ASYLUM SEEKERS – 19 Nov 2009

I rise to speak against the motion on asylum seekers. The Rudd government is committed to protecting Australian borders and it is committed to the safety of the Australian community. It is committed to a system of immigration detention that is more humane and effective than what we have had previously. Let us be very clear: the Rudd government will not turn away people who are clearly in need of help.

Before I go any further, I have to say thank you to the Philip Ruddock fan club on the other side. It seems that my colleague Senator Feeney must have hit a raw nerve. Straightaway up jumped Senator Back to come in and bat for Mr Ruddock. I know Mr Ruddock might need a bit of assistance because of some of his views, but it is amazing that Senator Back could spend so long defending Mr Ruddock.

The opposition are using immigration as a bit of media frenzy and as a scaremongering campaign and I find that abominable. They have taken up most of question time this week, they took up most of question time in the last sitting period and I presume that next week they will take up most of question time again with the issue of immigration. It has become fairly tedious listening to their little tantrums and tirades. I presume that the hype and drama is to generate some media coverage and to take the spotlight off them because they are in complete disarray as a party. I do not think the people of Australia are fooled at all by the tactic.

I have to say in regard to the motion that Senator Evans on numerous occasions has made it very clear—in fact just today through question time when he was answering the continual questioning about it—that there was no special deal. We do have to ask the question—it has been asked before and I will ask it yet again: what would those opposite have had us do in regard to the people who were picked up by the Oceanic Viking? We chose for them to disembark in Indonesia. They wanted to come to Australia. We said that we would go to the nearest port for disembarkation, which was our obligation, having stopped to save these people from drowning. They requested to come to Australia. That did not happen. They were taken to Indonesia. The fact that it might have taken a bit of time for the agreement between the two governments, which has been put in writing and has been publicly available for a week or so for people to see, should not lead to all this hype, drama and tirade that we have been subjected to time after time in the last weeks.

I presume that those on the other side will continue next week because they want to avoid debating the really critical issues. I have not heard much about the economy in the past weeks. I have heard a bit about climate change from those on the other side, none of which has been that entertaining or that factual, but it is typical of those opposite to not let the facts get in the way of a good story. In regard to this issue of immigration that is exactly what they are doing. They seem absolutely focused on the front page of the media and what it can do for them. It is a bit of a race to see who can get on the front page of the media every day.

Senator Evans also made it quite clear through question time today that we have been counselling and talking to those on the boat to enable them to disembark. They eventually chose to come off the boat in Indonesia rather than in Australia, which was where they wanted to go. Let us remember that they wanted to come to Australia but they actually disembarked in Indonesia. For those on the other side to get so hysterical about it, as I said earlier, beggars belief. The Rudd government stands by the decision to save those people from drowning.

As I have said: what would the opposition have done? Until they can answer that, I do not think they have any right to scaremonger and to worry the Australian public about what they claim is a softening of border policies. They are just about falling over each other on the other side to get on the front page of the media. We constantly hear them quoting from the media as though everything the media prints is completely truthful. If that is where their facts are coming from, or their lack of facts, they need to look at the whole process of how they are working.

It is time they started accepting the facts. We have maintained the border protection policies of the Howard government. That is a system of excision, mandatory detention and offshore processing. The Rudd government have been acting in accordance with our international legal obligations and we take these legal obligations very seriously. That is why we responded to the initial request to assist in the search and rescue of the passengers in the first place.

Wherever there are people in trouble you can bet your life that either the opposition will try to get excessive media coverage out of it or they will put their boot in to try to make things harder for everybody concerned. In this case, they have done both. They do not want to let the facts, as I have said, get in the way of a good story. They want to inflame; they want to use their tactics of scaremongering to try and frighten some of the general public.

Situations around the world mean that large numbers of displaced persons are looking for settlement and can be targeted by and fall prey to people smugglers. We do not deny that. According to the UNHCR 2008 global trends report, there were 42 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide at the end of 2008, including 15.2 million refugees. People smuggling is not just an issue for Australia; it is a global and a regional problem. The commitment of our neighbours, through bilateral cooperation and the Bali process on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime, is critical to addressing this most serious issue.

The Australian government has an orderly and planned migration program and places a high priority on protecting Australia’s borders from irregular maritime rivals by maintaining an effective and visible tactical response program of aerial, land and sea based patrols. The Australian government’s Border Protection Command uses a combination of customs, border protection and defence assets to deliver a coordinated national response to security threats in Australia’s maritime domain. The Australian government remains vigilant and committed to protecting Australia’s borders. No matter what the other side try to imply, what stories they try to spin or what dramas they try to enact here in the chamber, that will not change.

I want to speak quickly about the soft policies alleged by those on the other side. Australia under the Rudd government has one of the toughest and most sophisticated border security regimes in the world. As I said, the Rudd government has maintained the border protection policies of the Howard government: a system of excision, mandatory detention and offshore processing on Christmas Island of all irregular maritime arrivals. The Rudd government has also allocated $654 million in the 2009 budget to substantially increase aerial and maritime surveillance and detection operations and to boost resources to stop people smuggling. What is different, though, is that Labor believes in treating asylum seekers humanely and is committed to meeting Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations refugee convention.

I have mentioned the UNHCR report which confirms the worldwide increase in asylum seekers. As such, Australia will continue to meet its international obligations to refugees forced out of their own countries due to war or fear of persecution. The UNHCR 2008 global trends report shows that there were 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2008. I am going to keep repeating that because I do not think those on the other side have quite comprehended any of the issues that are taking place in the global society that we live in today. They seem to be very focused on internal issues, and I suppose you would be if you were in a party that was in such complete disarray. They have more positions on any number of issues than I see in my daughter’s ballet class. As far as I am concerned, they are not a cohesive team on the other side, and I will get to some of the comments being made by some people in just a few minutes.

