Mr ENTSCH (Leichhardt-Chief Opposition Whip) (19:10): It is with great pleasure that I rise here this evening to speak on this issue, and more so because I am following the member for Berowra and his magnificent contribution. Quite frankly, there would be few in this place that would have a comprehensive understanding of the challenges that are faced in dealing with this matter and even fewer that had the capacity to comprehensively deal with this matter before the whole thing unravelled after the 2007 election.
This is not a challenge that we have not faced before. As a member of this place I recall that back in 1998 we had 157 arrivals and in 1998-99 we had 921 arrivals. So there was a trend. Suddenly those numbers spiralled upwards, to 4,175 in 1999-2000, to 4,137 in 2000-01 and to 3,039 in 2001-02. You wonder what happened in 2001-02 that made the difference, because in 2002-03 the number of arrivals was zero. The member for Berowra, who was a minister at the time, and Prime Minister Howard and our cabinet looked at this and made some very hard decisions-and I have to concede they were not necessarily popular-which were part of the Pacific solution. I was a member of the party room that voted to support this in the belief that we could fix this problem. We took away the incentives for the people smugglers. We took away the product that they were selling. We took away the incentive for people to either borrow money or spend cash that they had in reserves to buy themselves an airline ticket in Afghanistan or Pakistan or a number of other areas and present their visas and passports, board an aeroplane, transit through places like Dubai or Singapore and then book themselves into a place in Indonesia while waiting for their preferred people smuggler to obtain a boat so that they could short cut the process to arrive in Australia.
The Pacific solution provided a disincentive, because we said in the first instance that you would not be processed in Australia. As they started to move from different places-Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef, Cocos Island and others-we said that, for the purpose of immigration, those places would not be deemed to be Australian territory. Of course, there was a very real reason why we did this.
Rather than locking people into the Australian legal system, where there was appeal after appeal after appeal and they would end up having not only children but also grandchildren while waiting for a conclusion, the UN system had one application and one appeal, which meant that if there was a negative outcome the matter was resolved within about six months, an appropriate period of time, and they were either taken to Australia or relocated. That was very effective.
We had also decided that we would turn back boats-and we did, I think on five or six occasions-where it was safe to do so, and that was effective. With the temporary protection visas, suddenly they were not getting the outcomes they had paid for. Many of these people knew that they were breaking the law; they knew that by using cash they could come into this country and buy themselves an outcome they wanted. In the meantime, we saw people languishing in refugee camps around the world. It was a very sad time because we had no way of giving these people an opportunity to find a home when they did not have the cash to pay the people smugglers.
Between 2002 and 2008, 272 people arrived in 16 boats. In 2006-07, the cost of managing this issue was about $70 million and in 2007-08, at the end of our period, it was about $85 million. Then those on the other side came into government and decided that they knew better; they were going to fix it and deal with the matter comprehensively. Boy oh boy, have they dealt with it comprehensively! In 2008-09 there were 1,033 arrivals. In 2009-10 there were 5,614 and in the following year there were 4,949. In 2011-12 so far there have been 5,646 arrivals-and of course we are now talking of a budget of about $1.2 billion. That shows that this government had no idea how to deal with this problem, yet they attacked the member for Berowra and former Prime Minister Howard for the policies that they initiated.
These are difficult decisions and we all know they have impacts, but at the end of the day we do have an obligation in the first instance to look after the best interests of the Australian people. I believe the decisions we made back in those times were in the best interests of this country. They clearly were not in the best interests of those individuals who decided to buy themselves an opportunity to come here by shortcutting the process. I understand something like 1,000 lives have been lost in this process. On top of that, if you go back to 2007-the member for Berowra may remember this-we had mothballed Christmas Island, we had mothballed Curtin, and we had only a couple of people on Nauru or Manus Island. They were all who were left in detention. There were certainly no children in detention. The reason for this was that people were no longer buying tickets.
I remember in my electorate at that time that young men-lost boys of Sudan-were coming in to see me and saying how wonderful it was that they had had an opportunity to be selected to become Australian citizens. They were taken out of camps, having had the most horrific of backgrounds. They never had enough money to buy themselves a cup of tea, let alone pay a people smuggler thousands and thousands of dollars to buy airline tickets to come to this country. We have seen Somalians coming here, too. A lot of people came from African camps during that period, because suddenly we had vacancies. These vacancies were not being taken up by people who had the money to buy themselves airfares to get to Indonesia and get on these leaky boats. That was a great positive, and those people who came into this country from those camps really appreciated the opportunity. Unfortunately, over the last few years many such people have still been living and dying in those camps with no opportunity to get here, because of the failed policies of this government.
I had a sabbatical for about 2½ years, and in July 2010 when I was campaigning to come back into this place I heard on the grapevine that there was an intention to open Scherger air force base as a detention centre. I raised this issue at the time and I was told by the minister’s office:
“On current plans, asylum seekers will not be housed at RAAF Scherger; nor will an immigration detention centre be built at RAAF Scherger.”
The defence facility at Curtin was the only defence site being used by the government to accommodate asylum seekers. Of course the minister then announced a couple of weeks after the August election that Scherger would be used, and there are problems in the Scherger community – just as there are in many other communities where these detention centres are being established.
It is very disappointing to see the impact that the imposition of these detention centres on local communities is having on health and other services. It shows again the dreadful failings of the government’s policies.
I welcome the Houston report because it confirms what we have been saying for the last four years. It says that we do require the Nauru and Manus Island solution as a disincentive. I am pleased to see the government has now changed its mind and is prepared to reopen these facilities as quickly as possible. I was also very pleased to see that the report confirmed our concerns about the Malaysia solution, particularly those relating to the treatment of individuals who go there. That concern was very real, and I am pleased to see that the report has affirmed those concerns and we are not going to just race ahead with the Malaysia solution. To me, that would be a showstopper. Under the current conditions I would not be able to support that.
I was also pleased to see the comments about the policy of turning back the boats. I know that the former Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the member for Berowra, was heavily criticised, as were other senior members in government, including the former Prime Minister, over the policy of turning back the boats. For the last few years we have been told that it is not possible to do-that it is impossible. We are now told that, in fact, under certain circumstances-as we have been saying all along-it is possible to do it and that it will act as a deterrent.
While the committee did not recommend temporary protection visas, I welcome the fact that they certainly looked at ways to create disincentives for those individuals who are trying to buy their way into this country-jumping the queue. One disincentive recommended by the panel was the removal of the opportunity for such people to get their families here at an accelerated rate.
The other area which is not discussed too much here is the cost to Defence and to our Customs services. The Armidale patrol boats, which were commissioned in, I think, 2005 by the Howard government are almost ready to be trashed. It is shameful. They are in that state because they have been worked to death. The crews, the Navy people who have been trained on these boats, and the Customs people are not there to be a taxi service for people trying to buy illegal entry into this country. It has had a massive impact on our Defence capability and it has had a massive impact on our Customs capability. I am pleased to see that the government is now taking the advice we have been offering-even though it is doing it in a rather convoluted way by taking that advice through a third party-and now accept that what we did back in the early 2000s, through the efforts of the member for Berowra and Prime Minister Howard, actually worked. They are now going back to those systems and I certainly welcome that.