Cooperation with Indonesia on people smuggling, Malaysia arrangement, Nauru, asylum seeker legislation, expert panel on asylum seekers
Monday, 02 July 2012
Interview with Howard Sattler, 6PR Drive
Howard Sattler: We're joined now by Chris Bowen, no less, the Immigration Minister. A rare appearance on this program, but he's available today. G'day, Chris.
Chris Bowen: G'day, Howard. Good to talk to you.
Sattler: Now, I'm talking to you in Canberra today and I'm suggesting you should be in Darwin speaking to the Indonesian officials about people smuggling.
Bowen: Well, the Prime Minister, as you know, is in Darwin, as is Jason Clare, the Home Affairs Minister. And obviously, I talk regularly to Indonesian colleagues, but the Prime Minister's the appropriate person to be talking to the President. She'll be talking to him about a range of issues; of course, cooperation on people smuggling will be one of those.
Sattler: Well, your colleague, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, has come out today saying the efforts of the Indonesian and Australian governments to prevent people smuggling are under appreciated. Do you think so? I mean, I would have thought we appreciate that you're trying to do something about it, but the Indonesians are doing little.
Bowen: Oh, look, I don't think that's actually a fair characterisation of what Indonesia's doing, Howard. And I can understand that because a lot of what they do is behind the scenes. And frankly, a lot of what we do up there is behind the scenes, as it needs to be because you need to be able to protect what you're doing.
But there is a lot of cooperation. Now, I understand that that's not seen and yeah, sure, a lot of boats get through. But a lot of boats are stopped as well, so there's a lot of work behind the scenes between the two authorities. Now, we're talking about a very big group of islands: there's hundreds, literally hundreds, if not thousands of places these boats can leave from. So can you get them all, all the time? Of course you can't.
And my view is, Howard, you're dealing with the symptoms when you're doing that. You've really got to be trying to get to the core. You've got to be trying to stop people leaving in the first place.
Sattler: Yeah, but you're surely not going to suggest to me there isn't corruption up there, because I've just got off reading a book called The People Smuggler, by Robin de Crespigny – you should read it – and it's about a bloke who didn't make a lot of money out of people smuggling. I mean, one of the reasons he didn't make much money is because every time he sent a boatload away, standing on the beach waiting for their money was the naval representative, the army representative, the customs representative and the police representative, all with their hands out taking corrupt money. Now, you're not going to say that's not going on, surely?
Bowen: I'm not suggesting everything's perfect, of course I'm not.
Sattler: Far from it.
Bowen: But what I am saying is there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. The Indonesians do, there are a lot of good, decent, hardworking Indonesian officials. And look, as I say, it's inevitable that that doesn't get talked about that much, because we can't even talk about too much of what we're doing in operational detail. But there's a lot of work that goes in to catching people smugglers and stopping boats leaving, and that happens by Australians in Indonesia and Indonesians there as well.
Sattler: Why have you and the Opposition continued to rankle over the Malaysia solution and the Nauru solution? These people are still leaving Indonesia. Surely the best way to accommodate both sides, all sides and stop this is to actually stop them in Indonesia?
Bowen: Well, I actually don't want them to even get that far and that's why – look, we've had the discussion many times – that's why we want to return them to Malaysia. But the bottom line is, we also want to implement Nauru as well.
But yes, in the meantime we do work with the Indonesians to stop them. Some get through; some don't get through. And as I say, not everything's perfect and things can always be improved. But there is a lot of work that happens as well.
Sattler: I talked to a bloke on the weekend whose best mate – this bloke I talked to was in a refugee camp in Africa for 10 years before he got here. He didn't have any money to pay any people smugglers – and one of his mates was there for 20 years. Now, think about that and think about why these people bypass those particular camps and try to get directly to Australia because they've got the money.
Bowen: Yeah, that's right, they're the people who often get forgotten in this debate, Howard.
Sattler: That's my whole point.
Bowen: I agree, I agree entirely. See, some people would say me as Immigration Minister is too soft; plenty of people say I'm too hard. I'm just trying to give those people a fair go, these people in Africa, in Jordan, in Syria, in Burma, who couldn't dream of having anywhere near enough money –
Sattler: Yeah, but Chris, if the message was you come by boat we'll send you back to the back of the queue, they wouldn't come, surely?
Bowen: They wouldn't, and that's what Malaysia is all about, and that's the difference between Malaysia and Nauru. Malaysia is about saying, 'Well, look, you've come by boat, you're not going to get anywhere because we're going to process you just like the other 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia waiting for resettlement or somewhere in the world, the poor buggers, who are never going to get a chance.' They deserve a chance as well, so I agree with you that that's what we've got to be trying to do. That's the difference between Malaysia and Nauru. Nauru is a processing centre where people end up in Australia; Malaysia is not. Malaysia is saying you won't end up in Australia.
