Asylum Seekers

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Cabinet Secretary) (15:27): We had this debate late last year just before Christmas, and at that time I told the House of my fears and concerns about more people dying over the Christmas period. Unfortunately, all of my fears have been well founded. On 25 January this year, Customs intercepted a boat 17 nautical miles off Christmas Island that was carrying 15 people. The people on board reported that four men had left on a makeshift raft of inner tubes and bamboo poles approximately 24 hours earlier in a bid to swim to Christmas Island. A search was commenced, and on 30 January one man was found at Ethel Beach on Christmas Island. He was reported saying that four men had been separated from the raft, possibly as it broke up. Those three other men have never been found.

In January, 20 more asylum seekers were rescued by Indonesian fishermen after their boat sank off the coast of Indonesia. It was reported that two more asylum seekers perished. In March, minutes after being boarded by two border protection officers, a vessel capsized after being struck by two freak waves. Ninety-four people were rescued, two people died, and one of those people was a young boy. In April, another vessel crashed off the coast of Indonesia with 66 people on board; 14 were rescued, 52 have still not been recovered—presumed perished.

Forget the politics. That is what this debate is essentially all about—stopping people from dying, stopping the constant repetition of this. That is what this debate is about, or at least it is what this debate should be about. But it is a debate that has been poisoned by politics—by politicians seeking political advantage. That is the reason that we are debating this and why this debate has gone on now for almost 12 years. It is not about the policy as much as it is about the politics. I made this point last year in the same debate. We agree on most of the policy. The differences here are really at the margins. It is the politics that are poisoning this debate and, if you want proof of that, there is no better place to look than the contribution by David Marr in his Quarterly Essay where, at page 36, he talks about the WikiLeaks cable that showed what was happening back in 2009. It said:

In late 2009, in the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Opposition, a “key Liberal party strategist” popped in to the US embassy in Canberra to say how pleased the party was that refugee boats were, once again, making their way to Christmas Island. The issue was ‘fantastic’, he said. And ‘the more boats that come the better.’ But he admitted they had yet to find a way to make the issue work in their favour: his research indicated only a ‘slight trend’ towards the Coalition.”

There you have a senior Liberal Party strategist in the US embassy saying ‘the more boats … the better’ and it is a pity that it has not yet worked well enough as a political device. That is why we are having this debate. That is why the Liberal Party refuses to allow the government to implement our own policies—because of Liberal Party strategists who think the more boats is in their political interest.

We do not agree on everything, but on big issues of life and death where people’s lives are at risk we should agree on this principle: that the government of the day—Labor or Liberal or whatever it might be—should be given the power that it thinks it needs to stop people getting on boats and perishing at sea. That is what the Labor Party did in opposition in 2001 when John Howard asked for more powers after the Tampa. That is what John Howard would do now if John Howard were the Leader of the Opposition.

But that is what we are being denied right now by both the Liberal Party and by the Greens, who have refused to give us the powers that this government genuinely believes will help to stop people getting onto boats and risking their lives. That is why we are here. That is why we are having this debate—because of the politics, because of the fight for political advantage. I am sick of it. The people of Australia are sick of it. They are sick of this fighting and they want us to work together.

So what works? We know this: the fear of drowning has not put people off; offshore processing has not put people off; but the threat of being flown back has. The threat of being flown back home has had a significant impact. Last year there was a big increase in the number of people coming to Australia by boat from Sri Lanka—more than 5,000 people. Most of these people are not refugees. They are economic migrants, people looking for a better life, people looking for a job. They are not entitled to asylum in Australia. Last year we made the decision to screen these people quickly and fly them back when it was determined that they were not refugees. The impact of flying people back to Sri Lanka has been dramatic. The number of boats coming to Australia from Sri Lanka has dropped significantly. In the last four months of last year there were 70 boats coming to Australia from Sri Lanka. So far this year, there have been seven. This shows that flybacks work. The fear of death does not put people off, but the fear of being sent home a few days or a few weeks after they set out to sea certainly does. It shows how critical this is in stopping people getting onto boats and risking their lives. If we want to stop the boats, we have got to do this, and we have to do it elsewhere.

The biggest group of people coming to Australia by boat at the moment are people from Iran, and like most of the people coming from Sri Lanka, most of them are economic migrants. They are not fleeing persecution; they are looking for a better life; they are looking for a job. They are not entitled to asylum.

But unlike Sri Lankans, we cannot fly them home. Unlike Sri Lanka, the country of Iran refuses to take them so we cannot fly them back. But what we can do is fly them halfway back. We can fly them back to the countries they transit through to get on a boat to come to Australia. And one of those countries is Malaysia. The fear of death, as I said, does not put people off, but the threat of being sent back home does. That is why the plan to fly people back to Malaysia is an important part of the solution. Flybacks work, and if you cannot fly people all the way back to Iran, fly them halfway back, to Malaysia.

