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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 2418

Senator FEENEY (5:09 PM) —I am very pleased to rise on this occasion and make a contribution to what I believe is a very important matter of public importance debate. We have heard from the opposition today the usual series of half-truths and distortions they trot out whenever this subject comes up. Those opposite have no leadership, no policies and no response to the challenges facing this country, and so once again they have turned to this tiresome old mechanism for diverting attention from their hopeless performance by drumming up another scare campaign concerning asylum seekers. They try to arouse xenophobic sentiment in Australia. They try to exploit the desperation and suffering of people seeking asylum. It is a sad and grubby exercise and it reflects very poorly on those who continue to promote it.

As those opposite know perfectly well, there is no connection whatever between the policies of the Rudd government and the recent rise in the number of persons trying to reach Australia by boat in order to claim asylum. The core proposition being advanced by those opposite is that the policies of this government create a pull factor. This is, of course, semicodified language for what is a nonsensical proposition. The idea that desperate persons fleeing catastrophe, desperate persons in the middle of a humanitarian crisis—whether it be on the Jaffna Peninsula or in Afghanistan—are thumbing their way through the Hansard of the Commonwealth parliament is, of course, a nonsense.

This rise that has been experienced in Australia in recent days is a very small part of what is a worldwide upsurge in refugee movements. The upsurge began in 2006, when the Howard government was still in office, and it has been caused principally by the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the escalation of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the increasing security concerns in Pakistan, the continuing violence in Iraq and, of course, the continuing conflict in several African countries. These are the drivers for creating a desperate population of persons who are on the move. Refugee numbers are rising all over the developed world, far more so than they are in Australia. In 2008, as we have heard, 36,000 people arrived by boat in Italy, 15,300 in Greece and 13,400 in Spain. Many thousands more have entered Europe overland. The US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries all have major problems with would-be asylum seekers trying to cross their borders.

Australia’s problems are very minor indeed by comparison. In 2008 we saw just 127 asylum seekers arriving by boat. Not only is this a very small number when compared to those numbers experienced by other countries but it is also a small number compared to the number of people who arrive by air as tourists or students and then subsequently try to claim asylum while in Australia or who simply overstay their visas. That was true when those opposite were in government and that is still true today. But because those people are mostly from developed countries like New Zealand, the US or Britain those opposite do not make any fuss about them. They do not care how many people from those countries stay in Australia illegally. It is only the arrival of a very small number of people from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds—people from Afghanistan, Iraq or Sri Lanka—that arouses the passions of those opposite. That is because the other side learnt many years ago that to foster, nurture and promote the fear of the other is an opportunity to create votes. Those opposite are the poor shadow children of Pauline Hanson, who offer us xenophobia and racism in lieu of offering us real policies that will make a contribution to the challenges faced by this country.

Those opposite allege, quite falsely, that the current upsurge in attempts to reach Australia by boat is linked in some way to the policies of the Rudd government. This core proposition is completely contrary to the facts. It has also been refuted by leading experts in this area. What does Professor Susan Kneebone, Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, say? She says:

… desperate people … are not cognisant of Australia’s policies. They resort to people smugglers because there are not sufficient legal channels to get here.

Of course, this proves what is common sense: the idea that desperate people fleeing in humanitarian crises are making some kind of regulatory impact statement on the latest set of laws promoted by any one country is a nonsense. Neither the asylum seekers themselves nor the smuggling gangs who ferry them from Indonesia to Ashmore Reef know or care about the details of Australia’s policy on asylum seekers. Of course, the smugglers tell these unfortunate people that if they get to Australia they will be allowed to stay. That is what they used to say, that is what they still say and no doubt it is what they will always say. They tell them they will be given a house and a farm. They tell them whatever they think they need to tell them to produce customers in their own unique, grubby little market. They are in a business. They did that when those opposite were in government and they do it today.

The Rudd government has made two substantial changes to Australia’s immigration system relating to asylum seekers. Firstly, we have abolished the Howard government’s expensive and ineffective policy of dumping asylum seekers on Nauru and other islands and keeping them there indefinitely in the hope that they will either go mad or go home. We now take them to the new facility at Christmas Island—that $400 million, 800-bed facility built by those opposite—and there we process their claims properly and with due process. Those who do not gain acceptance as asylum seekers are sent home. Secondly, we have scrapped the Howard government’s unnecessarily punitive temporary protection visas—visas which denied people accepted as refugees the right to access refugee settlement services such as English-language programs, employment and income assistance and which denied them reunion with their families. Of course, by denying family access, the TPV system actually increased the number of people who were attempting illegal entry into this country.

Neither of these measures by this government has made the slightest difference to the border protection regime which the Rudd government inherited from the previous government. Not only has this government maintained a strong border protection regime but it has actually increased funding for border protection. The government recently announced a $44.7 million increase in new measures to fight people-smuggling in cooperation with our neighbours—principally, Indonesia. The government has sent two ministerial delegations to Indonesia to reinvigorate the Bali process on people-smuggling at a ministerial level—a process the previous government neglected. It is worth pointing out that although there has been an increase in the number of people trying to reach Australia by boat since 2007 none of them have succeeded in doing so. The only would-be asylum seekers who have succeeded in reaching the Australian mainland have been those who were seriously injured in the explosion on the boat at Ashmore Reef in April and who are now in Australian hospitals. All the others have been intercepted by the Navy or other services and taken to Christmas Island. In other words, under the Rudd government, Australia’s border protection regime has been maintained—indeed, it has been strengthened—and it has been effective in preventing unauthorised entry to Australia by boat.

It has been pleasing to see that not all members of the Liberal Party have been as willing as Senator Fierravanti-Wells and others to sell out their principles in pursuit of cheap and temporary political advantage. Once again we can find Liberal Party members and their utterances on both sides of the street. Mr Turnbull has called for the reintroduction of TPVs, although this has nothing to do with the border protection regime, since it affects only those who have already been accepted as refugees. Mr Russell Broadbent called TPVs ‘an extraordinarily harsh instrument’. Mr Petro Georgiou said there was no evidence that the Rudd government’s changes to the TPV system had any impact on asylum seeker arrivals. Ms Judi Moylan said that if TPVs were re-introduced ‘we’d put more lives in danger, especially those of women and children.’ That is what the parliamentary colleagues of those opposite think about Mr Turnbull’s cheap, populist stunting. That is what they think about your siren song to the Hanson voters, who continue to appeal to your own desperate lack of policies. They are Liberals who have the courage to stick by genuinely liberal—small ‘l’ liberal—principles rather than wrapping themselves in Pauline Hanson’s flag.

What do the Australian people think about this cheap, political xenophobia? Fortunately we do not have to guess, because last month the Essential Research poll asked this question: ‘Who would you trust most to handle Australia’s immigration and border security—Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party or Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party?’ The answer was 46 per cent for Kevin Rudd, 34 per cent for Malcolm Turnbull and 20 per cent were undecided. (Time expired)