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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7653

Senator SCULLION (3:33 PM) —At the request of Senator Parry, I move:

   That the Senate notes that the Rudd Government’s policies have seriously compromised the integrity of Australia’s borders with far reaching consequences, including:

(a)   the increased activity of illegal people smuggling in Australia’s region;

(b)   an increased number of unlawful arrivals taking perilous journeys;

(c)   the diversion of border protection agencies and resources; and

(d)   heightened security and biosecurity risks.

The issue of border protection is being rightly debated and thought about in the wider Australian community. Most people in the Australian community are actually wondering exactly why this government is in complete and utter denial. As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship would agree, immigration policy is a very complex area that requires more than cursory attention and adjustment from time to time for some political or populous purpose. Before the election, Labor made very loud and very specific promises. They said that they would ensure that we had a more humanitarian program. The previous Howard government, as you would remember, Mr Deputy President, had a humanitarian program that worked. At a time when illegal boat arrivals were effectively stopped, those who had arrived by boat had been processed and the pressures on our borders were completely gone. We were seen by the world, particularly by Europe, as having policies that were part of a fundamental answer to the movement of those people seeking a migration and a refugee outcome.

The Labor Party and the Labor government—those on the other side—decided that they would put in place a couple of changes. In that environment, because nobody was coming to Australia’s borders and there was no pressure from vessels mounting up as the people left from the Middle East or Sri Lanka, they said, ‘Oh, we will just implement it; it won’t make any difference.’ It was a very simplistic position to take to say that we should end tough and very difficult policies such as the Pacific solution, mandatory detention until claims were finalised and temporary protection visas. Generally, the Labor Party sought to soften border protection. They will tell us, ‘No, that wasn’t the case; we’re not trying to soften border protection at all,’ but in fact the removal of those strong policies that were hammer forged in a furnace of pressure on our borders were watered down and, of course, we are now looking at the consequences.

These policies were put in place by the Howard government because of the huge surge in illegal arrivals that threatened the integrity of our humanitarian program. When somebody arrived on a vessel the UNHCR priority program was set aside for those particular arrivals. We had a proud history in assisting people in need and providing safety to the most vulnerable in the world. The number of refugees that we can help is essentially set by the number of people that we can provide services to—whether it is for torture and trauma, housing, counselling services, health checks, welfare assistance or finding work. Our humanitarian program is framed around our capacity to help about 13,000 people. We all hope it shifts a little bit in that area. But the reality is that the availability of these services is not unlimited—we just do not have unlimited services. We need to understand quite clearly that we can only assist the number of people we indicate. We are never going to be in a position to assist all of the 15 million refugees that require help.

When the previous government faced serious increases in the number of people arriving in Australia through the passage that was sold to them by these traffickers in human misery, our orderly and effective refugee settlement program faced serious threats. It was not under pressure because the number of people arriving was no longer managed to suit the programs that we had available. The number of people arriving was completely unknown and we had absolutely no way to budget for the capacity to assist the refugees upon arrival. It also meant that the number of people we could assist to leave refugee camps around the world to meet the desired commitment to the UNHCR resettlement program was significantly under threat. As a result, hard decisions had to be made, and the previous government moved to change our policy to make those decisions—not just in the interests of Australians but in the interests of all refugees around the world who desperately need our help and a sense of priority.

What was never acknowledged by the Labor Party when they were attacking the previous government was that refugees continued to arrive under our humanitarian program, and those refugees continued to be assisted by the humanitarian program attached to the refugee program, which ensured that their families, who may have been displaced, could join them in Australia and also contribute to the Australian community.

Our policies returned our humanitarian program to Australian control. It was not under the control of people smugglers, who were not and never have been interested in the welfare of their cargo but rather only in money. Tragically, what has happened now is that our refugee program has been handed over to international criminals, because they make the decision about who comes here. If you have $15,000 for everybody in your family, you can come to Australia. That is how you get here, and I think it is an absolute shame that people cannot see that. The government has showed complete inaction and complete denial on this matter. That is not a compassionate and humanitarian approach to the refugee challenge.

We saw the boats had stopped and we made some changes. They said the coalition was heartless. They have taken our deterrent measures away. What is the result? Clearly, the boats have started to come again. But of course those opposite have said they now blame everybody else. The surge in the number of boats is due to some spurious activity or a change in activity somewhere. They say, ‘That’s part of the normal ebb and flow of refugees—haven’t you looked at the statistics?’ I do not need to look at the statistics. All you have to do is listen to the media and look at the people they are interviewing, from smugglers themselves to those people seeking an asylum outcome in a forum of their choosing.

