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Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012

June 29, 2012

Below is my second reading speech of the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012, delivered yesterday, June 28:

As the Senate debates this bill, there are 43 million displaced people around the world, including more than 10 million refugees. There are nearly two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and one million more in Iraq. There are 1.5 million refugees who have fled Iraq, although I suspect that figure is higher—I remember estimates of four million refugees being forced out of Iraq, or displaced within Iraq, by the disastrous American invasion of March 2003. Some 140,000 people have fled Sri Lanka. To date, as we watch the civil war in Syria, 80,000 refugees have fled that conflict. They have gone to Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, all ill-equipped to check this refugee flow. They have gone to Turkey as well.

I am proud of Australia’s record on refugees. As Premier of New South Wales, I was honoured to meet people who had come to these shores as refugees. I remember taking students from year 10 history classes, from four Western Sydney high schools, through the Australian War Memorial. I vividly remember looking at the model of Gallipoli with four students of Afghan background—two of the girls wore hijabs. They had been in Australia for just a year and a half, having come here via Christmas Island and Port Hedland. As we stood looking at the model of Gallipoli, I asked, ‘Do you know what happened here?’ and—I will never forget it—one of the girls said, ‘Yes, they landed on April 25.’ We discussed the war and the evacuation from Gallipoli. They had been in Australia less than a year and a half, they had come as refugees, they were studying Australian history in year 10 at Holroyd High School and they knew about Gallipoli.

I remember going to an International Women’s Day reception at Government House. A young girl came up to me and said, ‘Mr Carr, we have bird lice in the roof of our school; what can you do about it?’ I said, ‘The least I can do, given that you have come up to me, is visit your school.’ She turned out to be from an Afghan refugee family. I met her brother and sister at the school. They were doing very well. They were studying maths for the HSC. I was struck again by the value for Australia in these refugees.

I remember visiting a school in Cabramatta, a year 3 or year 4 class with a gifted teacher who was leading the children through arguments on drugs. She said to the boys and girls, ‘What do you do if a friend tells you to smoke this?’ They all put their hands up and said, ‘We say we don’t want to smoke it.’ ‘What do you do if a boy or a girl says they won’t be your friend unless you smoke this?’ The hands all shot up and they said, ‘We will say that we don’t care and we won’t smoke what they’re giving us.’ The gifted teacher conducting that lesson had arrived as a boat person and is now teaching young Vietnamese. A friend of mine working in the computer industry can recall fleeing Da Nang harbour in the middle of the night with his family. He was young and remembers that his sister had to be dressed as a boy because they were scared of pirates commandeering their vessel and taking off any teenage girls.

I have long held the view that Australia made a bad decision in the 1930s not to issue visas left, right and centre to the Jews of central and eastern Europe who wanted to flee, especially after Kristallnacht in October 1938. The energy that larger numbers of Jewish refugees would have brought to these shores and to our nation would have been extraordinary. Nonetheless, I am proud that Australia is so generous. After the United States and Canada, Australia has the largest humanitarian intake with around 14,000 this year and almost 70,000 in the last five years. We spend $405 million to support humanitarian emergency and refugee programs globally. We are acknowledged as a generous nation.

The truth is, you cannot have safer borders and you cannot have humane treatment of what we call in bureaucratic language ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ without having an effective disincentive to those who ply the evil people-smuggling trade. The arrangement made between the government and Malaysia is such a disincentive. I draw the attention of the house to a very thoughtful article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 June 2012 by Clive Kessler, an emeritus professor and internationally recognised expert on the Malaysian culture, society, history and politics. He said:

A set of arrangements has been negotiated by Australia with the Malaysian government. These arrangements are not perfect, neither is Malaysia. But they are workable. So why resist implementing them?

Having spent a scholarly life, over half a century, studying Malaysian society, culture and politics, I know those shortcomings far better than most. Even so, there is a good case to be made for the ‘Malaysian solution’.

It provides the most workable, humane, long-term sustainable approach now on offer. It is a policy that stands somewhere between saying no to everybody and yes to everybody who shows up here.

The Malaysian plan would effectively recognise the international nature of a problem—of a cynical exercise in which Australia stands at the end of the line of a game of pass the ‘hot potato’—and would regionalise the practicalities of its handling and management.

At the core of the amendments before us today is a simple but powerful proposition: we can break the business model of the people smugglers and we have a duty to do so. Offshore processing is an essential element to stopping the people-smuggling trade and this amendment is essential to achieve that objective. This problem is not static. If rejected by the Senate, the solution will be returned to by a future Australian government. The behaviour of people smugglers is constantly adapting. The problems that send people onto the high seas will continue to appear in the regions to our north. After the High Court decision—one of the most questionable and curious High Court decisions in memory—arrivals tripled—

After the High Court’s decision, arrivals tripled from 314 in October to 895 in November. The inescapable fact that the coalition and the Greens continue to ignore is that the Malaysian solution is the only proposal we have which has any hope of cracking the people smugglers’ business model. All the available information from asylum seeker communities in source countries and those who arrive in Australia confirms conclusively that the absence of a clear deterrent is seen as an open door to Australia.

