Expert panel, Coalition arrogance, Greens policy, boat in distress, people smuggling, suspected missing boat, same sex marriage, leadership of the ALP
Sunday, 12 August 2012
Interview with Barrie Cassidy, ABC Insiders
Barrie Cassidy: Now to our program guest, the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, who joins us from our Sydney studios. Minister, good morning, welcome.
Chris Bowen: Good morning, Barrie.
Cassidy: Well, so far this year, more than 100 boats carrying 7000 asylum seekers have made it to Australia. Can you guarantee that sometime in the spring session you will have in place a policy to deal with that?
Bowen: Well, of course we've developed a policy and we've advocated it very strongly. But clearly we've reached a parliamentary impasse. That's why we wanted to get a circuit breaker by appointing the expert panel, led by Angus Houston, which is reporting tomorrow.
I think by the time you go to air next week, Barrie, the Australian people will be able to judge the Parliament's performance again and will judge which parties wanted to act in good faith to get this sorted and to get a very clear policy of deterrents in place. Clearly that's what we will be doing. We will be progressing this through the Parliament and taking the recommendations seriously because the Australian people have had a gutful of this and they want it sorted.
Cassidy: This time next week we will know what you are policy is but we'll also know what your limitations are. Will we have stalemate this time last week?
Bowen: Well, we've only got just a little a bit over 24 hours to go before the report is made public, Barrie. The government will receive it tomorrow and then it will be made public as well.
Look, I'd say this, Barrie, the Australian people want to see this implemented. And it takes a particular type of arrogance to reject a report's recommendations before you've even seen them when we are dealing with people's lives at stake.
Now we need to get a policy implemented through the Parliament. The time for talking at each other, the time for political point scoring is over. We can argue about the benefits of Malaysia, we can argue about the drawbacks of Nauru, but the time for that has passed. I think the Australian people are looking to the Parliament to implement offshore processing if it's recommended by the expert panel. And of course we will be taking the recommendations of the expert panel through the normal processes.
Cassidy: But you couldn't have had a clearer indication from the Opposition, they are going to stand firm; it's their policy or nothing?
Bowen: Well, you're right, Barrie. And we saw that laid out on The 7.30 Report a few weeks ago very clearly when Scott Morrison said, ‘Even if the government adopted all our policies, we wouldn't support them implementing them.'
But Barrie, I would say this: we have appointed three experts, three very eminent Australians, to sift through all the evidence, all the advice and to make a recommendation, not only to the Parliament but to the nation and the government about the way forward here.
We've had nothing to hide here. We've been willing to put our policies up for scrutiny to this expert panel. We have confidence in the process we have been through. We have confidence in the expert advice to us and the way we have acted on that advice by negotiating the regional framework through the Bali Process, by striking the agreement with Malaysia, for example.
So we're upfront and we're happy to have the policies worked through. The Opposition is not. They have stuck to their sound bites and stuck to their sound grabs. And as I say, I think it takes a particular style of arrogance to reject the recommendations of three expert eminent Australians before you have even seen them.
And Tony Abbott has done that but he still has a chance. He still has a chance this week in Parliament to show the leadership that the Australian people are looking for and not the relentless negativity that he's shown up until now.
Cassidy: But in the end, it's the government's responsibility to govern. If you get nothing from the Opposition and nothing from the Greens, is it possible that so you will have a policy in place, you will be forced to adopt the Coalition's policy lock, stock and barrel? Is that possible?
Bowen: Well we've got 24 hours to go, Barrie. Let's look at the expert panel's recommendation. Obviously then we'd enter into discussions with other parties in the Parliament if they're willing to have them. I've been very critical of the Greens in the past, for example, for their naive policy; as I see it, unworkable policy. But I pay them this credit: they've said that they'll take the expert panel's recommendations and work it through in their party room. They were involved in the cross-party reference group for the expert panel. So I pay them their due for doing that.
And let's hope we can get a resolution in the Parliament this week. The other point I would make is I don't know what is in the panel's recommendations. I daresay there will be recommendations which would require legislation. I daresay there could be recommendations which the government can implement without legislation and obviously we'd be looking to do that as well.
Cassidy: How long will you have the report before you make it public?
Bowen: Well, we're not actually making the report public; Angus Houston and his team will be doing that. We'll be receiving it early tomorrow morning and Mr Houston will be making the report public during the course of the day. He will also, as I understand it, be briefing the Opposition and the Greens and the other parties.
Cassidy: This vessel that was subject to an Australian Navy rescue late this week, with 200 people on board, was that in Indonesia's search and rescue zone and was it genuinely in distress?
Bowen: Look, it was in Indonesia's search and rescue zone and Indonesia's search and rescue zone is huge in that area. And it's not uncommon for the Australian authorities to assist the Indonesian BASARNAS authority in rescues because we do there have the capability and the capacity.
The operational people on the ground make the decisions here, rightly, and they err on the side of assistance even though they sometimes may suspect that the call is not a genuine one. Obviously we err on the side of assistance because you would hate to see the situation where there's some doubt over whether the call is a genuine one and people's lives are put at risk. Operational decision are made here, they're made appropriately.
And this is the point I make Barrie: we are dealing with the symptoms here, we're dealing with the end results and operational decisions, and assisting in search and rescue is all important. But what we really need to do is break the business model of people smugglers so this is not an issue at all.
