Correspondence between the Government and the Coalition, Malaysia Arrangement, offshore processing legislation, the Greens, NSW Coronial Inquest, Indonesia boat tragedy
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Doorstop interview, Sydney
Chris Bowen: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
Well, Australians have witnessed another tragedy at sea. We’ve watched as men, women, children and babies have lost their life making the dangerous journey to Australia. The Government’s policy has been driven by the aim and the hope of avoiding these sorts of tragedies. We have been driven to pursue offshore processing to ensure that people don’t risk their life at sea.
And now we have the frankly bizarre situation that Labor and Liberal, Government and Opposition, agree that we need offshore processing. And yet we have a political impasse. Legislation to authorise offshore processing would fail in the Senate because the Liberal Party would not support it.
I don’t believe this situation is acceptable to the Australian people. In fact, I believe the Australian people have had a gutful of the politicking. They want Labor and Liberal politicians to work together to sort this out. They want Labor politicians who support offshore processing and Liberal politicians who support offshore processing to get in a room and to reach an agreement. We agree with them.
Today, in the interest of public transparency, I’m releasing a series of letters between the Prime Minister, Acting Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition, saying that she would take steps to recall the Parliament to consider the migration legislation amendment if the Liberal Party would indicate its support. It would be pointless to recall Parliament simply to have a talkfest unless we would have some assurance that the legislation would pass. The Prime Minister made it clear she was more than willing to take the appropriate steps with the Speaker and the President of the Senate. The Prime Minister suggested to Mr Abbott that I meet with Mr Morrison to – and I quote from the letter – ‘attempt to identify a mutually satisfactory outcome’. That was an offer made by the Prime Minister last Wednesday to the Leader of the Opposition.
Mr Abbott wrote back on Friday and I’m releasing that letter today as well. Mr Abbott said in that letter, ‘I don’t see much point in further private discussions between Mr Morrison and Mr Bowen.’ Then of course we saw the tragic events of last weekend. Yesterday, the Acting Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition again after consulting with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers. The Acting Prime Minister said in this letter, ‘I believe that it is our shared responsibility to move beyond business as usual politics and come together in good faith with a preparedness to genuinely try to find a mutually acceptable solution. To this end, I believe that it would be appropriate for private discussions to be held between Minister Bowen and Mr Morrison.’
Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition replied to the Acting Prime Minister and said inter alia, ‘As I stated in my previous response, in the absence of a precise indication of the Government’s willingness to change its policy, further discussions on this topic would be pointless.’ Last night, the Acting Prime Minister replied to the Leader of the Opposition and said – and I quote – ‘I believe the offer of a meeting in good faith demonstrates the fact that the Government is willing to engage constructively and examine options for an outcome we could both support. Despite your initial refusals, the offer of a meeting remains open to you at any time should you choose to accept it.’ And I understand a short time ago the Leader of the Opposition again replied to the Acting Prime Minister, saying that further meetings would be – and I quote – ‘pointless’.
We have attempted in good faith to negotiate with the Liberal Party. We wrote privately because we thought that provided the best opportunity, away from the glare of day to day politics, to reach a sensible, common sense outcome between two parties that believe that offshore processing is important, between two parties that believe that offshore processing saves lives.
Mr Abbott has rebuffed this common sense approach, but the offer, as the Acting Prime Minister has said, remains open. And the Opposition knew that I was available to meet to discuss this matter last Thursday. I was available last Friday. I was available yesterday. I’m available today and I’ll be available tomorrow. We are prepared to talk about this to see if a common sense solution can be reached because we don’t think and I don’t believe there is anything that’s pointless about meeting to see if you can reach an agreement to save lives.
So the offer stands and it will continue to stand. We will continue to argue for offshore processing, we will continue to argue that we need to ensure a deterrent to getting on the boat and risking your life. But we recognise that to pass the Parliament this will need bipartisan support, hence our offer to the Opposition and that offer still stands.
Happy to take questions.
Journalist: It is clear the Government will not prepared to shift [inaudible] from, you know, the Malaysia solution [inaudible] -
Bowen: Let’s be very clear. We believe that the Malaysia agreement is absolutely essential to ensuring the deterrent to get on the boat. We believe it is an absolutely essential part of the policy. Now, we also recognise that the Liberal Party has views that we are happy to listen to.
I’m not going to conduct that negotiation through the media. I want to sit in a room with Mr Morrison and talk those issues through. I am not a scary man, I don’t see why Mr Abbott is so scared of letting Mr Morrison into a room with me to see if a mutually agreed outcome can be negotiated.
Journalist: Mr Morrison has said that the problems with the Malaysia ‘solution’ are insoluble from their point-of-view, so are you prepared to negotiate on other elements of your regional processing framework such as Manus Island as an interim step?
Bowen: Well look, as I say Kirsty, with due respect to you, I’m not going to negotiate through the Sydney Morning Herald. I want to sit in a room with Mr Morrison. Now Mr Morrison has made his statements on behalf of the Liberal Party about the Malaysia agreement, they’re well-known. Now, I would question their veracity given that he says you can’t send people to a country that is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention when his policy is to turn boats back to Indonesia, which is not a signatory.
