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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8511

Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (15:32): I commend the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship for the amendments which have been negotiated by the member for Cook and the minister. I thank the government and the Prime Minister for finally, after four long years, accepting one critical element in the opposition's policy to stop the boats. This has been a long, long time coming but if something is worth doing it is worth doing belatedly. It is worth this parliament taking the time to pass the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill and to ensure that offshore processing at Nauru and Manus Island, which should never ever have been abolished, can begin again.

As a result of the climb-down by the government, by the Prime Minister and by the minister, the legislation that this parliament is now debating is effectively the opposition's bill, and that is why the opposition enthusiastically supports it. Back on 13 July 2010 I first said to members opposite that the Prime Minister should pick up the phone to the President of Nauru—23 times before the last election I said that if the government were serious about stopping the boats, the Prime Minister would pick up the phone to the President of Nauru. But the Prime Minister was not prepared to do that. She was not prepared to do it before the election, she was not prepared to do it after the election, she was not prepared to do it when the High Court ruled the Malaysia solution invalid, she was not prepared to do it in January after discussions between the coalition and the government and she was not prepared to do it six weeks ago. On 106 occasions I have respectfully urged the Prime Minister to pick up the phone to the President of Nauru.

After 22,000 illegal boat arrivals, after almost 400 illegal boats, after tragically almost 1,000 deaths at sea and after $4.7 billion has been blown because of the government's border protection failures, the Prime Minister has finally seen the sense in what the opposition has been proposing all along and she has indeed picked up the phone to the President of Nauru—at last. But let us not quibble over a mere four years. Let us not quibble over a mere 22,000 illegal arrivals, $4.7 billion and, tragically, almost 1,000 deaths. Let us thank God that finally this government has come to its senses and admitted that for four years it was wrong.

I listened closely to the minister for immigration in parliament today, and he said with great passion and feeling that no-one could stand idly by and listen to the tales of the survivors and do nothing.

I just wish that the government had had that same view several years ago. The minister for immigration stood before the parliament today and said that it was simply unacceptable to do nothing. He is right. It is unacceptable to do nothing. But, for four years, nothing is exactly what this government has done.

I am grateful the government have at last come to their senses on one element—just one element—of the three essential elements in the coalition's border protection policies. I am genuinely grateful they have come to their senses on one, but I urge them to come to their senses on the other two. I predict that, before this government's term finally expires, they will come to their senses on the other two, because the only way to stop the boats is to do all that the coalition has been proposing and all that John Howard did to successfully stop the boats.

We have had a lot of talk over the last couple of days about the expert committee—the expert committee which has substantially endorsed the coalition's policies, which has green-lighted the opposition's approach and which has comprehensively red-lighted the government's proposed Malaysia people swap. That is not the only expert committee to consider these matters over the years. The coalition had a three-person expert committee which did, in fact, stop the boats. That committee consisted of just three experts: Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Philip Ruddock, who served as both Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and as Attorney-General. They stopped the boats. That was a committee of genuine experts. If that committee's advice had been heeded four years ago, our country would never have found itself at the tragic pass to which it has now come.

I do not go as far as Neil Mitchell did on Melbourne radio today. I do not say that it is the Prime Minister's personal fault that all these tragedies have unfolded. I am not saying that any member of this House has blood on his or her hands. That would be grievously unfair. If anyone is personally to blame for the tragedies at sea, it is the people smugglers and the evil things they have been doing to prey on the desperation of unhappy people.

But one thing is clear. This government's policy failures gave the people smugglers a business model and, for four long years, this government have absolutely refused, despite repeated entreaties from the opposition, to take the sugar off the table. If there is one thing we have not yet heard from this Prime Minister, either in her cantankerous press conference yesterday or in her ill-tempered performances in this parliament today, it is one word of regret—it is that magic little word 'sorry', which should be spoken by people who genuinely regret the mistakes they have made. This Prime Minister owes that one word to the Australian Defence Force, who have been used as a taxi service for people smugglers; she owes that one word to the people of Australia, who have witnessed the indignities, the trauma and the loss of the last four years; and she indeed owes that one word to the illegal boat arrivals who have suffered because of the policies this government put in place.

It is worth recalling how we came to this sorry pass. Back in 2003 the Prime Minister, then the shadow minister, said:

The so-called Pacific solution is nothing more than the world's most expensive detour sign.

In that same year, she said:

Labor will end the Pacific solution because it is costly, unsustainable, and wrong as a matter of principle.

Back in 2003, she said:

No rational person—I would put it as highly as that—would suggest that in 10 or 20 years we will still be processing asylum seeker claims on Nauru.

Let me repeat that. In 2003, she said:

No rational person … would suggest that in 10 or 20 years we will still be processing asylum seeker claims on Nauru.

Mr Schultz: Can you repeat that again?

Mr ABBOTT: I accept the admonition of the member for Hume. Had this government not changed the policies that were working, the Prime Minister's statement would have been correct: we would not have been doing it today—because the boats had stopped and they would have stayed stopped. But nine years after the Prime Minister made that statement, that is precisely what this government now wants us to do to try to clean up the mess that this government itself created.

Let us be absolutely crystal clear—this is a mess of the government's own creation. In 2008, the then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship said:

Labor committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution and this was one of the first things the Rudd Labor Government did on taking office. It was also one of my greatest pleasures in politics.

Twenty-two thousand illegal arrivals, 1,000 deaths and $4.7 billion later, the Pacific solution is being put in place.

Now, to his credit, the then minister for immigration, Senator Evans, accepts that he got it wrong. He had the decency to tell the Senate that he had got it wrong. And I suspect the current minister for immigration, sitting opposite, has the decency to admit that he got it wrong, because that is what he said to the cabinet back in October last year—that they had got it wrong. So, since October of last year, the minister for immigration has wanted to change policy. All that has stopped the government doing so from that day to this—10,000 illegal boat arrivals and some 338 deaths at sea later—has been the stubbornness and the pig-headedness of this Prime Minister.

As late as last year, the Prime Minister was saying asylum seekers who went to Nauru to have their claims processed ended up being refugees who came to Australia, so it was a detour, not a solution. As late as six weeks ago, the Prime Minister was saying that the experts had looked the Leader of the Opposition in the eye and said to him, 'Nauru will not work.' Now the Prime Minister, in an extraordinarily brazen performance, comes in here and says, 'Nauru will work.' Well, of course it will work. It will work in conjunction with temporary protection visas and the willingness to turn boats around where it is safe to do so. Why didn't this Prime Minister have the decency to come to this obvious conclusion a long, long time ago? What we can say about this Prime Minister is that there is a judgment problem, there is an integrity problem and there is a consistency problem—and a character problem, because even today the Prime Minister did not want to accept that she got it wrong.

This is a monumental change of policy. Let us be under no illusions about the magnitude of the policy change that this government has suddenly, in the last 24 hours, embraced. This is a massive backflip, and, frankly, in the Westminster tradition, a minister or a prime minister who in effect repudiates his or her old policy to embrace a policy that he or she had always rejected would resign as a matter of honour. As a matter of honour, this government should resign. But we do not expect honour from this government. We do not expect consistency and we do not expect competence. I regret to say that a government that could not competently put pink batts into people's roofs is unlikely to successfully put illegal boat people on Nauru. But they will get their legislation, and, if it fails, this Prime Minister, finally, will have no-one to blame but herself.