Asylum Seekers

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence Materiel) (15:28): Can I tell you the story of just one person. His name is Esmat Adine. He worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Kabul. He was one of around 250 people who left Indonesia on a boat to Australia in December last year. He was one of only 47 people who survived.

Two hundred others on that boat drowned. About 100 bodies were later washed up on the shores of Indonesia. One hundred more are still at the bottom of the Java Sea.

Last month, he told his story to the Australian newspaper. He said: People were crying, some were praying, people were looking for each other, some mothers were looking for their children, some women were crying, where’s my husband?

He said…the waves were like mountains. Children, women and young men, we were seeing them die …

One of those men was his cousin. He told the reporter: He was struggling, I tried to get to him to help him, but I couldn’t do anything …

This is the human face of this debate.

In the last nine months, more than 400 people have died. 200 people died in December. Another 11 died off the coast of Malaysia in February. 90 more died in June, and 100 more died only two weeks ago. This is what we have to stop.

Whatever you think the solution is—I know there is a continuing debate in this place about that—we should all agree that governments should be given the powers that they think are necessary to save lives.

That is what is being denied to this government by the Liberal Party and by the Greens. When parliament last sat in June, the Liberal Party and the Greens both opposed legislation that the government believed would stop boats and stop people dying.

That is why we commissioned the Houston report. It makes 22 recommendations, and the government is committed to implementing each and every one of those recommendations.

The shadow minister for immigration talked about half measures. The government is the only party in this place that is committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Houston report. Neither the Liberal Party nor the Greens are committed to implementing all of the recommendations, all of the measures, proposed by the Houston report.

Yesterday, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship made a designation by legislative instrument to transfer people to Nauru. He also indicated that the first transfer of people is likely to occur in the latter part of this week.

There is information in the newspapers today about the number of Australian Federal Police officers on flights with asylum seekers. This debate gives me an opportunity to provide some more information to the House.

I am advised by the Australian Federal Police that the overall number of AFP members supporting the transfer process will be approximately 90. The number of AFP officers on individual transfers will vary according to operational considerations and the requirements of each transfer. For operational reasons, the AFP will not go into more detail about the arrangements of each transfer.

The people of Australia are sick of us fighting on this issue. They want us to work together, and they want this problem fixed. Unfortunately, this debate has been infected by politics, and we have heard more of that from the Liberal Party and the Greens over the last few weeks.

I have been in this job for about nine months. On my fifth day in the job, I had to advise the Australian people that 200 people had been killed at sea— the 200 people who had been on that boat with Esmat Adine.

I said then that the Australian people had had a gutful of this, and they wanted us to work together to fix it.

Four days before those 200 people died the Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition and said that ‘the Australian people expect us to work together to ensure the national interest is upheld’. The PM said that she ‘would be happy to make Minister Bowen available to meet with Mr Morrison in an attempt to identify a mutually satisfactory outcome’. The Leader of the Opposition wrote back two days later—two days before the tragedy—and said he ‘did not see much point’ in the discussions.

The day after 200 people died the government wrote to the Leader of the Opposition again and asked him to allow his Immigration spokesperson to sit down with the Immigration Minister to reach a compromise, and he still refused. He demanded a new proposal from the government before any talks could begin, and so the government gave him one.

Before those talks between Mr Bowen and Mr Morrison could begin, the Leader of the Opposition held a press conference and rejected the written proposal—effectively ending the negotiations before they even got started.

These are not the actions of someone who wants to solve this issue. As I said earlier, whatever you think the solution is, we should all agree that governments should be given the powers that they believe are necessary to save people’s lives. This is what we have been denied by both the Liberal Party and the Greens.

The shadow minister asked in his contribution what government members believe in. This debate gives me an opportunity to tell the House that my view on the Malaysia plan has not changed. I still believe it is the best way to stop people getting on a boat and dying at sea. So does the Houston report. It says it believes it is ‘vital’.

Angus Houston, in the press conference that he held after he released the report, said that he believes that it is the best plan for the future. Paris Aristotle, another member of the expert panel, said in an interview: In the long run … Malaysia is absolutely vital to this.

It is also absolutely clear that the Liberal Party will never allow the proposal to be passed. So the bill we debated last month was a compromise. It was the only thing the opposition were prepared to pass, and so we passed it.

We cannot be held hostage in this place to stupid political fighting. This is too important for that. We have two options: either we pass legislation or we do not; we do something or we do nothing. If we do nothing, more people die.

My view has not changed on towing back boats, either. The Houston report makes it very clear that you cannot tow back boats when the country you want to tow the boats back to does not agree to take the people back. This is the case as we speak. The opposition’s proposal is to tow boats back to Indonesia. The advice of Angus Houston and his panel is that you cannot tow a boat back to Indonesia if Indonesia will not let you.

