This is the first time in this place I have had the opportunity to speak on any refugee or immigration matters. At the outset, I would like to associate myself with the sentiments put on the record by Senator Xenophon and Senator Madigan.
We do have a moral obligation to do what we can to accept people who are in unfortunate positions, who do not have the grace and benefit of being born in the safe and democratic nation in which we were born. We try to do the best in the world, as we do in our own lives, to help as many people as we can. I know often I personally fall down in not giving charity to as many fellow Australians as perhaps I should from time to time. Likewise, as a nation I am sure we can do more from time to time, we but we cannot do everything. The problem of refugees or displaced people has existed for as long as human history itself, going right back to biblical times. As a small nation at one end of the Pacific, we simply cannot fix that problem. We can, however, contribute to helping a not insubstantial number of people to relocate to a new nation, to make a new life, and to give them the opportunity to escape from threats to their life and liberty.
Through my own experiences, although I have not had a lot to do with refugee issues, I have from time to time been in contact with the Hazara community in Brisbane. They are great Australians who have come to this nation in the last decade or so, have found work and made themselves a family, and have taken advantage of the great Australian dream which we offer to everyone who is born here. It is a fantastic thing we can also offer to people from all around the world.
We try to take in around 13,500 refugees a year, which is a high proportion of the population relative to other nations' takes. It is something I fully support. In the past few years, that intake has been breached largely through unauthorised arrivals by boat. While I support an open and welcoming refugee policy where we do not control who is coming to this nation, I have great concern that those refugee places are not necessarily going to the people most in need across the world. They go to the people most able to afford to get on a boat or have access to places like Indonesia where they can take advantage of people-smuggling activities.
There certainly needs to be a change in policy and a recalibration of where we are at. This bill deals with the legacy of policies which have contributed to the fact that we have 30,000 people in migration limbo at the moment, people who came here in an unauthorised way, and we have no real system to process those individuals.
As I said, I think we have a moral obligation to help people. We do not have a moral obligation because we have signed international treaties or because other people tell us we should act in that way; we have that obligation because we are human beings, just as these people are human beings and we should try our best to make their lives better if we can. The changes we are making in this bill have the potential to improve the lives of the 30,000 people. I know others in this chamber do not support temporary protection visas, but I think they are a reasonable compromise between ensuring people have asylum from threats which might impact them in their home countries, while recognising that we cannot help everyone in that situation.
Over time, if the temporary protection visa system works well, we could help more people than we could if we were to offer permanent asylum because there is a limit to the number of people we can take. While I believe we have the obligation to provide people with asylum, it does not extend to say that we have to provide them with permanent residence, only that they should be granted asylum in the period when they need asylum. If circumstances change in their home countries, I see no abrogation of our responsibilities if we ask them to return to their home country when the situation improves. In fact, in my view we do the home countries a disservice if we do not encourage people to go home in those circumstances. We have been involved in fighting a long and hard war in Afghanistan. While I see the need for the Hazara to have asylum, hopefully in the long term Afghanistan will find a modicum of peace and security and the Hazara people will be integral to building peace and stability in that nation. If all we do is take the good people out of a nation and provide them with asylum, then those other countries will be denuded of those good people and will struggle to rebuild their own nations and to fight against evil and tyranny that sometimes, unfortunately, temporarily succeeds in other countries.
Providing temporary protection is, to me, quite consistent with our obligations, and a temporary protection visa has always seemed to me to be a reasonable and proportionate response to this very difficult issue. Of course, the policy changes I flagged earlier have made a marked difference in the number of boat arrivals in this country. There has been only one people-smuggling venture that has successfully arrived in Australian waters since 19 December 2013—almost a year ago—and with only 157 people. That compares with the 50,000 or so that arrived here under the former government, and that has meant that we have a backlog of 30,000 people in asylum right now.
The government went to an election last year with a clear policy—indeed it has been to the last two elections with a clear policy—to implement changes to our refugee program. The changes have included a program of turning back boats where it is safe to do so, reopening the facilities on Nauru and Manus Island—which the former government did take steps to do before the election—and, of course, the reintroducing temporary protection visas. I think there was a very clear mandate at the last election and widespread support for those policies, and some components have been successfully implemented by the government and have clearly had an impact. As I said earlier, I recognise the concerns of other senators about temporary protection visas, but it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise in this very fraught debate and I would hope that particularly those senators who come from an independent or crossbench perspective will look closely at this compromise and consider it to be a reasonable alternative.
I want to give credit to some of the crossbench and government senators who have introduced a new element to this program. I think that the safe haven enterprise visa, as it has been called, is an extremely innovative and welcome development. We have other visas in this nation which are very beneficial to rural and regional areas; indeed, some of our farms, meatworks and agricultural enterprises would not survive without 457 visas or 417 visas, the holiday visa program. These are essential to providing a workforce for industries in so many areas where unemployment is high. Unfortunately, many Australians do not want to go and pick fruit at a farm, pick grapes in St George or cut down 14-kilogram banana trunks in Innisfail or Tully, and we do rely on getting people from other nations to sustain those industries and farming activities. The enterprise visa will add another menu item to those visas which I think would be quite beneficial. People among those 30,000 who are in that backlog who want to gain access to work can move to an area of need—although I recognise that any area can be designated a region, my understanding is that the government will seek to ensure that those regions are in need of employment and are designated accordingly. People could apply to get a safe haven enterprise visa and move to these areas to add a new source of dynamism and diversity to regions of Australia which need workers, and it would allow these people to get on with their lives and earn some money for their families so that they can afford all the things that we in this chamber, I am sure, are very lucky to be able to afford.
The safe haven enterprise visas would be temporary in nature but my understanding is that after 3½ years on those visas people would be able to apply to be granted other onshore visas, including family-related visas which would not normally be allowed under TPVs generally. This will provide those people in this queue with hope for a better life. If we pass this bill today, it will provide 30,000 people who are somewhere on our territory, or territory that we have contracted for in Pacific nations, to have a hope for a better life. They can get some form of visa right now. They can apply for rights to work and to provide for their families, and if they prove themselves to tick all the right boxes while undertaking those activities, working and paying taxes, they will be able to become fully-fledged Australians. I think that is a great thing, and I am surprised that it is all that controversial in this place. Why wouldn't we want to give some portion of these 30,000 people hope for a better life? That is what this bill will do.
The government is of a view that a one size fits all approach is not appropriate to this problem because it limits our ability to address and remove unmeritorious claims and diverts resources away from individuals who have more complex claims. This bill will introduce a fast-track assessment process that will efficiently and effectively respond to claims that are deemed to have no merit and will replace access to the Refugee Review Tribunal with a new model of review—the immigration assessment authority, known as the IAA. These changes are consistent with the other issues that have been raised with respect to the surge in boat arrivals that have occurred in the last few years that has, in my view, given priority to people who perhaps are not as much in need as those who are waiting in camps—those who are in a queue, so to speak—waiting to get to a nation of asylum, whether it be Australia or another country.
Our review processes likewise have been blocked and unnecessarily diverted from dealing with claims that are of more merit by those that would seek to abuse processes. However, I completely understand why people might want to do that. I must say, if my family were living in Iran or another nation, I would try to do everything I could to get my family out and to a better life. As I said at the start, we cannot do everything. That does not mean we do nothing but we need to do something that we can do, and we need to do it in the best possible we can, given the scarce resources and the constraints that we have as a nation, and it needs to be consistent with our obligations in this place. This bill does that. It gives people better opportunities and it should be supported by this chamber.