House of Representatives Speech- Rudd Government: Immigration and Border Protection Policies 2010

The Liberal Party is long on fear but very short on solutions and very, very short on facts. The two speeches that we have just heard on this matter of public importance, from the member for Cook and member for Stirling, are yet a further representation of just how long on fear and short on facts the opposition actually is: ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good scare campaign.’ There is nothing but fear from the Liberal Party—fear and a refusal to consider the context in which people come from all over the world to Australia as unauthorised boat arrivals.

The Liberal Party is long on fear but very short on solutions and very, very short on facts. The two speeches that we have just heard on this matter of public importance, from the member for Cook and member for Stirling, are yet a further representation of just how long on fear and short on facts the opposition actually is: ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good scare campaign.’ There is nothing but fear from the Liberal Party—fear and a refusal to consider the context in which people come from all over the world to Australia as unauthorised boat arrivals.

This is a fear campaign which, first, is based on ignoring the very small numbers of unauthorised arrivals by boat in Australia and, indeed, the very small numbers of refugee claims. We have had it again from the member for Stirling, who referred ridiculously to the ‘tsunami’ of arrivals. That kind of language is completely unhelpful in considering the real issues that are involved. It is a very small number of unauthorised arrivals and a small number of refugees and refugee claims. The number of displaced persons is small by comparison to the total number of displaced persons worldwide. The number of unauthorised arrivals is small by comparison to the total number of unauthorised arrivals in other countries. The number of asylum claims is small in relation to asylum claims in other countries.

Let us take the experience in Europe, for example. Compared to the very small numbers in Australia, in Europe there were 286,700 asylum claims in 2009, 283,700 in 2008 and 249,600 in 2007. The United States, with the largest number of claims of any of the industrialised countries, had nearly 50,000 claims in 2009, closely followed by France with 42,000 and Canada with 33,000 claims for asylum. A relatively small number—6,500 claims in total—were lodged in Australia and New Zealand combined in 2009. That is to give proper context, to look at the smallness of the actual numbers involved, which is where this debate should be positioned. The numbers are small in relation to the total immigration to Australia, small in comparison to the number of unauthorised arrivals or visa overstayers who come by air, and small compared to Australia’s population of around 22.3 million and growing.

This is a disgraceful fear campaign which demonises people in need and diminishes the humanity of every Australian. It is a fear campaign which ignores the long history of resettlement of refugees in this country, a history of which all Australians can be very proud. Since the Second World War over 700,000 refugees and displaced persons have settled in Australia. Australia played a large part in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and article 14 of that universal declaration declares the rights of everyone anywhere in the world to seek asylum. The 1951 refugee convention, which Australia is a party to and played a large part in the creation of, prohibits states from imposing penalties on those who arrive without authorisation coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. People seeking asylum are not illegal, and the member for Cook and the member for Stirling should stop misleading this House by suggesting that they are. It is very important that it is understood clearly just what the status is of unauthorised arrivals by boat.

Part of the fear campaign is carried out by misrepresentation of the firm approach that the Rudd government has taken to unauthorised arrivals. We have more assets patrolling our borders than any Australian government in the past. We have spent more on international cooperation to counter people smuggling than any other government. One hundred and thirty-nine arrests and 45 convictions of people smugglers have taken place in Australia since September 2008. There are currently 92 people being prosecuted in Australian courts for people smuggling. The government recently introduced further measures into the parliament to strengthen Australia’s anti-people-smuggling laws, and of course we work cooperatively with our regional partners to combat people smuggling. We take a responsible approach to genuine asylum seekers and protecting our national security, including offshore processing, mandatory detention and stringent health, identity and ASIO security checks. We act consistently with our international obligations, which is a very different position from that presently being adopted by those opposite, who are simply playing politics.

Their fear campaign rests on the false assertion that global factors are irrelevant. In that regard, it is worth remembering what the former immigration minister of the former government, the member for Berowra, said in 1999 at the time of large increases in unauthorised arrivals. He said:

It is timely to remember that the use of people smugglers to get around a country’s rules about who can come and who can stay is a world-wide problem. Australia is not alone. We are also seeing large numbers of people seeking asylum in developed countries—people from the same groups as we are seeing in Australia. For example, Iraqi asylum-seekers are registered in 77 countries and last year there were over 34,000 applications for asylum lodged by Iraqis in 19 European countries.

Exactly the same position as obtained in 1999 is still the case today. Australia is not alone in seeing increases in claims from people from Afghanistan. In 2008 and 2009 there were increases in unauthorised arrivals from Afghanistan experienced in several other countries around the world, including the US, Canada, Germany, France and Norway. We saw in this country in 2008 and 2009—reflecting dreadful circumstances in Sri Lanka—an increase in asylum claims from Sri Lanka, and there has been a corresponding increase in asylum claims from people from Sri Lanka in France, in Switzerland, in New Zealand, in Japan and in Germany. We have even seen asylum seekers from Sri Lanka arriving on the west coast of Canada. This is a phenomenon that is worldwide. It was properly recognised by the former immigration minister, the member for Berowra, and those opposite should recognise it now rather than conducting the kind of fear campaign that they are conducting. They would rather continue with their pretence that the barbarous and inhumane methods which they wish to return to—including the appalling suggestion that there should be a turning back of boats—are effective. These sorts of methods diminish us all, and it is a pretence to suggest that they are effective.

Part of the fear campaign—and that is the supposed topic of the matter of public importance today—is the use of language like ‘budget blow-out’ which, again, is seeking to entirely ignore the context in which this problem arises. It pretends that the Howard government did not equally spend vast amounts of money on its regrettably partially failed solution, and those vast amounts of money included some $1.5 billion spent on processing unauthorised maritime arrivals, coping with just the three-year surge that was experienced from 1999 to 2001. During the time of the Howard government there were some 244 boats carrying 13,659 asylum seekers and, unsurprisingly, there was an increase in Commonwealth expenditure to deal with that surge in unauthorised arrivals. During that surge in 1999, 2000 and 2001 when over 12,000 people arrived, the Liberals under former Prime Minister John Howard did exactly what the government is now doing—they increased our country’s detention capacity and increased the resources that were directed to it. It was of course the Howard government that built the Christmas Island detention centre, at a cost of almost $400 million. It was announced originally in the 2002 budget at a cost of $153.7 million for construction costs and $34.4 million in commissioning, but it blew out to almost $400 million.

It is about time that those opposite tried to return debate on this subject to something approaching a humane basis, to something approaching a rational basis, and not persist with their fear campaign.