Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
The Coalition's plan for more secure borders: address to the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne

Download PDFDownload PDF

Tony Abbott

Federal Member for Warringah

Leader of the Opposition

Address to the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne Posted on Friday, 27 April 2012



As well as an occasion to reflect on the valour and self-sacrifice of Australia’s military personnel,

Anzac Day, which we commemorated this week, should also be a reminder of the role that our

country has played in the wider world.

In World War One, the five divisions of the First Australian Imperial Force, along with the

Canadians, were the shock troops of the British Army. In World War Two, the Second AIF

liberated Syria and largely drove the Italians from North Africa. In Vietnam, an Australian task

force was responsible for the security of a province. More recently, 5000 Australian troops

formed the bulk of the INTERFET force that secured the independence of East Timor.

At the Versailles conference, Prime Minister Billy Hughes won an Australian mandate over

German New Guinea. In 1956, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was the lead international

mediator over the Suez Canal. A decade ago, Prime Minister John Howard was a key leader of

the “coalition of the willing” that toppled the Iraqi regime.

Ideas above our station should never drive Australian policy. Still, we are about the world’s 15th

largest economy, a significant contributor to the military effort in Afghanistan, one of America’s

most trusted allies, and the leading Western country in our region.

We are an influential middle power and, whether we quite appreciate it or not, the big power of

the South Pacific. We count for something in the wider world and should use our reach and sway

to promote Australia’s true interests and best values.

When I say that Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta focus, not a Geneva one, I

certainly don’t mean that Australia has few interests and little weight around the globe.

We are vitally interested in the peace and prosperity of the wider world. We have a considerable

role in upholding liberal democratic values and in promoting freer economics. After all, keeping

commitments, valuing human life, acknowledging property and extending freedom are universal

aspirations, not just Australian ones.

My contention, rather, is that we would be taken more seriously in the world at large if we were

coping better with the “backyard” issues in which we have a vital national interest and for which

we have prime responsibility.

In our nearest neighbour and former colony, Australia seems to have little influence and even

less engagement despite the obvious risks should PNG deteriorate further. Likewise, in the

Pacific, indifference and neglect have created a vacuum into which less benevolent influences

could readily expand.

Indonesia is the country that could most readily impact on Australia yet the current government

has been almost wantonly provocative, unilaterally suspending live cattle exports in panic over a

TV programme and giving an understandably sensitive neighbour public lectures on how it

should behave.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the current government’s incorrigible failings in the

development and execution of sensible national policy than the border protection disaster. Its

predecessor found a problem and crafted a solution. The Rudd-Gillard government found a

solution and created a problem.

In August 2008, moral vanity overcame judgment. The government publicly congratulated itself

for being more compassionate than its predecessor, closed the Nauru processing centre,

scrapped temporary protection visas and announced swifter asylum claim processing.

Since then, there have been nearly 300 illegal entry vessels and nearly 17,000 illegal arrivals by

boat while the border protection budget has blown out by $4 billion.

Hundreds are known to have drowned attempting to reach Australia. The government can’t be

blamed for people’s deaths but it is certainly responsible for giving the people smugglers a

business model.

Under the current government there have been almost two boats a week. Under its predecessor,

between 2002 and 2007, there were just three boats a year. On border protection, as for

economic management, the Howard era now looks like a lost golden age.

It does not have to be like this. There is a better way. The Coalition has a plan for stronger

borders. It’s part of our overall plan for a stronger Australia with a stronger economy, stronger

communities, a cleaner environment and the infrastructure of the future.

It is in Australia’s vital national interest to stop the boats. It is the mark of a sovereign nation that

it keeps control over its borders; or, as John Howard put it, “we will determine who comes to this

country and the circumstances under which they come”.

When she was the shadow minister for immigration, Julia Gillard used to issue press releases

headed: “another boat, another policy failure”. There were very few failures in those days

because there were just 15 illegal boats in the last five years of the Howard government. By

Gillard’s standards, there will shortly have been 300 border protection policy failures under her


Border protection, in fact, was one of the three key policies where Julia Gillard said that Kevin

Rudd’s government had lost its way.

Despite Labor’s repeated declarations that it was against offshore processing and would end the

Pacific Solution, since then there’s been the East Timor detention centre that was announced

without any consultation with that country’s government; the PNG detention centre that was

announced and forgotten (despite Julia Gillard declaring, in 2007, that “we would not have

offshore processing in Manus island”); and the five-for-one people swap with Malaysia that the

High Court subsequently overturned.

The government now routinely blames the opposition every time a boat arrives yet it won’t risk its

Malaysia legislation failing in the House of Representatives even though putting Mr Slipper into

the Speaker’s chair should have given it the numbers.

Let me make one thing crystal clear: the Coalition will never support Labor’s Malaysia people

swap. It’s a bad deal for Australia and a cruel deal for boat people.

On average, there are about 6000 canings a year of irregular non-citizens in Malaysia. The

government’s proposed legislation lacks the protections built into the former government’s Pacific

Solution that the Prime Minister used to describe not only as “costly” and “unsustainable” but

“wrong in principle”.

