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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9076


Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (12:37): In contrast to the previous speaker, I am going to speak on the bills. I assume that as he did not have much to say about the Maritime Powers Bill 2012 or the Maritime Powers (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012, apart from a bit on section 72, he essentially supports the rest of the legislation. Given the propensity of the opposition to find criticism anywhere they can, I assume that if they had problems with the bills they would have said so. I am going to spend a little bit of time actually talking about the legislation itself, because it is very important legislation

The Maritime Powers Bill 2012 consolidates and harmonises the Commonwealth's existing maritime enforcement regime, which is presently spread across numerous pieces of legislation. In fact, it is spread across 35 pieces of legislation. So when the member for Stirling talks about providing certainty for our officers in the carrying out of their duty, amalgamating all those different places they have to go—35 different places—into one piece of legislation is incredibly important. The bill provides a single framework for use by our on-water enforcement agencies, such as Customs and the Navy, and will be used to enforce a diverse range of Australia's maritime laws, including in relation to fishing, customs, migration, environment and quarantine, as well as international agreements and decisions in particular circumstances. It will provide clarity for on-water enforcement agencies in relation to the powers that they are acting under and the procedures that they are to follow. The Maritime Powers (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012 is really a technical bill. It just repeals the duplicate provisions in other acts.

This is an important piece of legislation that consolidates and harmonises the existing maritime enforcement regime. It provides a single framework, as I said, and will apply to a range of Australia's maritime laws, including illegal fishing, customs and migration.

I will respond in part to some of the things that the member for Stirling said, in particular his use of the word 'illegal' when referring to boat arrivals. There will be many people in the community and, I note, some journalists in the last few days who have been pulling up members of the opposition for using the word illegal when talking about boat arrivals. The member for Stirling said there had been some 20,000 illegal arrivals. They are of course not illegal; both sides use the word irregular from time to time, but the arrivals are not illegal. The main concern I have with the word illegal being used is that it gives an impression of some sort of incredibly bad behaviour by a person who seeks to come here by boat. I would like to put on the record that there are many people in our community, and I am one of them, who understand the position they face—having crossed the border into Pakistan along with 1.8 million refugees and thinking they would be there with their family for decades—when offered an opportunity to get on a boat. I might, like many people in this House, I think, find myself saying yes to that opportunity.

These people are not doing something that is wrong. They have fled persecution. They are doing the best they can for their family and are trying to find a path to safety in whatever way they can. The issue for me is not whether they are doing the right thing or not. Thank heavens, most of us have never been in those circumstances, and we have to respect people for doing what they can for their families. The issue for me is that when 20,000 people try to get to Australia by boat a large number of them drown—an estimated one in 20 will drown on the way. Whether people are drowning while trying to get to Australia or, as they do on their way to Europe, suffocating in the bottom of containers or crossing snowy mountains through Asia—whatever the reason for their deaths on the way—we as a nation have an obligation to try to find a way to stop those deaths. So my concern with the boat arrivals is not with the behaviour of the people concerned. As I said, I might just be one of them myself if I were in those circumstances, and I am sure that some of the members opposite would be as well. I know people in Australia who have come by boat and who have made the most fabulous citizens and who have worked incredibly hard. Again, we need to be very careful about placing value judgments on the behaviour of people who are doing the best they can under appalling circumstances. It is good to see the opposition accept a level of compromise in the last week when it supported the amendments that went through the House. We on this side offered to reopen Nauru and Manus Island quite some time ago, but it is good to see the opposition willing to compromise, at least a little bit, in its recent support of that proposal.

I also want to talk about the comments the member for Stirling made about the behaviour, as he put it, of asylum seekers on the ocean. The report of the expert panel made it really clear that circumstances have changed substantially since towbacks were last used. I think the member for Stirling came into the parliament at the same time as I did, in 2004, so he was not a member of parliament during the mass arrivals at the turn of the decade, but he has certainly been in parliament long enough to hear much of the debate. The circumstances have changed in the last decade since the limited number of turnbacks happened over a decade ago. I think there were only about seven: the first couple worked and then the people on the boats worked out very quickly that they could scuttle the boat. Even a decade ago, the use of that policy lasted a few days at best before people started to risk their lives and those of our Navy personnel in desperate attempts to get to Australia. The legal context also has changed. The attitudes of many regional governments have evolved, raising the potential cost in terms of bilateral cooperation generally and coordination on people-smuggling activities in particular. The pre-emptive tactics of people smugglers have adapted quite substantially.

