Landmark Speech - Address to the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne
Posted on Friday, 27 April 2012
THE COALITION’S PLAN FOR MORE SECURE BORDERS
As well as an occasion to reflect on the valour and self-sacrifice of Australia’s military personnel, Anzac Day, which we commemorated this week, should also be a reminder of the role that our country has played in the wider world.
In World War One, the five divisions of the First Australian Imperial Force, along with the Canadians, were the shock troops of the British Army. In World War Two, the Second AIF liberated Syria and largely drove the Italians from North Africa. In Vietnam, an Australian task force was responsible for the security of a province. More recently, 5000 Australian troops formed the bulk of the INTERFET force that secured the independence of East Timor.
At the Versailles conference, Prime Minister Billy Hughes won an Australian mandate over German New Guinea. In 1956, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was the lead international mediator over the Suez Canal. A decade ago, Prime Minister John Howard was a key leader of the “coalition of the willing” that toppled the Iraqi regime.
Ideas above our station should never drive Australian policy. Still, we are about the world’s 15th largest economy, a significant contributor to the military effort in Afghanistan, one of America’s most trusted allies, and the leading Western country in our region.
We are an influential middle power and, whether we quite appreciate it or not, the big power of the South Pacific. We count for something in the wider world and should use our reach and sway to promote Australia’s true interests and best values.
When I say that Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta focus, not a Geneva one, I certainly don’t mean that Australia has few interests and little weight around the globe.
We are vitally interested in the peace and prosperity of the wider world. We have a considerable role in upholding liberal democratic values and in promoting freer economics. After all, keeping commitments, valuing human life, acknowledging property and extending freedom are universal aspirations, not just Australian ones.
My contention, rather, is that we would be taken more seriously in the world at large if we were coping better with the “backyard” issues in which we have a vital national interest and for which we have prime responsibility.
In our nearest neighbour and former colony, Australia seems to have little influence and even less engagement despite the obvious risks should PNG deteriorate further. Likewise, in the Pacific, indifference and neglect have created a vacuum into which less benevolent influences could readily expand.
Indonesia is the country that could most readily impact on Australia yet the current government has been almost wantonly provocative, unilaterally suspending live cattle exports in panic over a TV programme and giving an understandably sensitive neighbour public lectures on how it should behave.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the current government’s incorrigible failings in the development and execution of sensible national policy than the border protection disaster. Its predecessor found a problem and crafted a solution. The Rudd-Gillard government found a solution and created a problem.
In August 2008, moral vanity overcame judgment. The government publicly congratulated itself for being more compassionate than its predecessor, closed the Nauru processing centre, scrapped temporary protection visas and announced swifter asylum claim processing.
Since then, there have been nearly 300 illegal entry vessels and nearly 17,000 illegal arrivals by boat while the border protection budget has blown out by $4 billion.
Hundreds are known to have drowned attempting to reach Australia. The government can’t be blamed for people’s deaths but it is certainly responsible for giving the people smugglers a business model.
Under the current government there have been almost two boats a week. Under its predecessor, between 2002 and 2007, there were just three boats a year. On border protection, as for economic management, the Howard era now looks like a lost golden age.
It does not have to be like this. There is a better way. The Coalition has a plan for stronger borders. It’s part of our overall plan for a stronger Australia with a stronger economy, stronger communities, a cleaner environment and the infrastructure of the future.
It is in Australia’s vital national interest to stop the boats. It is the mark of a sovereign nation that it keeps control over its borders; or, as John Howard put it, “we will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come”.
When she was the shadow minister for immigration, Julia Gillard used to issue press releases headed: “another boat, another policy failure”. There were very few failures in those days because there were just 15 illegal boats in the last five years of the Howard government. By Gillard’s standards, there will shortly have been 300 border protection policy failures under her government.
Border protection, in fact, was one of the three key policies where Julia Gillard said that Kevin Rudd’s government had lost its way.
Despite Labor’s repeated declarations that it was against offshore processing and would end the Pacific Solution, since then there’s been the East Timor detention centre that was announced without any consultation with that country’s government; the PNG detention centre that was announced and forgotten (despite Julia Gillard declaring, in 2007, that “we would not have offshore processing in Manus island”); and the five-for-one people swap with Malaysia that the High Court subsequently overturned.
The government now routinely blames the opposition every time a boat arrives yet it won’t risk its Malaysia legislation failing in the House of Representatives even though putting Mr Slipper into the Speaker’s chair should have given it the numbers.
Let me make one thing crystal clear: the Coalition will never support Labor’s Malaysia people swap. It’s a bad deal for Australia and a cruel deal for boat people.
On average, there are about 6000 canings a year of irregular non-citizens in Malaysia. The government’s proposed legislation lacks the protections built into the former government’s Pacific Solution that the Prime Minister used to describe not only as “costly” and “unsustainable” but “wrong in principle”.
