Asylum Seekers

Mr CLARE: It is now almost 12 months since 200 people died off the coast of Indonesia. On 18 December, 200 people drowned off the coast of Java trying to get to Australia. About 100 bodies were eventually washed up upon the shore, 100 remained at the bottom of the Java Sea.

A lot of people have forgotten about that, but I have not. I had been in the job for about four days and the events of that day and the subsequent days are scarred in my memory. The first reports of 87 people having survived. Followed by more disappointing reports that only 33 had survived. Images on our TV screens and in our newspapers of exhausted, half-dead survivors and the stories that followed of people being swallowed up by the ocean.

Ultimately that is what this debate is all about. It is about stopping a repeat of this. It deserves better than the yelling and screaming and the smart lines that often pass for debate on this issue. That is what is wrong with this debate – it has been poisoned by politics. It is rancid with politics.

The great irony of all this is that the major parties agree on most things here. The difference is at the margins. But you would not know it from this debate and you would not know it from what you read in the newspapers and see on TV or hear in this place. Why? The reason is that this is not a debate that is principally about policy; it is a debate that is about politics.

Let me give you an example. Four days before those 200 people drowned almost a year ago, the Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition. In that letter, the Prime Minister said to the Leader of the Opposition: ‘The Australian people expect us to work together to ensure that the national interest is upheld. I would be happy to make Minister Bowen available to meet with Mr Morrison in an attempt to identify a mutually satisfactory outcome.’ Two days later, two days before those 200 people drowned, the Leader of the Opposition wrote back. In that letter that Leader of the Opposition in response said: ‘I do not see much point.’

So you have the Prime Minister in her letter reaching out, saying, ‘We need to work together,’ and you have an opposition leader in response saying, ‘I do not see much point.’ He did not see much point in even having a meeting.

The day after those people died, the government wrote to the Leader of the Opposition again and asked him to make the Shadow Minister for Immigration available to sit down with the minister to reach a compromise. He still refused and then he demanded a written proposal from the government before any talks could begin. So we did that. The government gave him a written proposal where we put on the table the offer to implement offshore processing in Nauru and the government’s plan with Malaysia. Then, on the morning before those talks were to begin, on the morning before Mr Bowen and Mr Morrison were to sit down, the Leader of the Opposition held a press conference and he rejected the written proposal that we had made. So, in effect, the negotiations ended before they began.

All of that was in the aftermath of 200 people dying, and he still refused to give the government the powers that we think we need to stop people risking their lives by getting on a boat and possibly dying at sea.

That refusal still exists today. The Leader of the Opposition still refuses to pass legislation to send people to Malaysia. Why is that? My view is that this is about politics. In the debate that we had on this very same issue only a few weeks ago, I pulled out a quote from David Marr’s article in the Quarterly Essay. It is a quote that bears repeating. On page 36 of that essay, he says:

“WikiLeaks told us how keen the Coalition is to exploit the boats. 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.”

That quote tells you everything you need to know about this debate. It tells you why it is so hard to come to an agreement between the two major parties. It explains everything that is going on here. A senior Liberal Party strategist went to the United States embassy to have a meeting, saying ‘this issue is fantastic’ and ‘the more boats that come the better’ and expressing their disappointment that they had not been able to get more political benefit out of it already.

That is what is wrong with this debate. It is people who think like this, people who say things like that and people who are more concerned about political advantage than they are about the boats.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting –

The member for Kooyong might express his disappointment. I know he is a man who would never say things like that. The problem is there are people like that who have decided that the more boats that come the better. We are better than this. The member for Kooyong is better than that and we as a parliament are better than that. We have to get rid of comments like that if we are going to sort this issue out.

There are no easy answers in all of this. This is a wretchedly difficult area of public policy. There are plenty of views, plenty of ideas about how to address it. My view is this. Whatever you think the solution is, we should all agree on this: that the government of the day should be given the power that it believes it needs to stop people dying. That is what we did when we were in opposition, when we gave support to John Howard’s laws to implement offshore processing, and that is what we have been denied in government by the Liberal Party, by the National Party, by the Greens party. They have all refused to give us the powers that we have come to the view are necessary to help to stop people dying at sea.

That is why we set up an expert panel – to help to break this political impasse. Headed by Angus Houston, it made 22 recommendations, including Nauru, and we have started offshore processing there. Including offshore processing at Manus. That has now begun. It also included doubling the number of refugees that we will take each year, part of increasing our humanitarian program from 13,500 to 20,000. That has been done. We are increasing coorporation, as recommended, between Australia and Indonesia on search and rescue.

I visited Indonesia in September with Minister Smith and Minister Albanese and we agreed to six measures to help to do that. That includes making sure that Australian search and rescue gives Indonesian search and rescue the type of ship tracking information and communication via satellite that is necessary to get in touch with merchant ships as quickly as possible and an agreement with Indonesia to allow our search and rescue planes to land and refuel in Indonesia.

