Indonesian boat tragedy, Malaysia Arrangement
Wednesday, 02 November 2011
Chris Uhlmann: We're joined now by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen. Welcome.
Chris Bowen: Thank you Chris, good evening.
Uhlmann: Can you tell us what the latest information is that you have on this boat sinking in Indonesia?
Bowen: Well obviously in these circumstances information does vary, but the latest official advice we have is that there are eight people who are confirmed deceased. We think there are between 60 and 70 people on the boat, but we'll never know the exact number, and still a number being searched for, and tragically I think we need to brace ourselves that those being searched for are unlikely to be found alive.
Uhlmann: Why did the government make such a swift announcement on this when a boat was sunk in Indonesian waters?
Bowen: Well, look, it was clearly something which was becoming public knowledge and I think we took the decision correctly to provide what information we had in the interests of transparency. Minister O'Connor made it clear last night that there was more information to come; the early details were sketchy, but we thought it was appropriate to share what information we had with the Australian people. I think that's the right decision, I think you could criticise us if we didn't release that information.
Uhlmann: You're not concerned at all though that the perception is that you're trying to put pressure on the Opposition to come in behind your bill?
Bowen: No, look, our position is very clear: we've made the arguments for our legislation and we'll continue to make them. And very clearly I've said on a number of occasions – I've said on this program – that one of the key reasons we were pursuing the Malaysia arrangement was to reduce the number of people on boats and to minimise the risk of deaths at sea. I said on your program that I never wanted to take another call like we saw - like I received after the Christmas Island tragedy. But what we did last night and today is provide the information that is available to us and you would be rightly critical of us, Chris, if we had information that we didn't release.
Uhlmann: But it's your view now that there's no deterrent in the system and because there's no deterrent more boats will come and more people will die.
Bowen: I've made it very clear on a number of occasions that if you don't have a proper regional framework then you will see more people getting on boats and more people will be risking their lives. I've made that argument right through this process: when I was arguing way back in May, and I pointed out that it's not as simple as saying we should just accept everybody and process them onshore, there are implications; that people risk their lives on the high seas, and I don't think the Australian people want to see more tragedies like this. I think the Australian people would say, 'Well hang on a second, both sides of Parliament support offshore processing, both sides of Parliament say offshore processing can reduce the number of people getting on boats, both sides of Parliament say offshore processing means that less people risk their lives, so both sides of Parliament should get on and vote for offshore processing.'
Uhlmann: Both sides do say that now, but in fact you ended offshore processing in 2008. No-one's been processed offshore since then.
Bowen: Well, Chris, I've made it very clear, and it's been the government's position, that we need a proper regional framework and that's what we've delivered through the Bali process, negotiated by Minister Rudd and myself, and then the Malaysia arrangement negotiated directly with the Malaysian Government. And we've said very clearly that that's the sort of arrangement we need to provide a proper deterrent. You can't just make your domestic arrangements more punitive and harsher to provide a deterrent: a) you shouldn't do that anyway; it's the wrong thing to do, and b) if you think that provides any sort of deterrent, you're just plain wrong.
Uhlmann: But if what you want to do in the end is deter people from coming so that there will be no deaths, then surely you must consider Nauru?
Bowen: Well, Nauru won't work in and of itself as a deterrent and I've argued this consistently –
Uhlmann: But you can't be certain about that.
Bowen: No, we can because all the expert advice to us is that if you have a situation where you have a detention centre at Nauru and the people processed on Nauru, if they're refugees, are taken to Australia as refugees, that is not a deterrent. Why? Because people get what they're after: resettlement in Australia.
Now if Mr Abbott says that we'll send them to Nauru and then we'll send them somewhere else, let him tell us where it is, let him tell us what countries he has in mind; what countries will he negotiate? I guarantee you he can't do that because no country is going to agree to take people off Nauru because they will say, 'Hang on, they came to Australia; Australia should resettle them just as they were last time under the Howard Government.' 95 per cent of refugees off Nauru resettled into Australia and New Zealand; that is not a deterrent.
Uhlmann: But surely if the expectation is that you might spend several years on Nauru, as cruel as that might seem, it does deter people from coming, doesn't it?
Bowen: Well, if Mr Abbott's policy is that they'll leave people on Nauru, even after they are genuine refugees and will not resettle them into Australia, let him say so. I do not believe that that is their express policy.
Uhlmann: We have a stalemate now. What can the government do to put any deterrence at all in the system under what we're seeing at the moment?
Bowen: Well the practical and legal reality is that there is onshore processing. The government could not proceed with Malaysia, we could not proceed with Papua New Guinea, which is also a policy - we have an agreement with Papua New Guinea - and the Opposition could not responsibly proceed with Nauru in the lack - with the lack of legislation.
Now we've made it very clear, the Prime Minister made it very clear to Mr Abbott, she was happy to make myself available as Immigration Minister to talk through a package with Mr Morrison to see if we could reach an agreement. Mr Abbott has rejected that. He says you can have any type of offshore processing you like provided it's his type of offshore processing. That's not leadership.
Now there's a time for politics, but there's a time for leadership and Mr Abbott should show some. If he believes in offshore processing, we're happy to have offshore processing. We want offshore processing, all he needs to do is vote to allow offshore processing.
Uhlmann: Sure. But the bottom line in all of this is that there is now no deterrence in the system, so we can expect to see a great many more people on the way.
Bowen: I've made it very clear, yes, I agree. Without deterrence or offshore processing you will see and can expect an increase in boat arrivals. That is why we worked so hard to implement the Malaysia arrangement, to negotiate it through the regional framework and to have it implemented. We didn't do it for fun, we didn't do it because we thought it'd be popular or easy. It's neither of those things and when we were talking about deaths at sea and said that if we don't do this sort of thing then we're going to see more people risking their lives, we weren't joking.
Uhlmann: How many more people?
Bowen: Well I haven't commented on intelligence and I won't, but what I have said is that you can work on the basis we will see an increase in boat arrivals, an the increase of the number of people on boats. We'll see - there are always a range of factors, Chris. It depends on the situation in countries around the world, particularly our key source countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, to a lesser degree Sri Lanka these days; there'll be a range of factors, but where you don't have a proper offshore processing regime in place then you will see an increase in boat arrivals.
Uhlmann: Chris Bowen, thank you.
Bowen: Thank you, Chris.
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Last update: Friday, 04 November 2011 at 12:10 AEST