If the government were serious about its Malaysia deal it would declare support for this legislation to be a matter of confidence and require the Greens to support it under their power-sharing arrangement.
As things stand, while declaring that it supports offshore processing, the government has effectively adopted the Greens policy of onshore processing. Illegal arrivals are now being quickly transferred from Christmas Island to the mainland and released into the community before, in some cases, even their identity has conclusively been established.
Under the Gillard government, not a single illegal boat arrival has been processed offshore and fewer than 300 of the boat people found not to be refugees have been returned to their country of origin.
Under the Howard government, by contrast, more than 1500 boat people were processed offshore, mostly at Nauru. Of these, about 30 per cent were found not to be refugees and returned to their home country. Of the rest, nearly half went to a country other than Australia.
On my first day as prime minister, I would pick up the phone to the President of Nauru to accept Nauru’s bi-partisan, standing offer to reopen the detention centre there.
Within a week of taking office, I would go to Indonesia to renew our cooperation against people smuggling. I would, of course, politely explain to the Indonesian government that we take as dim a view of Indonesian boats disgorging illegal arrivals in Australia as they take of Australians importing drugs into Bali.
Within a week of taking office, I would give new orders to the navy that, where it is safe to do so, under the usual chain-of-command procedures, based on the advice of commanders-on-the-spot, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed and Indonesian home-ported vessels without lawful reason to be headed to Australia would be turned around and escorted back to Indonesian waters.
Temporary visas for illegal boat arrivals would be re-created, if necessary by legislation; in the unlikely event that legislation is blocked, by a joint sitting of the parliament after a double dissolution election.
There would be a presumption against refugee status for boat arrivals transiting through Indonesia who lack identity papers. There would be tougher minimum sentences for people smugglers with mandatory non-parole periods.
By far the biggest obstacle to implementing policies that would stop the boats is pride. The Prime Minister is prepared to try any set of policies except those that actually worked under the former government.
Over the years, she has been for and against temporary protection visas; she had been for and against third country processing; and she has been for and against turning boats around so stubbornness should not be a deterrent to the right policy now that our border protection is in her hands.
Every illegal boat marks a failure of foreign policy, a failure of security policy and a failure of immigration policy.
Australia’s foreign policy has failed to establish the rapport with our largest neighbour needed for people smuggling to be stamped out. Australia’s security policy is breached whenever an illegal arrival is released into the community without the thorough checks that should routinely apply to newcomers. Australia’s immigration policy is undermined because people who were welcomed through the front door a generation back understandably resent more recent arrivals who climb in through the back window.
Stopping the boats matters.
It would signify that the Australian government is in every respect sovereign over Australia’s borders. It would be a sign that our relationship with Indonesia was in much better repair. It would give everyone confidence that the immigration programme was being run in Australia’s national interest, not as a favour to anyone who would prefer to move to a rich country.
It would mean again being able to put behind us an awkward and divisive episode when concern about how people came clouded our appreciation of the contribution they could make.
As long as a significant section of our immigration programme appears to have been contracted out to people smugglers, immigration won’t – as it should – be seen as one of our country’s defining characteristics and most important assets.
Just about every Australian is an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. That’s why the Coalition has always been pro-immigration and pro-immigrant. To be otherwise would be almost anti-Australian. It’s vital, though, for our country’s well-being, that the immigration programme be run unambiguously in our national interest and that every migrant be enthusiastic about joining the team.
Monash University analysis has shown that during the Howard years – with the boats stopped and a focus on skilled immigration – the percentage of Australians concerned about numbers being too high almost halved, from more than two thirds to just over one third, notwithstanding a doubling of the permanent immigration intake.
John Howard rebuilt a consensus in favour of immigration. It was one of his most significant achievements and it continued the legacy of previous Coalition governments.
It was the Menzies Government that turned accepting post-war refugees into actively seeking non-English-speaking immigrants who wanted to build a better life in Australia and that first offered non-European immigrants citizenship after fifteen years.
It was the Holt Government that abolished the White Australia policy by allowing applications for migration from well-qualified people who could readily integrate.
It was the Fraser Government that first accepted large numbers of Asian immigrants while helping to end Australia’s first, much more modest wave of boat people, by establishing an offshore processing centre on an Indonesian island.
It was the Howard Government that more-or-less-stopped the second wave of illegal boats while resettling about 150,000 refugee and humanitarian entrants.
The Coalition recently pledged to guarantee a minimum of 1000 places in the refugee and humanitarian intake to women at risk and their dependents. We’re also committed to allowing community groups to sponsor refugees on a bonded basis that would take the annual intake to 15,000.
Notwithstanding the odd case of Britons catching the first plane back because they can’t stand the heat, immigrants to this country almost universally want nothing more than to be considered Australian. After all, they have chosen Australia in a way that the native born never quite have.