Irregular vessels—not 'illegal' vessels—carrying asylum seekers can often be quickly disabled or rendered unsafe to foil any attempted turnbacks and to create a safety-of-life-at-sea situation. This introduces potential dangers for asylum seekers—and we have seen some of the dreadful outcomes—and for Australian personnel, and the effect in the turnbacks is significantly diminished.

The expert panel was also of the strong view that there are a range of conditions that need to be fulfilled for the safe and lawful turnback of boats carrying asylum seekers, and they were quite clear on this. They do not believe that those conditions currently exist at all. They made it perfectly clear that towbacks could not be attempted without the agreement of Indonesia, and that agreement does not exist. The report finds that the conditions required for effective, lawful and safe turnbacks of irregular vessels heading for Australia with asylum seekers on board are not currently met in regard to Indonesia.

A number of people have made comments on this. The Indonesian foreign minister said on 15 March 2012:

From that kind of mindset, and naturally, it would be impossible and not advisable even to simply shift the nature of the challenge from one end of the continuum to the other.

He also said:

… simply pushing boats back to where they came from would be a backward step.

And:

The general concept of pushing boats back and forth would be an aberration to the general consensus that has been established since 2003.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in February 2012:

We have clearly opposed pushbacks in the Italian case in the Mediterranean in the recent past before the Libyan crisis, and we think that that is clearly a violation in relation to the '51 Convention.

Remember too that, whether or not one believes that one can do it in relation to the country one is pushing the boats back to, we had the situation even a decade ago with the turning back of half a dozen boats where the people involved in smuggling had already worked out that scuttling a boat and putting the lives of asylum seekers and Australia's Navy at risk was the way to go. We knew we would no doubt see more of that. The member for Stirling has already talked about attempts in recent weeks to scuttle boats—or, at least, suspected attempts to scuttle boats. That is clearly now part of the arsenal of people smugglers.

This issue unfortunately still remains mired in a lot of political rhetoric. We have heard a little bit of it again today. That is a great shame. It really is a great shame. I think people will look back at the decade since the Tampa and the level of rhetoric around some very desperate people with some shame. I hope the time when we look back on this decade with shame comes very quickly. It is certainly time for the rhetoric to stop.

We have an incredibly important refugee program. We currently take around 14,000 people. We are one of the few countries in the world that take people from camps. Only the United States and Canada currently take more than we do from third countries. After us, most of the other nine or so countries that do take people from camps from third countries take anywhere between a few hundred and about 1,200. So the big chance for resettlement from a third country if you are in a camp is in the US, Canada and Australia.

Every time a person arrives by boat, a person who might get to Australia through another path does not. I know there are some, I guess because a person on a boat asks us for help in a different way, who prioritise that request for help over other forms of request for help. I do not. I believe the bottom line is that the role for Australia is to take as many refugees as we can, as effectively as we can and I believe the way for us to do that is to do it through the UNHCR process, through regional processing frameworks and from third countries. I suspect that those on the other side also agree with that.

I suspect that we also have common ground in that we, over time, would like to see the number of asylum seekers that we accept increased. There may be a debate about what the time frame might be. We on this side are accepting the recommendations of the expert panel that we go to 20,000 straight away and 27,000 within five years. But, again, whether we have agreement on when, I have no doubt that there are many on the other side of this House who believe that a refugee program is incredibly important and that we as a fairly wealthy and generous nation relative to so many of our neighbours could play a much, much stronger role in working with the UNHCR to take a greater number from third countries. So we do actually have quite a considerable area of common ground.

This is an intractable problem. The world refugee problem has no answer; it certainly does not have an answer that Australia can come up with today. If we took 49.5 million asylum seekers today, there would still be a hell of a lot waiting for safety. So it is not a problem we can solve. We can only play our part. I would urge the member for Stirling in future and the speakers after him—because I suspect that neither of the two speakers that follow are actually going to talk much about the bill—

Opposition members interjecting

Ms OWENS: Oh, I have been told! If I am judging you incorrectly, I apologise. But I would urge people on both sides of this House to enter into a very constructive debate about what is an intractable problem, to cease even by inference making any allegations of improper behaviour against people who are doing the best they can to find safety for their families and to look at Australia's role in a larger context and find a way through for us to play the role that we can in providing a safe haven for people from third countries, working with our neighbours to improve the safety of those that are in transit countries. Again, I know we agree on this. I would hope that our rhetoric can settle somewhat and we can have a much more constructive debate.

I will just return very quickly to the bill, which I did speak on initially, so I have actually done better than the previous speaker. Thirty-five pieces of legislation covering the activities of our law enforcement officers on the sea is a little bit silly, to say the least. This bill has been a long time coming. There has been extensive consultation. I commend it to the House.