The bill before the Senate is premised on Australia’s interests to work in partnership with countries in the region under the Bali process. As co-chair of the Bali process, along with my Indonesian counterpart, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, I am committed to pursuing a regional solution to a regional problem. The Bali process is a regional mechanism for responding to a regional problem. Two years ago, under the leadership of Indonesia and Australia, the 43 Bali process members agreed to a regional cooperation framework. Among other things, the framework commits members to eliminate irregular movement facilitated by people smugglers. The Malaysian arrangement is the first entered into pursuant to that framework. Critics of the Malaysian arrangement have been vocal, although silent on one critical question: would it work? I said it would. The government says it would. The experts say it would. I have heard no cogent argument to the contrary. It would work because it is a powerful disincentive. Without the Malaysian arrangement, all we have is an improvised Indonesian arrangement that the Indonesians do not want; that the coalition says it would aggravate, by somehow sending boats back to crowded Indonesian ports; and that is inhumane because it encourages people to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers, paying them $10,000 for transport on the high seas. Without the Malaysian arrangement, we are left with an altogether unsatisfactory, improvised, cobbled-together Indonesian arrangement, which the Indonesians do not want and which puts people’s lives at risk but which is an incentive for people in coffee shops and on street corners in Indonesian ports and elsewhere to strike deals that have people paying money to take the risk of attempting to come here. If they knew that they were going to get no further than Malaysia, where their claims would be assessed and their applications processed, and they would come no further if they could not make their case, they would not give money to the people smugglers. That is the case for the Malaysian arrangement.

By transferring irregular maritime arrivals to Malaysia, we take away from people smugglers their only selling point—that they and they alone can provide a new life in Australia for their customers. Why pay those tens of thousands of dollars to a people smuggler and endure dangerous sea voyages just to end up, in the middle of your journey, in Malaysia? No sensible people would do it; the demand would dry up. Before it was struck down by the High Court, it was acting as a disincentive—

Once removed, the numbers went up. I quoted the figures earlier. The Malaysian arrangement is a strong message to people smugglers that they cannot guarantee a future in Australia for those who are smuggled.

We saw that when we announced the Malaysian arrangement last year: the number of arrivals dropped because people smugglers waited to see if the arrangement would be implemented. It was not; and, when the government’s legislative amendments were blocked, the people smugglers returned to their business with renewed vigour. And why wouldn’t they? That is a clear demonstration of how effective the arrangement would be if the government has the opportunity to implement it. The arrangement would ensure one thing—that none of those transferred would be eligible for resettlement in Australia. When transferred to Malaysia, they would be processed by UNHCR and be subject to UNHCR’s normal resettlement program, with no special treatment and with no guarantees about the eventual country of resettlement. That contrasts sharply with the Nauru experience, where processing for resettlement is by Australian Immigration. Where? Primarily in Australia. With Malaysia, none of those transferred would be eligible for special treatment on resettlement. With Nauru, just about all of those processed there end up in Australia. How’s that as an effective policy!

I hear critics say that towing vessels back to Indonesia would work. Do they not understand that such a policy would drive people smugglers to sabotage their vessels at the time of interception to avoid being towed back? Threats to tow back endanger not only those on the vessel but also the brave Australian officials whose job it is to protect our borders. What a policy that is, to tow the boats back! It would produce a crisis in our relations with our most important near neighbour, Indonesia. It would reduce Australian-Indonesian relations to an ongoing squabble about returning boats to crowded Indonesian ports, to a single transactional issue. In a post-2014 Indonesia—that is, a post-President Yudhoyono Indonesia—it is likely to have even more of an inflammatory effect then it is likely to have now. But that is the opposition policy. The opposition policy is to tow the boats back. It is primitive. It is unworkable. It is inhumane. It is no alternative.

I hear people say that, under the arrangement, Malaysia cannot provide those transferred with appropriate protection. They should read the text of the arrangement and its associated operational guidelines, which are freely available in the public domain. They should read the article by Professor Kessler, an academic expert on Malaysia, that I quoted from earlier. He said:

These arrangements are not perfect … But they are workable. So why resist implementing them?

He also says in that article, by the way:

Abbott’s reasons and strategy are clear. On immigration, as on all other matters, he wants, by a chosen strategy of finely targeted obstructionism to all government initiatives … to make the country ungovernable. That is half of his strategy. The other half is then to spend the rest of his time jeering that the government is demonstrably hopeless, that it simply cannot govern. Whose doing is that? Abbott is on a sure winner.

