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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8570


Senator PRATT (4:09 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue to our community and, indeed, the Rudd government’s record on this issue. This matter of public importance debate is a great opportunity to outline the robustness of the government’s immigration policies and to demonstrate, in contrast, how shallow, vacuous, politically driven and confused the opposition’s debate on policy is—and, in fact, always has been.

When it comes to immigration policy and all other major policy areas, the Rudd government has demonstrated policy substance and action by developing immigration policy that is based on evidence and facts; policy that reflects values that are held widely throughout the Australian community—values of compassion and tolerance; and policy that recognises that strong border security and the humane treatment of asylum seekers and others seeking to migrate are not mutually exclusive. This strong policy informs the actions that the government has taken to address the policy failings of the past—failings that belong with the opposition. Our actions have included increasing the protection of our borders, introducing the new directions in detention policy and working to address the outflow of people from other countries—policy and action based on strong evidence and strong values.

While the government has been in the business of getting on with the job, those opposite have been searching and overreaching themselves for any policy on immigration, because their past policies failed our country on a number of measures. Because they are unable to come up with any alternative, the government has taken action to get rid of things like the inefficient and failed so-called Pacific solution. The coalition did not oppose this move and, after the government action to abolish it, they said that they would not reintroduce it. But what would they introduce? We do not really know because, until recently, they did not have a policy. But, as I understand it, there is now a coalition policy on immigration consisting of four dot points. Four points is hardly substance—four points, not based on evidence or strong Australian values of compassion and tolerance; four points based on fear and lack of understanding of the issues.

Amidst this policy vacuum is a call by members of the coalition to reintroduce temporary protection visas. But we know, from real evidence and past experience, that TPVs were a policy failure. TPVs did not result in a decrease in arrivals and they resulted in inconsistent treatment of refugees. TPVs were introduced in October 1999. In 1998 there were 200 arrivals on 17 boats. Following the introduction of TPVs, by late 2001 the number of irregular maritime arrivals had increased to 5½ thousand in that year alone. In the two years after the introduction of TPVs there were 8½ thousand irregular arrivals on 94 boats. Between late 1999 and mid-2007 over 10,000 unauthorised boat arrivals were granted TPVs. By the time TPVs were abolished, nearly 90 per cent of people granted a temporary protection visa had been granted a permanent visa to remain in Australia. Only three per cent of those granted a temporary protection visa departed Australia. TPVs did not allow for family reunions or enable refugees to travel freely. Therefore, they actually encouraged women and children to make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.

So not only do we have a policy vacuum amongst those opposite on immigration but also we have policy confusion. We have seen coalition members on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, including the shadow immigration minister, endorse the Rudd government’s New Directions in Detention policy. As I have pointed out on other occasions, this new government policy sought, amongst other things, to abolish detention debt, a particularly insidious policy legacy of the previous government. The Labor government rejected the Howard government’s policy of requiring detainees to repay the costs of their detention. We rejected it because it did nothing to offset the costs of detention to taxpayers, nor was it a deterrent. There was no evidence that it was a deterrent—and, as we know, if people are desperate enough to risk detention, they are hardly likely to be dissuaded by the thought of repaying its costs. This situation advantaged no-one—not the taxpaying public nor the new arrivals seeking to settle here. So, when the government moved to abolish that poor policy, it was endorsed by the shadow minister for immigration through the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. But what happened when the legislation to abolish detention debt was introduced by the government? The coalition opposed it; that is what happened. On the one hand they wanted to support the abolition of detention debt and on the other hand they simply rejected it—a clear case of policy confusion on the part of those opposite.

But there is more policy confusion. While on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration the shadow minister expressed concern about people without work rights and access to Medicare. But, when the government moved to address these issues by reforming work rights for asylum seekers, the coalition moved to disallow the regulations. So here we have policy vacuum, policy confusion and, as this motion raises, a policy failure—not from the government but from those opposite. Let me compare and contrast here. There has been substantive policy development and action on the part of the government, which compares with the politically driven, confused nonpolicies of those opposite—vacuous confusion.

Those opposite have also failed to recognise the global nature of this problem. There are 42 million displaced people in the world—42 million people who are fleeing war and conflict, persecution and disaster. Is it any wonder that desperate people should resort to desperate measures to improve the situation? It is a global problem and it has been with us for a long time, as the figures that I outlined on previous boat arrivals demonstrates. This is underscored by the fact that, under the previous government, there were 246 boats carrying more than 13,000 asylum seekers. And now, under the Rudd government, we have seen 47 boats with about 2,000 asylum seekers aboard.

Why does this happen? It happens because of the sorts of things that are happening in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has just emerged from a decades-long civil war, which cost tens of thousands lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans and left an economic divide between north and south, east and west. We are all aware of the recent escalation in conflict in Sri Lanka, and yet the opposition appears to be blind to the tragedy that has unfolded there. Between 2005 and 2008 the number of internally displaced people assisted by the UNHCR in Sri Lanka increased from just over 300,000 to just over 500,000—an increase of 55 per cent. There are currently 250,000 Tamils from the north of Sri Lanka in camps for internally displaced people. These are the factors that contribute to what we are seeing happening on our borders. And it is why the government has invested more resources in border protection, more boats patrolling our waters and has a stronger interception record than the previous government.

It is also significant, I think, in recognition of these factors that Australia is providing more than $35 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka this financial year. That includes $5 million to support the resettlement of internally displaced persons and $2.3 million for the de-mining of former conflict areas. That is a substantial commitment but, when you look at the scale of this tragedy unfolding, and the time it is going to take to put Sri Lanka back together, these push factors are going to continue. Australia has already helped to resettle international displaced persons in north-west Sri Lanka by funding the construction of housing and providing support for basic services and livelihoods. In turn, at home near our borders we are increasing funding for border protection. Only Labor has put a real priority on the protection of our borders. The Howard government spent $289 million running the Nauru and Manus Island offshore processing centres. For the same period, the Howard government’s funding on aerial and surface surveillance by Customs was $25 million less, at $264 million.

In contrast, we have increased sea patrols of our borders by 25 per cent since 2007. As a result, the Rudd government has intercepted 98 per cent of all boats before they reached the mainland. Under the previous government more than one in 10 boats reached the mainland. All irregular maritime arrivals to Australia are placed in mandatory detention for mandatory health, security and identity checks. We know that no-one is granted a visa to Australia, or released into the community, without undergoing a comprehensive security and identity checking process. And those assessments are conducted by ASIO. ASIO conduct security assessments for irregular maritime arrivals. They work closely with the department of immigration and other government agencies to ensure all arrivals are assessed as quickly as possible for indicators of security concern and that all relevant information about an individual is taken into account.

It is for this reason that we are able to process people more speedily. The security risk presented by a person depends on individual circumstances and is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Factors including the particular circumstances of each case and the individual’s background, attitudes and activities influence the complexity of cases and can extend the time required to complete assessments. We have seen under the Rudd government a substantial improvement in making speedy assessments of people’s asylum claims.  In contrast, I am appalled that the opposition seems driven to score political points out of human misery. Its motivation on border protection issues is not driven by good policy or recognition of the need to take a humane approach to these issues; rather, it is driven by a willingness that has been proved time and time again to make Australians feel insecure about the desperation of others. Labor will not be dragged into a race to the bottom on immigration policy. We will continue to pursue strong border protection policies underpinned by humane principles.