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Thursday, 20 June 2002
Page: 4067

Mrs ELSON (2:25 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Would the minister advise the House why the government continues to pursue border protection with such vigour. Is the minister aware of other statements of support?

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) —I thank the honourable member for Forde for her question because she wants to know why we should urgently and with vigour pursue legislation that has already passed this House today, and why in another place there ought to be support for that legislation. I know it is disorderly to respond to interjections, but I heard an interjection which raised the spectre that in some way this government is about trying to exploit divisions in the opposition over border protection. Nothing could be further from the truth. I make the point that I made in a debate earlier today: there is one way to make sure that this issue is not a matter of great political moment, and that is to support the legislation. That is all you have to do. It is not a question in which anybody would point out to you the divisions that are operating within your own party organisation, but it would enable the opposition to ensure that the Australian people knew that they were determined to protect our borders and determined to support a government that is intent on that objective.

The reason for the urgency associated with this legislation is quite clear. This is a point that I have made before but I think it is worth making it again. The smugglers watch very closely what is happening in relation to Australia. They have been in a very profitable business; they are not about wanting to walk away from those profitable activities. They need to see only one vessel that indicates to them that Australia is again reopen for business and there would be so many vessels trying to follow that first one and we would again face the sorts of difficulties that we saw back in August to September when we had something in the order of 3,500 people attempting to come. We know the import of what that means. Here is a very simple measure that you could support next week in the Senate. You could move an urgency motion this afternoon to get it up in the Senate and, through you, Mr Speaker, the Labor Party could do that. Let me make the point that it would have a real impact on protecting Australia's interests.

I want to conclude my remarks by saying that some people have suggested—and the Leader of the Opposition has suggested it here and elsewhere—that the fact that certain islands or external territories might be excised from our migration zone in some way compromises Australia's sovereignty.

Mr RUDDOCK —In some way, yes. Let me make it very clear: the legislation is an exercise of our sovereignty. That is what it is. It is an exercise of our sovereignty because it enables us to determine who accesses our migration zone and who does not. It is not an abandonment of our sovereignty; it is an exercise of sovereignty. If the opposition leader had any good sense at all, he would abandon this argument quick smart. The reason is very simple: if the argument had any cogency whatsoever, it would have applied last year in relation to Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. At that time, you could have walked away from those measures, opposed those measures, and said, `We're not prepared to be part of it. It compromises our sovereignty.' The fact is that it in no way compromised our sovereignty; it was an exercise of our sovereignty, which the opposition then supported.

It is very clear that, in relation to these issues which deal with the uncertain situation that surrounds boat arrivals in the future, you need to be able to change the measures that you implement in order to remain flexible in dealing with the way in which the smugglers themselves respond. It is, I think, reasonable to recognise that you need to have a suite of measures that operate. One cannot guarantee that any particular measure is going to be more effective than any other. Last year, the member for Bowman said, when talking about coastguards when he had shadow ministerial responsibility:

It is impossible to detect all such boats. I am not saying that coastguards can do that ...

That is what he suggested. The Leader of the Opposition thinks I ought to be able to guarantee that any measure I propose will absolutely and in every respect ensure that nobody will reach Australia. The proposition he is asserting in relation to that would be the same as me asking him for a guarantee that his decision not to support additional excision measures will mean that people smugglers will not read this as a signal to come to Australia. That is what it is about. And the real question is whether the Leader of the Opposition can guarantee that his denial will not result in any unauthorised arrivals in Australia that might have been covered by the areas excised.