I rise to speak in favour of the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. Today we need to come here in a spirit of cooperation, not of conflict. The extraordinary debate that occurred yesterday in the other place and the debate that is occurring today in this place demonstrate that we cannot continue to sit by while men, women, children, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters die at sea pursuing the life that we enjoy in this free country. Today we need to pass legislation that stops the continuing tragic loss of life at sea. It is at this moment, in this place, that we will be judged by the Australian people. It is at this moment, in this place, that the Australian people will point and say, ‘This the moment that you had to act.’ Please do not let them have to add: ‘Why didn’t you?’
This bill was put forward by Mr Oakeshott, as we know. It is a bill that shows what can occur in the other place through compromise and negotiation. It is an example of what should occur in this place. Our goal, in this place, should not be to advance the interests of our respective parties but to advance the interests of the Australian people and to help those who seek our protection—it is their legal right to seek our protection, to seek asylum. After all, that is what we are here for. This is not the time to apportion blame. This is not the time for vitriolic shouting across the chamber. Quite frankly, the Australian people do not give a hoot about that.
This bill is supported by the government. It might not be the ideal solution to the problem, but it is a solution. As my dad used to tell me: ‘If you want to get anything done, you have to make a start.’ Today, Senators, we have to make a start. It would be easy to come into this place and say, ‘It doesn’t do what I want, so I won’t support it.’ It would be easy to walk into this place holding our pure, untarnished virtues. And it would be easy for you to walk out of this place, having voted against this bill, patting yourself on the back knowing that your pure virtues were still intact. You could stand up to the Australian people and proudly tell them: ‘I didn’t compromise! I didn’t negotiate!’ And people will continue to die at sea in the most horrific circumstances. Mothers will watch their children slip from their fingers, and you will continue to sit in this place with your shiny virtues intact. Fathers will try to save the ones they love, and be unable to, no matter how much they strive and struggle, and you will still hold onto your pure virtues. Aren’t you lucky! Aren’t you wonderful! But the Australian people will judge you and I believe they will judge you harshly.
As I said earlier, this bill is a compromise. The bill that went through the House of Representatives yesterday combines a key element of the government’s policy, the arrangement with Malaysia, with a key element of the opposition’s policy, a detention centre on Nauru. This is the only possible bill that we can pass in the Senate today. If we walk out of this place today having failed to pass this bill we will have failed the Australian people and those risking their lives at sea. More accurately, each of you who votes in opposition to this bill will have failed the Australian people and those seeking refuge.
Labor has agreed to a key element of the opposition’s proposal—processing on Nauru. It is now time for the opposition and the Greens to move a little. The government has been advised very clearly that our arrangement with Malaysia will be an effective deterrent. We have been very clearly advised by the same experts who advised the opposition when they were in government. But we have seen that, despite the risks of travelling at sea, people are still willing to take the risk. We must stop this. We must stop people putting their lives at the kind of unnecessary risk that has resulted in loss of life such as that we have seen in the last few days. We have to stop people being exploited by criminally negligent people smugglers who do not care about the people whose lives they put at unnecessary risk. We need to say to the people smugglers: ‘You can no longer pretend to asylum seekers who get on your boats that they will end up in Australia.’ They will not end up in Australia. Under our arrangement with Malaysia they will end up in Malaysia. Of course, because we have adopted part of the opposition’s plan there will be a detention centre on Nauru.
We are all concerned with ensuring that those people are treated properly. We have negotiated human rights protections with Malaysia. Under the arrangement, transferees would be treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards. They would have access to self-reliance opportunities, including employment, and to an appropriate level of essential health care, and school-age children would also have access to education, which is, of course, critically important. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, was closely consulted and involved in negotiations with both governments in the lead-up to the signing of the arrangement. The UNHCR’s comments shaped the final text of the arrangement. Its involvement was crucial to both Australia and Malaysia. Those opposite cannot logically argue that people should only be sent to countries which are signatories to the refugee convention while at the same time arguing that they should be sent to a country which is not a signatory to the refugee convention. I would like to remind those opposite that Nauru was not a signatory to the UNHCR convention when they implemented the Pacific solution. Despite their concerns today, the opposition did not hold the same concerns when they were in government.
The key thrust of this bill is to introduce membership of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime as the basis for eligibility as an offshore processing country. The bill is premised on Australia’s interest in working in partnership with regional countries under the Bali process and the Regional Cooperation Framework. The government secured the agreement of the Bali process to establish the Regional Cooperation Framework with the objective of securing a long-term and sustainable approach. The Bali process is a key regional forum involving 43 member countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. It is a forum which enables key countries to be involved in a regional solution to this challenge. It is only by acting regionally that we can make a difference, and so we must act with the help of our regional friends and allies.
