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Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Page: 11266

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (4:05 PM) —As the Australian public well knows, boats carrying asylum seekers have been coming to Australia for many years—for 20 to 30 years, in my own memory. Of course the first ones that I personally remember are those that came in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This was an issue that the Fraser government and subsequently the Hawke government had to deal with. So boats have been coming to Australia for many years, and governments of both political persuasions have had to deal with these issues. What do we see now? We see now very considerable numbers of displaced persons coming to our region as a result of military or civil conflict. We have seen in recent times, in the most recent period, people come to Australia or seek to come to Australia from Iraq; Iran; more recently, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area; and, most recently, Sri Lanka as a result of the military and civil conflict there, the civil war there. These are described quite sensibly as push factors, factors that drive people away from their homes, factors that we now see cause 40 million people in the world to be displaced and about a third of those potentially in or coming to our region.

So, how do we as a government grapple with those issues? The first thing the government did was to enhance our border protection and Customs protection arrangements. In the last budget, for example, over $450 million was expended to increase our maritime surveillance and to increase our aerial surveillance. This is a very important policy to effect because, as a maritime country and continent, we need to ensure that we protect our borders as much as we can. So we added to the border protection, the border security and the Customs protection and security arrangements effected by our predecessors. We added to those quite substantially. We have seen that with the additional maritime aerial surveillance activities.

The second thing that we did, which was very important, was to understand that, fundamentally, if you want to deal with this issue you can only deal with this issue appropriately and effectively by acting in conjunction with your neighbours—by acting in our region, with our friends and partners in the region. The government reinstituted the Bali process, which is the regional institution effected in the early 2000s to be the regional institution which deals with people-smuggling, people movement and human-trafficking issues. The former Indonesian foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda, and I convened the first ministerial-level meeting of the Bali process in three or four years. We did that in the course of this year. That was well attended and well supported in our region because it was not just Australia who had a difficulty or a problem with, for example, asylum seekers coming from Afghanistan or from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. Indonesia had difficulties caused by the movement of Rohingya people from Myanmar, or Burma, or from Bangladesh. There are different problems created for different countries. The only way we can deal with this is by the so-called transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, to a lesser extent Singapore and to some extent Thailand, and the source countries, including now Sri Lanka, acting together. Only then can we seek to manage this issue and this problem.

The third thing that the government did was to say to our good friend and neighbour Indonesia that we need to enhance what we have been doing. There has been very good cooperation between Australia and Indonesia on this issue, not just in the course of this government’s time in office but in the course of our predecessor’s time in office. That assistance has included not just assistance to Indonesia—information sharing, intelligence sharing; assistance on detention facilities; assistance on processing, on settlement and on resettlement; and assistance to the two relevant international institutions, the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That has been ongoing in Indonesia for a number of years, supported by governments of both political persuasions. But we said to Indonesia: given the increased difficulties that we face, given the heightened challenge that we face, in particular most recently from the aftermath of the civil conflict in Sri Lanka, we need to heighten our cooperation. In that respect you have seen not just me having discussions with my counterpart, and officials from a range of agencies having discussions with their counterparts, but the Prime Minister and President Yudhoyono having conversations to agree to enhance our cooperation. We are very hopeful that officials will be in a position to report progress to the Prime Minister and to the President of those enhanced and heightened cooperation arrangements at the APEC meeting in Singapore in the middle of November. When it comes to our relationship with Indonesia this is done not just under the structure of the Bali process but also, importantly, between Australia and Indonesia, as part of the Lombok treaty brought into effect by Hassan Wirajuda and me when we signed it in Perth in February 2008.

When it came to office the government also had a very strong view that it was possible to do these things so far as border protection was concerned but at the same time to deal with people who came to Australia’s territories and claimed asylum in a dignified and civilised manner—to treat those people in a way which, without equivocation, discharged our international legal and humanitarian obligations consistent with the refugee convention. That could be done in a civilised and dignified way and we did not have to go through the dark period that we went through in the course of the Howard government’s time in office, when our international reputation was shredded, when the community was divided and when a very dark period in our history left a stain on the reputation of Australia internationally. As a consequence of that we said that temporary protection visas should be abolished; the so-called Pacific island solution, which saw processing not take place either in a source, transit or receiving country but in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or Nauru, countries that have no direct relationship with this difficulty or this problem, abolished; and the removal of women and children from behind razor wire. We made those changes because we believed those changes reflected a view that you could be tough, and have a system of border integrity and security, and at the same time discharge a humanitarian and an international legal obligation. We do not believe that those three major changes are the driving force behind what we now see. The clear driving force behind what we now see are the push factors that I have described.

I note the thesis of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for immigration that the cause, the sum total and entire cause of the difficulties we now face is the changes that we made.

Dr Stone —That’s right.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —The shadow minister for immigration says, ‘That’s right.’ I ask the shadow minister for immigration, I ask the shadow minister for foreign affairs, and I have twice in this House asked the Leader of the Opposition: if it is your view—to which the shadow minister for immigration says ‘yes, that’s right’—that the sum total of the causes for this matter are the changes that the government made when it came to office, then tell us which ones you will reintroduce.

Dr Stone interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! If the member for Murray wants to get her turn she will—

Ms Julie Bishop interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Deputy Leader of the Opposition!

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —I noticed this morning at the doors, when the Leader of the Opposition walked out to speak to the media, he said—and I quote from the transcript headed: ‘Malcolm Turnbull: Transcript, Parliament House Canberra 28 October’:

… it is Kevin Rudd’s doing, every bit of it.

