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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9083

Mr JENKINS (Scullin) (13:07): Regrettably I find, as I get towards the end of my parliamentary career, that I am getting a bit thin skinned and I am easily provoked into debates. But on this occasion it is not the member for Cook who has provoked me. Whilst I disagree with much of what he said today in his 15-minute contribution, and although there were some slight digressions into emotive language—and they were slight—it is not he who has provoked me on this occasion.

The member for Stirling, in talking about the Parsifal, infuriated me, because the attitude of those opposite is in contrast to the attitude of the coalition when they were in government and were dealing with the sister ship of the Parsifal, the Tampa. Consistency about the application of international maritime law is much of what the member for Stirling talked about before, finally getting around to the legislation after 21 minutes. The honourable member for Cook, in talking about refoulement, was of course talking about the same sections of the principal bill, the Maritime Powers Bill 2012, that we are debating today. I do not mind if we are going to have debates around those issues. In fact, I am very pleased that in this case these pieces of legislation were, I think, brought in before the requirement for compatibility statements about human rights issues came in and that the parliament is discussing them. It might be that we have different conclusions about that issue, but it is appropriate that the parliament look at it.

Let's go back to the start of the slippery slope on these issues. It started 11 years ago, in August 2001, when a vessel sinking in waters that I think were under Indonesian search-and-rescue responsibility put out a distress call, and a merchant ship, the MV Tampa, went to its aid. Having taken aboard the 400-plus asylum seekers that were on board the distressed ship, the captain of the MV Tampa then decided that the most appropriate place for him to take them was the closest land point, that being Christmas Island—a decision that, clearly, he could legitimately make under his understanding of the application of international maritime law. And what happened? He was refused permission to land.

Then, with a policy written on the back of a postage stamp, Nauru was finally found as a solution. We have heard over the last couple of weeks about the brilliance of the then ministers in charge—the brilliance of them discovering Nauru as the solution to a problem that they believed they had. Yet, if you go through writings about these decisions since that time, you see people like the then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, admitting that there was no great science to the fact that they picked Nauru; it just happened to come into their heads. They decided it was an island that they could take them to—out of sight, out of mind. Yet, on this legislation, in contrast to the way in which the coalition clearly admit they made these decisions without consultation, without talking about the people that they had to put them in place, at least the member for Cook had the decency to put on the record the comments of several government agencies, from Navy through to Customs, who were all part of the way in which we put in place these pieces of legislation—agreeing that their comments had been considered and that they accepted the consolidation in this law of all the regulations and law that preceded it.

But, regrettably, the member for Cook on the substantive issues goes on to say: 'We can't be sure. Somehow the government has fiddled with it,' or something like that. Well, I am sorry; executive government is about that. It is the ministers down there in the south wing actually working with their departments. Fortunately, on the public record, it would appear that all the agencies involved in this maritime powers legislation, coming from all the different silos of government, came together. There is no evidence that this has been only one agency imposing on others. This is a whole-of-government approach. This is something that should be celebrated.

As a parliamentarian, I am happy for the Senate committee to have a look at it. I am happy for them to look at the things that have been raised by the two opposition frontbenchers in this debate. But do not use the fact that they are proposing that we look at these things as a criticism that the system has failed. That is the proper way that the parliament should look at proposals put by executive government. I am confident that they will stack up. Even if they do not stand up, if they are properly reacted to, that is appropriate, and it is not something such that we should come in here, mealy mouthed, deciding that we are going to score points on every issue.

If, indeed, people last week on the vessel Parsifal acted illegally in threatening the master of the vessel, then let this parliament allow the appropriate investigations to go on and the appropriate action to take place. But that does not change the fact that government, from time to time, has to make decisions about destinations in these circumstances, because—I keep going back to this—that is exactly what an Australian government did in the case of the Tampa. It just happens that the coalition, now in opposition, forget that.

The fact is that this legislation is an attempt to give certainty to all those agencies that will have to make pretty hard decisions, in real time, out in dangerous situations. It is appropriate that we look at these pieces of legislation in that manner.

When last week's debate is raised, I want those that sit opposite to think about their contributions to that debate. Their contributions fell for the mistake of a party that goes out of government at a point in time and then thinks that the world does not change from that point in time—that their policies at that point in time are then always contemporary. There is a failure to look at the situation in a contemporary manner and then to develop, modify or tweak policies so that they suit the situation five years on, in 2012.

But there was one significant contribution—it was to do with issues that are raised in these pieces of legislation on maritime powers—from a member opposite: the member for Kooyong. The member for Kooyong actually mentioned regional cooperation. That was pretty good. What was the Houston committee on about? The context—the whole package—includes regional cooperation in the processing of asylum seekers. I disagree with the member for Kooyong in his analysis that this government has not pursued regional cooperation with appropriate vigour. I think he is wrong on that point. But he was the only one that reminded the House, as I have on other occasions, that regional cooperation under the Bali process commenced with the coalition government. It was one of their better moves. But it does not suit their political narrative, because suddenly regional cooperation with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia or any of the 40-plus countries that are in the Bali process somehow would not be hairy chested enough. It would not show them as being tough. It would show them as being sensible. It would show them as understanding that this is an issue that will not go away—that this is an issue where our response has to range from dealing with the misery of those who have died at sea through to dealing with those who have proceeded in a measured way through the assessment of their claims for refuge as international asylum seekers. That is the breadth of the issues that confront us.

As I said, I was happy that the member for Cook was measured. I disagree with the emphasis that he places on the word 'illegal'. He made a response to issues raised by the member for Parramatta in this debate. I believe that it was appropriate that the member for Parramatta raised those issues. But let's look at the Houston report. Again—it is applicable to these pieces of legislation—they talked about IMAs, illegal maritime arrivals. We have to have a language when we are dealing with these things; it would be better if we kept it simple and understandable. So we have IMAs and we have SIEVs, suspected illegal entry vessels—I think I have that right—and that has become part of our nomenclature. Those terms can be interpreted by those that feel that they are at the compassionate, progressive end of the spectrum in the debate as being nasty, pejorative terms. Hardliners say, 'That is really what they are,' and make an interpretation that it is all about the 'I' for 'illegal'.

But, significantly, the member for Cook agreed that the people on those vessels, even if the vessels are called SIEVs and the people are called IMAs, have every right under the international agreements that this government has entered into—I understand that the whole of the parliament agrees that we are participants in those agreements and agrees that we should participate in them to the fullest—to seek asylum. Why is it that once the people get to that point we cannot simply talk about them as 'asylum seekers', which, at that point in time, they are? There is not emotion in that; it is a simple statement of fact. At that time, as the member for Cook acknowledged, they have a legal right to seek asylum. It may be that down the track, when it has been decided that they are not refugees, they return to being 'illegal', but that is a different matter. In the debate, where there is emotion, we place great value—great weight—on these terms. And that does not help the debate in this place.

I know that I should not be so thin skinned. I know that I should not be provoked, but, if we are going to have these debates, we should talk about the couple of decades of these issues. Let us celebrate that a government is trying to bring all the agencies together so that they understand what each is doing and what is expected of them and that we are all working in the national interest. It disappoints me that from time to time the debates in this place are not conducted in the national interest.