The commitments in the text of the arrangement are not hidden away from scrutiny; they are there for all to see and to hold the Australian and Malaysian governments to account. The arrangement makes clear that those transferred will be treated with dignity and respect, in accordance with human rights standards. They will be accommodated in the community, be allowed an opportunity to work and be provided with minimum standards of care if they cannot. Those are serious commitments entered into by a government serious about stopping this trade, and they are supported by the UNHCR. That answers the arguments of anyone who wants to question the humanity of the Malaysian arrangement: they are supported by the UNHCR, whose integrity and commitment to refugee health and wellbeing cannot be doubted or challenged. They are serious commitments. With regard to the Malaysian arrangement, UNHCR’s regional representative, Rick Towle, has acknowledged:

… it has the potential to … make a significant practical contribution to what we’re trying to achieve in the region.

I hear critics say that processing people offshore in Nauru is better and proven policy. But creating a new Christmas Island in a foreign country is not enough—not when the people smugglers know that anyone sent to Nauru for processing will almost certainly end up in Australia, exactly where people smugglers promised to deliver their valuable customers. What sort of disincentive is that? The amendments before the Senate today provide the only effective disincentive available to Australia. It is essential that a clear message of deterrence is sent to people smugglers, and this amendment would do it.

The Australian people want humane treatment of people fleeing their homelands on the high seas. They want humane treatment, but at the same time they want an effective border policy. They want an effective border policy, but they do not want to see any loss of life. In a world of less than entirely satisfactory answers and solutions, this is the best option. No option will work without it containing, at its core, a powerful disincentive to the businesses that are driving this flow of sad and threatened humanity.

  1. June 29, 2012 10:44 am

    Very eloquently put…The only thing I can add to this debate is that if we care about the humanity of the live cattle exports, then surely we can come to terms in regards to the refugees. I don’t believe this is the fault of the Australian government, that so many of the refugee boats come into distress on the passing. It’s those who bring them that don’t care. It’s cruel to turn away humans in need – there must be a better way!

  2. June 29, 2012 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the post. I have been attempting to make sense of the appalling debate and the even more abysmal reporting over this issue. The numbers of displaced people around the world is truly distressing and is unlikely to diminish any time soon. The simple truth is we can never take more than the tiniest fraction and therefore we need to deal fairly with the people who don’t pay people smugglers (and end up paying with their lives). That means, quite bluntly, a deterrent. Hopefully, we can make that a relatively humane deterrent, but it must be a deterrent first and humane second.
    As you rightly point out, Nauru looked like a deterrent when Howard implemented it, and arrivals did decrease, but when all the processing was done and nearly every detainee was granted entry into Australia, it became apparent that should it be re-opened, the people smugglers will re-write their prospectuses accordingly (Nauru: further delays may be expected, but entry is virtually guaranteed)
    The Greens proposal for on-shore processing with all the implications of access to Australian legal counsel, endless appeal processes, etc, will ensure that that won’t work either.

  3. Ralf Kluin permalink
    June 29, 2012 8:00 pm

    Hi Bob,

    I listened to the entire Senate debate on radio, yesterday, as I drove from Melbourne to Sydney. In my film library, I possess two great films; The Winds of War and War and Remembrance made from the two great literary works authored by Herman Wouk. I recommend these films to all parliamentarians for study. One of our Senators relatives is even mentioned in the film. I also read the article presented in an earlier letter of yours, by Professor Kessler, and from which you quoted passages presented in your speech to our Senate. “These arrangements are not perfect… But they are workable. So why resist implementing them?” These words Immediately reminded me of the millions of people suffering, dying at the hands of certain people, their governments, not only during WW2, but throughout the centuries and up to the present and continue to explode in my mind, hence my quoting Herman Wouk. I believe that the Liberal/Nationals and Greens need to seriously reflect on their attitudes as they argued their case as relayed on the ABC Radio waves out of our National Parliament and to the world. Obviously, the reasons why some nations remain non-signatory to the UN Convention, is, I suspect, well understood and researched not only by your Ministry, but also by Professor Kessler and many other people. I suppose that Australians have not always viewed their national security interests in global terms, depending for many decades, connected with the British Empire. And in this context it is arguable that Australia’s security interests were narrowly defined with the peoples desire to defend the Empire. Of course this all changed when the ALP under PM Curtin and PM Chiefly recognised that we lived in the southern hemisphere on a huge island continent. It is in this context that PM Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitllam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating took all of us on a different path. I believe that it is important that the ALP in Government steer Australia on a good course. It remains questionable whether the Greens and the Liberal National Coalition will steer us into choppier waters, one that may cause us to deal with our neighbours in a less friendly manner? I liked your speech. In my opinion we must engage our neighbours in a positive way as the world’s people continue to reconcile the plight of people seeking refuge from fear, refuge from want, freedom of worship and freedom of speech.

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