No bull, Malcolm, time to turn to better questions
We can be almost certain that, despite Malcolm Turnbull’s reproach last week, the Parliament will quickly get back to asylum seekers as the House returns today with just 27 sitting days left for the year.
Time is running out for embedding the issues the major parties want to dominate the 2013 election year. So those issues will dominate Parliament.
And for the Opposition asylum seeker policy, along with carbon pricing, is what plays best to its advantage.
But at least one savagely contested issue can be settled in the asylum seeker debate: How many refugee applicants sent to Nauru and Manus Island during the Pacific Solution ended up in Australia.
The Gillard Government’s partial revival of the Pacific Solution has highlighted the question of the effectiveness of the off-shore processing program. Did it merely delay the inevitable arrival in Australia, and was thus not much of a deterrent?
Further, the Government wants to keep so-called queue jumpers off shore for as long as they might have been in the official immigration queue which they leapfrogged.
Nauru and Papua-New Guinea aren’t keen on that length of time extending far at all. They want a rapid turnover of refugee applicants.
So the length of stays durning Pacific Solution I, and the fate of refugee applicants, are important parts of the equation delivering Pacific Solution II.
Researchers of the Parliamentary Library, a fair and diligent umpire, have the final word .
There had been 1637 people sent to the two islands between 2001 and 2008 when the new Kevin Rudd government shut the system down.
Most of them, all but 93, arrived between late 2001 and early 2002. There were 19 babies born within the refugee community on Nauru between 2001 and 2004, and three on Manus between 2001 and 2003.
At the peak of the Pacific Solution there were 1544 people on Manus and Nauru. By September 2003 there were just 335 on Nauru (later some were sent from Christmas Island) and none on Manus.
So where did they go?
Seventy per cent of those 1637 were resettled in Australia or other nations such as New Zealand. Of these, 705 people - or 61 per cent - came to Australia.
Which means about 43 per cent of the total Pacific Solution population went to Australia, and a hefty majority - just over three out of every five - went to Australia or another industrialised nation.
The biggest nationality groups were Afghans (786), Iraqis (684), Sri Lankan (88).
Liberal immigration spokesman Scott Morrison is likely to mention the asylum seeker issue within or outside the House because since the Government agreed to the re-opening of Nauru and Manus there have been more than 1500 asylum seeker arrivals by boat.
Remember, the total for the original Pacific Solution was 1637. And one of the reasons that number might soon be exceeded in Pacific Solution II is that most of the original group 10 years ago were re-settled in a western nation and most of them went to Australia, where they wanted to go all the time.
And today we will see whether Parliament has been chastened by that Turnbull reproach last week, or whether it is to be business as usual. Confident money will be on no-change.
The Liberal front bencher had complained that the focus of Question Time was too narrow - too many questions on carbon pricing and asylum seekers; too many to the Prime Minister.
Mr Turnbull’s comments on the use and abuse of the nation’s biggest political platform were largely sidelined by an inconclusive debate over whether he was spearing his Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott or Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Mr Abbott later said he had read and endorsed Mr Turnbull’s speech before its delivery and had thought it was aimed at the Prime Minister.
Labor jumped into that debate in a bid to generate Turnbull-for-leader speculation, but in doing so instead reinforced the most important point of his speech.
That point refers to the reduction of Question Time and other parliamentary set pieces to the role of political hunting ground rather than occasions for significant discussion and provision of information.
There have been productive reforms of the operation of Parliament over the past two decades, one of the most important being the creation in 1994 of the Main Committee, now called the Federation Chamber. This is a debating forum parallel to the House of Representatives which allows for more discussion on legislation and committee reports. In short, more of the hard slog that members of Parliament do but few members of the public notice.
Mr Turnbull, in a Perth speech last week, argued there was less than productive use of other parliamentary elements.
“In our Parliament every sitting day has a question time in which most of the questions are asked of the Prime Minister. For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focussed on people smuggling and the carbon tax,” he said.
“Are they really the only important issues facing Australia? A regular viewer of Question Time would be excused for thinking they were.
“This is not a criticism of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard. There was a concentration of themes when I was Leader and Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister.
“`It is a consequence of having the Prime Minister the focus of question time every single day. And while other issues and departments are debated in other parts of the parliamentary day, Question Time is prime time and for most Australians the only part of Parliament they are likely to watch.”
Government Leader of the House Anthony Albanese confirmed the Turnbull argument, hoping that it would catch Tony Abbott.
Mr Albanese revealed that so far this year there were 12 ministers in the House of Representatives who had not been asked a question by the Opposition. Malcolm Turnbull had asked just one question all year, but junior back benchers Wyatt Roy, Louise Marcus, Ken O’Dowd, Ewen Jones and Natasha Griggs had asked three or more.
Clearly, something’s not working and Question Time is not being used to extract information, but only to set up political points.
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