Compromise with the Opposition, offshore processing, Malaysia Arrangment
Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast
Fran Kelly: Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, is in our Parliament House studio. Minister, good morning, welcome to Breakfast.
Chris Bowen: Thanks, Fran, good to be back.
Kelly: Scott Morrison there says your problem with asylum seekers goes beyond policy, that the government can't deliver and fix this problem. What's your response?
Bowen: Cheap and cynical. We've made several offers in good faith to negotiate. Let's just go through this for the sake of context, Fran. Last year, before the tragedy in Indonesia, the Prime Minister wrote to the leader of the Opposition and said this is too important; to get past the politics, let's sort this out. We didn't do that publicly, we didn't do that in the glare of day to day politics, we did that confidentially in order to try and get a genuine breakthrough.
The Opposition leader said, 'No, I'm not going to talk to you unless you make me an offer.' So we convened the Cabinet and we agreed to make a proposal to the Opposition to open Nauru, to have an independent inquiry into Temporary Protection Visas with an agreed terms of reference with the Opposition and somebody, an agreed eminent Australian, to conduct that investigation. A good faith offer; rejected out of hand by the Opposition without one single centimetre of compromise from them. Now -
Kelly: Well, we now know why, because the starting point of the Coalition is that it is you, the government, not any policy.
Bowen: Yeah, well, that is just a cynical ploy. Now, all we're asking from the Opposition is what John Howard asked from Kim Beazley. John Howard didn't have the numbers to get his legislation through on offshore processing in 2001. He didn't, he could not have implemented Nauru without the support of Kim Beazley. And to Kim Beazley's great political cost he said, 'I don't agree with all your policies, I don't agree with the way you implement them, but I believe you should have the power to implement your policies.' Kim Beazley showed he was prepared to do the right thing for Australia, even if it wasn't in his own political best interests. Tony Abbott has shown the exact opposite.
Kelly: Nevertheless, you're the government, this impasse is your responsibility, the Prime Minister says she is open to further discussion. Is the government going to put anything or planning to put anything different on the table from the deal that you've just outlined there that you tried to negotiate with Scott Morrison before Christmas, which has already been rejected?
Bowen: Well, the Prime Minister and I have both said very clearly we're open to further discussions with the Opposition. Now, if the Opposition has a proposal to put we would be more than happy to sit down and talk it through with them. We've put a proposal - a very substantial proposal - a proposal which was not without political downside for the government, but it was what we wanted to do to get a result. The Australian people are so -
Kelly: Well, the Coalition has put a proposal, it is to go back to the Pacific Solution.
Bowen: No, the Opposition has not put a proposal, they have put a lecture. They've put a lecture to say, 'Well you can't do anything and you should adopt our policies.' That is not sitting down in good faith to negotiate. Now, we had several meetings with the Opposition, we talked through the issues and not one centimetre from the Opposition came through, in terms of a change in policy or a compromise. And in fact, as you said, Fran, last night Mr Morrison even made it clear, 'If the government offered us everything, if the offered us Nauru, Temporary Protection Visas, turning back the boats, we'd still say no.' Now, this is just such a cynical approach when the Australian people are crying out for politicians to get together a show a bit of leadership.
Kelly: You're listening to RN Breakfast, our guest this morning is the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. Minister, the Australian public are crying out for a solution, but there is plenty in the Australian public who aren't necessarily big fans of the Malaysia solution. Scott Morrison isn't either, he has pointed out the problems that the Opposition has with the people swap plan with Malaysia: no legally binding protections for refugees who end up there, the agreement doesn't apply to all people who make it to Australia - children and families are exempt, he says that weakens it immediately. Is there any room for negotiations over the Malaysia deal? Is the government absolutely committed to Malaysia being on the table of any part of a deal here?
Bowen: Well, Fran, let's go through that in two points. Firstly, I just want to deal briefly with those points. Firstly, he says there is no legally binding protections negotiated. Well, forgive me for being cynical, their policy is to return boats to Indonesia with no protections negotiated, full stop. Full stop. Neither Indonesia or Malaysia are signatories and they want to turn boats around on the high seas in a highly dangerous way and say, 'We don't care about what protections you have in place, because we're not going to negotiate any with you', and then he has the hide to complain that the protections - the very substantial protections - we negotiated with Malaysia in consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees aren't strong enough. Forgive me for being cynical.
Point two: he says there are too many exemptions. Well, we make no apologies for having a policy which recognised that individual circumstances would vary and particularly in relation to young, vulnerable children, we would need to put special arrangements in place.
Now, in relation to whether we're open to any other compromise, I mean, the door is open. The Prime Minister has said she is happy to talk. Now, that means talking through options. Our policy is clear, our position is clear, but we're happy to sit down and talk. Mr Abbott is the one who, it appears - and I hope this doesn't remain his position - but to this point, has slammed the door shut.
Kelly: Who are you prepared to talk to? Are you talking to the Greens about any compromise, or when you say you're only open to talk if the Malaysia transfer agreement is part of the talking?
Bowen: Well, look, in relation to the Greens, Fran, I fundamentally and completely disagree with the Greens position; I think it's naive and I think it's unworkable. They have this concept that you don't need offshore processing, you can just increase the refugee intake and that will fix everything. I think that's naive. Having said that, it has been their consistent position. I do believe it's a matter of principle for them, I accept it's a matter of principle, so I cannot accuse them in any way of being hypocritical.
