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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8567


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (3:54 PM) —I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. Immigration has always been about order and process. What we are seeing at the moment is an immigration policy which has descended into chaos—a series of ad hoc measures dealing with things as they come up or as they sail into our waters. It is little wonder that today we have in the press one ALP backbencher—who prefers to remain anonymous and not go on the record—saying, ‘We don’t actually know what our policy is.’ Why don’t we know? Because Prime Minister K Rudd does not know what our policy is.

On Saturday evening we had a situation on Christmas Island—a riot, in which, sadly, people were injured. But it is not surprising that this happened, because Christmas Island is now at almost full capacity. At the last estimates hearings we were told that the government was increasing the capacity. We understand that the recreation area is now being used for people to sleep on. We know that there is a Herc coming in with tents and stretchers. Apparently dongas are being flown in from Alice Springs. Quite frankly, the whole thing is now very chaotic. And it is little wonder, with so many different people and these conditions, that it is at breaking point. Sooner or later it was going to get to this point. If we stop the boats arriving, we are not going to have this problem at Christmas Island. We are going to have fewer people there.

We are now going to see this government fast-tracking people off Christmas Island into other detention centres around Australia. Today we heard the minister, in answer to a question, say that the excision status of people who arrive on Christmas Island remains with them. But in estimates it was made clear that in most cases people would be moved towards the end of their processing period, when it was clear that they would be found to be refugees. But with the growing number of people on Christmas Island, we are most likely to see this process hastened and fast-tracked. The question is then: is this going to be at the expense of a compromise of proper security, health and other checks that are so vital in relation to maintaining border security? Whilst the minister gave us these assurances at last estimates, I have to say that I do not, given what has happened in recent weeks, believe that those assurances can be met. The minister has said that this matter will be investigated and potentially people could be charged. The question then becomes: if people are charged, what will be the impact on their application for asylum? I will leave the issue in relation to Christmas Island at that point.

Then we have seen the government’s other farcical situation: when is a special deal not a special deal? In the words of Paul Kelly—and I do not normally cite Paul Kelly—in the Australian on 18 November 2009, ‘Rudd is treating us like mugs.’ Of course he is treating us like mugs! For goodness sake, just admit this is a special deal and that you did everything you possibly could to make sure that these people got off that boat. You made them an extraordinary offer. But you will not admit that. You give us weasel words like ‘non-extraordinary circumstances’! I think it is time the Prime Minister just admitted it. The Australian people can take spin to a certain point, but this is getting way beyond a joke.

Let us start dissecting this so-called special offer, which we are told is a ‘non-extraordinary offer’ and ‘not really a special offer’—although it looks pretty special to me. The offer says that if you are found to be a refugee Australian officials will assist you to be resettled within four to six weeks from the time you disembarked from the vessel. Can I just say that this is extraordinary. In the annual report of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, even the department itself says that processing times are 52 weeks. What we have here is that people are going to be resettled within four to six weeks when normally it would take years and years for people to be resettled. The literature regarding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is littered with anecdotal evidence of people having to wait years and years to be resettled. There are approximately 19,000 people waiting in Indonesia to be resettled, most of whom have been waiting for years and years, yet these people are being offered resettlement—probably in Australia, but nobody seems to be able to give us a clear answer on this—within four to six weeks. You tell me that that is not a special deal.

If you have already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Australian officials will assist with your UNHCR processing. If you are found to be a refugee, you will be resettled within 12 weeks from the time that you disembarked—the same situation. There are people who have been waiting for months or years to even be approached by UNHCR to help them with their processing—but not these people. These people, who have held an Australian ship to ransom, are now going to be assisted by Australian officials to jump the queue and to have their situation fast-tracked to get a resettlement outcome of weeks rather than having to wait years.

