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Thursday, 17 June 2010
Page: 3651

Senator BRANDIS (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans. I refer to the minister’s failure to answer the question directed to him yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Abetz. Firstly, will the minister confirm reports that 170 people have drowned trying to get to Australia since the government softened the border protection policy? Secondly, does the government accept responsibility for these deaths?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I again express my disappointment at the low road which the Liberal opposition are prepared to go down. Can I indicate that the reference I saw to 170 people I think was in an article by Andrew Bolt, who seems to have very similar lines to the opposition on such matters. I am not sure who writes whose stuff. But I cannot confirm how many people may have drowned in the sense of whether they drowned in Indonesian waters, in Sri Lankan waters or in other waters off Malaysia et cetera. I have no capacity to accurately describe who or the numbers of persons who might have drowned. There are a number of cases that we know of, such as the Sri Lankan expedition where we rescued a Sri Lankan boat. Clearly people had left that boat and swum, and they were missing and presumed drowned. As we know, we had the deaths of SIEV36, when the fire on the boat occurred and at least four died then. But there have been other reports from Indonesia at various times about persons having drowned. There was one only a day or two ago, as yet unconfirmed. I think the Indonesians have confirmed potentially two persons drowned, but there are reports that there were more. These things clearly are not capable of being confirmed by us. We have to rely on other authorities.

But we do not accept responsibility for those deaths, Senator, just as I remember you did not accept responsibility for the 380 or so people who died on SIEVX. I do not remember you coming into the Senate saying you as the government of the day took responsibility for those deaths. It is an outrageous claim. It does you no credit at all and I suggest the moderates in the Liberal Party just have a think about where they are headed with this sort of attack.

Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. May we take it from the minister’s answer to my question that the government has taken no steps to investigate the reports of these drownings? If that is not the case, what steps has the government taken to investigate reports of these drownings? Can the minister also confirm reports that 12 people drowned last week trying to get to Australia? Does the government take responsibility for those deaths?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —Clearly the opposition have decided to persist in this endeavour to try and take this debate about asylum seekers in Australia to new depths. As I said in answer to the primary question from the senator, we obviously liaise with Indonesia, Malaysia and other authorities when reports of drownings or reports of boats in distress are received. We work with those authorities to try and ensure the rescue of those boats or to try and determine the accuracy of information that is provided. We have followed up on the question of the Australian article which said 12 asylum seekers had been reported to have drowned. The minister for customs and border protection, Mr O’Connor, had his officials following that up. The Indonesian advice, as I understand it at this stage, is that they had no record of that particular incident, but there is reporting that two men may have drowned in an incident off—  (Time expired)

Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, is it not true that there are currently more than 427 children in immigration detention in Australia? Is it not also true that, at the time the Howard government left office, there were 21 children in immigration detention? Does the Rudd government take responsibility for the 21-fold increase in the number of children behind bars?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —The senator is dripping with insincerity. What I can confirm for the senator, who formerly had a reputation for balance and liberal views, is that this government places children in alternative places of detention with their family members. We do not put them into detention centres, as the previous government used to. We do not intend packing them off to some remote South Pacific island, as is now the coalition’s policy. Your intention, as I understand it, is to take children and put them into detention centres on islands in third countries. So don’t come in here and try to pretend you have any compassion. You want to bring back the Pacific solution and bring back temporary protection visas, which ensured families were separated for up to five years. So you have no credentials in this debate. There is no sincerity but, rather, very cheap politics behind this question. (Time expired)