As well as an occasion to reflect on the valour and self-sacrifice of Australia’s military personnel, Anzac Day, which we commemorated this past week, should also be a reminder of the role that our country has played in the wider world.
Australia is an influential middle power and, whether we quite appreciate it or not, the big power of the South Pacific. Australia is 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 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. My contention 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.
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.
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.
I will act on our plan for stronger borders from the first day of a Coalition government by:
• accepting Nauru’s standing offer to reopen the detention centre there;
• visiting Indonesia, within a week of taking office, to renew our cooperation against people smuggling;
• providing new orders to the navy to turn around the boats where it is safe to do so
• re-creating temporary visas for illegal boat arrivals;
• establishing a presumption against refugee status for boat arrivals transiting through Indonesia who lack identity papers, and
• ensuring tougher minimum sentences for people smugglers with mandatory non-parole periods.
I believe Australia’s immigration policy is undermined because people who were welcomed through the front door understandably resent arrivals who climb in through the back window.
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.
Almost universally, immigrants to this country 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.
For the Coalition, our focus 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 about 30 to about 70 per cent of the total intake.
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 make the most of their economic opportunities to build a prosperity in which every Australian participates. Under a Coalition government, 457 visas won’t be just a component but a mainstay of our immigration programme.
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 other countries among the well-integrated immigrant Australians who grew up there.
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. 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 quickly and we’re keen to start work immediately.