If you have not been registered with UNHCR, Australian officials will assist with your UNHCR processing. If you are found to be a refugee, you will be resettled within 12 weeks—again, the same situation. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, cannot have it both ways. You cannot come in here and say that it is the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle refugees and then, in the same breath, say that we have done a deal with the Indonesian government. There must be a special deal with somebody in UNHCR. Somebody in our government must have given an undertaking. There must be a special agreement somewhere because, for this government to honour its guarantee within such a short time frame and to have got people off that boat, Australia must have agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner to take those people who have been found to be refugees and to fast-track their processing.

The UNHCR has to determine where people are resettled. One has only to look at the body of legislation and the framework of the United Nations resettlement determination procedures. Whilst the asylum seekers themselves may have an opinion about where they want to go, it is really a matter for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I think what has happened here is that the government has told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that we will take them—and that really is what this government has to answer. What are the special deals that have been done to secure this outcome? Indeed, on this point of resettlement, let us not forget that the object of seeking asylum is ultimately to achieve a durable solution. For every one person that is resettled around the world, about 14 are returned to their country of origin. So, again, how does this special deal fit into the framework of what we know to be the usual procedures and the usual practices that are followed in resettling refugees?

The border protection committee of cabinet was established in about April 2009 and, all of a sudden, we are now hearing that the Prime Minister’s staff are attending the meetings. I have made repeated efforts to find out about this and the minister gets quite upset that I keep asking him the same questions. The reason I keep asking him the same questions is that he deliberately avoids answering the questions. The reason, I think, he does not want to answer the questions is that he is deliberately hiding the situation. I think it is incumbent on him to come into this chamber and be upfront with the Australian people, admit the special deal that was entered into and just get on with it rather than continuing with his evasion and weasel-wording to try and get out of this with spin.

I am very concerned about the impact that this offer will have on the broader picture. We have seen the reports of what happened at Christmas Island on Saturday night and we have also seen reports in the press last week about the need for the asylum seekers off the Oceanic Viking to be quarantined from other asylum seekers. That is not surprising. It is not surprising that they would want to be quarantined. I think we are increasingly going to see divisions. This perception of preferential treatment—it is not a perception; it is a reality—for one group of people over and above other groups of people is, naturally, not only going to cause tensions in detention centres in Indonesia but also likely to cause tensions at Christmas Island. When all is said and done, I think the inquiry will show that that is the basis of some of the tensions that we are actually seeing at Christmas Island.

One of the questions that the minister is evading is that of who actually authorised the special deal. It beggars belief that this Prime Minister, who is a person who is immersed in detail, if I can put it that way, comes and says, ‘I knew absolutely nothing about it,’ and then fobs it off and says that it was a committee or, as Minister Evans says, various committees who made this decision. I have absolutely no doubt that the offer made to get the people off the Oceanic Viking was sanctioned and it would be foolish to even contemplate that it was not sanctioned at the highest levels of this government.

But let us look at where that leaves us. Of course, the special deal that has now been done in relation to this group is only going to add greater incentive to the people smugglers. If they know that they can get away with this and they can pressure the Australian government to offer this sort of special deal, I think that they have achieved their objective. Regrettably, this whole sad and sorry affair and this chaos that the government has created have provided a greater impetus to the people smugglers to try to sell the product that they are selling. And let us not forget that they are selling a product. The product is sure, permanent residency in Australia—and, of course, with permanent residency comes family reunion and a whole range of other benefits. For every person who is given permanent residency, there are on average four people who ultimately come in under the family reunion program.

This government continues to deny the pull factors. It is ignoring the comments of the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations, who only recently strongly asserted that pull factors were the main reason for this surge. He said:

If the pull factors are addressed, attempts to enter Australia will cease. The lucky country is a magnet and many will seek to enter it.

Indeed, Jonathan Coleman, the New Zealand immigration minister, has also commented, saying:

The New Zealand Government does not believe that an ad hoc approach to dealing with individual cases like the Oceanic Viking will send the right message.

And it is sending the wrong message. This chaos that has now become this government’s immigration policy is well and truly sending the wrong message—that we are a softer touch.