Tuesday 30th November 2010
When Julia Gillard took the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd, she said Labor had lost its way.
On July 7 the Prime Minister addressed the Lowy Institute hoping to convince Australians who had lost confidence in Labor’s border protection policies, that she had now found Labor’s way.
It is fitting that today I take up the matters the Prime Minister raised, in particular, the regional processing centre.
More importantly I wish to outline what the Coalition believes is a more meaningful and considered agenda for regional and international action on the refugee question and why domestic policy, ignored by Labor, must always provide the platform for any broader response.
But first, how did we get here and where is the Government taking us?
More than 9,000 people have now turned up in more than 190 boats since Labor first started to dismantle the strong and effective border protection regime they inherited from the Coalition.
Effective, because in the six years following the introduction of the Coalition’s full suite of measures, just ten boats arrived with less than 250 people on them.
Stopping the boats is not a slogan for the Coalition, it is the proven record and objective of our policies. It is what we believe is necessary to restore and preserve the integrity of our refugee and humanitarian programme.
The choices made by the Coalition to achieve this result were difficult. They will be again. They carry a heavy moral burden. They have very real human consequences. The Coalition does not deny these realities.
Nor do we deny the reality that when we left office just three years ago, you could count the number of people detained by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship who had illegally arrived by boat on less than one hand – there were just four.
Today, you would need more than a thousand hands as there are more than 5,100 people in detention who have arrived illegally by boat - an all time record. Riots, destruction of property, breakouts, gruesome protests, self harm, suicide, brawls and overcrowding have all returned.
When the boats are not coming, there are no children on boats, our detention centres are not crammed and our assessment processes are not backlogged. The Curtin Detention Centre is not reopened, it is closed.
When the boats stop coming, thousands are not forced to wait offshore for their special humanitarian visas in even more desperate situations as priority is given to those who have made their way to Australia by boat with the support of people smugglers.
Labor’s rolling detention crisis, lives at risk at sea, including children, and the denial of humanitarian visas to thousands waiting off shore is the moral burden Labor must now carry for its weak decisions and failed policy.
But what of push factors?
According to the UNHCR, between 1999 and 2001 when the Coalition faced the last surge in illegal boat arrivals, the average number of asylum claims lodged in industrialised countries was more than 600,000. In 1992 there were 850,000 applications. Last year there were just 365,000.
In 2009 there was no change in the number of applications made around the world, yet in Australia the number of application increased by 29%.
While the number of asylum applications globally are almost half what they were a decade a go when Australia faced it’s last surge in boat arrivals, even at these reduced levels, there is a saturated demand for asylum.
Push factors, even at reduced levels are always there and are always significant. What makes the difference is your domestic policy settings, and the signal that changes in these settings send to people smugglers.
Last week a new fact emerged when it was revealed that the Government was warned as early as February 25, 2008 that their decision to weaken the border protection and immigration regime they inherited carried real risks.
Advice from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship stated at the time “a range of risk management strategies have prevented significant boat arrivals in recent years, current intelligence on issues including the closure of Nauru suggest the possibility of increased people smuggling efforts”
Instead of seeking to sure up our border protection regime in the face of these threats , this government did the opposite. They followed through on the closure of Nauru, they abolished temporary protection visas and gave the people smugglers back a product to sell. The policy of turning boats back, promised by Labor before the election was reversed and universal offshore processing was abolished as Christmas Island could no longer cope with the in creasing rate of arrivals. The regime inherited from the Coalition was no longer recognisable.
This Government knowingly and willingly dismantled a successful policy regime that had this issue under control.
More than 190 boats later, what is the Government’s response? – the regional processing centre in East Timor.
The idea for the centre was first announced at this forum in July.
Soon after the announcement, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao responded to questions from Australian journalists asking about East Timor’s response to our Prime Minister’s plan. He said “what plan?”. Nothing has changed.
The East Timorese Parliament followed up with a more direct response, passing two separate motions rejecting the idea.
Almost five months after the Prime Minister announced her regional processing centre idea, there is still no actual proposal. There will be no formal proposal until February next year at the earliest.
No wonder the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister recently stated he needs more information – he has no information.
Upon Labor’s re-appointment to Government, responsibility for carriage of the idea was transferred from Foreign Affairs to Immigration. The reason, as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd rejected the proposal outright.
In Parliament, the Prime Minister has been unable to answer the most basic questions about her idea.
This has been left to the Secretary of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, to fill the policy vacuum.
According to Mr Metcalfe testimony to Senate Estimates...
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