Talk to the people who are employed in or in fact run the UNHCR program in Indonesia. They all tell us the reason for the influx into Australia as a targeted forum is the change in those policies. But those opposite, tragically, are not listening. Their position would be laughable, given that the AFP and others have now come out with what we know to be the truth, except that it is causing tragedy. These policies are causing people to put their lives and the lives of their families at risk and, without a doubt, are putting at serious and significant risk the lives of those people who are currently unlucky enough to dwell in some of the camps we see around the world.

There are reports that people smugglers who set sail deliberately disable the boat on the high seas before jumping into another boat, leaving their passengers to the elements, and, hopefully, rescue. This should strike fear into the hearts of all Australians, because people who behave like that have no care for humanity. They have no care for the welfare of people who should be in their trust and their care—after all, they have just paid $15,000 per person to go on this trip.

But the most important aspect of this is not only the tragic circumstances in which these individuals find themselves; it is the fact that Labor remain in denial that their policies have directly contributed to the situation that these people find themselves in. Kevin Rudd is going to have to make some pretty hard decisions, for the safety of those contemplating setting sail as well as those who are currently in refugee camps around the world. The government need to put in place long-term deterrent policies. It takes a lot of thought to put these deterrent policies in place, and they are often not popular; but one of the things they have to be is effective. An effective policy is not a haphazard, slipshod or reactive policy of the kind they have been rolling out to date, wrapped in spin.

The first step is to say that they have a problem, and it is a serious problem. If you have a problem, often just coming out of the denial phase is, I think, a very important first step. Perhaps saying something like, ‘Hello, my name is Kevin Rudd and I have a problem,’ would be a pretty good start, because once you understand that you have a problem and your policies are clearly not working at least people will say: ‘Let’s try something else. Let’s move to amend this terrible tragedy that has befallen refugees and Australians, our reputation and our ability to effectively control our borders.’

I am not sure what stage we are going to have to get to, but if they continue to be in denial then a whole range of very tragic things may happen in Australia. We have heard of SIEVX and we have gone through a whole range of investigations. It simply reflects to me the types of vessels, the seas which people have to move across and the numbers of people required to make these vessels economical. SIEVX had over 300 people, as I understand it. Let me tell you, having some knowledge about these vessels, it was never designed to take that many people. So it is not only about leaky boats; it is all about packing people in like sardines in hellish circumstances and then setting off. Those are circumstances that can only end in tragedy. It is only a matter of time.

We heard the minister in this place today saying: ‘Look, you’re all confused. The 78 people in Indonesia—that’s an AMSA problem. That’s a safety at sea problem.’ He has his head in a hole. You cannot be in denial about that. This was not a case of people in innocent passage across the Indonesian ocean who got into strife and where we sent one of warships to help them out. That was not the case at all. This was a case where somebody had organised a vessel, had put 78 people from Sri Lanka on it and had taken money off them and headed them for Australia. There was a clear intent to make an asylum claim in Australia. They want to go to Australia instead of much closer and safer destinations like India, with its very large Tamil population, and the reason they want to do this, we are told by those on the vessels and by those who have a great deal of expertise on this matter, is that they know they will get something here they cannot get under the UN Convention and they cannot get anywhere else in the world. They know they have a rock solid guarantee that, as long as they get to Christmas Island, it is simply a matter of waiting 90 days and then they will have, in effect, a permanent residency outcome. And, given the fact that it is only offered in Australia, I can understand how compelling that must be.

There are a number of other issues for me, as a Territorian, and for those people living in the places where those vessels can be expected to arrive such as Western Australia and Northern Queensland—although in the past they have come down as far as New South Wales and well down the Western Australian coast. Other circumstances that we need to consider carefully are the numbers of marine organisms that adhere to these vessels. We know they are on the vessels. They have arrived in Darwin Harbour and in Ashmore Reef. Divers have discovered both Congeria sallei and green Asian mussels. To give an indication of the problem, since 1986 to the present day, the Congeria group of species in the United States has, it is estimated, cost the US government about $600 million for amelioration and offset. And, of course, they are only maintaining it at the same level. It is there. It is endemic. It is like a thistle or a rabbit. They are not going to wipe it out. But this country has not got that species yet. To understand the enormity of this, Idaho is trying to keep it out. That state is somehow trying to draw an invisible line because it thinks it would cost some $91 million a year just to manage the borders.

