The boats bill must be allowed to pass

An imperfect, two-pronged border protection policy that passed the House of Reps last night will ease human tragedy and lay the groundwork for better law. But will Greens obstinacy scupper the solution?

It was an extraordinary day in parliament. While out in the Indian Ocean refugees struggled to keep their heads above water (at least one is now confirmed dead), an intense six-hour debate pushed Question Time off the House of Representatives' agenda to debate an urgent solution to 'stop the boats'.

Following the tragic deaths of 90 asylum seekers last week, the news early yesterday morning of yet another 150 refugees in peril accelerated a process begun by maverick Liberal MP Mal Washer at the weekend.

His comments to the media – that a multi-party committee should end the deadlock on border protection policy – lead to a cross-party meeting of 40 MPs determined to solve what their leaders could or would not solve.

From that meeting emerged Rob Oakeshott's decision to introduce a private member's bill into the house aiming to allow both the re-opening of the Nauru detention centre (the Coalition's preferred policy) and the limited 800-for-4000 'people swap' known as the Malaysia solution.

The bill prompted Prime Minister Gillard to call for Question Time to be delayed long enough to debate its merits.

In the end, Question Time was abandoned and the debate raged from 2pm to 8pm, before the Oakeshott bill was passed by the lower house 74 votes to 72, with Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie getting the government over the line.

Many useful points were made during that debate, but they were matched by a large number of repetitive, illogical and hypocritical propositions. Oakeshott had asked for politics to be put aside for the debate, but this was too tall an order for the acrimonious 43rd parliament.

Below I set out the failings of each party to explain how politicised this debate remains.

Greens intransigence

First, the Greens. At the time of writing they hold the Oakeshott bill in their hands and they know, as the entire parliament knows, that if it is not passed in the Senate today, it is almost certain that mass drownings will again occur in the weeks or months ahead.

With the bill enacted, at the very least there will be a substantial slowing of boats to our northern shores – the number of asylum seekers on the move globally has risen 20 per cent in the past year, which is one (but certainly not the only) factor in the acceleration of the 'boats' debate.

The prospect of ending up in Malaysia – something that under the current proposal could only happen to 800 men, with women and children excluded from the deal – or on Nauru would certainly stop some refugees boarding boats.

But the Greens have dug in, and refuse to support any kind of offshore processing at all.

The absurd consequences of this intransigence were highlighted yesterday when the Refugee Action Coalition told The Australian that it was considering flouting Australian law to provide 'emergency position indicating radio beacons' to people smugglers.

That desperate act of humanity would no doubt save lives. But it is a stark reminder that there is a safer way to get from Indonesia or Malaysia than aboard rickety boats – that's on vehicles called 'aeroplanes'.

During yesterday's debate Liberal member for Cowan, Luke Simpkins, reminded the House: "If we want to focus our humanitarian program we should do it where it really counts, for those without two bucks to rub together."

There are around 270,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia, many in detention camps, and most of whom have nothing. Their orderly resettlement in Australia via airports must be prioritised over illegal arrivals by boat – something the Greens onshore processing policy works against.

Australia currently resettles around 14,000 humanitarian refugees a year – and each boat arrival displaces legal arrivals from the quota. Tony Abbott yesterday promised to increase the total intake to 20,000 within three years of forming government, but he makes that promise alongside a commitment to stop dangerous boat journeys.

While the Greens will welcome a 20,000 intake – because it shows a real commitment to a 'regional solution' – their commitment to onshore processing means boat arrivals will continue.

It is important to not demonise those arriving by boats. Their claims to asylum are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, just as valid as the people in camps in Malaysia or Indonesia. However the extreme danger of their method of reaching Australia should, alone, be reason enough to give priority to legal resettlements.

The Greens' hardline policy against offshore processing fails to do that. It risks lives. That's why the Greens should compromise in the Senate today to pass the Oakeshott bill – which, thanks to a successful 'sunset clause' amendment moved by Andrew Wilkie, would only operate as a 12-month experiment anyway.

If the Greens cannot support a 12-month two-pronged experiment with a new era of offshore processing, they will have drownings on their consciences.

The hole in Labor's plan

As I argued on Tuesday, the Malaysia solution negotiated by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was bad policy from the start. However, it is the only policy that attempts to put incentives, and disincentives, in the right places to restore an orderly, legal flow of refugees to Australia (Parliament's war is costing lives, June 26).

