MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;Asylum Seekers – 22 Mar 2011

Before I go to the gist of my speech, I have to point out to Senator Cash—having listened to her, and she was rather dramatic again, talk about how many boats came—that of more than 240 boats that arrived under the Howard government only seven were turned back.

Senator Cash —We stopped them. That is the point.

Senator BILYK —They stopped coming because global circumstances changed, Senator Cash. If you do not understand that you should not be here. We know that the Taliban regime fell at the end of 2001 and millions of Afghans were able to return home. So you are really rewriting history with this supposedly wonderful life under Howard and you need to make sure you get your facts straight.

To go further into the matter of public importance as submitted by Senator Fifield that is before us today, I find it slightly misleading. I say that because it tries to link two separate matters: the control of Australian borders and the issue of maintaining order in our immigration detention centres. I can only assume that Senator Fifield has chosen to link those two topics because those opposite never ever miss the opportunity to take advantage of an unfortunate situation and score political points from it. So I can only guess that the coalition strategists were thinking ‘here’s a chance for us to score another political point about border control’ and yesterday, and again today in question time, we saw them attempt that. It is really quite unbecoming. I agree with what you said, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall, in your speech yesterday, that it is quite sickening to see people try and make political advantage from the human suffering and misery of others. I thought that was a great speech. I did listen intently to it and it is a shame that some of those on the other side did not listen so well.

But, as I have stated, it is important to point out that these are two separate matters. So this MPI actually addresses two completely separate issues and as such I will deal with each issue in turn. First of all we have Senator Fifield, who knows that the only people to blame about the situation at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre are those detainees who perpetrated the violence and unrest there. But Senator Fifield asks the Senate to note the Gillard government’s ‘failure to return order to immigration detention facilities’. We have the Australian Federal Police in control at the Christmas Island now. They are doing all they can to work to restore the security and safety of the facility and to ensure that it can go back to normal operations. The goal is to return the responsibility to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Serco as soon as possible and they will remain on the island until that aim is met. As for those who participated in the riot, their violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by this government.

I am sure that Senator Bernardi actually knows that but he chooses to scaremonger and run scare campaigns about the fact that he thinks everybody that is detained and is seeking asylum automatically gets to stay. He knows that is not true. He knows that there are processes that they have to go through and he knows that one of those processes is about good character. So he should not stand up and carry on and do this scaremongering, which the opposition have been doing so much of in the past few years. It is the only approach they have and it is quite an abysmal effort.

So, as I said, we have the AFP working to restore the security and the safety of the facility and to ensure that it can go back to normal operations. As I also said, the goal is to return the responsibility to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Serco as soon as possible. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, has made it very clear that, under the Migration Act, there is a character consideration that comes into play to determine whether somebody should be granted a visa. The AFP is conducting its own investigations and criminal charges may be laid by the Director of Public Prosecutions. This is something to be considered by any immigration detainee who may consider engaging in violent behaviour.

The government has been aware for some time of the pressure being faced at the Christmas Island detention centre and we have been working hard to relieve that. Taking account of recent circumstances, we are moving more people onto the mainland. Last year and earlier this year, the government announced new mainland facilities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The minister has announced an independent arms-length review into the protests and escapes at Christmas Island and the preparedness and response of the department and Serco. This review will be led by two eminent former public servants, Dr Allan Hawke and Helen Williams, and, like the minister, I have great faith in their ability to oversee this review.

The opposition will continue to score political points in the meantime because that is really the only thing they know how to do. Of course, trying to encourage the opposition to develop sensible policy instead of engaging in political opportunism is like trying to teach etiquette to Sir Les Patterson. It is all a bit rich coming from a coalition whose immigration policy is little more than a three-word slogan. There is no greater example of the coalition’s political opportunism than the way they have tried to make out that the latest arrivals will be given greater legal rights than those processed on Christmas Island. It has been made clear, in legal advice to the minister, that when people are processed originally at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef they continue to be processed as offshore entry arrivals. If they are transferred to the mainland once the process has begun, it has no impact on the way they are processed.

I will now turn to the issue of border protection and the number of unauthorised arrivals. There are a number of driving forces, as the opposition well knows, on the number of people seeking asylum in Australia. It depends on the situation in different parts of the world. For example, the number of Sri Lankans arriving in Australia has fallen as a result of improvements in circumstances in northern Sri Lanka. Italy had arrivals of 8,000 asylum seekers last month, more than they received in the whole of 2010. This was not due to any change in Italian immigration policy; it was to do with regional push factors, particularly events in northern Africa. Similarly, Australian domestic policy has no influence on the numbers of unauthorised arrivals in Australia. People fleeing persecution are desperate, and they will try to enter Australia regardless of our domestic immigration policy.

The coalition knows this but that does not stop them from unashamedly using the politics of fear and trying to beat up immigration issues for their own political purposes. What they do not seem to get on that side of the chamber is that our humanitarian visa processing regime is not a punitive regime. If there is any punishment that should be dished out it is to the vile people smugglers who trade in human misery. But the opposition is pretty intent on returning to the harsh treatment of asylum seekers that they meted out while they were in government. The opposition has not quite understood that people actually need to flee their homelands and seek a life elsewhere. They have not understood that these people have suffered human misery, torture, human rights abuses or maybe starvation—maybe one of those or maybe a mixture of those things. I stop sometimes and think it would be really interesting to walk a mile in those people’s shoes. I doubt that anyone on the opposition side, if they were walking a mile in those people’s shoes, would not use every resource they had to try to make sure that their children and their family could get to somewhere safe.

I find those on the other side to be not so caring. They purport to care in varying situations, but they want to return to the days of the Pacific solution. They want to detain people on Nauru at phenomenal taxpayer expense. They would have us return to the days of indefinite detention and temporary protection visas, of having asylum seekers grappling with uncertainty over their future or languishing in legal limbo for years on end. They would have Australia’s Navy turn back the boats, obviously putting the lives of those on board at risk. And for all the suffering this would cause, guess how many fewer boats would leave Indonesia’s shores. Not one.

Instead of the simplistic, punitive solution offered by the federal opposition, there is another way. The Bali process is a great opportunity for all the foreign and immigration ministers in the region to come together and tackle the issue of people smuggling. We are looking for an endorsement of our proposal for a regional solution to what is a regional and international problem. We want a framework of countries to work together to break the people smugglers’ business model.