Matter of Public Importance - Asylum Seekers

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (15:53): There is a question to be answered in this place today as we deal with this MPI: what interest do those on the other side have in continuing a debate on one of the most difficult issues that this nation and indeed countries internationally face today—that is, the movement of people around the world, particularly in our region? Those on the opposite side continue to talk about this issue because they believe it is in their political interests. The first two speakers talked about what they called a changing position of the government and completely ignored the fact that they have been all over the shop themselves. They ignored the deals they offered to the Greens, for example, in the last round of discussion on the legislation the government had put before the House. We could go around and around in circles in what I would argue is a fairly pointless point-scoring political activity and say that we need to debate this in this House. Even when we make a position clear about finding a good outcome that would work to stop people-smuggling, they shift their position again. That is the reality of what we face in this debate.

Before parliament got up for the winter break, as outlined at the beginning of this debate, people came into this chamber devastated by the fact that we have faced 400 cold, lonely, desperate, terrifying deaths at sea. That was the reality which so many on this side had struggled to deal with—to come to a policy position which we felt would stop drownings from occurring. It was not easy for many people on this side of the House to come to a policy position that really challenged competing principles and priorities, but we came to a position which acknowledged that the regional challenges we all face as nations dealing with the movement of people who are in desperate circumstances required a regional cooperative solution. That is what we had worked on as the government. It reflected the reality.

As happens—it may come as a surprise to some of those opposite—as time moves on and changes occur, you respond with new policies that are relevant to the new circumstances you face. That is exactly what this government did. It looked at the challenges it faced with people seeking to come here by boat and the changes that occurred in the behaviours of the people smugglers and in particular and most obviously the deteriorating conditions of and the purposeful damage to the boats when there were fears they were going to be turned around.

The reality is that large numbers of people who had placed their lives in the hands of people smugglers subsequently lost their lives. So we came before the winter break to the position of trying to find an outcome in legislation that would put a real and imminent discouragement in place for people getting on boats and risking their lives at sea.

As we well know and as history now shows us, we were not able to get the legislation through. I remember at the time those opposite making comments such as that they would not agree to Malaysia because it was not a signatory to the UN conventions. These sorts of positions disappear when they want to talk about other options in their suite like turning back the boats. In order to move past this deadlock, to find a genuine outcome that would stop people losing their lives at sea, the government asked the Houston panel, the three eminent Australians, to come together, to look without prejudice at all the options available and to provide advice to the parliament on the best options to stop the boats. We did that because we believed the time for politicking on the issue was over. I believe very strongly that the Australian community also feel that the time for politicking on this issue is over. Sadly, we are still here today politicking in this MPI. Given recent announcements by state governments, we are back to the perennial, 'Let's have a blue about asylum seekers.'

I believe people right across Australia are truly sick of the politicians fighting on this issue. It is a very sad day for all that this MPI is before us. If we want to make real progress on this important issue, we need to work together. That is the reality.

As the minister said at the beginning of the debate on asylum seekers, we have had a blue on this for 11 years. Over those 11 years the circumstances and the activities of people smugglers have changed, and they change in response to what we do. So we are attempting to find a coordinated suite of initiatives to put in place in order to stop the people-smuggling trade. Assisting us in our attempt to do so was the Houston panel, whose report made 22 recommendations. The government has committed in principle to all of them. The recommendations, I remind the House, include increasing the immigration intake under the humanitarian program to 20,000 per annum, and I understand that those opposite offered this increase to the Greens in discussing the legislation before the parliament prior to the winter break. Increasing the humanitarian intake is an important part of the suite of recommendations that the Houston report made. It sends a message to people that it is more beneficial to them that their claim be processed in the place where they are than that they take a risk at sea.

The Houston recommendations also involve: developing bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with Indonesia and Malaysia, because the report recognises that asylum seeker issues confront all of us in the region; developing legislation to support the transfer of people to regional processing centres, including those on Nauru and Manus Island; creating regional places of processing where asylum seekers are not given any advantage over asylum seekers in any other regional area of processing and are instead processed by the UNHCR; reviewing the refugee status determination; and developing joint operational guidelines for managing search-and-rescue activities in the region. This is particularly important because the other danger, as outlined by the minister, is the risk to our own personnel who are involved in search-and-rescue operations at sea.

Only the Labor Party is committed to implementing all the recommendations of the Houston report. The other parties—the Greens and the Liberals—are cherry-picking whatever parts of the report they think support their political agenda. They are being dogmatic, and by being dogmatic they are risking lives. This dogmatic approach should not be acceptable on issues of national security or where people's lives are at risk. Angus Houston himself said that the panel's report needs to be implemented as a whole, and that is exactly what the government is doing. The simple fact is that the Liberals and the Greens are playing politics with the asylum seeker issue. Given how vociferous the shadow Treasurer was about the Greens yesterday, I am surprised at the position of the Liberals. However, sadly, we have come to expect every day from the Liberals that politics take precedence over good policy for the nation. I do not believe that this approach is in any way acceptable in an area of policy which goes to issues of national security and the protection of lives at sea. It is a disgrace to play politics with these issues.

The Greens are also risking the lives of others with policies that encourage vulnerable people into boats. I say to them that, when they counter talk of border protection by describing the motives and the desperation of the people who are seeking asylum, they are completely and naively ignoring the reality that the very people they expresses concern about are endangering their lives at sea. Danger to people's lives is the very issue that we are seeking to address through the Houston recommendations.

I had hoped that the Greens would work with the government on asylum seeker policy, but, sadly, that is not the case. You cannot agree to work with the government on some recommendations of the Houston report and not others, because the Houston report itself makes it clear that each of the strategies it has outlined works in conjunction with all of the others and that they should be treated as an entire package. It is time to stop the politics. There are lives at risk, both of asylum seekers and of our own personnel. (Time expired)