Humanitarian intake, people smuggling, Malaysia arrangement, expert panel, leadership of Australian Labor Party
Monday, 23 July 2012
Interview with John Laws, 2SM Mornings
John Laws: Minister, good morning and thank you for giving us some of your time.
Chris Bowen: Pleasure, John. Good morning.
Laws: The Greens' policy of doubling our refugee intake would put enormous strain on the Budget, wouldn't it? Doesn't it show the Greens can't really be taken too seriously?
Bowen: Well, I disagree with the policy, John. But the big problem with the Greens' policy is not so much the doubling of the intake, because I do support increasing the intake over time if we can stop boat arrivals - and by the way, Tony Abbott said the same thing - the big problem with the Greens' policy is not the increase so much, it's the open slather nature. So their policy is to increase the intake from around 14 000 up to 25 000, but then to say whoever arrives by boat is on top of that, not taken out of that. And that means you basically lose control over your asylum seeker budget.
And Labor and Liberal have agreed for a long time now that Australia should take refugees, but we should have a cap and anybody who arrives by boat, or by plane for that matter, is one less that we take out of a camp so that we can say, 'Look, we're a very generous nation, we believe in giving people a fair go and a chance in Australia, but we don't have an open slather, we've got a cap, and there's a total amount that the government can budget for because settling refugees is a good thing to do and the nation benefits, but it also has some very considerable costs to it as well for the Budget.'
Laws: That's what it does, and in addition to that, it inconveniences those who would like to come here legitimately. I mean, they're jumping the queue, aren't they?
Bowen: Well, we do have, as I say, Australia has a program where we take people out of camps around the world, as we should. I think it's a good thing to do.
Laws: Yeah, I agree with that.
Bowen: To say to people who are stuck in Africa and Thailand, who've escaped from Burma, 'Listen, you know, you want to make a contribution to Australia, we'll give you a chance to come and start your life.' And this is the thing that does annoy me about some people in this debate. They say, 'Oh, it's terrible if you try and discourage refugees from coming to Australia, it's racist or that's not the right thing to do.' And that's just plain wrong because we do want to take refugees, but we want to take them the right way, people who wouldn't dream of having the money for a people smuggler, John. You imagine you're living in a camp in Africa, the idea of having $200 would be a dream, let alone having $20 000 to pay for a people smuggler. So you need to have a fair policy, one that treats people with humanity, but also gives people who would never dream of coming that way a fair chance of life in Australia as well.
Laws: Yeah, well, I don't think anybody would argue with any of that. But there's got to be a tremendous amount of money to be made. I heard the going figure was $10 000; it's probably less than that. But no matter what the figure is -
Bowen: It depends where you're coming from and how the journey is organised. But you're looking at between $10 000 and $20 000.
Laws: Well, add that up to the number of people who come here and it's a hell of a lot of money.
Bowen: Absolutely, and that's why - I use the phrase a lot because I believe it very strongly - we need to break the business model of the people smugglers. You can do the law enforcement and you can arrest them, but where there's money to be made they'll find ways. You know, Indonesia's one of the largest archipelagos in the world; there's hundreds, if not thousands, of islands that these boats can leave from. And you can do all the law enforcement in the world with Indonesia, but you're dealing with the symptoms of the problem.
You've got to take the product away. That's why I supported and proposed the Malaysia agreement. I know you've said that's a bit harsh in the past, John, but you've got to have policies in place which say to people, 'You can't get to Australia and live in Australia permanently if you come by boat or at least there's a very big risk that you won't.' And therefore people will say, 'Well, hang on, this $20,000 is not worth the money if I don't have the certainty at the end of the day.'
Laws: Okay, but what are you doing to break this business model?
Bowen: Well, a couple of things, John. Clearly, we've got our policy there, which we support, of taking people to Malaysia and processing them there in line with the other 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia. And I do think increasing the intake can be part of the solution as well.
But John, we've been arguing about this, talking about this, yelling at each other about this in the Parliament and it's gotten nowhere. That's why, as you said, the point of this panel is to try and break this impasse, to say, well, we support our policies, we believe in them, the Liberals and the Greens believe in theirs, but we've got to find a way to break this and a circuit breaker. So we've appointed three very eminent Australians - Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L'Estrange, all respected in their own fields and I think respected across the board in politics - to say, 'Well, let's take the politics out of this. The government's had the benefit of the expert advice and all the intelligence reports and all the things which have lead us to say you've got to implement something like the Malaysia agreement. Let's have an expert panel do this and let's have a process where the whole Parliament can share in the expert advice and hopefully we can end this political point scoring and actually get in a system which works to stop boats coming to Australia and stop people risking their lives to come to Australia and give people a fair go who never would dream of having that opportunity.'
Laws: Okay, but it's pretty obvious - well, it's obvious to me and I'm no Rhodes scholar - the Greens are not taking this role very seriously.
Bowen: Well, I hope they are, John. And I must say, I've been very critical of the Greens and the Greens party and their policies and I think in many instances they're naïve and I've done that and I continue to argue that case. But credit where it's due, John: they've said that they'll be involved in the process, they've appointed representatives to the cross-party working group working with the expert panel, they've said they'd take the recommendations to their party room and talk them through. And that's more than Tony Abbott has said, so I do give credit to the Greens to that degree.