He unpicked the border protection policies of the previous government …

The journalist then went on to ask him a couple of questions, and I will refer to a couple in passing. A journalist asked:

Mr Turnbull who should take the asylum seekers, Indonesia or Australia, on board Viking?

Malcolm Turnbull said:

This is the question you should ask Mr Rudd.

Ms Julie Bishop —Exactly.

Dr Stone —You are in government.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the member for Murray are warned!

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —A journalist asked:

Does Indonesia need more money do you think?

Malcolm Turnbull said:

Well you’d have to ask Mr Rudd that or the Indonesians that.

Then a journalist asked the question about the changes that Mr Turnbull has referred to. They said:

… you don’t want to bring back a Pacific Solution. So where exactly do you stand on this?

Malcolm Turnbull said:

Well where we stand is to hold the Government to account.

In other words, the Liberal Party say on the one hand that the entire cause of this difficulty are the three changes that the government made when it came to office, which were taking women and children from behind razor wire in detention centres like Baxter, abolishing the system of temporary protection visas and abolishing the Pacific island solution. You say that the abolition of those three things are the sum total—

Dr Stone —That’s right.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —of all our problems—and you said that that is right—but you will not say whether if you were elected to office you will reintroduce them.

A lot was said by the Leader of the Opposition today in question time about the 78 asylum seekers on the Oceanic Viking. Let us be absolutely crystal clear about three issues that are currently before the Australian public. The first is that a boatload of over 250 Sri Lankans were intercepted by Indonesian authorities within Indonesian waters and taken to the port of Merak. There have been over 80 interceptions and interdictions by Indonesian authorities within their territory over the last three to four years. This one was very significant because it was the first occasion in which an interdiction in Indonesian waters was made by Indonesian naval authorities. We welcome that very much. We have heard the Indonesian authorities say that they will wait until the asylum seekers on that boat want to get off. Then they will be processed in accordance with the UNHCR procedures in Indonesia—bearing in mind that there is of course an immigration directive in Indonesia from 2002 which says that anyone claiming asylum in Indonesia will be treated in accordance with UNHCR procedures. That is one issue before the public eye. And we welcome very much that interdiction. I have seen very many criticisms by the opposition of Indonesia and what is occurring, and I certainly hope that they are not criticising that.

The second issue is the Oceanic Viking. Let us very clearly understand what the Oceanic Viking situation is all about and what the opposition have said about that matter. Australia authorities received a request from Indonesian search and rescue authorities to render assistance in Indonesia’s search and rescue area. We did two things. There was a check made of whether any commercial ships were in the vicinity to see whether they could render assistance. There were not. So HMAS Armidale came to the ship’s assistance to discharge our humanitarian and our safety at sea obligations.

When that was done, we knew only too well that there would necessarily be immigration, refugee and humanitarian consequences flowing as a result of that. The view which we put to Indonesia was: ‘We have picked these people up at your request in your search and rescue area. We believe that they should go to Indonesia.’ The Indonesian President said: ‘Yes, I agree with that. They should come to Indonesia.’ That is in the process of being effected. Indonesia said, ‘Yes, they can come to Indonesia.’ It is now a matter of discussion between Indonesian officials and Australian officials on board the Oceanic Viking as to how that embarkation will be effected.

What I find very unclear is whether the opposition, firstly, believed that the refugees in the boat should have been picked up. There have been questions in this House which go to whether the boat was in distress because it had been disabled by those people on board. We have questions today about whether it was within the capacity of the Oceanic Viking and, I assume, HMAS Armidale to pick people up because there might have been a numerical difficulty.

Secondly, the opposition have been very unclear as to where they believed the Oceanic Viking should go. Our view was that it should go to Indonesia; that was the Indonesian President’s view. The shadow minister for immigration, on 20 October, was asked, ‘What should they do with these people who are on this ship?’ The response was, ‘You should ask the federal government about that.’ A question from a journalist was, ‘What do you think?’ After about half a page of transcript, the answer was, ‘These people should be taken to Indonesia.’ The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Ms Bishop, was on News Radio on 21 October and said ‘we welcome the decision of Indonesia to take the 78 people’. But I was confused by her on 25 October when in a doorstop interview a journalist asked: ‘Should that boat continue on to Indonesia, then? What does the coalition think should happen to the boat? Should they come to Australia?’ Ms Bishop said, ‘The coalition is not in government.’ Malcolm Turnbull on the doors today was asked, ‘Mr Turnbull, who should take the asylum seekers, Indonesia or Australia, on board the Viking.’ Mr Turnbull said, ‘This is a question that you should ask Mr Rudd.’

Maybe they are all taking the advice of the former minister for immigration, Mr Ruddock. He was asked on 28 October whether Indonesia or Australia should take the Oceanic Viking passengers. He said, ‘I’m not going into micromanagement.’ On 23 October on Sky News he was asked the same question and Mr Ruddock said, ‘I’ve advised all my colleagues that that is the question that they shouldn’t answer.’ We have the Liberal Party opposition in here giving lectures to the Australian parliament and the Australian people about how to deal with asylum seekers. They have a hide. They have a hide to come into this House and seek to give lectures about how people should be treated and then say—on their own admission today—that all of these ills have been caused by the government making three changes, including abolishing temporary protection visas and taking women and children out from razor wire, while not saying that they will reintroduce them. (Time expired)