Asylum Seekers

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence Materiel) (15:31): In December last year, only a few days into this job, I had the responsibility of telling the Australian people that a boat had capsized off the coast of Java and that 200 people had died. The events of that day have driven my actions in this area ever since. Both sides of politics are very critical of the people who put these people onto boats. This is why. In this case, 200 people died. Almost as many people died that day as died on the day of the Bali bombings. That is why I think it is fair to say that these people are mass murderers. They are mass murderers who make enormous profits—sometimes more than $1 million a boat—feeding off the misery of other people.

I said after the tragedy, and I have said it since, that we as a parliament need to work together to stop this from happening. I say the same thing to the parliament again today. The people of Australia are sick of the bickering, fighting, yelling and politics on this issue. This has been going on now for 11 years. It has been going on since the Tampa arrived over 11 years ago, and people have had a gutful. They want us—Labor Party and Liberal Party—to work together. While ever we do not, while ever we keep fighting, people smugglers get rich and more people die. Working together means you need to compromise. It means doing a bit of what we want and doing a bit of what the opposition want in order to do something and in order to get something done. That is what the government have done. We have been trying to broker a compromise. We have been trying to work together.

It is worth, for the purposes of this debate, going back for a moment and remembering what we have been fighting about. The government’s preferred plan is not Nauru; it is Malaysia. Nauru is the opposition’s plan. Because we want to stop people dying, last year we said, ‘Let’s do both. We’ll do the government’s plan of Malaysia and we’ll do the opposition’s plan of Nauru.’ It was a compromise, but it was a compromise that was rejected by the opposition. So the government compromised again. We agreed to start with Nauru without Malaysia. Why? It is because it is the only thing that the Liberal Party would ever let through this parliament and because the alternative to that is doing nothing. If you do nothing then more people die. We have done all of this—changed our position and compromised—because people want us to work together on this wretched problem.

We want to work together but there are people in the Liberal Party who do not. There are people in the Liberal Party who want to play politics with this issue. If you want proof of that then you only have to look at the diplomatic cables that are reported in David Marr’s recent article in the Quarterly Essay. If you go to page 36 of this essay, it 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.”

This is very telling. This is very revealing. A senior Liberal Party strategist went to the United States embassy saying that they think this issue is fantastic, the more boats the better and how disappointed they are that it has not worked well enough for them yet. This is what people talk about when they talk about the dark side of politics. It is not about people; it is about politics. It is not about boats; it is about votes. That is exactly what is wrong with this debate.

It is politics that has poisoned this debate for over a decade. Politics is the reason that the opposition has decided consistently to oppose the Malaysia plan. It has nothing to do with the fact that Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention. That is just a political excuse that has been made up to hide behind. If this were a real concern then the Liberal Party would have to explain why they were prepared to send people to Nauru from 2001 to 2007 when Nauru was not a signatory to the UN convention. This was not a concern then, but it is now—a made up, false excuse to hide behind because some key Liberal Party strategist tells the US embassy the more boats the better.

This debate is too important for that. While we fight, people die. That is why we have compromised. That is why we have changed our position. You change your position when the facts change, and the Liberal Party has done that too. Don’t believe the argument that one side of politics has had a consistent position on this issue for over a decade. They have not. Both sides of politics have changed their views.

Three years ago the Liberal Party supported the closure of Nauru and they supported the closure of Manus Island. This is what Sharman Stone, the former shadow minister for immigration, said on Lateline in April 2009:

We don’t need the Pacific Solution now, that’s Nauru Island and Manus Island, because we have the Christmas Island centre … So we don’t need alternatives to Nauru and Manus island, we have Christmas Island.

The former shadow minister said the same thing when she appeared on the Insiders program with Barrie Cassidy in October 2009:

No we don’t need the Pacific Solution with Nauru, Manus Island now because of course we built Christmas Island as an offshore detention facility.

That was Liberal Party policy three years ago. They said that we should close Nauru. So don’t let anyone believe that one side of politics has been pure or consistent here. Both parties have changed their policies. But they have changed their policies because the facts have changed and because of a determination to stop people dying.

