Christmas Island boat tragedy
Friday, 17 December 2010
Interview with Jim Ball, 2GB
Jim Ball: One of the key people who has been dealing with the issue is the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen and I'm pleased to say he's accepted our invitation to join us on the program this morning. Morning Chris Bowen.
Chris Bowen: Good morning Jim.
Ball: Now, you've announced no less than three inquiries following the events of Wednesday. Is this an attempt to smother things up? Spread the blame; all that kind of thing?
Bowen: I don't think getting to the bottom of the facts can be accused of covering things up Jim. What we've got is a situation where the West Australian Coroner will conduct an inquiry, as is normally the case in an event like this. The Federal Police and the state police will prepare a report for the Coroner, and that's what normally happens. Also, what we've said is – and I think this is what you'd term the third inquiry, that you're referring to – is that we want the Opposition and the minor parties to have access to the same information that Government has about what happened; who knew what, when; what the response was et cetera. If we didn't do that, I think you could accuse us of trying to cover things up…
Ball: Well I think it's pretty apparent what happened: a boat – and there have been many of them, what 198 I think it is we're up to, since July; but only 91 boats between 2000 and 2008. So obviously if the policy wasn't the way it is, that boat wouldn't be there.
Bowen: Well we can talk about policy Jim and I'm happy to do that, but let me just finish the point on the transparency and the information: there's been suggestions made over the last 24 hours that somehow the Navy or somebody else would've known this boat was coming, and it must've been left to come, and nobody went to its aid et cetera – which is obviously complete nonsense; but we want to be able to provide all the information to all the political players so that we don't have a debate over the facts. We have to have a debate over the policy but, as we've seen in these sorts of incidents before, sometimes debates over the facts about what happened can drag on for months. We don't want that.
We want full transparency about the facts of this matter: what the Government knew; which agency knew about the boat; what the response times were; how it was handled et cetera. We want all of that to be available to everybody involved.
Ball: There's a bit of a conflict in what was said yesterday in a couple of phone calls: one from the Prime Minister to Tony Abbott and one from you to your opposition number about the invitation to join the roundtable. They are saying they don't recall anything like that.
Bowen: I had three conversations with Scott Morrison yesterday; good conversations. I've got to say we have our disagreements but on matters like this we have a good relationship where we can talk to each other about the issues. I met face to face with Scott and put to him that we were prepared to make the briefings available to him at the same time as the Government received the briefings, and the Greens and the independents; so that we would have joint-briefings. That was put to him; Tony Abbott received a call from Julia Gillard.
Now I'm not critical of the Opposition here Jim, at all. They said they'd rather get their briefings independently; that's fine. We'll facilitate that too. But the offer was there to have the briefings together with us. If they want the briefings independently, we'll facilitate that as well but let there be no question that we weren't willing and able to provide briefings in the same format as the Government received them. They've said – for reasons I understand – we'd just rather have briefings independent to that process, we'd rather get the information direct from the relevant agencies then that's fine too. We'll facilitate that as well.
Ball: Okay. Now Julia Gillard told Laurie Oakes on July 27 that she authored the policy; this was back in 2001; this was the interview on July 27 in 2007. She authored this policy herself; she's got to take the blame.
Ball: We had very few boats coming prior to 2008, with the change of policy, and a 198 boats in two years.
Bowen: Well Jim, you and I are going to disagree on this but I'll put my point of view…
Ball: Well the numbers speak for themselves.
Bowen: Jim, up to 2008 you saw the biggest returns in world history to a country which had been in conflict. So you saw Afghanistan really calm down and settle down; and people stopped leaving Afghanistan. Since 2008 we've seen a big increase in violence in Afghanistan; you've also seen a major civil-war occur in Sri Lanka – and that's what's driven the increase in people seeking asylum in Australia and around the world…
Ball: But we had people seeking asylum in Australia before 2008, sorry before the Pacific Solution; I've got the numbers in front of me. Then when that came in, the boat numbers dropped to, in some years it was zero.
Bowen: And when we had a million people return to Afghanistan and when we had a situation very different in Sri Lanka, that's when we saw the boat numbers drop right down; and all the evidence is Jim, around the world, where you have peace break out in nations that have been very conflicted then you see asylum numbers drop. When you see the countries get worse again, you see asylum numbers increase; and that's what we've seen here.
Now, what you and I might agree on is that we do need to break the business model of the people smugglers. We need to…
Ball: But you're sending the wrong signals the people smugglers.
Bowen: …I don't think that making the situation in Australia harsher and more punitive is sustainable solution to this problem. I think the solution is to work with our regional partners, work with the international community to break that business model.