I take a moment to speak to one part of the opposition’s policies. Their idea of threatening to turn the boats around is dangerous and ineffective. When in the past people smugglers faced the threat of having their boats turned back, they simply sabotaged their own boats, putting the lives of the people on board at risk. This will not reduce the number of deaths at sea. Reports have revealed documents from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service from 2010 that analyse the coalition’s ‘turning back the boats’ policy of 2001. I quote:
There were very few benign or compliant boardings under the policy, and a pattern of objectionable and belligerent behaviour quickly became evident … PIIs [potential irregular immigrants] frequently became hostile and occasionally inflicted self-harm …
Or another quote:
Even if there was consent to the vessel being turned back, Border Protection Command notes that when it boards these vessels, nearly all of the vessels are found in a poor condition and poorly maintained. It is therefore difficult in many situations to properly determine that the vessel would be seaworthy enough to allow the vessel to continue on without the loss of life.
It is a policy that the United Nations refugee chief said breaches the refugee convention, a policy that was recently found to be illegal in the European Court of Human Rights. It will put the lives of refugees and the Australian Navy and rescue personnel at risk as well. It has done so in the past and it will do so in the future—and this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to the people of Australia and it should be unacceptable to this place. The opposition’s policy, despite their claims, does not work as a deterrent for stopping people hopping on boats and travelling to Australia.
I want to speak for a minute about temporary protection visas, because I think I heard Senator Scullion mention them. Temporary protection visas did not work in Australia. With the overwhelming majority of people on them ending up as permanent Australian residents, they are hardly a deterrent. If the coalition are so sure of TPVs, why did they reject an independent inquiry into their effectiveness? We know that more than 95 per cent of TPV holders were irregular maritime arrivals and that they went on to get permanent visas to live in Australia. The harsh TPV conditions preventing family reunions also forced more women and children to risk their lives by jumping into leaky boats. Temporary protection visas did not stop boats arriving. These human beings deserve to be treated with respect. This parliament can no longer not act to ensure that they are treated with that respect; it must go to saving lives.
As a former member of the migration committee, I visited some detention centres. I heard the horrific stories about the places that these people were fleeing from. They are real horror stories. I have also read the Anh Do book, The happiest refugee. If I can suggest anything to anybody in this place it is that they read this book if they have not read it. They will find it hard to put down. There are some parts of it that are quite humorous, of course. He is a comedian. The book is about his true journey in a boat from Vietnam to Australia. Part of his journey involves pirates boarding the boat and other things that were happening on the boat, including them having to be down in the engine rooms and things like that. This part literally made me want to throw up; it was an awful, awful part of the book. However, it was a great book all in all, and I highly recommend it. So I would suggest that people read it. It is a true and honest account of just one person’s trip to Australia, and it is well worth people investing a couple of hours of their time to look at it.
Today we have a chance to resolve this issue. We have a chance to leave this parliament before the winter break with legislation in place to prevent the loss of life that we have seen. The House of Representatives reached an extraordinary compromise yesterday. It showed the best of parliamentary process, when individuals with vastly different political opinions came together in the spirit of compromise. Today, let’s not show the people of Australia the worst of parliamentary process. Instead, let’s show them that we can come together in this place and pass legislation which will prevent further tragedy from occurring. I believe it is what a large majority of the people want. Ultimately, this bill is about saving lives. The government believes that the best way to prevent people from hopping onto boats and risking their lives on dangerous journeys is through offshore processing as part of a proper regional framework, because it removes the product that people smugglers are selling: permanent resettlement to Australia.
I cannot stress how important this bill is. Senator Di Natale asked, ‘What is a policy that works?’ and it is a legitimate question. To me the answer is that if the policy saves one life it is a policy that works. If a policy saves more than one life, then obviously it is a policy that works. If this bill passes today it will save lives. That is how important it is.
I would like to reiterate some of the issues of concern I have. One, in particular, concerns the temporary protection visas. Ninety-five per cent of people on temporary protection visas ended up being resettled in Australia. They had some fairly harsh conditions attached to them, one of which was preventing family reunions. So in actual fact I think TPVs added to the number of people seeking asylum, because women and children wanted to be with their husbands and fathers—however their family might be made up. So they would jump on the boats and risk their lives to be together. If we were to put ourselves in the position of these people, under the same circumstances we would resort to this sort of action. It is unfortunate they have to resort to this sort of action, but I am pretty sure it is one I would resort to. I would do anything to save my children’s lives or get away from the horrific activities taking place in the countries from which these people are fleeing.
The government has been advised very clearly that the arrangement with Malaysia will be an effective deterrent. We have been very clearly advised by the same people who advised the opposition when they were in government, so I am not quite sure why that advice is not acceptable to the opposition now. If we walk out of here today without having passed this bill I think we will still see people put their lives at risk, because they have no other options. I call on senators to think about this. I understand that it is a very emotive debate for a lot of people—probably for everyone. It is not something we were planning on negotiating this week; I understand that as well. But a good policy to me is one that will save a life. This will save a lot more than one life. I commend the bill to the Senate.