But I am not particularly interested in prosecuting that argument today, what I am particularly interested in is sitting down with Mr Morrison to reach a common sense solution which I think the Australian people are crying out for the Government and the Liberal Party to do.
We’ve shown that we are prepared to do this, we’re prepared to do this in good faith, we’re prepared to do so out of the glare of politics, but we have been rebuffed. The offer remains to Mr Morrison and Mr Abbott that we are prepared to sit down and find a common sense solution.
Journalist: I can understand that you are reluctant to go into specifics on the negotiations, but if I could just ask you to address that larger point: is the Government prepared to compromise all options?
Bowen: Well I draw your attention to the Acting Prime Minister’s statement in the letter: ‘… demonstrates the Government is willing to engage constructively and examine options for an outcome we could both support’.
Now that would indicate, that would indicate – our position has been clear, their position has been clear. For us to sit down and reach an outcome we could both support would require both sides listening to each other and coming up with a mutually agreed solution. That would require the Liberal Party to recognise our point-of-view, and us to recognise theirs
Now we’re prepared to sit down and see if that is possible. It might not be possible, but we’re prepared to give it a go, we have been prepared to give it a go – it’s a simple appeal to Mr Abbott to stop saying ‘no’. I mean, Mr Abbott is saying ‘no’ to a meeting, he’s saying ‘no’ to engaging when people’s lives are at stake and I think that is deeply unfortunate and regrettable and not in the national interest.
Journalist: In the meantime, how are you going to handle the number of people that are arriving? There was 400 people within 48 hours, is it going to be a case that there is not enough space for them to be in detention or to be housed in the community?
Bowen: We do have some spare capacity in the detention network which has been driven by the substantial reduction in boat arrivals we’d seen up until now – 50 per cent lower this year than the year before, than last year – and faster processing. So we’ve seen some spare capacity.
As I’ve said, that is not to say that the detention network won’t come under increased pressure unless a solution – a common sense solution – is found, hence the Prime Minister’s offer to explore recalling Parliament with the Presiding Officers. Hence the Prime Minister’s offer to make me available to the Opposition to see if we can find a solution. That offer remains: I’m around today, I’m around tomorrow, happy to meet with them to pursue that.
Journalist: But while you’re still having negotiations and locked in discussions about these meetings, what solutions are there to deal with this increasing pressure?
Bowen: Look, the legal and practical reality is that we have onshore processing in Australia – that is the reality. That would be the case if Mr Morrison were minister tomorrow, it’s the case with me, that we have to comply with the law. The law says, as interpreted by the High Court, that we effectively have onshore processing. We want to change that, but that would take the legislation to pass. It would at least take an indication from the Opposition that they would support the legislation so that I could then recommence all the preparation and logistical work that had gone into preparing for offshore processing in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
Journalist: Have you sought further meetings with the Greens because they hold the balance of power in the Senate and that’s another way of getting this legislation through?
Bowen: Well let’s be clear about this: the Greens have a philosophical objection to offshore processing. I don’t agree with that, I think it’s fundamentally wrong and I think, with due respect, Senator Hanson-Young’s comments over the last 24 hours have shown great naivet? and a lack of recognition of the reality of irregular movements. But I respect their position, they oppose offshore processing. The Liberal Party doesn’t. The Labor Party doesn’t.
The Liberal Party and the Labor Party’s position on this is closer than the Labor Party and the Greens’. That’s why we want to sit down with the Liberal Party – the other party that believes in offshore processing – to negotiate offshore processing. It’s easier to negotiate an offshore processing outcome with a political party that says they believe it, as opposed to a political party, which says they fundamentally don’t believe in it.
Journalist: Has the Government thought of any other alternatives? The Malaysia solution has obviously been rejected by the High Court.
Bowen: The High Court has interpreted the law in such a way as would mean Malaysia can’t be implemented, Papua New Guinea can’t be implemented, and our advice is that Nauru would be very very difficult to implement. So that means that all offshore processing has a huge legal question mark over it and no responsible government could pursue offshore processing without a change to the legislation. Professor Rothwell and others have pointed out that New Zealand would be the only country in our region which would qualify for offshore processing under the High Court’s interpretation.
So we continue to work, obviously, with Malaysia and Indonesia on deterrence, on policing matters. Of course we continue to do that, but the practical and legal reality is that offshore processing in Australia is unlawful unless and until the Parliament changes the legislation.
Any more questions today?
Journalist: How long do you think this stalemate will continue?
Bowen: I’ve laid out the actions the Government has taken, that the Prime Minister has taken. The Prime Minister took the initiative here. The Prime Minister took the initiative of writing to the Leader of the Opposition last week – before this accident – because she wanted to show the leadership to get this job done.
How long this impasse continues is up to Mr Abbott, because Mr Abbott is stopping a meeting occurring. Mr Abbott is not letting Mr Morrison negotiate on behalf of the Opposition.
