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Thursday, 20 June 2013
Page: 6541

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (GortonMinister for Immigration and Citizenship) (16:09): I rise to respond to the member for Cook. Firstly, I would like also to reflect on Refugee Day today. I think it is important that the parliament recognise a very important day for refugees around the world. In fact, on Saturday I was at an event recognising our 800,000th refugee—just in excess of what was referred to by the member for Cook—arriving and being settled in Australia since World War II. It is a remarkable figure. Eight hundred thousand of eight million people that have come to this country—so approximately 10 per cent of the intake of people we have had—are refugees who have built this country, who have made this place their home, who have made this country better and bigger than it was and who have contributed in a way of which we can all be proud. We have a great record in responding to people who are in danger, providing a haven for people who might be fleeing persecution, and that record should not be denied. I agree with the member for Cook insofar as us recognising that.

I also think it is important to talk about the level of displacement. The member for Cook talks about a figure in excess of 10 million. In fact, beyond even the determined or approximated number for refugees, there are—according to the UNHCR—45.2 million around the world in situations of displacement, meaning that more people are refugees or internally displaced than at any point since 1994. In this place yesterday, I believe—certainly in this week—the member for McMillan went to the comments in The Guardianfrom the UK from authors Oliver Laughland and Nick Evershed. They go to the issues of numbers. They talk about the fact that there were 1.1 million new refugees around the world in 2012, the highest rise in new refugee numbers since 1999. They also show that the annual UNHCR global trends in displacement report highlights that last year 7.6 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution. On an average day in 2012—so in one average day last year—23,000 people were forced to flee their homes around the world, which is more than the total number of people claiming asylum in Australia for the entire year. So around the world there were 23,000 people displaced, which is higher than those that are looking to claim asylum in an entire year in Australia. That is a remarkable, and quite frightening, number of people in such an awful situation. The statistics also reveal that Australia had 0.3 per cent of the world's refugees at the end of 2012, or just over 30,000. Pakistan had the highest number of refugees, with 1,638,456—which is nearly 17 per cent of the world's total—and Australia had 2.14 per cent of the world's asylum seekers at the end of 2012, with just over 20,000. South Africa, for example, had the highest number, with 230,442, constituting 24.6 per cent of the total number of asylum seekers globally. In the case of comparing us with South Africa, you can see the challenges they have in dealing with more than tenfold the number that we have to deal with.

I think that sometimes gets lost in this debate. This is a global problem, this is an international challenge, and, so far as our own region goes, it is a regional challenge requiring a regional response. It is important, therefore, that if we are to do this successfully and see a reduction or cessation in vessels arriving in such a manner, if we are going to see fewer people endangering their lives, then we do need to have the compact with the region. We do need, through the Bali process, to find ways to do that. That is not an easy thing to do—no one is suggesting that from this side of the House. There has been a view that if we coin a slogan we can realise a solution, but I think that it is just disingenuous and dishonest to suggest that. That is what the opposition have done for over three years—coin a slogan and suggest that somehow they have got a fi The interesting thing is that nobody agrees with them. The experts do not agree with them. The agencies of government that advised the Howard government do not agree with them. No eminent person or person with experience in border protection, refugee settlement or diplomatic matters has come out and agreed with the opposition leader, because it is a fraud. The 'turn back the boats' policy is an element of the 'stop the boats' fraud. Their 'turn back the boats' policy does not exist except in the minds of those opposite. The opposition leader pretends that he has a 'turn back the boats' policy. What does he have?

The former immigration minister is here in the House. I know he sits through every debate, living through some glory days. The fact is that he knows that, without the agreement of Indonesia, it cannot work. He knows that and he also knows that the discussions that have occurred between the opposition and the Indonesian government have not gone to the issues of turning back the boats, because they will not raise it, because they know the President will say no. We have had the Vice President of Indonesia say, 'We're not going to support the "turn back the boats" policy.' We have had the ambassador for Indonesia say, 'We won't be supporting the "turn back the boats" policy.' We have had the foreign minister of Indonesia say, 'We won't support the "turn back the boats" policy.' We have had a former admiral of the Navy say that, if we were to embark on this mission, we would be endangering the lives of naval personnel. We know the dangers that are likely to occur if we are to turn people back on the high seas in the manner in which the opposition are suggesting.

During the last election, we saw the opposition leader say he would have a 'boat' phone sitting on his desk so he can pick up the phone and call the master of the vessel and tell them to the turn back that boat. What a brave opposition leader that would be, sitting behind a desk on a 'boat' phone and telling people who are the ones who have to deal with these matters how to conduct an operation.

