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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7490

Senator CROSSIN (8:03 PM) —I rise this evening to add a contribution to the debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill 2002. As we all know, this bill is intended to excise more than 3,000 islands off the coast of Australia. As Senator Sherry said in his contribution, this bill was introduced probably minutes after the Senate disallowed the regulations under which it was first proposed to excise these islands. The government claims that this bill is aimed at deterring people smugglers. However, there is very little evidence to support this claim. The government has not offered a clear justification for the excisions detailed in this bill.

The government has stated that people smugglers are likely to look for new routes, given the excision of the usual routes—that is, to Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. If the response to this is to cut off more islands, what is stopping the government from excising sections of the mainland next— Broome or Darwin, for example—under the same justification? Many of the islands lie extremely close to the Australian mainland. In some cases, people are able to walk to islands off the Northern Territory coast during low tide. That is certainly the case with islands which are as close to the northern shore as Milingimbi. The Darwin Surf Life Saving Club row their boat to the Tiwi Islands, and it only takes them some hours to do it. So we are not talking at all about sections of land that are large distances from the mainland. That demonstrates how close some of these islands are and how ridiculous it is to expect this bill to deter people smugglers.

This legislation expects people smugglers to go past the islands to the mainland. This would in fact encourage those people smugglers to move past the islands to the mainland, rather than deter them. It also shows the level of understanding the government has about the region of Northern Australia— which seems, as the days roll on, to be very little—and the practical inadequacies that this bill presents. In addition, these islands are not necessarily on any direct route from Indonesia. A boat travelling from Indonesia could reach parts of the mainland more easily than it could divert to a number of the excised islands.

I also mention that this bill does nothing to impact on the number of unauthorised airport arrivals, for example, which constitute a significant number. Unauthorised arrivals who land in an excised zone are not covered by Australian law, and consequently do not have any right to appeal a decision to the Refugee Review Tribunal or to access any Australian court. But, of course, that is exactly the way this government would want it. At the same time though, Australia has signed and ratified conventions and is obliged by international treaties not to expel, return or extradite people who are in danger of being persecuted. Therefore, it seems that asylum seekers who make the dangerous journey to an excised island will be stranded on an island that possibly does not have the resources or the infrastructure to support the people, and they may be homeless, desperate and traumatised, living in fear of their own and their families' lives.

Let us have a look at the process that this bill underwent in order to get here. We know that the local communities, particularly the ones that I have spoken to in the Northern Territory, were not consulted about this piece of legislation. In fact, there was much confusion about what this bill would generate.

Senator Ian Macdonald —What did the Tiwi Islanders say?

Senator CROSSIN —Let me pick up on that interjection from Senator Macdonald. The Tiwi Islanders are not happy about this piece of legislation. Robert Cleary, the new executive officer of their local government association, spoke without authorisation on their behalf and has since been chastised by those Indigenous people for doing so. Senator Macdonald, you know that Mr Cleary is a former local government minister for the Liberal Party in Tasmania. Given his background, why wouldn't he go on radio to champion the benefits of this legislation without the authorisation of the Indigenous people for whom he worked? So it is not correct to say the Indigenous people on the Tiwi Islands supported this legislation, because their spokesperson had no right to make the comments he did on radio. Perhaps you should do your homework before you make such interjections, Senator Macdonald.

The lack of consultation on behalf of the government has led to considerable community confusion about the nature of this measure. Even Senator Nigel Scullion himself admitted on radio that there has been significant confusion in the Northern Territory and on the islands as to what this is all about. He also admitted that the island residents were not consulted at all. Senator Scullion was sent on a rescue mission to the islands to save face. In the government's defence, however, Senator Scullion stated in a radio interview:

But, because it had no impact at all on Australians, there was an assumption that we didn't need to talk to anybody.

When it was suggested by the reporter that the idea to excise over 3,000 islands off the coast of Australia was hatched overnight, Senator Scullion replied, `Well, it was pretty much overnight.' It is no wonder Australians are confused, and no wonder there is little explanation given for this measure. It is little wonder that it has received so much criticism from the community and from the Labor Party as being an ad hoc bill.