If the government were serious about its Malaysia deal it would declare support for this

legislation to be a matter of confidence and require the Greens to support it under their power-sharing arrangement.

As things stand, while declaring that it supports offshore processing, the government has

effectively adopted the Greens policy of onshore processing. Illegal arrivals are now being

quickly transferred from Christmas Island to the mainland and released into the community

before, in some cases, even their identity has conclusively been established.

Under the Gillard government, not a single illegal boat arrival has been processed offshore and

fewer than 300 of the boat people found not to be refugees have been returned to their country of


Under the Howard government, by contrast, more than 1500 boat people were processed

offshore, mostly at Nauru. Of these, about 30 per cent were found not to be refugees and

returned to their home country. Of the rest, nearly half went to a country other than Australia.

On my first day as prime minister, I would pick up the phone to the President of Nauru to accept

Nauru’s bi-partisan, standing offer to reopen the detention centre there.

Within a week of taking office, I would go to Indonesia to renew our cooperation against people

smuggling. I would, of course, politely explain to the Indonesian government that we take as dim

a view of Indonesian boats disgorging illegal arrivals in Australia as they take of Australians

importing drugs into Bali.

Within a week of taking office, I would give new orders to the navy that, where it is safe to do so,

under the usual chain-of-command procedures, based on the advice of commanders-on-the-spot, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed and Indonesian home-ported vessels without lawful

reason to be headed to Australia would be turned around and escorted back to Indonesian


Temporary visas for illegal boat arrivals would be re-created, if necessary by legislation; in the

unlikely event that legislation is blocked, by a joint sitting of the parliament after a double

dissolution election.

There would be a presumption against refugee status for boat arrivals transiting through

Indonesia who lack identity papers. There would be tougher minimum sentences for people

smugglers with mandatory non-parole periods.

By far the biggest obstacle to implementing policies that would stop the boats is pride. The Prime

Minister is prepared to try any set of policies except those that actually worked under the former


Over the years, she has been for and against temporary protection visas; she had been for and

against third country processing; and she has been for and against turning boats around so

stubbornness should not be a deterrent to the right policy now that our border protection is in her


Every illegal boat marks a failure of foreign policy, a failure of security policy and a failure of

immigration policy.

Australia’s foreign policy has failed to establish the rapport with our largest neighbour needed for

people smuggling to be stamped out. Australia’s security policy is breached whenever an illegal

arrival is released into the community without the thorough checks that should routinely apply to

newcomers. Australia’s immigration policy is undermined because people who were welcomed

through the front door a generation back understandably resent more recent arrivals who climb in

through the back window.

Stopping the boats matters.

It would signify that the Australian government is in every respect sovereign over Australia’s

borders. It would be a sign that our relationship with Indonesia was in much better repair. It would

give everyone confidence that the immigration programme was being run in Australia’s national

interest, not as a favour to anyone who would prefer to move to a rich country.

It would mean again being able to put behind us an awkward and divisive episode when concern

about how people came clouded our appreciation of the contribution they could make.

As long as a significant section of our immigration programme appears to have been contracted

out to people smugglers, immigration won’t - as it should - be seen as one of our country’s

defining characteristics and most important assets.

Just about every Australian is an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. That’s why the

Coalition has always been pro-immigration and pro-immigrant. To be otherwise would be almost

anti-Australian. It’s vital, though, for our country’s well-being, that the immigration programme be

run unambiguously in our national interest and that every migrant be enthusiastic about joining

the team.

Monash University analysis has shown that during the Howard years - with the boats stopped

and a focus on skilled immigration - the percentage of Australians concerned about numbers

being too high almost halved, from more than two thirds to just over one third, notwithstanding a

doubling of the permanent immigration intake.

John Howard rebuilt a consensus in favour of immigration. It was one of his most significant

achievements and it continued the legacy of previous Coalition governments.

It was the Menzies Government that turned accepting post-war refugees into actively seeking

non-English-speaking immigrants who wanted to build a better life in Australia and that first

offered non-European immigrants citizenship after fifteen years.

It was the Holt Government that abolished the White Australia policy by allowing applications for

migration from well-qualified people who could readily integrate.

It was the Fraser Government that first accepted large numbers of Asian immigrants while

helping to end Australia’s first, much more modest wave of boat people, by establishing an

offshore processing centre on an Indonesian island.

It was the Howard Government that more-or-less-stopped the second wave of illegal boats while

resettling about 150,000 refugee and humanitarian entrants.

The Coalition recently pledged to guarantee a minimum of 1000 places in the refugee and

humanitarian intake to women at risk and their dependents. We’re also committed to allowing

community groups to sponsor refugees on a bonded basis that would take the annual intake to


Notwithstanding the odd case of Britons catching the first plane back because they can’t stand

the heat, immigrants to this country almost universally want nothing more than to be considered

Australian. After all, they have chosen Australia in a way that the native born never quite have.