Sattler: And why won't Malaysia sign the United Nations agreement? That would take away that barrier as well.
Bowen: It would, but you've got to remember there's a lot of countries –
Sattler: What have they got against signing it?
Bowen: Well, see, the agreement we struck with Malaysia was a big step forward in terms of their protection of asylum seekers and their dealing with refugee issues. Now, you've got to look at it from Malaysia's point of view. They've got 100 000 asylum seekers on their books as we speak. You know, they're right next to Burma and Thailand and a lot of issues there, and they're very cautious about how they deal with these things. And we don't lecture other countries, we work with them, and I think –
Sattler: No, but you seem to be cutting them and Indonesia a fair amount of slack here.
Bowen: I don't think so, Howard. I don't think that's a fair characterisation. We're working with Malaysia in particular. I mean, we've got Malaysia to agree to take asylum seekers back to Malaysia and we've agreed to help them dealing with some of the 100 000 asylum seekers they've got on their books. And again, even on law enforcement, Malaysian officials have had a lot of arrests of people smugglers; they've criminalised people smuggling. The Government there, my ministerial colleague, Minister Hishammuddin, is very dedicated and committed to cracking down on it. Now, you know, as I say, again, it's easy to move from Malaysia to Indonesia, just in terms of geography. It's something that's hard to catch, but we work very hard on it.
Sattler: Okay. Now, how much money do you reckon the Australian Government spent on building detention centres over the past 15 or so years? I reckon it's over a billion dollars.
Bowen: It's a lot.
Sattler: It would be, wouldn't it? Christmas Island, the Northam one here, $125 million the other day, all up I reckon over a billion dollars, right?
Bowen: Yeah, over a long period of time, sure, yeah.
Sattler: Now, if you spent that money building a big facility in Indonesia, you said, 'Right, we'll go in and help the UN staff it and through an orderly process we'll process everybody up there, it's the only way you could get into Australia', wouldn't it be a good investment?
Bowen: No, because, I mean –
Sattler: I'm trying to cover all these ideas you keep pooh-poohing.
Bowen: No, Howard, I can assure you I've been through it all myself trying to get this sorted through. Now, I don't pooh-pooh that idea and working with Indonesia can be part of the solution.
But you hear the Greens out there, they're saying for example, 'Why don't we just take more asylum seekers from Indonesia?' –
Sattler: Forget about the Greens, they don't know what they're talking about.
Bowen: No, on this issue they're naïve, I agree with you completely, because do you think that you wouldn't see some of those 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia come down to Indonesia, some of the 100 000 in Thailand come down to Indonesia? And do you think if we rejected the claims of people in Indonesia, which happens, they wouldn't still get on a boat and say, 'Well, I'll go to Australia and try my luck'?
So I think that's just not the way forward. You do need to have a deterrent which includes returning people to where they began their boat journey, which is either Indonesia or Malaysia in the vast majority of circumstances.
Sattler: Alright. Looking for a new circuit breaker, what can it be?
Bowen: Well, this is why we appointed Angus Houston and two other eminent Australians to do this. Now, the Parliament talking at each other last week didn't get a breakthrough. I wanted to get a breakthrough; we didn't.
Sattler: Most of us thought that was disgraceful, by the way.
Bowen: Well, it was just, you know, we really needed to see a breakthrough, we really needed to see the parties working together, and yes, it's very frustrating that it hasn't happened. That's why we said, 'Well, okay, the Government has got all this expert advice, why don't we have a formal mechanism to share it with the Parliament and try and get a breakthrough next time.' Now, that will require parties compromising. It will require parties going back on things they've said in the past and working with each other.
Sattler: That's both sides.
Bowen: Well, yes, and that's why we've said, for example, my party's been against Nauru for a long time but we said we'd do Nauru. It's a big step.
Sattler: Will you really? I mean, if you got it through and the Opposition agreed to Malaysia, would you actually get in there and refurbish the facility on Nauru, definitely, promise?
Bowen: Absolutely, absolutely.
Sattler: Would you just put it on the backburner?
Bowen: No, we wouldn't. We would implement a detention centre at Nauru. That's been an offer that's been on the books for the Opposition since November or December last year, and that offer stands.
Because the time for arguing about what's more effective, Malaysia or Nauru, has long gone. Why don't we do both? And I challenge anybody to go on your show and say if we did Malaysia and Nauru together it wouldn't stop people getting on boats. Of course it would, of course it would. I say that. I argue that Malaysia would be more effective, but Nauru can play a role. Now, if anybody can come on your show and say, 'I don't think that putting Nauru and Malaysia together would work, and therefore I'm not voting for it', I would like to see them say that.
Sattler: Thanks for your time.
Bowen: Good to talk to you, Howard.
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Last update: Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 14:22 AEST