Christmas Island incident, character test, Malaysia transfer agreement, Kevin Rudd, media
Wednesday, 20 July 2011
David Lipson: Joining me now from Sydney is the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. Thanks for your time.
Chris Bowen: Pleasure, David.
Lipson: What happened at Christmas Island last night? We're hearing reports of, as I say, tear gas, rubber bullets, quite a lot of destruction as well in a number of rooms inside the facility.
Bowen: Yes, last night at about 11 o'clock Christmas Island time we did have up to 50 people who engaged in violent activity. There was damage to some buildings, damage to some computers, about 50 people involved, some damage to some kitchen areas, of course which is still being assessed. The Australian Federal Police were called; they did take steps to de-escalate the situation. Those steps weren't successful and the Federal Police needed to use gas and beanbag rounds to bring the situation into control.
Lipson: We also heard that the Serco security arrangements there, the personnel there were sort of forced to flee before the police were called in. Are you going to or have you upped the security presence for tonight because I understand there's still a lot of [inaudible] there.
Bowen: Well, it's standard procedure that when the Federal Police take action that Serco step back and let the Federal Police take the appropriate action. Of course, in circumstances like this we make sure there's appropriate security in place. The Federal Police have appropriate standby activities in place, particularly after an incident like last night, that in following days and nights have the appropriate arrangements in place, and tonight is no different. Of course, I’ve been in contact with my department this morning, been briefed on the situation and the appropriate arrangements being put in place for this evening.
Lipson: Any idea of the damage bill?
Bowen: Not yet, David. These things can take some time to assess. Some computers were destroyed, which is particularly unfortunate. They were computers in the medical area, so that will make the accessing of medical records for the other detainees there more difficult. And that's one of the key points: these sorts of protests affect the amenity for all the other detainees who just want to do the right thing. This is a relatively small number of people who cruel the situation for everybody else in the detention centre.
Lipson: 50 people, though, you say; others feeding us information have said up to 200 people. That doesn't sound like a tiny number of people involved in this. In fact, we're hearing that the threats from the government that getting involved in such violence could affect the temporary protection visas has actually encouraged more people to participate so that the authorities won’t know who started the trouble. Are those sorts of threats working?
Bowen: Well, I've made it very clear, David, on a number of occasions, that we have strengthened the character test through the Parliament. That means that anybody convicted of any offence while in immigration detention can be denied a permanent visa. We have seen 30 people charged out of the recent disturbances in Villawood and Christmas Island. I think that is well known through our detention network.
I don't accept the premise of the question that that test somehow encouraged further activity. In fact, all the advice I have is to the contrary; that is, a very clear message the vast majority of detainees understand. Fifty people is a significant number; it was a significant event last night. But I'm making the point that it is not all detainees and nowhere near a majority of detainees. We have around 600 people in that facility at Christmas Island as we speak. We had up to 50 involved last night.
Lipson: Well, it's coming up to 11 weeks, as I mentioned earlier, since the government announced an agreement with Malaysia. Julia Gillard today said that we're still in advanced discussions with Malaysia on this deal. But why is this taking so long?
Bowen: Well, this is a unique arrangement, David. It's, if you like, an arrangement which has not been tried in very many other places at all. It is important we get it right and we’ve been focused on that. The Prime Minister and I said at the time that it would take some weeks to sort out the operational finer details, and that's exactly what's occurred. Those discussions are at an advanced stage and we’ll be saying more at an appropriate time.
But it's appropriate that we take the time, in consultations with Malaysia and also the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to make sure that every detail is sorted through in an appropriately methodical manner.
Lipson: What's the sticking point, though?
Bowen: Well, there's no sticking point, David. I don't accept the premise of that. There have been discussions around all the operational details. It's a complex arrangement with lots of moving parts, and we have been discussing those with Malaysia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It's very important that we pull the rug out of the people smugglers' business model, that we say to people, 'Do not get on the dangerous boat journey to Australia because you won't be processed or resettled in Australia, you'll be taken to Malaysia'.
I think we've already seen a substantial reduction in the number of boat arrivals to Australia in recent times. I don't say that the announcement of the Malaysia arrangement is entirely responsible for that. Clearly, our very clear message through the region has had some impact.
Lipson: Okay. Well, I just want to get your thoughts on another couple of issues around today. We've just heard reports or just heard an announcement, I should say, from Kevin Rudd, the Foreign Minister, that he will be having an aortic valve replacement surgery, operation on 1 August. He says that Craig Emerson, the Trade Minister, will step into his role for two months, that this is the second time he's had this procedure; the first time 20 years ago. Mr Rudd also confirming that he would be staying in politics, that he would be running again for the seat of Griffith.
But Chris Bowen, if I could ask you, do you have a message for Kevin Rudd or what does this mean for this hung Parliament? Does it make it a little bit more precarious?
Bowen: No, I think my message for Kevin Rudd is that we all wish him the best through his health situation, that the operation goes well and we look forward to his return. I don’t think people should read more into the political situation than the fact that Kevin has announced that he will be having an operation and that we all wish him the best through that operation.
Lipson: Okay. Well, the big story today, of course, is the News of the World parliamentary inquiry in Britain; Rupert Murdoch appearing before that. One of your colleagues, Stephen Conroy, has been very critical, not only of News of the World but of the landscape here in Australia, particularly the Daily Telegraph, who he’s accused of being biased against the government, essentially trying to bring it down. Do you share Stephen Conroy's view on that?
Bowen: Well, look, let me make a couple of comments about the general issue. Firstly, the events in the United Kingdom, I think, are a salient reminder to all involved in public life, whether it's participants or commentators or journalists, that society has expectations as to journalistic behaviour, that there is a line—even in this era of public accountability and transparency, where people in public life have to accept the fact that all elements of their life are on public display—that there is a line and that society has expectations.
In relation to Australia, we have a robust media in Australia. I think it's no revelation that certain Australian newspapers from time to time promote a particular editorial line. That's part of a robust democracy. It's also a part of a robust democracy that Government Ministers and commentators are able to point that out from time to time.
Lipson: So you don't have a problem with the way the Daily Telegraph has been reporting on the carbon tax particularly?
Bowen: Well, I think the Daily Telegraph has taken a particular editorial line and that’s their right under our robust democracy. I think the Daily Telegraph readers, when they read the Telegraph know that that's their editorial line and are able to factor that into their considerations.
Lipson: Chris Bowen, thanks very much for your time.
Bowen: Pleasure, David.
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Last update: Wednesday, 20 July 2011 at 16:50 AEST