Minister for Immigration and Border Protection - Address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute


Well, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

Tony, thank you for your warm welcome.

It is a great privilege to be here with so many distinguished guests and friends. ASPI, of course, has made an invaluable contribution over the past 15 years to Australian public debate. They’ve been ahead of the game and thank you so much Peter for being here.

Can I say thank you very much Peter for having us here tonight. Thank you to all that are present. Tony thank you very much to you and the role that your company plays.

I want to pay a special tribute and acknowledgement tonight to senior members of the Department who are here; in particular, of course, Michael Pezzullo the Secretary, to Roman Quaedvlieg the Commissioner and to say thank you to them and to the senior members of the Department for their dedication to public service and leadership in a very significant area of Commonwealth service delivery.

Governments are charged with a very significant responsibility for their nation’s security and prosperity and must act with cool heads and clear eyes.

They must be mindful that the choices they make will have ramifications that will be felt for many years to come.

Only by resisting populist and simplistic rhetoric do we have the ability to make the right decisions based on sound logic, principle and tested practice, and to give our country the best chance to succeed.

It is fair to say that governments and nations today face challenges of a scale not seen in many decades. The stakes for getting decisions right are very high. Governments that fail to deliver security and territorial integrity risk weakening the societies they represent. In such an environment, with increasing economic and security vulnerabilities, further failure inevitably follows.

In the coming days the Prime Minister and I will attend the high-level refugee and migration summits at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The summits are a direct response to the international crisis that continues to unfold, most horribly on the waters of the Mediterranean.

Australia is a migration super power. We have secure borders and at the same time we have provided for people in a humane way and have presided over one of the most successful modern day migration programmes anywhere in the world. Australia has a great migration story to tell.

The United Nations estimates that 65 million people are displaced worldwide. We are seeing the largest movements of displaced persons since the Second World War.

In Europe, the numbers are staggering. According to Eurostat data 1.3 million people applied for asylum in European states last year. This was almost double the previous high watermark, set in the aftermath of collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the same time there is an even bigger push for migration - people driven by aspiration rather than persecution. The intermingling of these groups makes the challenge even greater, particularly when it comes to realising the core objectives of the Refugee Convention.

The German Government has said that more than 1.1 million asylum seekers entered their country last year alone, following that nation’s decision to open its doors. The flow of asylum seekers through the Balkans into Bavaria reached a dangerous fever pitch, before recently being curbed by a succession of decisions by the Turkey and Balkan states to attempt to regain control of their borders.

The destabilisation that has beset Europe is plain for all to see. We have observed obvious problems with social cohesion and a deteriorating security environment. We have seen cosmopolitan cultural centres rocked by unspeakable moments of terror.

The Belgian Government recently stated that terrorism has cost their country close to one billion euro in lost business and tax revenue, with major impacts recorded in tourism and hospitality. Paris’s tourism industry took a massive hit in the wake of attacks in that city. Travellers have become wary of Europe’s chaos.

Uncontrolled migration is not the only cause of Europe’s current woes, but it is undoubtedly a major challenge to the European project.

These large movements are also in themselves perilous. Only two weeks ago the Italian Coast Guard reported rescuing almost 10,000 migrants from the Straight of Sicily over the course of just three days.

The International Organisation for Migration believes that there are nearly 3000 migrants who tragically lost their lives in the Mediterranean in the first six months of this year.

Australians empathise with the predicament and aspirations of those moving to Europe and indeed with Europe itself. We have seen first-hand the disastrous consequences that flow from weak borders. We have seen the real world impacts of ill-considered Government decision making played out on a grand and terrible scale. History will record with a black mark the half decade of dysfunction unleashed on our migration programme from 2008 to 2013.

As an island nation in Australia the challenges we face are undoubtedly different, but they are no less serious. Make no mistake, if we again surrender our sovereignty to people smugglers, who are motivated by profit rather than the aims of the Refugee Convention, desperate people will again die. Therefore it is a moral imperative that Australia’s borders remain secure.

In 2008 the newly elected Rudd Government, acting without any strategic foresight, set about systematically dismantling Prime Minister Howard’s highly effective suite of border protection measures. Boat turnbacks, regional processing and Temporary Protection Visas were cast aside in favour of a feel-good approach to border security and it was a fatal error. It put out the welcome mat for people smugglers.

Nobody in our country will ever forget the catastrophe that followed:

Fifty thousand people arrived on more than 800 boats and 1200 people drowned at sea. Eight thousand children ended up in detention. Seventeen new detention centres opened and there was an $11 billion border protection blowout.