Ball: I mean the East Timor solution.
Ball: That was a thought bubble.
Bowen: No I don't agree with that…
Ball: Look, you changed the policy in 2008, September 2008; the thought bubble happened just prior to the election – at that Lowy Institute speech.
Bowen: …and at the Lowy Institute speech, the Prime Minister…
Ball: and the East Time Government knew nothing about it.
Bowen: …if you'll let me finish the sentence: in the Lowy speech, the Prime Minister said we need a regional framework; we need an international solution. She was very clear that that's not something that you can just make occur; that can happen overnight. It will take discussion with our regional partners.
Since she made me Immigration Minister three months ago, that's the job the Prime Minister's asked me to focus on and that's what I've been doing. I've been to East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia twice, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; that's what I've been doing.
Now it doesn't happen overnight, but if you want a solution to an international and enduring problem then you need an international and enduring solution. And that's what we're working on.
Ball: How long is that going to take?
Bowen: Well, I'm not going to put an artificial timeframe on it Jim but it remains my focus. I got back late the night before last, from more discussions with our friends in the region and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those discussions were positive and encouraging; but there's more work to do.
Ball: Reading a story earlier today: people arriving by boat now account for nearly half of the foreigners seeking asylum in Australia.
Bowen: Traditionally the majority of asylum seekers in Australia have come by plane but…
Ball: It's jumped from 16 per cent to 47 per cent.
Bowen: …and we have seen an increase in asylum seekers arriving by boat that's true.
Ball: People who come by plane though, they've got a visa; you know where they've come from.
Ball: They've got a passport.
Bowen: Usually that's correct; not in every single case but usually that's correct. That's why we have a different regime. Some people say well everybody that arrives by plane should be put in detention, but that's why we have a different regime for people who claim asylum after they've arrived by plane. Normally what happens is, they arrive by plane on a tourist visa or a student visa or something like that, and then they claim asylum. Obviously they were always intending to claim asylum but that's their right under our law and under the international Refugee Convention.
Ball: Just tell me something: just explain, as briefly as you can, the policy. What is it? Because I look at it and just see boats coming over the horizon and I'm thinking: before there were no boats coming because of the Pacific Solution, now we've got a 198 in two years. What is the policy exactly? Describe it to us.
Bowen: The policy is to break the business model of people smugglers, by entering into an agreement with our colleagues in the Asia-Pacific region and the United Nations…
Ball: But that was the thought bubble this year; the East Timor solution – going in to an election. You changed the policy back in September in 2008; two years ago. So what was that policy?
Bowen: Well the policy was…
Ball: Was the policy simply to dismantle the Pacific Solution? Was that the policy?
Bowen: We have, clearly, closed the detention centre at Nauru and that is no longer operational, that's true and that…
Ball: Do you admit that it worked?
Bowen: No because…
Ball: Hang on a second. Ninety-one boats in eight years; 198 boats in two years. I'll ask you again, do you admit the Pacific Solution worked?
Bowen: Why would it work Jim when 90 per cent of…
Ball: It did.
Bowen: Jim, if you've asked me a serious of questions, if you'd let me finish a sentence I'll answer them for you. Now 90 per cent of the people who arrived on Nauru ended up in Australia or very similar countries; the bottom-line is if people know that they might be moved to Nauru but they're eventually going to get asylum in Australia after a process of being in Nauru, they don't really mind where they're in detention. If they know they're going to get to Australia at the end, they're going to keep coming. So an off-shore processing centre which is not part of a regional solution doesn't work; and that's what all the evidence to me says and that's…
Ball: But won't all those people who come to a regional assessment centre, won't they too end up in Australia?
Bowen: Not necessarily. They'll arrive, they'll have a process to have asylum in a developed country; that is correct. But Jim, what we need– and again, you and I aren't going to agree – but we're very clear about the fact that when you see peace break out in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka – and I know you don't accept that that happened, but that's the fact; it did happen – then you're going to see asylum numbers fall throughout the world, including Australia. We have 42 million displaced people around the world…
Ball: But that's not true: in Sri Lanka peace broke out and guess what's happening? Sri Lankans are making their way to Australia.
Bowen: Less so now than…
Bowen: …the number of Tamil asylum seekers has fallen since you've seen circumstances improve in Sri Lanka; that's a fact.
Ball: Anyway, thank you for coming on. I'm sure there's lots of other things we could talk about; other things we could cover.
Bowen: Always happy to come on, when I can Jim. Happy to talk the issues through with you.
Ball: Thanks so much.
Bowen: Okay, cheers.
Last update: Friday, 17 December 2010 at 17:35 AEST