Judi Moylan, I think, gave an honourable speech in her valedictory this week and I was witness to her contribution. She has been a fine member of parliament. She quite rightly pointed to the fact that that policy will endanger the lives of men, women and children. She made it very, very clear that to suggest that we return vessels in that manner is unconscionable. It is dangerous not only to those on the vessel, because of the likelihood of sabotage, but also for our own naval and Customs personnel. We saw that with SIEV36, where there was an effort to sabotage that vessel. Five people died in April 2009 and others could have died too, including our own personnel. Of course, it is foolish for the opposition to suggest otherwise.

We have also seen a change insofar as the opposition suggesting it can stop the boats. I refer to an interview given by the member for Cook on 13 March 2013. In this interview there were two interviewers but the person asking the questions was Mr Andrew Bolt—who I would not say was an enemy of the opposition but a dear friend of the opposition. On five occasions he asked the member for Cook when we will see the boats stop if they are elected. The member for Cook gave five answers. His first answer was, 'I don't put time frames on this.' That was a good answer. So it is now: 'Stop the boats. I don't put time frames on it.' His second answer was, 'I'm not making such forecasts.' So it is now: 'Stop the boats. I'm not making such forecasts.' His third answer was, 'We'd like to see it happen as soon as possible.' So, it is now, 'Stop the boats,' and the subtitle is, 'We'd like to see it happen as soon as possible.' His fourth answer was, 'I'll let you interpret what it means.' So now: 'Stop the boats. But you can interpret what that means.' Andrew Bolt was just trying to get an answer out of the shadow minister and he asked, 'When are you going to stop the boats?' His fifth answer was, 'That's what we're attempting.'

We know why the member for Cook went on that show. He thought that Andrew Bolt was going to say: 'How are you going to solve this? You are remarkable people. You're going to fix all these things.' He did not expect to be asked the question, 'How are you going to stop the boats'. He asked him five times. On each occasion he could not answer because he does not know how to stop the boats or when the boats will stop under those policies because not one agency in this country supports the proposition put by the opposition leader that you can turn back the boats. Nobody supports the proposition put by the opposition. It is a slogan. It is unworkable. It is unsafe.

It was quite right that Judi Moylan raised concerns about these issues. We can have this banter across the table, but the reality is these are very serious issues. The only way there is going to be a sustainable solution to this issue is by having a compact of countries of origin, transit and destination. The only way that can happen is engaging responsibly, not saying one thing privately to them and coming out and publically verballing people from another country. Not going, as the member for Cook did, to Malaysia, standing up, talking to the media and traducing the reputation of Malaysia while on its own soil; not attacking Malaysia in the way he did.

If he thinks he is going to have some relationship—if he is ever appointed a minister; if they are ever elected—with Malaysia, after the effort he put into traducing the reputation of that country, well I can assure the House he is very, very deluded. Malaysia will not forget the way in which he went about attacking the human rights record of that country. The fact is Malaysia put forward an arrangement that should be considered. Malaysia put forward and arrangement that—

An opposition member interjecting

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, if we were to agree upon this in the parliament, we would be able to return people to a transit country safely. We would be able to do that without potentially causing the deaths of our own personnel, causing deaths of men, women and children on the high sea.

Even if you had any doubt about it at all—even though this has been recommended by the former Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston, even though it has been recommended by Michael L'Estrange, a former diplomat; even though it has been recommended by Paris Aristotle—even if you had any doubt about the efficacy of transferring people in that manner, the fact that you do not even want to embrace it, the fact that you will not even support it if it came into the parliament, is a real tragedy. They will not support the Malaysia arrangement not because it will not work; they will not support the Malaysian arrangement because they are afraid that it will work.

Now why would you not listen to the experts in relation to these matters; why would you not give it a go? Even if there was a skerrick of doubt in relation to the effectiveness of that arrangement, why would you not put that forward? Because you want to see more boats come. You rub your hands together every time a vessel arrives in our waters, an unseaworthy vessel on a perilous journey with people who could—well they are risking their lives at sea. That to me is an unconscionable response to a very important issue that is before this debate. We should be undertaking that arrangement, but we are not doing that. And that is, I think, a shame and it is something the opposition should rethink.

We have an opportunity to realise the Malaysian arrangement and give it a go, as advised by the experts. But in the end, this opposition will stand in the way of the government realising that proposition for fear of it working. It is not because they think it will not work but because they are afraid it will. I think that is a dreadful shame because this issue is very serious. It goes to our border protection, yes. It goes to our management. It goes to our immigration reputation. But it also goes to what happens to people on the high seas and what we must do to ensure that the chances of people dying at sea are reduced.

This is a global problem. I agree with what the member for Cook said at the commencement of his contribution. This is a global problem and it is a regional problem, but it needs a regional solution. It is not going to work with a slogan and it is not going to work attacking Indonesia or Malaysia. (Time expired)