Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (16:26):
I, like all of my colleagues in this place, from all sides, rise with a heavy heart to participate in this debate, given the events of a few days past, where lives were lost and trauma was experienced and where some families will clearly never be the same again. In this contribution, I do not want to prejudge the bona fides of those who are seeking asylum. There are processes in place to do that as a matter of course, and those discussions are for another occasion. But I do want to look at the question of why the boats are coming, why the people smuggler trade is increasing and what can be done about it. It is for that reason that I proposed the matter of public importance we are debating today.
The starting point has to be that the people-smuggling trade is a trade in human misery. It is evil and I am sure everyone in this chamber condemns it. I think that should be the starting point of any debate over people smuggling and trafficking, which unfortunately is increasing.
This government does have a bit of a record of not honouring its commitments. There are the obvious ones that seem almost too obvious to mention, but I will: the commitment, for example, not to introduce a carbon tax. The government is rightly condemned for its failure to honour its commitments. But there is one commitment that this government did honour, lock, stock and barrel. That was the commitment before the 2007 election to systematically dismantle the border protection regime that was in place, to end offshore processing at places such as Nauru and Manus Island and to end temporary protection visas. As part of that, the then opposition changed language and rhetoric. The Howard government at that time was firm, not just in policy and resolve but in its language, to send a clear message to the people smugglers that we would have no truck with them. Kevin Rudd, as Leader of the Opposition, and Julia Gillard, as the shadow immigration minister, were the architects of the policy to dismantle the effective border protection regime. They were the architects of a policy which set about quite deliberately to remove those disincentives, those deterrents, which were in place for people smugglers. That is why I become more than a little frustrated every time I hear senators on the other side of this place say that they wanted break the people smugglers’ business model. It frustrates me because the people smugglers have been operating according to the business model which the Australian Labor Party designed. If you remove temporary protection visas, if you end offshore processing, you are giving the people smugglers a good product to sell.
Senator Thistlethwaite: That is disgraceful, to say that the Labor Party designed it.
Senator FIFIELD: That is what the Australian Labor Party did. They gave the people smugglers a good product to sell. When they changed the policy, when they changed their language, when they ended temporary protection visas, when they ended offshore processing, that did not go unnoticed by the people smugglers. It was therefore no surprise to those of us in the federal coalition that the people smuggler trade increased. You will recall, Mr Acting Deputy President, that when we sought to point this out, as the boats started to increase in number, as the people smuggler business started to improve, we were told that pull factors were not a consideration, that it was all to do with push factors, it was all to do with what was happening in other countries, it was all to do with displaced people, it was all to do with increase in conflict in particular nations. No-one believes that anymore. The evidence is just so overwhelming that, yes, there were certainly push factors, there will always be push factors, but what made the difference between 2007 and today was the pull factors in Australia. We come back to the product that this government in effect designed and the people smugglers have so effectively sold. Even if we do not go right back to 2007, even if we only go back to the period commencing with Prime Minister Gillard’s elevation to the nation’s highest office, from that time to now there have been 12,700 people arrive on people smuggler boats. Those 12,700 people arrived on 194 boats. The evidence is clear and it is overwhelming.
I think what we have seen here is what one of my colleagues, Senator Mason, in a range of contexts has referred to as the politics of conspicuous compassion, where the Australian Labor Party is more concerned about trying to be seen to be compassionate, trying to be seen to be humanitarian, trying to be seen to be doing the right thing, rather than actually doing the right thing-the optics matter more than the real-life impact, than the real-life working of policy. None of us on this side of the chamber take any pleasure in pointing this out, because what has come to pass in terms of the increase in the people smuggler trade is exactly what we predicted would happen.
We are told often when contributing in these sorts of debates to forget about the past: ‘Don’t look at the past; we all know why we are in this situation.’ Commentators will often say that to those of us on this side of the chamber. But it is vitally important for the government of the day to recognise why we are in the situation that we are currently in. Unless the government of the day recognise that, they are not going to be in a position to honestly address the situation and to craft policies to address the cause of this situation. That is why we continue to point out time and again, and will continue to do so, that the reason we are in this position today, the reason the people smuggler trade has increased, is because this government dismantled the effective policies of the previous government which had in effect put the people smugglers out of business.
We know, although the government has not formally and publicly admitted, recognised and acknowledged the error of dismantling those policies, in their hearts they know it is true. How do we know this? Because the concept of offshore processing which was previously declared to be immoral when we were in office the government now say is a necessary part of a border protection regime, a necessary part of deterring people smugglers. So it seems that offshore processing is only immoral when the coalition do it; it is perfectly moral if the Australian Labor Party do it. But behind that change we know is a recognition by this government that offshore processing does work. But it does not work standing alone. You also need temporary protection visas; you also need people smugglers to be convinced that a government has the strength of its convictions. Not all offshore processing is equal either, for that matter. Some of my other colleagues have canvassed that already. But I would urge the government to go back to those policies which we know work, go back to offshore processing at Nauru, go back to temporary protection visas and have the strength of your convictions. It is then and only then that the people smugglers will be convinced that you will take away from them the product they sell and they will be out of their dastardly business.