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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2954

Mr KEENAN (4:06 PM) —I must start with a confession, and that is that I have a soft spot for the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. Sometimes I feel that we need to save him from himself. To do that, I think we need to at least give him some facts in this debate. If that is the case, maybe he will stop coming in here verballing, misleading and telling the Australian people more untruths. I would like to do that for a few minutes today. Firstly, I want to rebut some of the things that he said about our policy regarding third-country processing on Nauru. Nauru, as we know, was used in the past in a suite of policies that did something that this minister could never claim to have done: they stopped the boats. It was not the only policy; it was part of a suite of policies to which the opposition would return to achieve the same result when the government changes.

The minister, for some unknown reason, keeps referring to the fact that 95 per cent of the people who are on Nauru came to Australia with permanent visas. I want to give him some facts issued by none other than his predecessor as the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans. On Friday 8 February 2008, in a press release from the government, Senator Evans stated:

A total of 1637 people were detained in the Nauru and Manus facilities, of whom 1153 (or 70 per cent) were ultimately resettled from—

those facilities—

to Australia or other countries. Of those who were resettled, around 61 per cent (705 people) were resettled in Australia.

The minister continually and wilfully misleads by saying that that figure is 95 per cent. If he had any integrity he would come back in here and correct the record, because that is a press release, which I am happy to table, from his predecessor as minister for immigration.

The other thing the minister does, and I think this is most unfortunate, is to continue to claim the fiction that when we introduced our suite of policies, including temporary protection visas, it somehow resulted in more people arriving in Australia illegally. That is completely and utterly untrue, and I just want to go back and remind the minister of the statistics. From 2002 onwards, for five years prior to the government changing when the Labor Party won the election, we had on average three boat arrivals per year. That is the equivalent of one arrival every four months. Three boat arrivals a year is a weekend’s work for this government. The statistics are completely and utterly irrefutable. The policies that we introduced, which were incredibly controversial at the time and criticised up hill and down dale by the Labor Party as being inhumane and not what they would do, worked to drive the people smugglers from their evil trade and stopped the boats from coming down to Australia.

I also want to address the issue, which the government raises, of the so-called ‘boat phone’. It worries me a lot, seeing that this minister clearly has no idea what is going on in his own portfolio, that they talk about the fact that, if a boat were to undertake an action on the high seas, a naval crew would not refer back to political authorities for permission to do anything. Anyone who has any understanding of how Customs and Border Protection works knows full well that a naval commander, before he took any such action, would of course go up the chain of command and that there would ultimately be a political decision about the sort of action to be taken. So this idea that somehow it is unusual for political authorities to control what their military forces do is ludicrous, and it does make me worry about what this minister actually understands about what is happening within his own portfolio.

Yesterday we saw a classic example. The minister fronted up at a press conference and said, rather unfortunately, that all the people who had escaped from Christmas Island had been accounted for. Later on he was contradicted in that, first of all by his own officials and then by officers of the Australian Federal Police. A great many events have occurred over the last week. We have seen extraordinary scenes within all our detention centres and particularly, of course, on the Christmas Island detention centre. As the shadow minister for immigration has said, we have seen the extraordinary and unprecedented sight of the Australian Federal Police being called upon to retake a Commonwealth facility by force because the Commonwealth had lost control of that facility. We saw detainees use violence against other detainees. We saw detainees use violence against Commonwealth officers. We saw widespread break-outs and riots. We saw buildings being set on fire and weapons being used.

How did we get to this situation? How is it that, when the government came into power in 2007, there were four people in our detention network who had arrived here in an unauthorised way by boat, yet now we have over 6½ thousand people in our detention network who have arrived in the same way? You have to laugh about the fact that the minister cannot manage to conduct a headcount within his own facilities. I wonder how hard it would be to conduct a headcount when you only needed to count four people. I suggest that it was a lot easier under the policies of the previous government, because the policies of the previous government had stopped the boats from coming in the first place. Ultimately, that has to be the goal of government policy, yet—sadly—this Labor Party just refuses to listen.

As I said, I do have a soft spot for the minister for immigration, so it was impossible for me not to squirm when watching him on Lateline last night. It was impossible not to feel his embarrassment as he was peppered with questions by the presenter and was unable to answer even basic questions on the facts of what is going on in his own portfolio. You have to wonder why you would even bother being a minister in this Labor government. You have consecutive prime ministers, Rudd and Gillard, treating the cabinet with contempt and making policy on the run. Then you have the spectacle of ministers who do not seem to be in charge of what is happening in their departments. The minister last night could not answer any of the questions in a categorical way. Everything had to have a caveat of ‘I am advised’ or ‘I have been told’. He does not give the impression of a minister who is in charge of events within his own portfolio.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I always understood that the idea is that ministers try to be in charge of and shape events within their portfolio. They should not just be hapless victims at the mercy of events. They should not just be talking heads for the department that go out and do press conferences and shrug their shoulders while explaining to the people the circumstances of the latest disaster that has happened within their portfolio as though everything is beyond their control because ultimately they are only the minister.

If you were squirming when the presenter asked the minister to explain some basic facts about what had been going on within his own portfolio, then you really had to feel sorry for the minister when the presenter finished off the interview by asking him about the ‘never-never’ solution in East Timor. That has become an international embarrassment. Australian diplomats are forced to run around the region pushing an idea that everybody in the room knows is never going to happen. I was lucky enough to visit East Timor in January, when I also visited Indonesia, and the East Timorese were quite forthright—as they have been whenever this issue has been raised—that they have absolutely no intention of hosting an international facility at Australia’s behest. Quite frankly, it was very hard for them to hide their disgust at the way the Australian government had treated them.

I also had the opportunity during that visit to visit Indonesia. I talked to some of the members of the committee that are looking into outlawing people-smuggling within Indonesia, something that is very important. They were very polite. They came and met me, and we had a very polite meeting. At the end of it they finally said to me: ‘You know, we are a little bit bemused about why we are always talking to Australians about people-smuggling. They come up here and ask us to do more when the Australian government is pursuing a policy that encourages the people smugglers to continue to bring people to Australia in an unauthorised way.’ That is a fair point. That is why Indonesian officials have said publicly that they would like Australia to take the sugar from the table. They would like Australia to clean up its own house and to stop encouraging people to come here in an unauthorised way and apparently doing everything we can to encourage people smugglers to be in charge of Australia’s immigration system.

The East Timor never-never solution is the ultimate embarrassment, and I urge the government to stop pretending that this is ever going to happen, stop damaging our relationships with our regional neighbours and admit that this is not going to happen. If they were serious about third-country processing they would pick up the phone, talk to the President or Prime Minister of Nauru and ask to reopen the facilities that the Australian taxpayer has already funded on that island.

Words will not solve this problem. The people smugglers need to know that this government has some resolve to stop them from bringing people down here in an unauthorised way. Unless the government shows that resolve, more people will come and we will continue to have this rolling crisis within our detention network. (Time expired)