Boat tragedy, offshore processing legislation, Malaysia Arrangement, Nauru, Temporary Protection Visas, the Greens
Monday, 25 June 2012
Interview with David Speers, Sky News
David Speers: Minister, thanks for your time.
Chris Bowen: Pleasure, David.
Speers: The current situation clearly isn't working. We've seen scores more die in another tragedy at sea. What will the government now do?
Bowen: Well, let's go back to first principles here. We've said for a long time this needs to be sorted, that the government and the Opposition need to reach an agreement. That's the only way, the only way legislation will pass the Parliament. So the Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition before the last tragedy in Indonesia and said, 'We need to work together.' The Opposition said, 'Put a proposal on the table.' We did. We said we'd open a detention centre at Nauru as part of a package. We said, 'Look, we don't think Nauru would work by itself but we're happy to do it in consultation and as part of a regional framework.'
The Opposition has consistently said 'no'. They walked away from those negotiations, they leaked the correspondence and they broke off the negotiations. Now, the offer still stands. We're more than happy to sit down and work through a reasonable solution with the Opposition. But we have made substantial offers to the Opposition, and the Opposition has made no counter offer except to lecture about their policies.
Now, all we're asking, all the Prime Minister is asking of Tony Abbott is what John Howard asked of Kim Beazley.
Speers: Now, the key concern they have is that you are still insisting Malaysia be part of the mix. Their problem with Malaysia is that it's only for 800 people to go there and also that it's not a signatory to the Refugees Convention.
Bowen: Let's deal with both those issues.
Speers: So I just want to clarify, though, are you willing to take Malaysia off the table?
Bowen: But let's go to both those issues, David. Firstly, they say it's only 800. Well, Nauru has a capacity issue as well: somewhere between 1200 and 1500; that can get exhausted. In fact, it was exhausted last time. Our proposal was 800 people to Malaysia, a facility at Papua New Guinea of about 600 people and more than happy to have a facility at Nauru: substantial numbers.
The second point is that who doesn't accept that when you actually implement the Malaysia Arrangement it is a game changer? You start to see numbers reducing. We saw numbers reduce just after Malaysia was announced. If it actually was given a chance to be implemented, all the expert advice to us is it would also have a considerable impact.
And the last point, about Malaysia not being a signatory: the Liberal Party policy is to turn boats around on the high seas and send them back to Indonesia, which is a) not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and b) no protections negotiated, unlike the Malaysia Agreement. So this is why I say you have to question their opposition to the Malaysia Agreement, because it can't be based on any meaningful objections, because the hypocrisy is shown by their willingness to turn back boats to Indonesia.
Speers: Minister, I just want to be clear on this because you've made this argument now for more than six months, there's been no movement from the Opposition on this, much to your frustration obviously. Are you now willing to budge at all and take Malaysia off the table?
Bowen: We have made substantial concessions to the Opposition -
Speers: And there will be no more?
Bowen: - And reasonable. We've made very substantial concessions. Now, we're happy to talk to them at any point. But they need to come to the table in a spirit of goodwill, which they have shown an absolute unwillingness to do.
Speers: But why should they, if there's no indication that you are willing to go further?
Bowen: If they've got a proposal to make, they can make it to us. We began the negotiations; we made substantial concessions to them. We said, 'Look, we don't think Nauru would work by itself, but look, we really need this sorted for the sake of the nation', just as John Howard said to Kim Beazley, 'I know you don't support all my policies, but give me the chance to implement them.' Kim Beazley did, in the national interest. All we're asking Tony Abbott is what John Howard asked of Kim Beazley.
Speers: Because Malaysia must be part of the mix?
Bowen: All the expert advice to us - and it makes sense - is that you need an arrangement like Malaysia to have a real impact.
Speers: And that's the government's position, Malaysia must be part of the deal?
Bowen: You must have a real impact by a proposal which is not just a processing centre offshore, which Nauru would be. As part of the mix, it could play a role, but if it's just a processing centre offshore it's just Christmas Island further away. That remains our advice, it remains our position.
Speers: But why not simply adopt the Coalition's policy and give it a go? If it works, it works. If it doesn't, Tony Abbott can hardly criticise you.
Bowen: Well, it's about more than politics. This is about making sure you've got a solution on the table in which you can have some confidence.
Speers: But isn't it worth trying? I mean, the current situation, as we've established, isn't working. It's painfully obvious.