But what I can say to the Liberal Party is, 'Well you agree with offshore processing, you say that you want offshore processing, so all we're asking you to do is to vote for it. All we're asking you to do is to do what Kim Beazley did at John Howard's request.' Unlike the Greens, the Greens have a fundamental position, which, as I say, I find, I totally reject and don't find acceptable, and I don't think it is morally acceptable to say it's okay for people to die on the way to Australia if that means we have onshore processing. But I do accept it's a matter of principle for the Greens and that they are not going to budge from that.
Kelly: So you don't accept that it's a matter of principle for the Opposition?
Bowen: No, I do not.
Kelly: You're basically saying you think the Opposition wants to keep this asylum seeking issue on the front page, that's what you're saying, aren't you?
Bowen: I do not accept it's a matter of principle for the Opposition, Fran, because their clear policy is offshore processing, their clear policy is to return people in a dangerous fashion to Indonesia - not a signatory country with no protections negotiated. So I cannot accept, therefore, that their position that we should not be returning people to Malaysia because it's not a signatory is a matter of principle.
They also say there's a cap of 800 on Malaysia and that's too small, and that's a use by date. Well, there's a use by date on Nauru as well, I mean, Nauru has limited capacity. Last time Nauru got full they had to open Manus Island as well. So every policy has caps, Fran. Every policy has caps.
That's why the good thing about our proposal is to have Malaysia, the arrangement implemented, have an additional centre at Nauru with a capacity of 1200 or 1500 and then, I don't think could anyone really suggest to me, could the Opposition suggest to me, if you did, Malaysia and Nauru together that would not be a disincentive. They may say Malaysia is not a disincentive, we say Nauru is not a disincentive; if you did them both, if you did them both, could anybody seriously suggest that that would not stop people dying at sea? If anybody could seriously suggest that, I'm happy to have that argument.
Kelly: I tell you people do seriously suggest that. The Greens seriously suggest it. Judi Moylan who we spoke to yesterday said that's not the answer, although she supports a regional solution. We spoke earlier this morning with Tony Windsor about his efforts bringing MPs from across the political spectrum together, basically who have given up on the government coming up with a solution. Let's hear that.
[Tony Windsor grab.]
Kelly: That's Independent MP Tony Windsor talking to us earlier. Minister, do you, would you be prepared to listen to the policy solutions this committee devises? Are they likely to hold sway with you?
Bowen: Oh, look, Fran, these are people of good will. I mean Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, have shown that they're prepared to compromise. Mr Oakeshott has put up the legislation, that compromise legislation, that he hopes will get the support of both the government and the Opposition.
Kelly: At least one Labor backbencher is part of that group, so far.
Bowen: Yeah, I'll get to that. But the government said we would support Mr Oakeshott's legislation, even though it's not everything we wanted, we wanted to get a breakthrough. These are people of good will, on both sides. Now even within that group I know that there are differences of opinion, as you've referred to, between what is a reasonable solution going forward.
I'm always happy to talk to people of good will, Fran. We, the government has spent a long time putting this policy together, based on expert advice, based on expert advice. That's why we're so committed to seeing a breakthrough here. But if there's sensible proposals from backbenchers, regardless of what parties they're from, regardless of whether they're independent, as I've always been in my time as Immigration Minister, my door's open to Members of Parliament of whatever persuasion.
Kelly: But just finally, Minister, I mean it's hard listening to all this over the last 24 hours - it's a political slugfest. You say you're prepared to put a policy together, or you have put a policy together based on expert advice, but it's true to say, isn't it, that expert advice has an eye toward public opinion?
Bowen: No. No, that is not true to say, Fran. And I reject that completely, and I reject completely what I hear sometimes, that any party who believes in offshore processing is only doing it to appeal to voters in marginal seats. That is a completely inappropriate thing to say. And I say this of the Liberal Party as much as us: if you believe in offshore processing you can believe in offshore processing because a) you want to save lives; and b) you want to give refugees in Africa, in Burma, in Syria, in Jordan, in Turkey, who wouldn't have, wouldn't begin to dream of having the money for a people smuggler the chance of resettlement in Australia.
Now, the expert advice, which comes from the Department of Immigration and the national security agencies, who've been working on this for a long time, does not have an eye to public opinion. They have an eye to what works, and they say to me, as they said to me on my first day as Immigration Minister when I called them in and said we need to find a way through here, what is the expert advice? They said to me, 'Minister the expert advice is a detention centre on Nauru which would just be a Christmas Island further away would not be an effective deterrent.'
Bowen: 'And Temporary Protection Visas would not be an effective deterrent, you need to find an option for more permanent resettlement.' And that's when we started working up the Malaysia Agreement. And it wasn't easy to negotiate, because we wanted the UNHCR involved and on board; we wanted Malaysia involved and on board. It was a tough negotiation, but we got there.
Now, Australia should not lose the opportunity of implementing that arrangement. It was a significant breakthrough to get a major country in our region prepared to work with us to provide that deterrent and for Australia to increase its refugee intake, to give them assistance in processing the 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia -
Bowen: It was a regional breakthrough and that's why we want to see it implemented.
Kelly: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
Bowen: Thanks, Fran.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 12:25 AEST