Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (4.45 p.m.)-You would not know it from the contributions from those opposite, but Australia actually has a very proud reputation for and a proud history of accepting refugees from around the world. We are among the most generous and compassionate nations on earth. In 2005-06 our humanitarian intake was 14,000. This is one of the most generous intakes in the world on a per capita basis. But, even if you put per capita measures aside, Australia is one of the top three nations in absolute terms in relation to its humanitarian intake. We are up there with the US and Canada-nations which are much larger than us. We are one of the top three nations in the world in absolute terms in humanitarian intake.
We are generous, and this is as it should be. We are a prosperous nation; we are a free nation; we should be generous. We have the capacity to take refugees. We also have a moral obligation to do so. And an orderly, fair, equitable and thorough process for assessing claims for asylum, for determining status, is not inconsistent with compassion. In fact, an orderly assessment process is an expression of that compassion.
There are thousands-tens of thousands-of people around the world who would like to move to Australia. For some it is because of a desire for a better economic environment. For others, it is because they are in genuine fear of persecution in their home countries. For others, it is a combination of these reasons. None of these are invalid or wrong or inappropriate reasons to want to seek to come to Australia. We can hardly denounce anyone for wanting to move to what we all believe is the greatest country on earth. We all find it entirely understandable that people want to come to Australia. But to give advantage to those who have the means or the opportunity to gain access to the Australian migration zone is perverse. To give a particular advantage to those who arrive in an unauthorised fashion is to be unfair to those around the world in refugee camps or who apply through Australia’s posts and missions. To give earlier access to immigration processes to those who arrive illegally is actually to demonstrate a lack of compassion for those who apply in more regular ways. To give earlier access to immigration processes to those who arrive illegally is to reward and encourage people smugglers and to put the lives of people at risk.
At this stage, the identities and nationalities of the 85 men intercepted on 20 February have not been positively determined. Eighty-three have apparently identified themselves as Sri Lankan nationals and two as Indonesian nationals. What we have been told is that the boat was first detected by an Orion P3 aircraft on 19 February. The vessel was intercepted, we are told, by HMAS Success on 20 February and at that stage the vessel was not operating. The crew from the Success went onto the vessel and repaired the engine, and after this the vessel moved off but then stopped moving again. Crew from Success again boarded the vessel and observed that further damage had been done to the engine and to the hull. The full circumstances are yet to be determined, but I would just observe that the vessel was not engaged in a commercial activity. Damage was done to the engine and the hull of the vessel, which is a curious thing to do, whether you are a passenger or a member of the crew. It will be interesting to ascertain the full elements of the journey.
The Age quotes Sri Lankan community sources as saying the Sri Lankans flew from Sri Lanka to Indonesia. We have heard mention of Vietnamese boat people. I stand to be corrected, but I do not recall the people fleeing Vietnam jumping on a plane, flying somewhere else to another country then getting on a boat and coming to Australia. They came direct. These people in question here today, according to media speculation, flew to Indonesia. If these people in question did fly, it indicates that Australia was not their first available overseas safe haven.
Australia does have international obligations, which it meets, and a duty of care to people in distress. But it also has a moral obligation to ensure that people are not advantaged who seek to enter Australia in an unauthorised manner. The government is meeting and will meet its obligations in relation to these people. The group of 85 people will be accommodated temporarily on Christmas Island, where health checks will be done and information gathered. We will honour our international obligations and there is absolutely no suggestion on the part of the government that these people, if they are indeed found to be refugees, will be returned to an environment where they could be in danger. That is not something that the Australian government has countenanced or would do.
There is one thing we know: although, at the time of the 2001 election, Labor said there was not a cigarette paper’s difference between their policy on border protection and our own, Labor now have an entirely different policy, and we know that if Labor were in office they would give the green light to people smugglers. We do operate a very compassionate and fair immigration system.