Bowen: As I say, David, all the expert advice to us is that you need something like Malaysia on the table to have the real deterrent impact. Now, opening Nauru would be expensive. If it's part of a total package, then it is certainly worth doing. But if it is not part of a total package, including things like Malaysia, then it is simply a Christmas Island further away.
Speers: Are you willing to reintroduce temporary protection visas?
Bowen: No, well, again, all the evidence is that they actually saw the number of people arriving in Australia increase. But what we did say to the Opposition as part of these discussions before Christmas was, 'Look, you have your views about temporary protection visas; we have our views about temporary protection visas.
Let's take the politics out of it, let's agree on terms of reference and let's importantly agree on somebody to conduct an inquiry into whether they'd be an effective -
Speers: - Hasn't the time for on inquiries passed, though?
Bowen: But we've got a disagreement. We thought it was a sensible and reasonable suggestion to say to the Opposition, 'Look, there's any number of eminent Australians with the respect of both sides of Parliament you could choose to undertake this review. We'll agree on the terms of reference and -
Speers: But what are they going to do? Look at the evidence and the evidence is we did see boats slow down last time.
Bowen: No, the evidence is after temporary protection visas we saw the number of people arrive in Australia go up. But look, there was absolutely no indication from the Opposition that even if we agreed to introduce temporary protection visas, that they would agree to pass the legislation.
Speers: Have you called Scott Morrison to try and set up another meeting on this?
Bowen: There's a standing offer, a standing offer in writing from the government, that we are open to further discussions with them. That's -
Speers: But has there been any contact, though, since Thursday's tragedy?
Bowen: Not between me and Mr Morrison. They know there's a standing offer from us. We began the negotiation process, we're happy to continue talking to them. It's been an offer which has not just been renewed in recent days, it's been there since before Christmas, in writing.
Speers: Would you welcome some talks this week?
Bowen: Absolutely. Look, I'm more than happy to sit down with the Opposition and see if there's a way forward, just as we initiated this before Christmas last year. We'd be happy to do it again, there's been a standing offer. But there does need to be a real spirit of goodwill and trying to get this sorted and not just playing politics with it.
Speers: And what about the Greens in all of this? The Coalition says, you know, 'They're your government partner, you should talk to them'. Now, the Greens want a regional solution; they don't support offshore processing, though. And the Greens Leader, Christine Milne, this morning criticised the time it took to respond to this particular boat capsizing. It first issued its distress call, of course, on Tuesday night. It capsized on Thursday. She suggested a different approach might have been taken were it a cruise ship or a yacht.
Bowen: I think any suggestion that Australia's rescue personnel would handle different situations in the way she suggested is frankly offensive. Our rescue personnel do very well under very difficult circumstances. Now, of course, as Jason Clare has said, there'll be the appropriate reviews to make sure that everything that could be done was done. But any suggestion that because it was an asylum seeker boat that the Australian rescue personnel didn't respond appropriately is something I would reject.
On the Greens' general position, I would say that the proposal that we just increase our refugee intake and process more people out of Indonesia and that would stop people coming to Australia is naïve. It just wouldn't work that way.
I'm on the record as saying I want to increase our refugee intake; I do. I want to increase it to 20 000 and that can be, again, part of a proper solution, just as part of our Malaysia Agreement was increasing the intake out of Malaysia to start with. But you've got to have a deterrent in there as well. If somebody's processed in Indonesia and rejected for asylum, as many would be, there's nothing to then stop them getting on the boat and coming to Australia under the Greens' plans. So therefore, that's why I say it's naive and unworkable.
Speers: Just finally, are you thinking about putting legislation for the Malaysia solution up for a vote?
Bowen: Well, Mr Oakeshott's legislation has already been voted on once - the Opposition opposed it. It was passed for further consideration, so there's another stage for it to come.
Speers: So that's the preferred option, not your own legislation?
Bowen: Well, Mr Oakeshott's legislation is the most advanced in the Parliament and certainly that is one which we've said while it's not drafted 100 per cent the way we would draft it, in the spirit of compromise we voted for it, and certainly I would call on the Opposition to revisit their opposition to Mr Oakeshott's motion - which was put up in a spirit of trying to reach a sensible result.
Speers: Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, thank you.
Bowen: Thanks, David.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 10:49 AEST