Multi-party reference group, Coalition's 'turning back the boats' policy
Friday, 06 July 2012
Doorstop interview, Darwin, Northern Territory
Chris Bowen: Thank you for coming everybody. This morning the Prime Minister has announced the membership of the multi-party working committee - a reference group for the expert panel. The Prime Minister has announced the Deputy Prime Minister and I will represent the government, along with Stephen Jones, the Member for Throsby.
Also, we're pleased to have received nominations from the Greens, from Senator Milne and Senator Hanson-Young, and also I'd like to thank Tony Windsor, the Member for New England, and Senator John Madigan for agreeing to serve on the cross-party reference group for the expert panel dealing with the asylum seeker issue.
Obviously, we remain open to receiving nominations from Mr Abbott. I encourage Mr Abbott to participate in this group. If Mr Abbott chooses not to participate on behalf of the Liberal Party, we'd be happy to receive self-nominations from individual members of the Liberal Party - Liberal members of Parliament - and Coalition members of Parliament for that matter.
Now I call on Mr Abbott to agree to serve on this committee and to nominate somebody to serve on behalf of the Coalition. It's important that the Parliament come together as one, as one, to resolve this issue. The time has passed for political point-scoring, the time has passed for politicians working against each other, the time has come for politicians to work with each other.
Now if Mr Abbott chooses not to participate in this committee, I think the Australian people can make two conclusions: one, that he is determined, still, still, to working against this issue being resolved, and secondly, that unlike the government - which has nothing to hide and nothing to fear from scrutiny of its policies - he does not want his policies scrutinised through a thorough process. He wants to be able to stick to his sound-grabs and not to have his policies worked through, in a holistic way, with public transparency going forward.
Now of course, the government remains committed to our policies. We believe they will work based on all the expert advice. But we are also more than happy, as we've done, to appoint a group of very eminent Australians to work through all the issues, to examine all the policies and to have those policies examined and to receive recommendations from that group of very eminent Australians and to treat those recommendations very, very seriously indeed.
The second thing I want to comment on this morning is Mr Abbott's repetition yesterday of his policy of turning back boats and the statements this morning by former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie. Chris Barrie was, of course, head of the Defence Force under the Howard Government. He is another eminent and respected Australian with vast operational experience.
It's time for Mr Abbott to take his head out of the sand and to recognise that Indonesia will not cooperate and participate in turning back boats, that the Defence Force has the very strong view that that will not work - will not work and will put the lives of asylum seekers and Australian Defence Force personnel at risk. It is time for Mr Abbott to recognise the facts - to put aside the sound-grabs and to work with the government to see this issue resolved.
The final point I want to make is this: Mr Abbott has indicated that the turning back the boats policy remains, and Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison have both indicated that recent boats would've been turned around. We saw last week some Liberal Party members of Parliament say that they could not and would not support a policy which would see children taken to a non-signatory country without supervision and protection.
Under the Malaysia agreement we have negotiated protections and support for all people who would be returned. There were a substantial number of children on yesterday's boat; some people claiming to be minors and some very young children who are very clearly minors. Yet the Liberal Party policy is to turn these boats around and return them to Indonesia: not a signatory country, and with no protections - no protections - no guarantees, no support.
So I call on those members of the Liberal Party who do not support the removal of children to countries which are not signatories to the Refugee Convention to call on Mr Abbott today to drop this policy, to walk away from this policy, to face the facts that this policy cannot and will not work; and also that it is highly hypocritical - highly hypocritical - for Mr Abbott to continue to support towing back boats to Indonesia while refusing to support returns to Malaysia under a negotiated agreement with the assistance and co-operation of the UNHCR, and with protections and guarantees in place.
Happy to take some questions.
Journalist: Minister, why the need for this parliamentary working group when you already have an expert panel set up?
Bowen: Well the idea behind the parliamentary working group is to bring all the key political players in the one room to hear the advice of the expert panel and also to provide feedback to the expert panel as one; in a process that would see all those views in one room at one time. Now obviously the expert panel will be getting a range of advice across the board, including from political parties. But the idea behind the reference panel was to bring the political parties, which have had different views up until now, together and to work together with the expert panel.
Now if Mr Abbott refuses to participate, I think that would be very disappointing indeed. The door is open for him to participate and for him to nominate Liberals to join it.
Journalist: How optimistic are you that some Liberals will self-nominate?
Bowen: Look, I really hope that they do if Mr Abbott refuses to provide nominees, but that is really a matter for them. A number of Liberals have shown - Dr Washer and others - have shown that they are prepared to work in good faith with the government, to see the government-of-the-day have the tools they need in their toolbox to implement policies. Now if any of them choose to join the reference panel, that is a matter for them. I'd be disappointed if there's no representative at all from the conservative side of politics.
Journalist: And how much pressure do you think that Liberals are under not to become involved with this?
Bowen: Well, I'd certainly hope that's not the case. I certainly hope in a parliamentary democracy that the Leader of the Opposition would certainly not try to pressure any individual MP from serving. That is, of course, the matter for those individual MP's and Mr Abbott to sort through, but I certainly would be very disappointed if there's any pressure at all applied for people not to participate.
Journalist: Do you really think the reference group is going to make any difference? I mean, it's more talking, there may not even be Liberal's involved in it.
Bowen: The time for talking at each other and yelling at each other has passed. We can disagree about which policies would work and which policies would not, hence the government's offer to say, 'Well we don't think Nauru would work, but we are prepared in good faith to open a detention centre on Nauru - pass the legislation and we will open a detention centre on Nauru and implement the Malaysia agreement'.
Nobody - nobody has argued, publicly or privately, that opening a detention centre on Nauru and implementing the agreement with Malaysia would not work. Nobody has been able to argue that because it would provide a very significant deterrent to boat travel to Australia. So the idea behind the reference group is to work with the expert panel, to hear their advice and to get - give feedback to the expert panel as a Parliament, as one.
As I say, if Mr Abbott chooses not to participate that would be disappointing.
Journalist: You mentioned turning back the boats; the Indonesian President was here having chats with Julia Gillard this week. Did that feature turning back the boats - did that feature in any conversations between the Prime Minister and the President?
Bowen: Well the views expressed by the Indonesian Government have been clear and consistent. Obviously I don't go to what was said in confidential meetings, but the views expressed by the Indonesian Government publicly have also been their views consistently in all discussions.
Journalist: The Coalition has said that it wants to see the terms of reference for the working group before making a decision about whether to participate. What will the terms of reference be and when will we see those?
Bowen: Well we've already released the terms of reference for the expert panel, that's already been made public. In terms of the reference group, the reference group is designed to work with the expert panel with the same terms of reference that have already been publicly released, so I'm really not sure what Mr Abbott is talking about there.
Any other issues? No? Thanks for coming this morning. Cheers.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Friday, 06 July 2012 at 14:47 AEST