This is such overwhelming hypocrisy. She ruled out sending any asylum seekers to a country not a signatory to the convention before the election and now she wants to only send asylum seekers to a country that is not a signatory. There are 144 countries that are signatories to the UN convention on refugees and this Prime Minister chooses Malaysia, which is not a signatory.

The Prime Minister once stated a belief in onshore processing, but now she is embracing offshore processing. The Prime Minister ruled out sending asylum seekers to a country that is not a signatory and now that is all she is doing. (Time expired)