A staggering 44 per cent of all refugees and asylum seekers are children under the age of 18. The UNHCR report confirms that the increase in people seeking asylum in Australia is part of a worldwide trend, driven by insecurity, persecution and conflict. The UNHCR report also shows that asylum claims increased worldwide by 28 per cent in 2008, with a dramatic escalation in the number of asylum seekers lodging claims in countries such as South Africa. I am trying to point out to the other side the issues that are worldwide and to explain to them what is happening worldwide. They have become so focused on this issue that they have lost the plot. I do not know if it is unparliamentary to say ‘lost the plot’ on the issue but, if it is not, that is what I think. They have put so much time and effort into this issue that there have been hardly any questions on the economy, education or health for the last two weeks. As I said, I presume that will run into next week and we will be sitting here all through question time next week listening to the tirades again.

Europe remains the primary destination for asylum seekers, with 333,000 claims registered in 2008, predominantly in France, where there were 35,400; the United Kingdom, where there were 30,500; and Italy, where there were 30,300. The United States received 49,600 new asylum claims, while Canada received 34,800. So the 4,750 people seeking asylum in Australia in 2008 were a relatively small figure in those global terms. The UNHCR report stated that one-third of all refugees were in the Asia-Pacific region as well. We have an obligation as a wealthy and stable country and society to assist in the global solution to the worldwide refugee crisis. We will continue, with the United States and Canada, to play a leading role in providing resettlement opportunities for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The UNHCR has called on those traditional resettlement countries to not resile from our commitment to refugees during the global economic downturn, and we have not. The size and composition of Australia’s humanitarian program is guided by the UNHCR’s world resettlement priorities and the views of the Australian community.

Let us have a look at the background on boat arrivals. There have been boat arrivals to Australia in 25 of the last 33 years. From 1976 to 1981, under the Fraser government, there were 2,059 boat arrivals sparked by the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. From 1999 to 2001, under the Howard government, there were 12,176 boat arrivals, including 5,516 arrivals in 2001 alone. The Taliban regime fell at the end of 2001, and in 2002 a large-scale voluntary return program of Afghans began—the single largest repatriation operation in the UNHCR’s 59-year history. By 2004, more than 3.1 million people had returned home to Afghanistan. The UN Secretary-General noted in his report to the Security Council that:

2008 ended as the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2001.

We all know that the Liberals do not have a position on asylum seekers. We all know that the Liberals are in search of a policy on immigration. When Labor abolished the failed and wasteful Pacific solution, there was no opposition from the coalition and they have since said they will not reintroduce it. Labor have maintained excision, mandatory detention and offshore processing—I will keep repeating this, as I said, because I do not think the message is getting through on the opposite side. We maintained those actions, so the opposition cannot differentiate themselves on that. What we are doing now is what they did. They are saying that it is not right. So they were happy with that for the many years that they were in government but, when it comes to us taking these positions, they do not like it. They are just arguing for argument’s sake. They are just being negative for negativity’s sake. It is all for the sake of getting their faces or their names in the local media.

They cannot have a policy debate because they do not have a policy. Until recently, the best they had been able to come up with was calling for an inquiry. Now they have four dot points. They have four dot points they have taken two years to develop. At that rate, in another six months they might have five dot points, because it has been one dot point every six months. That is an amazing contribution to Australian society from them! The only thing resembling coalition policy is a call for the reintroduction of TPVs—even though TPVs have been tried and have failed. Boat arrivals went up in the years after TPVs were introduced, almost all people granted TPVs ended up remaining in Australia, and TPVs led to more women and children risking their lives on leaky boats. The opposition cannot do better than four dot points because they are divided and confused.

Principled members of the coalition have spoken out against TPVs. The member for Kooyong, the member for McMillan and the member for Pearce have all voiced opposition to TPVs. Senator Troeth told us over the weekend that the Liberal party room was not even consulted on the policy. I do not think that is really news about that side of the parliament. If the opposition are going to be so good at quoting the media then I do not mind throwing a few quotes in as well. Senator Troeth was quoted in the Age as saying:

I’m sad and disappointed at the change of Coalition policy.

It is sad and it is disappointing, but it is not at all surprising.

Coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration—of which I am also a member, as is Senator McEwen, who is in the chamber as well—including the shadow immigration minister, endorsed the Rudd government’s New Directions in Detention policy, a continuation of the reforms begun under Howard in 2005. Coalition members of the JSCM endorsed its call for the abolition of detention debt, yet when legislation to this effect was introduced the coalition opposed it.

While I am talking about the JSCM, the shadow minister also expressed concern about people without work rights and access to Medicare. I was there; I heard it. I know she did. Yet, when the government moved to address these issues by reforming work rights for asylum seekers, what did the coalition do? They moved to disallow the regulations. As I have said, principled coalition members and senators, to their credit, spoke in favour of the government’s changes on each occasion. I do thank them for that.

On Friday, 13 November—I do not think it was such an auspicious day for Mr Turnbull—Mr Turnbull announced his four dot points. There is no policy, there is nothing substantive and they cannot explain anything in any detail. Last week and this week—and, as I said, it probably will be for most, if not all, of next week—the issue for all of question time has been immigration and asylum seekers.

Another thing Senator Troeth said on ABC radio on 13 November was that the visa inflicts mental anguish— (Time expired)