That’s why it’s invariably wrong to question newcomers’ commitment to Australia. If they weren’t committed they would not have come.
What’s more, Australians have usually made it easier for immigrants to embrace their new home by appreciating that they would come to terms with life here in their own way and at their own pace. In the meantime, the different accents and different flavours of contemporary Australia have been a strength, not a weakness.
The term “multiculturalism” has been officialese for Australians’ traditional acceptance of newcomers’ attachment to old ways while they get used to new ones. Of course, immigration has changed Australia but it’s changed our country far less than it’s changed our immigrants.
A decade after arrival, there’s hardly a newcomer that isn’t more fluent in English than in any other language and who doesn’t take for granted democracy, the rights of minorities and freedom under the law. Usually, the less like Australia that immigrants’ homelands have been, the more exhilarating they have found life here.
The Howard Government, it should be said, placed less stress on Australians’ diversity than on our unity. The citizenship test that Labor supported in opposition but has watered down in government was an on-the-whole-successful attempt to stress the common values that all Australians were expected to understand and uphold.
For the Coalition, the issue has never been whether or not Australia should have a strong immigration programme. It’s always been what’s the best programme for our country at this time and what can best be done to help migrants to settle quickly into their new life.
The best immigration programme is one that helps Australia to be more prosperous and productive and the best way for an immigrant to settle in is to work. Under the Howard government, the permanent programme’s skilled component went from under 40 to over 60 per cent of the total intake.
Along with the stopping the boats, this was an important element in restoring public faith in the immigration programme. Under Howard, Australians were confident in a way they weren’t before or since that the Australian government was in charge and that more-or-less everyone was pulling their weight.
Over the decade to 2005/6, unemployment for skilled migrants fell from 9 per cent to just 3 per cent. Even for the family reunion stream, unemployment dropped from 19 to 6 per cent and participation increased from 55 to 70 per cent. By contrast, unemployment for the family stream has now risen to 29 per cent with a decline in participation to 65 per cent.
The introduction of sub-class 457 visas was one of the former government’s most significant innovations. Provided they were earning more than average weekly earnings and provided their employer had tried hard to find an Australian for the job, businesses could bring in workers from overseas for up to four years. During that time, they would normally become eligible for permanent residency.
These are the best possible immigrants to Australia. They make a contribution from day one. From day one, they are immersed in the Australian way of life. They also help Australian businesses to make the most of their economic opportunities to build a prosperity in which every Australian participates.
In 2008-9, when net overseas immigration almost touched 300,000, less than a quarter of the overall intake was skilled and less than 10 per cent were on 457 visas. The current government has progressively made it more difficult for businesses to bring in sub-class 457 workers, mostly to accommodate union concerns, even though businesses using them are invariably employing more Australians too.
Provided they are paid the same wages and provided there aren’t Australians who could readily fill particular jobs, businesses should be able to bring in the workers they need to keep growing and to create more local jobs. A stronger economy is in everyone’s interests; immigrants who contribute to a stronger economy improve the life of every Australian. Under a Coalition government, 457 visas won’t be just a component but a mainstay of our immigration programme.
Provided immigrants are in relatively well paid, skilled jobs that enable businesses to expand in ways that would not otherwise be possible, they are undeniably making our country stronger. A more skills focussed immigration programme should actually make it easier for governments to discharge their perennial duty to plan for the future and to provide the infrastructure needed to sustain a growing economy and a larger population.
A strong and non-discriminatory skilled immigration intake should help Australia to take advantage of what’s been described as the “coming Asian century”.
Properly utilised, immigrants to Australia could be our best business ambassadors to the world’s expanding markets. We should have ready-made experts on the economics and cultures of the booming economies to our north among the well-integrated immigrant Australians who grew up there.
Most of the hundreds of thousands of Australians with, for instance, Chinese as their first language are understandably more focussed on their future here than on links with their homeland. The more successful they are in Australia, though, the more readily they could give us a head start in dealing with China.
Well integrated immigrants who’ve kept their language might also help to make up for Australians’ tendency to linguistic laziness and complacent reliance on English being the world’s second language.
Australians have lately had more reasons than usual to despair of their government but that’s no justification for losing faith in our country and its future. Overseas observers might be shaking their heads in wonderment at a government with the Midas touch in reverse but Australians readily know what’s gone wrong.
After the 2010 election, a desperate prime minister broke promises she should have kept to the Australian people and made promises she couldn’t keep to fringe politicians in order to keep her job.
We are a great country and a great people let down by a bad government but that will pass. Whether it’s this year or next year, we will soon enough have the chance to pass judgment on the current government. Australians know that it’s possible to end the waste, to repay the debt and to stop the boats because it’s been done before.
In 2002, just a year after the Tampa, there were no illegal boats at all because the people smugglers and their customers knew that the game was up. The next Coalition government may not be able to stop the boats instantly but we know it can be done soon and we’re keen to start work immediately.