Mistakes – even the gravest – are quickly made, but their legacy takes time and determination to correct. Nothing has done more damage to our migration programme in such a short period of time as the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government did in those few turbulent years.

When the Coalition took office in September 2013 we inherited a legacy caseload of more than 30,000 asylum seekers. The asylum claims of around 24,000 of those people had not even begun to be processed despite some having arrived as early as August 2012.

In the years since 2013 we have taken back control. This was achieved through the resolute implementation of a comprehensive plan. On coming to Government Prime Minister Abbott established Operation Sovereign Borders and re-introduced Howard-era policy settings that had been proven to work.

We have made the tough calls, including turning back boats where it’s safe to do so. As at tonight, 740 people from 29 people smuggling vessels have been intercepted and returned safely to their country of departure.

It is important to note that had those boats made it through our ring of steel hundreds of boats would have followed in their wake.

Following a drawn out legislative battle we successfully reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas in December 2014. TPVs and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas have deprived people smugglers of a product to sell and enabled us to begin working through Labor’s legacy caseload. I am advised that on the basis of processing to date that as many as one third or more could be found not to be owed protection.

The size and varied nature of the caseload means these trends may deviate over time, though if they hold they would equate to around 10 to 12 thousand economic migrants, not refugees, who paid people smugglers to bring them to Australia. Many of these people will likely refuse to return to their home country. Unless we act they will remain a burden on the Australian taxpayer. We remain engaged with several countries to alleviate these issues, but negotiations will be protracted.

Regional processing has been critical to removing any incentive for people smugglers to undertake dangerous voyages in an attempt to reach Australian soil. In the face of sustained activist opposition, we have maintained Regional Processing Centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Our relationship in this regard with Nauru will continue for decades.

While the boats may have stopped, the spectre of people smuggling remains ever-present in our region.

We know for instance that there are 14,000 people in Indonesia alone who would board a boat to Australia today if our border protection policies were weakened and it would be just the start. We know that there is significant chatter coming out of other countries.

People smugglers will not go quietly into the night; they are ruthless and sophisticated criminals. They diligently follow the asylum seeker debate in this country looking intently for any opportunity to restart what was a half billion dollar industry. Whatever decisions we make we must always cast an eye to potential pull factors and the consequences that may follow. Nothing in this space happens in a vacuum.

Australia’s border protection measures, however successful, are not without their critics. While I do not for one minute deny that there have been issues in our strained detention and processing networks, our detractors do no service to anyone by trading in false hope and speaking in disingenuous terms.

Their entreaties to a different approach offer nothing but a holiday from history and ignore the fundamental reality that secure borders require policies that are tough and fair. If they are not tough they will not be fair to those people who are desperately waiting in camps. And they will not be morally fair to those who will again be lured to the murky depths by the siren call of people smugglers.

Now mistakes were made, but it has been the Coalition that has done the most to fix them. No Government has done more to restore the integrity of our detention network.

My proudest achievement as Minister has been getting all children out of detention.

We have closed 17 detention centres and are working to remove people from detention across the network, except for those who are deemed a risk to the community.

The reality is that the system of detention was put under enormous pressure by the previous government’s mismanagement and we continue to deal with a litany of legacy issues to this day.

Even if every IMA was resettled today our job would be far from over. The hard truth is that Australia has been placed firmly and forever on the people smugglers' map. Despite any challenges that we face, we must maintain the policies that have worked and that have stopped the deaths at sea.

So let me be clear. Anyone who attempts to come to Australia by boat will never be settled here permanently. No one on Manus Island or Nauru will ever be settled in Australia.

This is a tough a message, but it is a fair message and its one that needs to be heard. It’s a message that only a responsible Government can ever deliver.

This does not mean that Australia is not a generous and compassionate nation. A direct dividend of these policies has been increased public support for our orderly migration and humanitarian programmes – programmes that have long contributed to our nation's cultural and economic development. This has allowed Australia to maximise its role as a responsible global citizen.

Renewed integrity in the system has enabled the Government to deliver the largest offshore humanitarian intake of the last 30 years. In 2015-16 the Commonwealth issued 17,555 Humanitarian Programme visas. Of these 8284 were offshore refugee visas and 7268 were offshore Special Humanitarian Programme Visas.

By way of comparison the latest UNHCR figures show the United Kingdom resettled 1768 refugees and France resettled 700 refugees in 2015.