The situation is clear: Mr Abbott should allow Mr Morrison and I to meet. We could then, potentially, formulate a joint position which Mr Morrison can recommend to his leader and his shadow cabinet, and I can recommend to my leader and my cabinet. I’m not in a position to do that until Mr Morrison and I sit down in a room.
Journalist: But isn’t this the other way of doing it? The orthodox way of doing it would be for the Government to formulate some sort of revised position and then put it –
Bowen: - We know how Mr Abbott works. If we were to formulate a position in public and put it to him, he would reject it. We wouldn’t be getting anywhere. The answer here is a joint position, negotiated in good faith between us which, as I say, Mr Morrison can then recommend to Mr Abbott and I can recommend to the Prime Minister and our respective cabinets and shadow cabinet.
We’re not going to go through the charade of us putting an offer to Mr Abbott and Mr Abbott finding any excuse to reject it; and then another offer. This is best done through a cooperative good faith approach which would mean us meeting, discussing and finding areas of mutual agreement.
We agree on offshore processing. We agree it’s necessary. Surely, surely it shouldn’t be too hard for the Minister and the Shadow Minister to sit together and work the issues through.
Journalist: Have you taken any steps to prepare Manus Island while this is ongoing, because that’s one element that is of mutual agreement to both?
Bowen: Well Manus Island would be unlawful without the passing of the legislation. So, no we’ve told the Papua New Guinea Government that we are not in a position to pursue that. We’d made good progress in getting Manus Island ready and all the preparatory work was well underway for a detention facility at Manus Island when the High Court brought down its decision. That work was necessarily put on hold.
We could not in good faith be progressing this with the Papua New Guinea Government when the legislation, as it’s interpreted by the High Court, would not allow processing on Manus Island. It would be a futile exercise.
Journalist: What about Nauru? Is that something that could be included in your common-sense approach?
Bowen: Well, I want to sit down with Mr Morrison and talk the issues through.
Journalist: You wouldn’t rule it out?
Bowen: I want to negotiate with Mr Morrison, not through you – with all due respect to you good people – but with him. That means having the discussion about what might be acceptable to the Opposition. Now, Mr Abbott has previously said that Nauru plus Malaysia wouldn’t be acceptable to him. We need to sit down in a room and work out what might be acceptable to both sides.
Journalist: Have you previously pressed Nauru to the Cabinet?
Bowen: I don’t comment on Cabinet discussions. But internally and externally, privately and publicly, I have continually made the point that Nauru in and of itself – in the absence of the regional framework, in the absence of the agreement with Malaysia – would not provide a deterrent to people getting on a boat and coming to Australia. Because the majority of people processed on Nauru would end up in Australia if they’re found to be refugees, just as they did last time.
Unless Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison want to make an announcement today that they’ve negotiated a different outcome with a different country, that some other country is going to take the people processed on Nauru and found to be refugees – unless they’re prepared to do that, unless they’re in a position to say who they’ve negotiate with or who they’re proposing to negotiate with, that will remain the position.
Journalist: So Nauru plus Malaysia will work for you?
Bowen: Well look, our position is that we need the agreement with Malaysia. We’ve said we also think a detention facility on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea would be a useful complement, but that a detention centre – wherever it is around the world – would not be, just by itself, anywhere near a deterrent.
Now if Mr Morrison or Mr Abbott want to talk about a potentially common sense solution, I’m here waiting for the call. Thank you very much. Okay, a couple more questions.
Journalist: On onshore processing, the Coroner’s findings were very damning in relation to the suicides in detention centres, what practical steps will the Government be taking to improve those conditions.
Bowen: Obviously the Coroner’s report came out yesterday, I have had a look at it, I’ve asked my department to provide me with advice on its implementation. I want to show it due respect, I’m concerned to ensure that we have the best possible practices in place.
It’s a very difficult area of course, particularly when you’re looking at removals, removing people from Australia when they don’t want to be removed. It’s a very emotionally fraught area and is very difficult. It does happen regularly, Department of Immigration officials do regularly remove people form Australia, but these people work under very difficult circumstances.
But I want to pay the Coroner’s recommendations very serious respect and to do whatever it takes to ensure we have the best practice systems in place, and that means looking very closely at the Coroner’s recommendations.
Journalist: Will you implement all of them or just some of them?
Bowen: Well I want to pay them due respect. Obviously I think when a Coroner makes a recommendation you have to have a very good reason not to accept it, but I’m going through them very thoroughly.
Journalist: Just on the boat accident, is there any suggestion or possibility that that accident might serve as a deterrent for (inaudible) asylum boats?
Bowen: Look, I don’t haven any indications to that effect.
Journalist: But do you expect the traffic to continue?
Bowen: Well look, I don’t comment on intelligence but I don’t have any indications to show me that that would provide a deterrent. But we have seen accidents in the past provide, if you like, some short term impact. But I’m not in a position to comment on what impact this might have.
Thanks very much.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 13:50 AEST