The Liberal Party policy goes something like this. We need to do three things: Nauru, temporary protection visas and turning back boats. We have the Houston report. We commissioned a report from some esteemed experts, led by Angus Houston, the former Chief of the Defence Force. He provided us with a report that gives us a course to chart our way through this wretchedly difficult policy area. There are 22 recommendations and we need to implement all of them. We need to implement every single one of them.

The report looks at the opposition’s policies. It agrees to one and rejects the other two. It supports Nauru and rejects TPVs and rejects turning back boats. The report says that it is not possible to turn a boat back unless the sovereign state that you wish to turn that boat back to is agreeable to that. At page 53 of the report Angus Houston is clear. He says here:

The State to which the vessel is to be returned would need to consent to such a return.

That is right. Indonesia would need to consent in order for us to turn a boat back. So what does Indonesia say about this? Indonesia has been very clear. The foreign minister of Indonesia, Marty Natalegawa, said in March of this year that ‘simply pushing back boats to where they have come from would be a backward step’. In the same month he went further. He said that this would be impossible. He said:

From that kind of mindset, naturally, it would be impossible and not advisable even, to simply shift the nature of the challenge from one end of the continuum to the other.

The Indonesian Ambassador to Australia has made exactly the same point, perhaps even more strongly. He said this in March:

… if you take that policy— that is, turning back boats— it means that you bring all the burdens to Indonesia and what about our cooperation?

So you have there from the Indonesian foreign minister and the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia very clear statements that they do not support this policy. What Angus Houston says very clearly in this report is that, unless you have the approval of Indonesia, you cannot turn boats back. The Liberal Party have refused to accept this. They refused to accept what Angus Houston has said. Why? Why did they refuse to accept what Angus Houston said? The answer is this. This is not just any Liberal Party policy; this is the policy. In January the Leader of the Opposition made this very clear in an interview with Paul Kelly from the Australian. He said this:

It is time for Australia to adopt turning the boats as its core policy.

If the Leader of the Opposition accepts what Angus Houston has said or what the Indonesian foreign minister has said, then its core policy cannot happen. It cannot be done. It cannot be implemented. That explains why, when the Leader of the Opposition visited Indonesia only two weeks ago, he did not raise this issue. He did not raise the issue because he knew if he raised this issue with the Indonesian President the Indonesian President would have politely said no. When he said that word the opposition’s core policy, to stop the boats, would be in tatters. That is why he stayed silent—because it facilitated him to return to Australia and to continue to tell the Australian people that he would stop the boats by turning them around, even though he knows that that cannot happen.

It is all about politics. Surely by now we all realise that this issue is more important than that. It is more important than politics. In 11 months we have had 400 or more people die, drowning in the seas off Indonesia. We have to work together to implement the recommendations of the Houston report—all 22 of them. That means Nauru and it means Manus Island, but it also means Malaysia. As I have said in this place before, Nauru and Manus Island are a good start but Nauru, Manus Island and Malaysia is even better. If we are serious about this issue, if we are serious about stopping people dying, then we need to implement all 22. We have to implement all of the recommendations of the Houston report.

Not only that, we have to stop talking like the conversation in this cable from the United States Embassy back to Washington that took place in 2009 between a senior Liberal Party strategist and US officials. Those opposite can contradict this if they like, but it means they are saying that the United States Embassy in Australia is not telling the truth. If this is true and this is what happened—a key Liberal Party strategist went to the US Embassy in 2009 and said ‘More boats coming to Christmas Island is fantastic, and the more boats that come, the better,’ and then complained that it only led to a slight trend towards the coalition—then that speaks volumes. That tells you that this is all about politics.

This is more important than politics. People expect that politicians are going to come into this building and fight. They do not like it but they expect it. They expect that there will be brawls in this place about lots of issues. They expect that the Liberal Party is going to cut money from health and education and that the Labor Party is going to fight to stop it. They expect that the Liberal Party is going to try to cut workers compensation, like we see in New South Wales, and they expect the Labor Party to stand up for workers, to stop that, to get rid of laws like Work Choices. But, on matters of life and death, they expect better of us. They expect us to put down our swords. They expect us to work together. They do not expect to hear senior people in the Liberal Party saying, ‘The more boats, the better.’ They want us to stop fighting. They want us to work together. This is what they expect and, frankly, this is what the Australian people deserve.