The report from Angus Houston and the expert panel also talked about the importance of disrupting boat ventures—stopping people getting on boats before they set to sea. The latest information on that is that so far this year 209 disruptions have occurred, involving 7,964 people, including 120 disruptions from Indonesia, 65 from Sri Lanka, 14 from Thailand, five from Malaysia, four from India and one from Vietnam.

We are also flying people back to Sri Lanka who are not refugees. In the past few weeks we have flown home 650 people, including 50 people today, and there is more to come. The biggest increase that we have seen in boats this year is from Sri Lanka. They are more than half the number, and many of the people on these boats are not refugees. They are economic migrants—people seeking a job, people seeking a better life. They are not entitled to protection, and that is why they are being sent home.

The importance of this should not be underestimated. The threat of death has not deterred many from getting on a boat. It should. There is no point in paying a people smuggler thousands of dollars to get on a boat if you are going to be flown straight home. That message will hopefully get through to people in Sri Lanka who are thinking about trying their luck and getting on a boat when they see someone in the street who they thought had gone on a boat only a few weeks ago and who is now back home in Sri Lanka.

The media play an important role in getting this message through to people who are thinking about getting on a boat. The headline in the Daily News in Colombo, one of its major newspapers, said this last Tuesday:

‘Australia issues fresh warning to Lankan ‘Boat people’


This is a tough message. It is a strong message, but it is an important message. It is designed to help save lives. It is designed to stop people making that decision to waste their money and potentially risk their lives.

We have to do all of these things I have just outlined and more on top of that. We have to implement each and every one of the recommendations that Angus Houston and his panel recommended. That means Nauru. It means Manus Island. It also means Malaysia. If we are going to tackle this problem for good, we need a regional solution, and Malaysia is part of that. That is what the report said. It said it was critical.

The opposition have refused to support Malaysia, and the Shadow Minister articulated that again in the debate today. Their argument is that Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention. That is a false excuse. It is an argument that has been made up by the opposition to hide behind. They sent people to Nauru for six years and Nauru was never a signatory to the refugee convention during that time. They oppose Malaysia not because it has not signed the UN convention on refugees but because it suits their political objectives.

I think it is the height of hypocrisy to criticise the government on this issue and refuse to give us the powers we believe we need to stop people risking their lives at sea. This is an issue that is too important for that sort of politics. We have to be prepared, on this issue at least, to work together. We have to be prepared to compromise, and if that means changing your position then so be it.

This motion talks about consistency. It would have you believe that the opposition have not changed their policy on this issue in 10 years. That is not correct. Both parties have changed their position. Only three and a half years ago the opposition, with its former Shadow Minister for Immigration, supported the closure of Nauru and supported the closure of Manus Island. On Lateline the former shadow minister said:

“We don’t need the Pacific Solution now, that’s Nauru Island and Manus Island, because we have the Christmas Island centre completed.”

Both sides have changed their position. You change your position when the facts change and you change your position if that is what it takes to save lives. That is what we ask the opposition now: give us the powers that we believe we need to help stop people dying at sea.

We have been fighting about this issue now for 11 years. We have been fighting about it since the Tampa arrived. Australians have had a gutful of it. They want us to stop shouting at each other and start talking to each other. They want us to work together.

If you need more proof of the importance of doing that, look at the story in the Sun Herald on the weekend that tells of another boat and another 33 people who drowned last month. Only one person survived—a 22-year-old man rescued by a fishing boat, now in an Indonesian detention centre.

He paid $5,500 to a people smuggler called Sikander. He says the boat took off on 26 October and, on the way to Australia, the engine stopped. The phone they had did not work. The boat began to sink. This is what he told the Sun-Herald:

”On the first day there was hope. Everyone was optimistic,” he said. ”We were praying, saying there will be an island, there will be a boat.

”On the second day, some people, they lost control, shouting and crying, saying, ‘No one will help us.’ One guy was in very bad condition. He lost his grip of the rope and went away and he was screaming, crying a few times. After that we didn’t hear him anymore.

“Then time was passing, night was coming, and the day passing, losing friends. I would see dead bodies coming from the right side, left side. Everyone, one by one, was waiting for their turn because everyone knew that there may not be help, there may not be any chance for a second life.

”Some guys got crazy, they were talking and fighting, they let go of the rope and went away. On the third night there were seven people on the rope, but … in the morning, there were only three people left including me.

In the end, there was only one. That is just one story. There are a lot of stories like this—too many.

Monsoon season is fast upon us. Last December, 200 people died. The December before that, dozens more died when a ship hit the rocks on the coast of Christmas Island. I dread what might happen in the days and weeks ahead. We have got to stop yelling at each other and start talking to each other about this issue.

I urge anyone that is thinking about getting onto a boat: don’t; don’t do it; don’t risk your life. And I sincerely urge all of us parliamentarians to be worthy of the name and to work together to stop this happening again.