This fair and equitable approach has resulted in 15,552 visas under our offshore Humanitarian Programme for people who were patiently waiting overseas. It means 8640 visas for people displaced by conflict in Syria and Iraq.

This is our largest offshore Humanitarian Programme since 1983 and it is something of which all Australians should be proud.

A consequence of the enduring nature of Labor’s legacy issues has been their continued dominance of the public discourse surrounding the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio. It has unfairly stained the Department and it has sucked oxygen from key messages and significant achievements by our 14,000 exceptional officers and staff, but that is in the process of changing.

The resources of Government have for too long been diverted to dealing with the aftermath of past mistakes. An Australian Public Service Commission capability review was warning as long ago as 2012 that the then emphasis on handling IMAs risked being at the expense of other core business aspects of the Department.

For example, Labor cut $734 million and 700 jobs from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service to pay for their border policy failures.

Strengthening the Department has long been a part of our agenda. A RAND Corporation report released today has found that the Government’s integration of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has resulted in an increase in operational effectiveness and efficiency. Further to this, we have vastly improved border enforcement with the creation of the Australian Border Force.

As we progressively alleviate the burden of Labor’s legacy we are freeing up resources and shifting our focus to the challenges of the future.

The Immigration and Border Protection policy imperative should strive to fulfil dual responsibilities of policing our borders and driving economic growth. There are new and evolving threats on the horizon that we must be prepared to counter and there are also emerging opportunities that we must seize.

In 2016 some of the greatest challenges and opportunities we face rest on the dual-edged sword of ever increasing volumes. A confluence of events, including technological innovation, the rise of budget airlines and an increasingly affluent and mobile Asian middle class has resulted in rapidly increasing numbers of people, goods and funds transiting our borders.

Government must ensure that Australia is well placed to embrace the possibilities and mitigate the risks of volume. Getting it wrong will result in both squandered opportunities and exposure to great risk for our nation.

In our temporary visa programme the scale of the challenge is significant.

In just the last five years the number of international travellers arriving in Australia has grown by approximately 24 percent with Australian Border Force officers processing more than 40 million international air and sea passengers in 2015-16.

By 2018-19 international air and sea passenger and crew numbers are expected to increase by 23 percent over 2014-15 levels.

The benefits of these booming numbers have been substantial with an additional $5.4 billion expended in Australia by international visitors alone in the year to March.

Temporary visitors to our country make a strong and growing contribution to our national economy and we must facilitate and encourage the movement of a growing global pool of travellers, skilled workers, students and business people.

The challenge that comes with these expanding figures is an inevitable increase in the incidence of criminals and terrorists attempting to cross our borders.

Beyond the dangers of transnational criminals, we know that terrorist groups such as Daesh are exploiting the mass movements of the international migrant crisis to move materials and personnel to support terrorism. They are using chaos and volume as cover.

Just two days ago three Syrian nationals who travelled through Turkey and Greece using fake passports were arrested in a series of pre-dawn terror raids in northern Germany. The men were allegedly assisted by the same smuggler organisation behind the Paris attacks.

To more effectively deal with the challenges of volume in our temporary migration programme, the Government is implementing innovative reforms.

We have rolled out SmartGates at the border utilising biometric technology and are implementing a new Visa Risk Assessment capability, known as VRA, to better detect travellers who may pose a threat.

Once in place, this $100 million investment in the VRA programme will bring together several disparate sources of intelligence to perform real time broad ranging threat detection and automated risk profiling. This will increase efficiency and facilitate earlier identification, far from our shores, of visa applicants who may pose a threat to our nation.

VRA aims to harness the power of big data to prevent potential terrorists from ever boarding a plane. With the Department granting 7.7 million temporary visas in 2015-16, the importance of VRA into the future is very clear.

As a further line of defence the Government has also established Australian Border Force Counter Terrorism Units which are now in place at all eight of Australia’s major international airports. These dedicated teams conducted almost 200,000 real time assessments and over 13,000 airport patrols in 2015-16.

Their work has already resulted in potential foreign fighters and minors being prevented from leaving for conflict zones. They are helping Australia meet her international obligations not to import or export terror.

As the world changes the volume of cargo crossing international borders is also rapidly increasing. The value of global cross-border trade has grown exponentially from 296 billion US dollars in 1950 to 16 trillion US dollars in 2015.

Australia’s two-way trade in goods and services was worth nearly $670 billion in 2015.