And we need good faith in this debate, John. We need people who come to the argument and say, 'Well, look, we all need to step away from things we might have argued in the past, we need to find a solution.' And I would hope every MP and every political party would do that. Time will tell. We'll see the expert panel's recommendations. I don't know what they are; it's a very independent process. They'll share that with the whole Parliament and I just hope that everybody comes at it with some good faith and a willingness to try and get this sorted out.
Laws: In June alone, 26 boats came in carrying 1765 people. Since we only grant about 14 000 humanitarian visas: what's going to happen to the genuine refugees when we exceed our annual quota - and it's not going to take long to do it?
Bowen: This is my point John; this is my point that we need to get this sorted to give those people a fair go and to stop others risking their lives at sea. That's why it needs to be sorted out. I've said this for a long time and I've been criticised by some people - refugee advocates - saying that our approach is too tough; but it's necessary to take some tough decisions, some hard decisions, to give people a fair go and to get a fairer system for those who want to come and live in Australia and who are desperate for the chance to do so.
Obviously not all those who've arrived by boat will be granted refugee status - so those who arrive by boat -
Laws: - so what will happen to them?
Bowen: What we do is: anybody who arrives by boat or plane and then isn't granted refugee status, we attempt to remove them. Sometimes that's difficult; sometimes that's easier but we remove them to the country from whence they've come.
Laws: That's assuming you know whence they came.
Bowen: Well, that's a challenge too - and you often hear, 'well take them back', but it often depends on where they came from, it depends on whether the country involved is willing to be cooperative: you can't just drop people off at the airport; you've got to actually get them issued with documents and some countries cooperate very well with us on that, other countries are more difficult. There are challenges to it and, clearly, sometimes it's more difficult and then we make whatever arrangements we can -
Laws: - okay but why? How come we continue to send millions of dollars to Indonesia and all Indonesia sends us is people we don't want.
Bowen: You've got to remember, John, that Indonesia is at the end of the process: they're just the most obvious place where these people have left from. Ninety-per cent of the people who come by boat come through Malaysia as well. That's why we struck the Agreement with Malaysia - they're very keen to cooperate with us on stopping this.
We do do a lot of work with the Indonesians and we do stop boats leaving Indonesia. There's a lot of people smuggling activity stopped and a lot of people arrested.
Laws: I wish we heard more about that. I mean, I think it would be good for the Australian people to hear of the number of boats that have been stopped as well as the number of boats that have got through. I think that would be a nice positive thing for the Australian people to be hearing.
Bowen: We do do that and we do that in cooperation with the Indonesians, but I make the point that these aren't Indonesians coming to Australia: they're Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Palestinians, Iraqis. Indonesia is just the final staging-post before they leave for Australia.
We do work cooperatively with the Indonesians, just as we work with the Malaysians; but as I stressed and as I said at the beginning: we need to break the model not just deal with the symptoms. Because you could massively increase the resources that Indonesia and us put into it but if we're only dealing with the symptoms then we're not going to solve the problem.
Laws: Have you thought of adopting some of the Howard Government policies because some of them proved - they were tough but they worked?
Bowen: We've more than thought of it; we've offered it. We've said that we'll open a detention centre at Nauru, for example. I thought that might be enough to get Tony Abbott to agree but it wasn't.
Bowen: Unfortunately. I thought he'd say, 'okay that shows some good faith on your behalf and if you're going to be prepared to adopt some of our policies, we'll work with you'; but of course he said, 'no' to that.
I don't think Nauru by itself works because what's Nauru by itself? It's another Christmas Island -
Bowen: It's just a bit further away; people still come to Australia. But I was prepared to give it a go if, in conjunction with government policy which we think would work.
John we could go over this argument: you can get Liberals on and they'll say Malaysia won't work and I can say Nauru won't work; but nobody's suggesting that if you did both that it wouldn't work. Of course it would. If you implemented Malaysia and Nauru it would work to -
Laws: Then why doesn't that happen?
Bowen: That's what we want to do but the Parliament won't approve that because the Liberals and the Greens are voting together to stop it. They voted together to stop it before the Parliament rose. That's why we appointed this Expert Panel saying that the time for talk is over; let's get on with it and we'll appoint an Expert Panel to advise the whole Parliament on a way of getting on with it.
Laws: Okay. Chris I presume you'll support Kevin Rudd if he decides to make a comeback?
Bowen: Well, he's not making another challenge John; he's said that very clearly. I supported Kevin Rudd in February. I did that very openly and publicly; I thought that was the right thing to do but he said that's the only challenge and I believe him.
Laws: Okay, but if there was a change of heart, I presume you would continue to support him?
Bowen: I don't believe he's challenging John, so we're talking about hypotheticals.
Laws: That's okay Chris; politicians constantly talk in hypotheticals.
Bowen: He said he's not challenging and I'm working for the Prime Minister. That's the situation.
Laws: Okay, but were he to challenge: I presume you would support him?
Bowen: Well, he's not challenging John.
Laws: It's good fun Chris, isn't it?
Bowen: We're doing serious business here John but we're allowed to have a laugh occasionally.
Laws: Yes, we're allowed to do that. Thank God we're allowed to do it. But I'm sure Kevin would be delighted to know that you will support him when he decides to make a comeback.
Bowen: Well, I think - Kevin's a good friend but he said he's not challenging and we're all just trying to focus on our jobs here.
Laws: Yeah but if he did challenge - you know.
Bowen: I've answered your question John.
Laws: Good to talk you Chris.
Bowen: Pleasure John. Cheers.
Laws: Our Minister for Immigration who, fortunately, has a sense of humour.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Monday, 23 July 2012 at 14:19 AEST