This little critter is not very frightening. It is about 2½ centimetres long but every four weeks it has 50,000 spat, and each one of those grows to 2½ centimetres long. This is like something out of Doctor Who. It grows very quickly and forms a very thick mat. Over four weeks, 50,000 spat weigh around about a hundred kilograms. If you have ever done any diving, you can imagine what the environment looks like. It is a bit like a moonscape—there is a nice, flowing, gentle carpet because there is nothing else there. In fact, it grows so quickly that the crayfish cannot even shed their shells between instars. The instar of a crayfish is, depending on how old they are, much longer than four weeks. They are so heavy that they simply cannot carry their weight around. I am not so sure about the impact on turtles. We have not had an outbreak here, because we have controlled our borders, but I can imagine animals like that perhaps being very negatively affected. In this place we also consider the economy. But not only do we need to consider what it will cost us—it costs $3 million just to get it out of the marinas that are in doubt; we also need to consider the jobs and the tourism. What about the Great Barrier Reef? We talk about that often enough in here. So people need to be aware that uncontrolled and porous borders, because of bad policies, have effects right across the board.

If you are not concerned about our economy and you are not concerned about our environment, you might well be concerned about our reputation in this country for having a fair go and being humanitarian and compassionate. Those people who criticised the Howard government, and who criticise those on this side of the chamber at the moment for criticising a softening of the borders, should think very carefully about that because it is indeed a compassionate government that protects the flow of those most in need. I have often mentioned the example of a woman in Somalia. She might be a single parent, and all her brothers and her father have been shot. She has five children that she has to feed. She has no money. She cannot afford $15,000 out of the sky to go where she likes. She probably has a further life expectancy of only six or eight months, because after a while of failing to thrive you cannot get over it and you die, quietly and slowly; and all your kids die with you. Or perhaps you even have the tragedy of watching one kid die every month. Your job apparently gets easier because there is one less mouth to feed. In my book, as an Australian, I think they are the people we need to be helping.

I do not blame people in the Middle East who seek to come to this great nation, but they must not come here seeking refugee status outside the terms of the UNHCR. The 1952 international convention of refugees does not confer on a refugee the right to pick where they come to live. What it does is try to sort out across the nations of the world a process whereby those most in need can come here. As I have already said, Australia cannot take the 15 million refugees in the world who are currently looking for a refugee outcome. We simply cannot do it. You can debate the number up and down. As I have said, 13,000 is about what Australia can handle. But it is not just about taking people. We are a humanitarian country. We take the people and we house them. These people are not selected for the best skills; they are selected because they have the most needs. So we house them and we provide them with torture and trauma counselling and refugee resource centres. We provide them with everything that they need so they can come to this country and make a special contribution.

We set about half of that number of 13,000 places aside in humanitarian visas. When they come here through the UNHCR their families are often, through fleeing war, a diaspora. If we find their families through the UNHCR, we reunite them. And that is why we use the other half of that demographic. It is, I believe, a highly compassionate and very decent approach. And so, when you weaken your borders, in effect you are saying, ‘We are not having a compassionate approach.’ We are simply saying, ‘I know who is going to be able to do for this for us. We’re not going to make the decision. We’re not going to let UNHCR make the decision about who comes to this country. We are going to let international criminals take $15,000 or so’—whatever it is, it is lots of money—’for every man, woman and child that gets on their slave ship.’ They are blackbirders, and we are allowing blackbirders make the decision as to who comes to this country.

Whilst those opposite remain in complete denial about how their change in policies has genuinely and directly affected the decisions of these blackbirders—and that they are—we will continue to see people putting their children, wives, brothers, lovers and families on boats that are dangerous. That they are putting those lives in danger is, I think, a great sadness and a great tragedy for this country. There was somebody who I always thought was very compassionate and we remember the words:

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

Those are the words of a compassionate man making a compassionate statement. Australians should look very carefully at those opposite who are in complete denial that it is their actions which have placed all of these people, and all of these programs which we are signatories to, at the very greatest risk. They need to get out of the denial program and Kevin Rudd needs to stand up and say, ‘My name is Kevin Rudd and I have a problem.’ (Time expired)