The extent of these misunderstandings is not insignificant. There were newspaper reports of people in the Torres Strait actually welcoming the excision, based on a misunderstanding that it would increase their independence. People deserve to know what the government is conjuring up behind their back, especially when it is literally in their own backyard. These misunderstandings are not surprising, considering the government's lack of consultation with Indigenous people and people who live on these islands. No affected Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities were consulted before the government made the decision to excise them from Australia. In fact, I travelled to Goulburn Island and Croker Island and spoke to the people about this very matter. They were quite confused about it and wondered why on earth we would want to excise islands that they believed, under their law, were part of the mainland.

If you know anything about Croker Island and Goulburn Island, you will know that they have a significant attachment to Oenpelli and Maningrida, which are communities on the coast of Northern Australia. That is their traditional land and cultural link, so to them this made absolutely no sense. The other thing that worried them when I spoke to them was that they were very frightened that this would mean that, if people landed on their island or were struggling on a boat off the shore of their coastline, they may be somewhat hesitant to assist those people. A comment was made to me: `Perhaps we should head out with a boat and ensure they get to the mainland so that their rights are protected.'

So it is true: these people were not consulted and did not understand this legislation. Then the government went ahead and launched an information kit 13 weeks after a decision was made, which simply compounded the insult. Regulations were made by the government to excise these islands on 7 June 2002; however, it was not until September that an information kit was distributed by mail to community organisations in the Northern Territory. Are we surprised at the date of the launch of the release of this kit? It happened to be the day before the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee was coming to town to conduct its inquiry. My, my; what a coincidence!

Given that the government attempted to make regulations to excise islands in early June, it is interesting—and quite appalling— to note that an information kit was distributed three months after the decision was made to excise over 3,000 islands off our coast. If I remember correctly, what this government actually asked Indigenous organisations and ATSIC to do was to distribute the kit on its behalf. This made matters far worse. My office had a number of phone calls asking if I knew where the kit ought to be sent to—people in ATSIC were wondering what they ought to do with this kit. Far be it from me to suggest that, as always when it comes to Indigenous people, the government had not done its work and consulted them properly and consistently. But that is never an issue or a priority with this government. Despite the fact that no-one at all on these islands was consulted prior to either the regulations being made or this legislation being drafted, the government intends to excise those islands. The minister has asked island residents to look out for suspicious vessels in the region. The government has actually decided that these residents will now be Australia's front line of defence. Consultation prior to the decision being made to excise islands was not even attempted by this government.

This is quite significant, as it illustrates very well the lack of thought that has gone into this so-called policy. This is not even a quick fix in an attempt to discourage people-smuggling. This bill is ill-conceived and ill-targeted, to say the least. Not even the Premier of Western Australia, the Premier of Queensland, or Clare Martin, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, were consulted on this issue. They were subsequently informed, on 6 June, but no initial consultation was pursued prior to the decision being made. When the government was questioned about the level of consultation with the communities and how information was distributed, a response was given that was absolutely inadequate. In answering questions that I put on notice, Senator Ellison, representing the Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, stated:

The Government's Anti-People Smuggling Taskforce provided information in early June that people smugglers would target islands closer to the Australian mainland. The organisers were believed to be avoiding Christmas and Ashmore Islands, and intending routes via waters off northern Australia.

In order to ensure the integrity of Australia's borders, it was necessary for the Government to act as quickly as possible to discourage future people smuggling operations. Accordingly, the Government made Regulations on 7 June 2002 to excise further offshore islands.

Given this explanation, and reasoning given by this government, there is nothing stopping the government from excising parts of the mainland. If the government receives similar information which suggests that people smugglers will in the future target the mainland, what on earth will be the government's course of action then? It seems logical that this government will simply excise those parts of the mainland that may be targeted. In fact, Senator Scullion, again in a radio interview, stated:

I felt very strongly that we should excise in fact parts of mainland Australia.

Senator Scullion only changed his mind in relation to this statement because, I understand, the minister called him and explained that that may be a breach of international conventions. Therefore, Senator Scullion changed his tune, but he still maintains that it is `not off the radar'. The minister may want to clarify for us whether or not there are plans to excise parts of mainland Australia. It certainly has not been ruled out in radio interviews in the course of this debate.