This is what Indonesia has said, on the record. Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian foreign minister, said in March of this year: … simply pushing back the boats where they have come from would be a backward step. He also said: The general concept of pushing boats back and forth would be an aberration to the general consensus that has been established since 2003.

Later that month the Indonesian Foreign Minister was again asked a question about this, and he said: Now, from that kind of mindset … naturally it would be impossible and not advisable even to simply shift the nature of the challenge from any … continuum to the other.

That is the Indonesian Foreign Minister, saying that Indonesia would not agree to towing back boats.

The Indonesian Ambassador to Australia is on the record on this as well. In March of this year he said: … if you take that policy, it means that you bring all the burdens to Indonesia and what about our cooperation?

A senior Indonesian official, in July of this year, was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald on this issue of Indonesian permission to tow back boats. He said: It’s exactly like you going to someone else’s house and throwing dirt there … Why would we take something that is not our property?

So you have a senior Indonesian official, the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia and the Foreign Minister of Indonesia, all saying that they do not support this policy proposition.

In addition, you have the Houston report saying that, without Indonesian support, it cannot happen. Therefore it cannot happen.

I also believe it would be dangerous if it were to happen. On 25 January, the Australian reported a senior naval officer as saying: They will disable their boats when they see us coming, they will burn their boats. The policy will encourage them to do so and it will place lives—navy lives and refugee lives—at risk.

We know this is true—because it has happened before.

I have gone back and looked at what happened when the Howard government ordered boats to be turned around.

In the case of SIEV1, on 7 September 2001, naval personnel boarded the vessel, were threatened and forced to withdraw—and the passengers ended up going to Nauru.

In the case of SIEV2, on 9 September 2001, 30 knives were found concealed on the boat and passengers threatened self-harm. They were also taken to Nauru.

With SIEV3, on 11 September 2001, after naval personnel boarded the boat, they were met with violence and could not control the wheelhouse. The boarding party then left the vessel and the boat made a hard turn towards the naval vessel, and a collision was only narrowly avoided. Those people were also taken to Nauru.

On 12 October 2001, on SIEV5, the ignition key and the fuel transfer pump were thrown overboard and the cooling pump was sabotaged.

SIEV6, on 19 Oct 2001, was also sabotaged. When naval personnel attempted to repair the ship, fires were started, the deck boards were torn up and the boat ended up sinking. The passengers were taken to Christmas Island.

All cases where an attempt was made to turn a boat around and the attempt failed.

There are more examples. On 22 October 2001, 15 people dived overboard off SIEV7. Others doused themselves in fuel, damaged the mast and started a fire in the hold.

On 31 October 2001, SIEV9 was also sabotaged—fuel lines were cut. There was more sabotage on SIEV12 on 16 December 2001—fires and threats of self-harm.

Perhaps the best example of how dangerous this could be is the case of SIEV36 in 2009. That boat was not turned around, but the people on board the boat at the time thought that it would be.

This is what the coroner, Greg Cavanagh, said on page 5 of his report: … a group of passengers mistakenly believed they were to be returned to Indonesia … very shortly after … the vessel’s engine was sabotaged and subsequently petrol was spilt into the bilge and ignited.

Following the explosion which occurred on that boat, 5 asylum seekers drowned and 40 other people were injured, including several Australian Defence Force personnel, who were treated for burns and for other injuries.

This could have been a lot worse. Corporal Jager, an Australian medical officer, needed to be rescued by her colleagues after her life jacket failed to inflate and two asylum seekers tried to push her aside to get themselves into the rescue boat. Her leg was injured and the coroner said: … she would have died but for the efforts to rescue her.

This all happened because the asylum seekers thought the boat was going to be towed back to Indonesia.

On this important issue, the coroner was unequivocal: If there had not been a Warning Notice served which suggested return to Indonesia, and if it had been made clear to the Afghan passengers that they were being taken to Australia and not returning to Indonesia, again the explosion probably would not have occurred.

This is the nub of this issue. It is about the danger to Australian Navy personnel and to refugees.

This is why the Australian Navy and senior Australian naval officers have criticised and opposed the opposition’s plan—because it puts their lives at risk. Apart from that, it does not work anyway. People smugglers are not stupid. If they see a naval vessel coming and they think they are going to be towed back to Indonesia, they will set fire to the ship or put a hole in it and force people into the water, forcing our men and women to go in and rescue them.

I accept that the coalition are never going change their minds on this issue. The important point is that the time for fighting is over. We have been fighting on this issue for 11 long years. We have been fighting about this since the Tampa arrived 11 years ago last month. We have now passed legislation through this House. It is time to put down our swords and stop playing politics.

Remember what this is all about: 400 people have died in the last nine months. We have to stop fighting if we want people to stop dying. That is why we have passed legislation through this parliament. At moments of great importance, when lives are at stake, this parliament needs to work together. That is what we did after Tampa, that is what we did after September 11 and that is what we all need to do now.