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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8565

Mr HUNT (Flinders) (19:51): I rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This government does not deserve to remain in office. It has reached a point of serial incompetence on a tragic scale with deep, powerful, abiding human consequences which are most evidently represented by the need to come to this moment. And it deserves to lose office, as quickly as possible, for two fundamental reasons. The first reason is that it is a government that was born without common sense, without an understanding of the consequences of its actions. I lived through, I prosecuted, the Home Insulation Program case and saw that the obvious, the inevitable, the forewarned came to pass because nobody stopped to think of the consequences of their actions.

At one time, I described the Home Insulation Program as the worst public policy failure in peacetime since the Second World War. At the time I believed that to be right. I now believe that that has been far surpassed by the extraordinary human tragedy which has resulted from the decision of four years ago to dismantle offshore processing, to ignore the warnings and the evidence, and to allow what was a catastrophic human tragedy to continue until this day.

I also fear that, because only one out of the three elements of the solution that are necessary is about to be adopted, it will not adequately provide the resolve, the elements and the outcomes that are necessary to prevent further loss of life at sea. Indeed, as we debate this legislation—which will surely pass this House with the support of both the government and the opposition—it is my understanding that potentially 67 souls are in peril at sea, if they have not already been lost, on a boat largely comprising those of Palestinian origin. A further human tragedy at this moment is potentially unfolding. I pray that it is otherwise.

The second reason why this government has forfeited its mandate in my judgment is that it has consistently denied the history. It has airbrushed the history. Each day is year zero; each day is a fresh beginning. Each day it fails to acknowledge the disasters, the tragedies and the consequences of prior actions and, in failing to acknowledge the past, it completely fails to acknowledge lessons of the past. So we come to a circumstance where there are tragic outcomes.

I do not want to detain the House for long this evening. I simply wish to set the record straight on three points, to answer these questions. Firstly, how did we come to this moment? Secondly, what were the consequences of the decision of four years ago to dismantle the offshore processing regime? And, thirdly, how do we go forward from this moment to provide a genuine, humane solution to the loss of lives at sea?

Let us remind ourselves of the history. This is what the current Prime Minister said as long ago as 2003—and she followed it through:

Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.

All three of those claims—'costly', 'unsustainable' and 'wrong as a matter of principle'—have been found to be not just wrong but catastrophically wrong. The warnings were present, the notification was imminent and the evidence was unavoidable that this policy—which was put into practice four years ago under the leadership of the now member for Griffith and with the support of the now Prime Minister—was going to lead to tragic outcomes with the restarting of a large flow of people in the hands of people smugglers who simply did not care about the consequences of sending souls to sea in boats which were inevitably going to founder under difficult circumstances. Those consequences were foreseen.

So we came to this moment because there was a decision taken by the then Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, and the then deputy leader, the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to bring about the end of what had been a successful proposal, a humane proposal—because it had saved lives at sea, not just in their hundreds but potentially in their thousands. All of that history was ignored. And with, no doubt, goodwill but some political motive, the reality of protecting lives was lost. That brings me to the issue of the consequences.

The previous policy, the Howard government policy, had seen a 99 per cent drop in arrivals. When it was dismantled there was a 100-fold increase in arrivals—not 100 per cent but 100-fold. That is a 10,000 per cent increase. So, essentially, we went from 5,000 arrivals per year to under 50, and then back up to over 5,000, or more than 21½ thousand, within four years, with the inevitable tragedies associated with those movements of people in an utterly unsafe circumstance. No government could ever accept a circumstance where planes were being put into the air filled with passengers knowing that there would be at least one or two plane crashes because they were being sent into the skies without protection, without authorisation and without safety checks. Yet that is precisely what has occurred over a four-year period in the depths of the seas.

Those consequences could not have been more tragic. Others will talk about the financial consequences; I am not interested in those this evening, as terrible as they have been. It is simply the fact that the human consequences were unspeakable. We have had the worst loss of lives in peacetime since the Second World War, as a consequence of government policy. What policy could have been more unsuccessful? Yet we were lectured numerous times by almost everybody on the other side of the House, who told us how inhumane it was to continue with offshore processing, how there would be no problem with dismantling offshore processing and how it was the right and just thing to do to dismantle offshore processing.

That is why this government is not fit for office. It ignored the lessons of history. It ignored the evidence when that policy began to collapse. We were lectured for more than two years about push factors, not pull factors—the pretence that things had changed in the world, where suddenly, with the ending of the Iraq conflict in large measure, with the ending of the Sri Lankan conflict in large measure, somehow there was an upsurge rather than a decrease in pressures for international migration. What had changed, of course, was the sugar on the table. Now we know by the government's own actions that this dismantling was catastrophic in human terms.

Now let us look to the third part, which is going forwards. I have a very simple proposition here: it is right that we should now allow offshore processing in a humane circumstance. What was proposed in Malaysia was not going to accord with Australian satisfactions, and what this House was asked to do was not to approve Malaysia but to remove all human rights protections from the Migration Act. Let me remind the House that the government, the ALP, asked us to remove all human rights protections from Australian legislation. We would not stand for that. We did not stand for that. And now the government knows that it was neither acceptable to the Australian public nor the right thing to do.

Going forwards, there are three things which should occur: (1) there should be offshore processing, because it is the most humane thing that we can do if carried out in a safe and humane environment; (2) there should also be temporary protection visas, because they are a critical part of the process; and (3) as was found by the Houston committee, in the panel's view:

Turning back irregular maritime vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures …

But, so that I am not guilty of the selective recording of history which we have witnessed in this debate, I want to finish the sentence of Angus Houston:

… but only in circumstances where a range of operational, safety of life, diplomatic and legal conditions are met …

In other words, it can be done, it can be effective, but we need to make sure there are safeguards, and that is precisely what we would do. But, without all three elements being present, my fear, my belief and my prediction are that today's measures will only be very partially successful at best and that therefore we risk the loss of more lives at sea.

So I say in good faith to the government, as they have finally reached the position where they recognise that the policy of four years ago was catastrophic: there are three elements, not one, and we will not be successful until all three elements are in place. I implore the government to rethink their position, to adopt the approach in full, because only in that way can we genuinely take all of the steps necessary to ensure that the tragedies at sea which are occurring at this very second finally cease.