There is obviously no genuine policy agenda behind this bill. In fact, this bill has been inaccurately titled as including `further border protection measures'. There are no further border protection measures included in this bill. The government is simply cutting off parts of our country for immigration purposes. There is a significant lack of evidence justifying the excision, and this is primarily because it is an ineffective solution. This is a political decision, not a long-term policy solution. It takes no consideration of the current global situation and does not even attempt to provide a humane and long-term commitment to Australia's national security.

Labor reaffirm our support for tough border protection and for smashing people smugglers. However, Labor can see the inadequacies of this bill. We have recently produced a policy which encompasses the current global and national situation, international treaties and conventions, as well as consideration of community attitudes. We have presented Australia with an alternative that is both humane and practical in protecting our borders. The government in this bill has delivered nothing more than a fractured and minimal approach which does not provide any solution to the current inadequacies.

The excision of islands does not strengthen our border protection. It weakens us. It shrinks our borders. It is in fact an invitation for people smugglers to attempt to reach the mainland. The inevitable consequence of this policy is that the risk that unauthorised persons would end up landing on the mainland is in fact substantially increased, not diminished. There has been serious criticism of the idea of distinguishing between different parts of Australia for migration purposes and it has been suggested that excisions will only result in asylum seekers seeking to land on mainland Australia, further endangering the lives of asylum seekers, potentially increasing the quarantine problems on the mainland and potentially leading to the situation where parts of the mainland of Australia might also be excised from the migration zone in the future.

This legislation was the subject of an inquiry by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee. That committee stated:

There is little evidence to support assertions that the excision of islands close to the mainland is likely to deter asylum seekers. In fact, some evidence was received that the likely effect of the Bill would be to drive asylum seekers closer to the mainland, either with the intent of landing there, or incidentally. Either may increase the likelihood of landings on the mainland.

The very first recommendation that features in the report from the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee is:

The Committee recommends that the Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill 2002 not proceed.

It is plain and simple: this is not the solution to people smugglers.

Finally, the budget papers disclose that the Howard government intends to maintain processing in third countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru over the next four years, at a disclosed cost of $430 million. Clearly the government faces substantial difficulty with the strategy, given that it does not have a four-year agreement with either Papua New Guinea or Nauru and that recent comments by the President of Nauru indicate considerable dissatisfaction with the current agreement and disputation over the terms of the agreement. It should be noted that, in respect of the Tampa asylum seekers, the Howard government has called for global burden sharing—that is, nations other than Australia should offer resettlement places to any of these asylum seekers found to be genuine refugees. There are no future global burden sharing arrangements for non-Tampa asylum seekers, and Australia will have to resettle those found to be genuine refugees. The government has no ongoing agreement with any country, not even with Indonesia, our closest neighbour.

The budget papers disclose that it is the Howard government's intention to have no new asylum seekers processed on mainland Australia. It is obvious that this government has avoided creating adequate solutions, because it was not provided for in the budget. This government has no intention of providing a long-term solution to this global problem which would include strong relationships with not only our neighbours but also the UNHCR. This government has not bothered with that. The Howard government thinks that it can simply dump asylum seekers on Pacific Islands and New Zealand. This has proven to be a flawed policy which has cost the Australian taxpayers millions of dollars and taken away from important aid programs elsewhere.

This is an inappropriate bill. It has been introduced without adequate consultation, explanation or justification. It shows, once again, that this government has taken the attitudes and the views of Indigenous people, particularly those living on the islands, absolutely for granted. We have had regulations not passed by the Senate which were followed by legislation minutes later. Then it took some three months before an information kit was produced and, in a fairly clumsy way, distributed to those communities so they were aware of what was happening. This government surely is not serious about making sure that everyone who will be affected by this legislation—and people in these communities will be affected by the legislation if a boatload of people rocked up on their beaches—understands the impact of this legislation, understands their rights and responsibilities and understands what their response ought to be. People smugglers will not be deterred by this legislation; they will be encouraged to go right past those islands to the mainland. The Australian public will not be fooled again by the actions of this government, which does not have a long-term sustainable policy to deal with this issue effectively.