The Nauru solution lobbied for by the Coalition sends a clear message to the people smugglers' hapless clients – make it to Australia and you're almost certain to be resettled in Australia or that other (in their eyes) utopia, New Zealand.

Under the Howard government Nauru program, close to 60 per cent of arrivals ended up in Australia, and close to 40 per cent in New Zealand. Only a tiny percentage were returned to their countries of origin after processing.

Ending up in Nauru is not a disincentive in itself. What 'stopped the boats' under the Howard regime was the 'tow-back' policy of turning boats around – a policy that Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said Indonesia will no longer accept.

This is why Labor's plan, as deeply flawed as it is, should be trialled. It sends a signal to potential people-smuggler clients that after handing over thousands of dollars, they are likely to end up in Malaysia.

While that signal would be short-lived, the policy would begin to shape a genuine regional strategy in which boat traffic is slowed or stopped, and Australia's legal refugee commitment is increased (as Abbott has already promised to do).

But the plan has a shocking hole in it – one that shadow climate minister Greg Hunt highlighted in yesterday's debate.

By exempting woman and children from the Malaysia deal on ostensibly compassionate grounds, there is every chance that women and children will, in future, be the ones filling illegal boats – particularly as, once resettled, they can legally apply to have their husbands/fathers join them through the Immigration Act's family reunion provisions.

Let me emphasise that, along with most of the community, I am appalled at the prospect of packing women and children onto planes for Malaysia. However I am doubly horrified that they may, in increasing numbers, share the watery fate of the 500 to 1000 refugees who have drowned in the past two years trying to get to Australia.

A regional solution with a strong offshore processing disincentive must be created – Labor's plan goes halfway to doing so, but would, perhaps after the first 800 resettlements in Malaysia, have to be redesigned to accommodate this lesser of two evils (the other being mass drownings).

Coalition hypocrisy

So if the Greens can't back the limited 'experiment' of the Malaysia solution alongside the re-opening of Naura, why doesn't the Coalition make the decision to save lives?

I am sorry to say, after listening to hour after hour of debate from the press gallery, that their main reason for not backing the two-pronged Oakeshott bill is simply fraudulent.

Speaker after speaker on the opposition benches stood to lambast Labor for walking away from its human rights commitments under the United Nations Human Rights Convention to which Australia has been a signatory for 54 years.

Malaysia is not a signatory to that convention, and speaker after speaker told Labor that it could send refugees to any of the 148 countries that have signed the convention, but not to Malaysia.

That position is absurd.

Somalia is a signatory to the convention. Afghanistan is a signatory. So are Congo and Haiti, and dozens of strife-torn countries – see the list here.

Add Malaysia to that list and ask a refugee whether they'd choose one of those signatories or the far more peaceful and prosperous non-signatory. Malaysia is far from perfect, but it does not, itself, produce refugees – unlike so many signatories to the UN convention.

Further, at the same time as the Coalition is promising to block the Malaysia solution because it could not countenance flying human beings to a non-signatory state, it is planning to turn boats around and send them back to a non-signatory state – Indonesia.

As described above, the Coalition has a very good point about the perverse and unintended consequence of exempting women and children from the Malaysia solution. But its objection based on Malaysia being a non-signatory to the convention is utterly disingenuous – Nauru itself did not sign the convention until four years after the end of the Howard offshore solution.

A historic moment

For most of the past two years I have avoided writing on Labor's border protection failings, other than noting a few times that it was a clear area of policy failure. There have been too many other big issues to explore.

But Labor's border protection failure has now become an emergency and a human tragedy. The imperfect two-pronged solution that passed the House of Representatives last night will ease the human tragedy and lay the groundwork for better policy.

Some senators, be they Greens or Coalition, must surely be able to find in a corner of their conscience the courage to defy their party and vote this Act into law.

Those who think passing this bill would be handing a victory to Labor should heed the words of Julie Owens, Labor member for Parramatta, yesterday: "I point out to the member for Kooyong that, just as he does not support the Malaysia solution, I do not support Nauru either. I will find walking into this chamber and voting for Nauru to be quite a terrible thing to do, but I am going to do it because I think that finding an answer in this House, with both sides compromising, gives us the least worst option we can find."

The 'least worst' option must be allowed to pass.

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