That’s why it’s invariably wrong to question newcomers’ commitment to Australia. If they weren’t

committed they would not have come.

What’s more, Australians have usually made it easier for immigrants to embrace their new home

by appreciating that they would come to terms with life here in their own way and at their own

pace. In the meantime, the different accents and different flavours of contemporary Australia

have been a strength, not a weakness.

The term “multiculturalism” has been officialese for Australians’ traditional acceptance of

newcomers’ attachment to old ways while they get used to new ones. Of course, immigration has

changed Australia but it’s changed our country far less than it’s changed our immigrants.

A decade after arrival, there’s hardly a newcomer that isn’t more fluent in English than in any

other language and who doesn’t take for granted democracy, the rights of minorities and freedom

under the law. Usually, the less like Australia that immigrants’ homelands have been, the more

exhilarating they have found life here.

The Howard Government, it should be said, placed less stress on Australians’ diversity than on

our unity. The citizenship test that Labor supported in opposition but has watered down in

government was an on-the-whole-successful attempt to stress the common values that all

Australians were expected to understand and uphold.

For the Coalition, the issue has never been whether or not Australia should have a strong

immigration programme. It’s always been what’s the best programme for our country at this time

and what can best be done to help migrants to settle quickly into their new life.

The best immigration programme is one that helps Australia to be more prosperous and

productive and the best way for an immigrant to settle in is to work. Under the Howard

government, the permanent programme’s skilled component went from under 40 to over 60 per

cent of the total intake.

Along with the stopping the boats, this was an important element in restoring public faith in the

immigration programme. Under Howard, Australians were confident in a way they weren’t before

or since that the Australian government was in charge and that more-or-less everyone was

pulling their weight.

Over the decade to 2005/6, unemployment for skilled migrants fell from 9 per cent to just 3 per

cent. Even for the family reunion stream, unemployment dropped from 19 to 6 per cent and

participation increased from 55 to 70 per cent. By contrast, unemployment for the family stream

has now risen to 29 per cent with a decline in participation to 65 per cent.

The introduction of sub-class 457 visas was one of the former government’s most significant

innovations. Provided they were earning more than average weekly earnings and provided their

employer had tried hard to find an Australian for the job, businesses could bring in workers from

overseas for up to four years. During that time, they would normally become eligible for

permanent residency.

These are the best possible immigrants to Australia. They make a contribution from day one.

From day one, they are immersed in the Australian way of life. They also help Australian

businesses to make the most of their economic opportunities to build a prosperity in which every

Australian participates.

In 2008-9, when net overseas immigration almost touched 300,000, less than a quarter of the

overall intake was skilled and less than 10 per cent were on 457 visas. The current government

has progressively made it more difficult for businesses to bring in sub-class 457 workers, mostly

to accommodate union concerns, even though businesses using them are invariably employing

more Australians too.

Provided they are paid the same wages and provided there aren’t Australians who could readily

fill particular jobs, businesses should be able to bring in the workers they need to keep growing

and to create more local jobs. A stronger economy is in everyone’s interests; immigrants who

contribute to a stronger economy improve the life of every Australian. Under a Coalition

government, 457 visas won’t be just a component but a mainstay of our immigration programme.

Provided immigrants are in relatively well paid, skilled jobs that enable businesses to expand in

ways that would not otherwise be possible, they are undeniably making our country stronger. A

more skills focussed immigration programme should actually make it easier for governments to

discharge their perennial duty to plan for the future and to provide the infrastructure needed to

sustain a growing economy and a larger population.

A strong and non-discriminatory skilled immigration intake should help Australia to take

advantage of what’s been described as the “coming Asian century”.

Properly utilised, immigrants to Australia could be our best business ambassadors to the world’s

expanding markets. We should have ready-made experts on the economics and cultures of the

booming economies to our north among the well-integrated immigrant Australians who grew up


Most of the hundreds of thousands of Australians with, for instance, Chinese as their first

language are understandably more focussed on their future here than on links with their

homeland. The more successful they are in Australia, though, the more readily they could give us

a head start in dealing with China.

Well integrated immigrants who’ve kept their language might also help to make up for

Australians’ tendency to linguistic laziness and complacent reliance on English being the world’s

second language.

Australians have lately had more reasons than usual to despair of their government but that’s no

justification for losing faith in our country and its future. Overseas observers might be shaking

their heads in wonderment at a government with the Midas touch in reverse but Australians

readily know what’s gone wrong.

After the 2010 election, a desperate prime minister broke promises she should have kept to the

Australian people and made promises she couldn’t keep to fringe politicians in order to keep her


We are a great country and a great people let down by a bad government but that will pass.

Whether it’s this year or next year, we will soon enough have the chance to pass judgment on

the current government. Australians know that it’s possible to end the waste, to repay the debt

and to stop the boats because it’s been done before.

In 2002, just a year after the Tampa, there were no illegal boats at all because the people

smugglers and their customers knew that the game was up. The next Coalition government may

not be able to stop the boats instantly but we know it can be done soon and we’re keen to start

work immediately.