The agreement with Malaysia is limited. But it is a start. It is one that we Australians can build on with them and it is the type of program that we can do with other transit countries. In many senses, it is the same as the opposition’s pushback policy except for this important difference: it is safer, a lot safer. This is what we have to do, I sincerely believe, if we are going to reduce the incentive for people to get on a boat and risk their lives.

Here is the frustrating part of this: the opposition has refused to give us the power to implement this policy, a policy that we think will reduce the risk of people dying. Their argument is that you cannot fly people back to Malaysia because they are not signatories to the UN convention on refugees. That is a fake excuse. It has been contrived as something to hide behind. Their own pushback policy is designed to send people back to another country that also has not signed the UN convention on refugees, and that is Indonesia. Our policy is exactly the same, only safer. The opposition say that if they are elected they will push back boats where it is safe to do so. My question is: when is it safe to do so? The answer to that question is, of course, never. That is the advice of the Navy and that is what experience tells us.

I have gone back and I have had a look at the attempts by the Howard government to push boats back in the past, and what happened in those instances is revealing. SIEV I on 7 September 2001 showed that Navy personnel were threatened and forced to withdraw after they boarded the vessel. On SIEV II on 9 September 2001, there were 30 knives found concealed on the boat and the passengers threatened self-harm. On SIEV III on 11 September 2001, naval personnel were met with violence and they could not control the wheelhouse. The boarding party had to leave the vessel. On SIEV V on 12 October 2001, equipment was thrown overboard and the boat was sabotaged. SIEV VI on 19 October 2001 was also sabotaged. When naval personnel attempted to repair the ship, fires were started, the deck boards were turned up and the boat ended up sinking. SIEV VII on 22 October had 15 people dive overboard; others doused themselves in fuel. They damaged the mast and started a fire in the hold

SIEV IX on 31 October 2001 was also sabotaged—fuel lines were cut. On SIEV XII on 16 December 2001 there was more sabotage, more fires and more threats of self-harm. This is what happens when you attempt to push boats back; it is why the Navy say it is not safe to do this. That is why I am making the argument today that a much better option, a much safer option and proven effective option, is to fly people back.

Perhaps the best example of how dangerous this practice is, and how dangerous this practice would be, is what happened with SIEV XXXVI in 2009. This was not a boat that was turned around, but the people who were on the boat thought that they were about to be turned back. This is what Coroner Greg Cavanagh said in his subsequent report:

…the vessel’s engine was sabotaged and subsequent petrol was spilt into the bilge and ignited.

There was an explosion; five asylum seekers drowned, 40 people were injured, including ADF personnel, who were subsequently treated for burns and other injuries. The important point here is that what happened in this terrible incident could have been much, much worse. The coroner, Greg Cavanagh, says that one of the ADF personnel, Corporal Jager—a medical officer—would have died if not for the efforts to rescue her. In his findings he found that all of this happened on this vessel because the people on the boat thought that the boat was going to be turned around. That is why the Navy has criticised the idea of turning boats back. That is why they say that it is never safe to do so because it puts the lives of their men and women at risk.

Compare all of that—compare all the chaos of what happened on these boats and what happened on SIEV XXXIV—to the policy of flying people back: boarding the vessel and getting the people who are on the boat, putting them on a plane and flying them safely back, whether it is Sri Lanka or whether it is Malaysia. It is a lot safer, we have proven that it is much more effective and it is something they can and should be rolled out more broadly.

This is not easy stuff; it is very hard. It is a wretchedly difficult area of policy, and the opposition know that. We have seen in recent weeks the opposition leader saying that instead of stopping the boats he will ‘reduce the boats’. This is difficult but there is a way through. As I say, it involves flying people back; that means legislation. It means we have to work together. We have been fighting about this since Tampa—for more than a decade. The issue has been rancid with politics ever since. As I have said in this debate—and as I have said elsewhere—all we are saying is that the government of the day should be given the power that it thinks it needs to stop people dying at sea. We think that is fly-backs. The evidence shows that it works. We need the Liberal Party and we need the Greens to let us do that. While ever we do not, more people will come and more people will die. That is just a simple fact. And that should weigh on the minds of all of us here. These are not just numbers; they are people. They are mothers, they are fathers, they are sisters, they are brothers, they are boys and girls and we should condemn the political strategists I quoted earlier who say, ‘the more boats the better’. That sort of attitude diminishes all of us; we are better than that. I am disgusted by those comments. I think all my colleagues on both sides of the House should be disgusted by those sort of comments. This is not going to be solved with politics. It is going to be solved with policies. With every boat there is the risk of death. We have seen too much death in the past few years. We have seen too much death in the past few months. If we are going to stop this we need to work together and that involves voting for one simple piece of legislation which is before this parliament. I ask all members to support that legislation and fly people back to Malaysia.