Asylum Seekers Motions

I rise to address this motion, and I do not intend to cover in any detail things that have been well canvassed by colleagues on this side of the House or things covered in the many articles in the media and by commentators for people who follow this affair. Suffice it to say, having had a former career in the other place when Mr Latham was the then Labor leader, I never thought there would be anything that I would agree with Mr Latham on, but on Q&A recently, when the issue of asylum policy and border protection came up, he was quite forthright and direct in saying that the former Prime Minister, John Howard, and his government got it right. Why did he say that? Because the Howard government recognised that the policy of the Australian government was significant in whether people chose Australia as a destination. The recent articles about people who are making the journey from Africa to Australia through multiple intermediate points highlights the strength of that pull factor.

What I would like to talk about is the fact that border protection is part of our national security policy. The failures that this government have made in this area, which have directly resulted from their ill-advised scrapping of the Howard government measures, have had unintended consequences and costs in a number of other areas to do with national security. Operation Resolute is the Australian Defence Force’s contribution to the whole-of-government effort to protect our borders. It is a huge operation that covers things like irregular maritime arrivals as well as maritime terrorism, piracy, robbery and violence at sea. There is a whole raft of areas that we should be putting assets and people towards. At any given time there are over 500 ADF personnel at sea, in the air or providing functions in support of this operation.

Where has the effort been focused in recent years? Clearly, it has been on the border protection task against maritime arrivals. The unintended cost of this has been to the personnel and particularly to the equipment that has been used. The Air Force’s AP3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which provide much of the surveillance capability, are not just something that you decide to fly for countless hours without a burden. That burden comes not only in the usage of the flying hours, which is something so important that the allocation of those flying hours is in the budget. Those flying hours have to cover other operational deployments. For example, we have had P3s in the Middle East, providing operations there. They are training to work up to anti-submarine operations and they are support for submarine training. There is a raft of areas where those flying hours, if they are used in this task, are not available to other operations of the ADF. So we see capabilities—like anti-submarine warfare capability—taking a dive in terms of the number of crews that are worked up to an operational level. That is because resources have been directed into this activity, as a direct consequence of this government’s poor management of our borders.

But it is not only the flying hours. Every time you fly aircraft, the airframe itself accrues fatigue and there are a number of components on the aircraft that have a life span. The more they are used, the quicker they wear out and you need to replace them. So there is a direct cost to the additional flying hours that are being flown by the ADF in these aircraft in support of this task.

The Armidale class patrol boats are also an asset that the ADF deploys in this operation—Operation RESOLUTE. There have been a number of media articles highlighting the fact that, because of the increased rate of usage and also the fact that the boats are going further out into unfavourable sea conditions, fatigue has caused cracking. The first vessel where this was noted was HMAS Armidale herself. So, of a 14 boat fleet, they are being worked at such a rate that there is now considerable concern about the ability of these boats to work to their full capacity. They been limited, for example, to operating in seas of less than 2.5 metres, which is about half of their designed capacity.

This is in part because the people smugglers have realised that they can essentially dial a taxi service. When calling for assistance earlier and earlier and setting out in rougher conditions, they know that the Australian Navy will respond, meeting our humanitarian and law of the sea obligations. But that means that our crews are going further out to sea in rougher conditions, which is not only putting them at risk but also causing damage to our assets. Not only are these vessels being damaged but we also seeing others stand by, such as major fleet units and people involved with the transfer of refugees or asylum seekers ashore. So there are a number of direct flow-on effects in the maritime space.

News articles show things like C17 aircraft returning Sri Lankan asylum seekers. On the one hand people say, ‘That is a good thing; we are sending some people home.’ But, again, there is an unintended consequence here. There is a cost that is absorbed by the Defence department, because it now has to take an aircraft—again, with more flying hours and more fatigue accrual—and that aircraft then cannot be devoted to another task, whether that be supporting land force units or other parts of the ADF that are training. So, again, we see a reduction in capability, which just drives cost later. The use of ADF assets, as an absorbed function, is costing Australia.

When the Howard government was in power, one of the projects that it was looking to go ahead with was procuring unmanned aerial aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance tasks. They are effective because they can remain aloft for long periods of time. They do not have the same manpower costs, because you are not paying to have multiple crewmembers airborne and crews to rotate through. So there are considerable savings. But what was one of the first things that the Rudd government did? In 2009, then Minister for Defence, Fitzgibbon, cancelled the $1.5 billion project for the Global Hawk. We have seen that the Orion aircraft has had to be used for this task because nothing else is available. Again, this is because the Labor Party has not managed our national defence capability well.

Now, some time down the track, we are seeing defence writers in the newspapers saying that Australia has a serious gap in its defence against the timber-hulled refugee boats because of gaps in the various radar systems. So the government is now looking at the Triton, an unmanned aerial vehicle, some years too late. It is better late than never and I am sure it will have good capability, but we could have been developing the expertise in this capability and sparing a far more expensive and resource intensive asset to do this job if the decision had been made earlier.

It is not only our national security here that has been poorly managed and had unintended consequences. One of the things that Australia has always done well, and which I support, is our foreign aid program and our willingness to help those around the world who are less fortunate. But now what we see is that what we thought was only taking $375 million—taking from Peter to pay Paul—out the ODA budget to support what is happening with the processing of refugees, was actually just a cap. That is a year-on-year measure. The budget papers show that the government is expecting to divert nearly $1 billion from the aid budget to cover domestic asylum seeker costs over the four years to 2015-16. That is a disgraceful, unintended consequence. It is a cost that is being borne by the people who can least afford to wear that cost, as a direct result of the poor decisions of this government to scrap the effective border control measures that were in place under the Howard government.

In supporting this motion, I am not going to go over again, at length, all the numbers and statistics. They are quite horrific. But I do want to highlight that, as well as the immediate debate at hand that people are having, there are unintended consequences and there are costs that are being borne by the Australian taxpayer. There are costs to our defence capability and national security and there are costs to people, such as those who would normally be recipients of our overseas development aid, because that money has been diverted. Up to nearly $1 billion has been diverted from that program not to bring additional people to Australia and not to somehow expand our refugee program but just to deal with completely unnecessary costs that are not required to be there. We could have used that money, if we wished to, to far more effectively help people in other nations who needed our help, whether it was directly there or as part of our already well-established and very generous refugee program that did what people are calling for, which is processed them where they were and provide them travel and support to come here to Australia—which is a far safer, humanitarian and sensible approach. The system is in place but it has been undermined by the poor decisions of this government which not only have made life more difficult for refugees but also have had many unintended costs.