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Friday, 25 November 2011
Page: 9690

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (14:58): I rise to speak to the Deterring People Smuggling Bill 2011 and to support the comments by our deputy leader in this place and shadow Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, and comment that the coalition has shown a good deal more courtesy to the government this week than has been shown to the coalition in the legislative process, to which I intend to return. What is so obvious in this whole exercise with the legislation before us, once again, is the failure of the Labor government, the Prime Minister, the current Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and the leader of the government in this place, the previous minister.

This is a circumstance in which, had the Labor government continued the policies of the Howard government—policies that actually protected those who would otherwise have got on to leaking boats; policies which had effectively cut the people-smuggling industry out—we would not be standing here today debating this issue and, more to the point, we would not have seen the tragic outcomes that have been the case over the last three or four years. I want everybody to be very clear in their understanding of that.

Why is the coalition supporting this legislation? Because there can be no more reprehensible industry or trade than the smuggling of people and the trading of human misery that we see on a day-to-day basis. Anything at all within the law that will put a halt to this trade must be supported. It is regrettable and reprehensible that the coalition has to support a situation which should never have materialised in the first place.

As a Western Australian senator I do want to draw the attention of the Senate to where the costs of most of this people-smuggling fall—and that is in our state of Western Australia. The vast majority of those either found guilty and serving sentences or awaiting trial are in jails in Western Australia. I do not want to comment in this presentation on those associated with the under-age issue, but I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that we need to be able to more accurately determine the age of people who are caught up in this trade. If we can address this issue with a greater degree of clarity, fairness and equity for minors, I would be very keen to pursue that. But that is not a topic for this discussion.

It costs the Western Australian taxpayer $130,000 per year for every people smuggler accused or people smuggler found guilty in our jails. This is an unfair impost on both the judicial system in our state and Western Australian taxpayers. For those who would say there is some equalisation in the annual tradition of GST funds and therefore that figure is picked up on behalf of Western Australia, I need only remind the Senate of the very low proportion of GST funding that returns to Western Australians each year as a result of the inequitable distribution by the Grants Commission. That figure of course is a mere 70c in the dollar, as opposed to a figure in excess of 90c in the states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and well and truly over the dollar per dollar rate in the Northern Territory and South Australia. I do not want this point to be lost. The cost is not equally distributed around the nation.

We are discussing this legislation because of the government's demonstrable failure on border protection. It has been a sad litany, for then Prime Minister Rudd, Prime Minister Gillard and the various immigration ministers who have attempted to solve these issues but have failed miserably. East Timor was never a solution—anybody would just have to visit East Timor to realise that the infrastructure is not in place and that there is not yet stability. We all look forward to the elections in East Timor in March of next year. I applaud the role being played by the Australian Defence Force in trying to stabilise East Timor and assist in the democratic process. But anybody with any sense who visited East Timor would know that they are by no means ready to accept some form of botched and cooked up asylum-seeker solution.

We then had the failed Malaysia solution. Questions from my colleague Senator Cash have been miserably unanswered by Minister Carr. Malaysia was never going to be a solution to this problem. That is evidenced by the fact that originally we were considering 800 asylum seekers being resettled in Malaysia in return for some 4,000 approved refugees coming to this country. We have already vastly exceeded the 800 and so we know it was never going to be a long-term solution. History records that the Malaysia solution did go to the High Court of Australia, and the High Court adjudicated that it was unlawful. Not only was the solution never going to work; Malaysia is not a signatory to the UNHCR and therefore, even had the 800 been approved to go, it was only ever going to be a band-aid solution.

The Prime Minister chose to deliver a vitriolic attack on the High Court judges, and particularly Chief Justice Robert French. I was also on one occasion affected by an adverse judgment by the High Court of Australia, in about 1992-93. I remember being told by Crown Law in Western Australia two things—the first was that I had lost and the second was that I was not to criticise the High Court judges. It is totally irrelevant to this debate that the platform upon which that High Court judgment was made in that case has now been completely dissembled. In the words of the then Governor of Western Australia, a past Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, that particular judgment will go down in history as probably the worst ever in the history of the High Court. Nevertheless, I took the advice of Crown Law—advice which the Prime Minister either did not take or was not given—and did not criticise the Chief Justice.