The Coalition Government has long appreciated the value of international trade. We have secured a trifecta of landmark free trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea and Prime Minister Turnbull and Prime Minister May recently announced their ambitions for a free trade agreement between Australia and a post-Brexit Britain.

As our businesses profit from these agreements our trade volume of course grows. In the last year Australia processed more than three million sea cargo consignments and approximately 35 million air cargo consignments.

We inspected more than 50 million international mail items in the same period. Sea and air cargo reports processed are predicted to increase by 14 and 26 per cent respectively on 2014-15 figures by 2018-19.

An inherent downside of growing cross-border trade is a potential increase in illicit trade, including in drugs, tobacco and firearms. The Department continues to detect and seize large quantities of these and other types of illicit cargo.

On the 19th of August we officially launched the Australian Trusted Trader programme which aims to address the challenges of these volumes and improve the international competitiveness of Australian businesses. Trusted Trader is a ground-breaking step forward in international trade facilitation.

The programme bolsters trade facilitation and border security through incentivising industry self-compliance. It imposes a strict accreditation process that has the effect of creating two streams of trade – known low risk-entities on the one hand and unknown or higher-risk entities on the other. Australian Border Force officers are then able to focus their detection efforts on higher-risk cargo. The end result is an intelligence and risk based approach to volume that allows us to more efficiently target resources.

Beyond improving screening methods the programme will benefit our nation in other ways. The programme will deliver a $2.9 billion direct benefit to industry partners and is expected to provide an increase in household consumption of more than $2 billion over the next decade.

Volume is not the only challenge facing us in Immigration and Border Protection. While economic and national security issues are central to my portfolio so is social cohesion.

Who migrates to this country and the circumstances under which they do so has more than an economic impact – It has an impact on Australian society and the way in which we live.

In the post-war era our nation has been shaped and strengthened by a programme of managed migration that has included some 850,000 refugees. But it is also clear, including from the citizenship consultation conducted in our first term that Australians seek reassurance about the future and purpose of our programme and those who come.

It is a privilege to migrate permanently to Australia and those who are fortunate enough to do so have a responsibility to respect our laws and our institutions. Community expectations should also be met, including with regard to the English language and shared values – which are essential for economic participation and social inclusion. This is especially true for those who would later seek to become Australian citizens.

Australia’s temporary and permanent migration policies and programmes must serve our national interest. Our visa system is overly complex and supported by ageing infrastructure. While efforts have been made to improve the user experience, work to simplify and reform the system must go further to better position us to deal with the increasing demand from travellers.

A reformed visa system must better support our tourism and education sectors. We must be supportive of employers in addressing skill shortages and growing productivity and the system must also help keep Australia secure.

This means denying entry to or removing those whose values or behaviour falls below acceptable community standards.

As Immigration Minister I have used my powers under s 501 of the Migration Act to cancel 283 visas for offences of assault, 265 for other violent offences, 217 for drug offences and 133 for child sexual offences. We have cancelled 24 for murder, 11 for manslaughter and 63 for rape.

We have cancelled or refused the visas of 105 non-citizens known to be members or associates of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. I have cancelled more visas on character grounds than any previous Minister and the community is a safer place as a result.

The place of migrants in the labour market is likewise a matter of community interest. Each year around 130,000 places are made available for skilled persons and their families to migrate permanently to this great country and around 60,000 places are available for families of Australians to do the same. These numbers are substantial and capable of having a significant impact on the labour force and welfare costs into the future.

It is therefore vitally important that we carefully consider the policy settings for the permanent skilled and family streams of the migration programme. With the right settings these new entrants to the labour market can be an effective supplement to the labour force and not a substitute for it.

These areas of future reform, while significant, are only the beginning. They provide a glimpse into the future of a Government and a Department that is finally overcoming the legacy of a disastrous period in Australian border security policy.

We have taken great strides to reach this point and have faced significant strategic challenges along the way. Often what appears to be an easy choice can in fact be fraught with danger.

We have made tough but necessary and fair decisions, knowing they would set the nation on the right long-term path. That is what good Governments do.

In the weeks and months to come the Government will articulate our plans for the future of Immigration and Border Protection. This Department is one of the institutional foundations protecting and defending our nation in very uncertain times. Our positive forward agenda will lay the groundwork for both a stronger Department and a stronger nation.

If we are to have any chance of rising to the challenges of tomorrow, we must plan for the future and make the right decisions today.

Thank you very much.