Matters of Public Importance - Migration

13 March 2013

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills)
(16:00): It is a great pleasure to speak on this today. I have to say it is
probably slightly misnamed as a matter of public importance; I think it would
probably be more accurately described as a matter of public fearmongering. It
regularly appears whenever the opposition are obviously struggling and casting
around for something to talk on in this place—'We will just get the old
fearmongering-on-border-protection out, pop it on the stove, give it another
boil-up and see how well we can do.' But we have discovered an addition to the
black hole of the financials on that side of the House with the acknowledgement
of the shadow minister that this will be another amount that they are adding to
the cost. I am just wondering if the shadow Treasurer is waiting outside that
door to have a little chat with him about making that commitment. It was an
interesting disclosure, that that is another cost to be added to that black
hole.

This is a serious matter. I spoke most recently on this at the time of the very extended sitting we had in this House, and there was a great deal of distress then—which I thought was felt quite honestly across the chamber—about the terrible situation we were facing of boats attempting to make that very dangerous journey across the seas to Australia and having difficulties, and indeed on too many occasions actually sinking and taking enormous numbers of lives. That was the last time I spoke on this matter in this chamber. I spoke then to support the decisions that were taken arising out of the excellent work that was done by the Houston committee. It was a task that the government put to that committee because of the difficulties that we had faced with this very real problem of very desperate people taking what was clearly a very unsafe, unwise decision to get on boats and try to come across the sea. At that time, in August last year, we had the expert panel come together, and the panel made 22 key recommendations to government. And rather than take an approach that said, 'Look, we are going to ignore evidence; we are going to be pedantic in terms of having a political position,' we said, 'No, they are three experts with'—as the minister said in his contribution—'75 years of combined effort and expertise in this very troubled and difficult area.' We decided to take their advice and implement the full range of recommendations—because it was a package: each of the individual recommendations was built on the basis that it complemented and worked with each of the others. It was a comprehensive package that required all of those recommendations to be put in place, and we took a decision to go down that path.

Those recommendations, as people will well remember, included a return to offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Island, and increasing the Humanitarian Program to 20,000 places. So the message was not only 'Don't get on the boat because you will get no advantage from doing so,' but also, as encouragement not to do so, that we would increase the number of people that Australia would take under our Humanitarian Program. I think that the no-disadvantage policy was specifically aimed at stopping that tragic loss of life at sea, and that is why so many people who may have in the past held the position that they would not support things like offshore processing on Nauru and Manus took a decision in that context to support it and to say, 'This needs to be given complete support and an opportunity to work'—to see if we could address in particular this difficult issue of people taking dangerous boats and losing their lives at sea. The message was sent twice. The message was: this is not the way to go. And many of us struggled quite intensely—and I know that was not just on this side; I know that was on both sides of the House—with that full suite of recommendations coming out of the Houston report, but we understood that action had to be taken. And so we have put in place that particular range of initiatives.

We are committed to implementing the expert panel's recommendations. But unfortunately—and contrary to all the claims that were made up to that point—the opposition leader continued to be negative about those recommendations and about implementing those initiatives. It was that negativity and that opposition to those initiatives which stopped that vote going through and which stopped the opposition from supporting the policy as it was developed by the expert panel. It is a sad reality of this debate that we continue to have it treated as a political football rather than, as it should be, a humanitarian challenge to this nation. And that is not a tradition that has a long history in this place; in fact, quite the contrary. It is a policy area in which the best achievements, the most humanitarian achievements, have been those that happened when this place worked in a bipartisan manner in the interests of individuals in desperate circumstances, in the interests of our international obligations and in the interests of finding solutions that would stop people risking their lives. It is not a long-established tradition of this place to see the divisive sorts of debates that we have seen in recent years in this policy area.

In talking about this debate, I just want to address an important part of that range of initiatives. I notice the framing of the matter of public importance is once again around losing control, the negative side of the debate, the attempt to create fear and uncertainty, and the attempt to create contention and disagreement. Underlying that raft of recommendations there was a very important initiative, and I very much welcomed it. That was the part that increased our humanitarian intake to 20,000 people. I would remind the House that in June last year the Leader of the Opposition said:

… what we have offered to crossbench members is an increase in Australia's refugee and humanitarian intake from the current level to 20,000 a year within three years…

The next day the member for Cook stood beside the Leader of the Opposition at a media conference. He said:

All I can say is the Greens are on record for supporting an increase of the refugee and humanitarian intake to 20,000. The Coalition offered to support that today and a range of other measures as we did yesterday and when that was put to the party room I understand in the Greens, the answer that came back from the Greens to us was no.

He was disappointed and frustrated by that, clearly—no less than we were by his reaction to our implementation of this recommendation. After we accepted the recommendations of the expert panel and lifted the humanitarian intake to 20,000, the member for Cook changed his mind—and the coalition's policy—and decided to oppose the increase.

In November last year the member for Cook told Sky News: 'No, we have made no comment on increasing the intake.' It was clearly a matter of frustration for the member for Cook that the Greens would shift their position on this issue. I would say to him: have a close look at your own shifting-in-the-wind position on this issue and understand this is a policy area that we should be treating with far more respect than that sort of political positioning. It is no different from the MPI on immigration before us today.

The member for Cook went to the issue of the 457 visas. I want to make clear that I stand here as a member of a government very proudly supportive of the skilled migration program and very determined to see its integrity maintained. That is what the issue is about—addressing the use and misuse of 457 visas. It is a clear case that goodwill of the community, broadly, in supporting all streams of migration, revolves around the integrity of the system. There is no difference when it comes to 457 skilled visas. They are there to address genuine short-term skill shortages. No-one would object to that. It is beyond me how anybody who is putting a motion such as the MPI before us today could have any issue with a system, and an increase in the integrity of a system, as that proposed by the government for 457 visas.

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