It is well-known that through our leader, Mr Tony Abbott, we made the offer to the government that we would support their legislation in consideration of the government agreeing that any asylum seekers should be repatriated to countries which were signatories of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. Of course Malaysia is not one of those countries, but if my memory serves me correctly I think some 148 countries are signatories. It is obviously a case of pride on the part of the Prime Minister that she chose to not do that. Of course we know from leaked cabinet discussions—and we know that governments of any persuasion are not performing well when cabinet leaks—that clearly it was the solution desired by several in the cabinet, including the poor fellow who actually has to take responsibility for this, and that is Immigration Minister Bowen. I believe that that offer from our leadership still remains. Mr Abbott has invited the Prime Minister to come on board. Every other area has been rejected by the Labor Party, with the exception of this one. They have had to reluctantly accept this and of course it is the last option. It is so gracious of the coalition to support this bill as presented by the Labor government. We do so partially to get the government out of the miserable situation into which it has descended, but more importantly to try to put an end to the despicable trade that is people smuggling. Those of you who have any knowledge of or links with Asia would possibly know of the delight in the people-smuggling world that accompanied the High Court decision and the encouragement which, as we all know, has translated into an increase in the number of boats and people. It was only on Monday or Tuesday, I think, that questions were asked of Minister Carr. At that time, I think 13 boats had arrived since the most recent High Court decision. Of course, that number must now be increased to 16. I remind you that we are now towards the end of November. Anyone who has any knowledge of the geography of the north-west of Australia will know that we are moving quickly into the cyclone season. We are moving quickly to a time of year when it is ridiculously unsafe to be putting to sea in any sort of craft, especially those of the type that we see being used by asylum seekers.

I contrast the courtesy shown by the coalition to the government with that shown by the government and the Australian Greens in this place this week. It would be reasonable to reiterate what has been put to me by some of my constituents. They have said that democracy has gone very close to its death this week. I do not want to talk about what has gone on in the other place, simply because we are not involved in it. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the failure of this grasping government. I will comment on what has gone on in this place this week. I for one am extremely disappointed to have been in the process, part of the process and objecting to a process in which we will have seen more than 20 bills rammed through this place this week without proper debate, without proper scrutiny, without proper consideration of amendments and without the capacity to do what senators are sent to this place to do.

At the start of the week, the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Senator Ludwig, used the term 'time management'. I am relieved to learn that it was the President who, late yesterday afternoon, used the term that was meant: the guillotine. Legislation that should have been the subject of intense scrutiny and that will have a profound effect on enormous numbers of Australians was guillotined. Contrast those bills with the one on which, yesterday, we had the pleasure of demonstrating the activities of the Senate at its best—at the level that the community would expect. That was the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amend­ment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill, which passed through this chamber with unanimous support and with comments by the chair of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee, Senator Marshall, myself, the Greens and the National Party. That to me was the height of this week. I will tell you what the depth, or the trough, of this week was.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Back, I draw your attention to the question before the chair. You have been mostly relevant, but you have strayed in the last minute or so.

Senator BACK: I will, nevertheless, with your concurrence, Deputy President, conclude—from going to the height to the trough. The trough of course was the curtailment of the debate on the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill. That debate started out robustly. The contributions from all sides were fantastic on an issue of tremendous importance to Australian families, particularly to children affected in the circumstances of the break-up of a marriage. To see that debate guillotined and to see what may well have been very good amendments moved by Senator Wright, whose area of professional expertise this was before she came into the Senate, will stand for me for a long time as the low point in the democratic process of this place. I will conclude by supporting my own deputy leader, the shadow Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, in supporting the Deterring People Smuggling Bill 2011 and by hoping that the government sees sense, accepts the advice of our leadership and gets on with a proper long-term solution to the people-smuggling and asylum-seeker problem.