Cassidy: But since this occurred, though, have you been able to establish in any way that the ship was in distress?
Bowen: Well look, as I say, Barrie, operational decisions are made here and operational authorities comment on them. It's actually in the portfolio of my ministerial colleague Jason Clare and Customs and Border Protection provide updates from time to time here.
But my response is this: we will get reports which are genuine and we will get reports which are fake of boats being in distress in order to bring about a situation of rescue so that people can be brought to Australia. Until and unless we have a system of genuine deterrents in place, then this will continue.
Cassidy: But either way, though, you would like to know how often you are being conned, wouldn't you?
Bowen: Of course, Barrie, of course. And there are indications, of course, that from time to time these calls are not genuine, just as often they are. This has been something which is not a recent phenomenon; it's been something I've observed in my 18 months as Immigration Minister and successive Home Affairs ministers have noticed as well. Where you get an increase in tempo and more arrivals then you will get more of it.
Cassidy: Your colleague Jason Clare described this as a bit like a fire sale, a last minute fire sale. Is that the way it's happening?
Cassidy: There's increased activity before a policy is put in place?
Bowen: Yes, he's right about that, absolutely. What we're seeing is people smugglers working out what the Australian people worked out a long time ago, that the Parliament needs to resolve this. They are trying to get in in front of the Parliament and they're running, if you like, a closing down sale because they know offshore processing is a proper deterrent.
And the great irony here is, Barrie, that many people said I wouldn't be able to convince the Labor Party of the need for offshore processing and an agreement like Malaysia. Well, we did through the cabinet, the Caucus, the national conference. What we haven't been able to do is convince the Liberal Party and the Parliament of the need for offshore processing, and that's what I will be focusing on this week.
Cassidy: Now, there's a report in the West Australian about a boat carrying 60 asylum seekers that went missing about six weeks ago, and the fear of course is it sunk on the way to Christmas Island. Do you know anything about that?
Bowen: Well, look, Customs is aware of that report. They don't have much to add at this point. They are continuing to investigate it. Again, there are reports of this from time to time and this is a tragic event, if it has occurred.
I make this point again - over the last 18 months I've been making this point continually - we have tragedies that we know of. We have things which unfold before our eyes, where we have TV cameras off Christmas Island seeing boats sink.
But just as many, if not more, people have died in the high seas in the middle of the night without us even knowing about it. And if you care about people dying at sea, then you will want to see a proper policy implemented through the Parliament which would see it stop happening, the ones we know about and the ones that we don't know about just as much.
Cassidy: Now can I ask you about the same-sex marriage development; now that's two states are moving to support it. Are you persuaded by that?
Bowen: Well, it's a conscience vote for Federal MPs as decided by the national conference. Every MP will go through the process of making up their mind. I've said what I'll be doing based on feedback in my electorate and the policy we took to the last election; that's the primary driving focus for me.
I think this debate will continue for some time and I think it's an appropriate one to continue, but the Labor Party's given its members a conscience vote. Accordingly, every member will weigh up the issues, weigh up the feedback in their electorate, weigh up all the issues that are important to them.
Cassidy: If what's driving you is the policy that you took to the last election, what about the carbon tax? There'd be no carbon tax; that was disposable.
Bowen: Well, Barrie, this is a conscience vote. In the conscience vote I've weighed up the feedback in my electorate, I've weighed up on all people who have spoken to me on both sides of the issue and I've come to that view.
Cassidy: But if you take that view that you'll only ever adopt a policy that went to the last election; you‘ll never change. You'll never change a policy on anything.
Bowen: Well, Barrie, the Labor Party's view that we need action on carbon has been known for many, many years now. We took a policy of pricing carbon to various elections, as has the Liberal Party from time to time.
On this issue, I represent an area which has expressed strong views to me. People who asked me at the last election where I stood on gay marriage were referred to Labor Party policy. And I've said at this point that I don't feel I have the mandate to change that position.
Cassidy: The spring session of Parliament starts Tuesday. Do you expect that at some stage there'll be more speculation about Julia Gillard's leadership?
Bowen: Well, if there is speculation, Barrie, no doubt that wouldn't be the first and last time there is speculation about a leadership on either side of the Parliament from the media. I've made my views very clear on this last February that the time to deal with it was February.
The party's made its decision and we get behind the leader and give her every support we can. And that's what I've been doing with every ounce of energy I can muster.
Cassidy: Well, you say that it's the media but it's fed by Kevin Rudd supporters and you're plugged into that group. Are they as determined as ever to change the leadership?
Bowen: Well, I don't accept the premise of your question, Barrie, at all. What I've said -
Cassidy: Which part of that?
Bowen: Well, I don't accept the premise of your question that this is somehow being driven by Kevin Rudd or any people close to Kevin Rudd. Very clearly, you're going to get speculation of the leadership by the Labor Party and the Liberal Party from time to time. It's part of the traditional Australian discourse. I know on behalf of every member of the Cabinet, we're all focused on our job and all focused on working for Prime Minister Gillard.
Cassidy: But the bottom line is, from your point of view, February was the time to have it out, and you've dealt with it so you move on to the next election?
Bowen: Well, that's what I said at the time and that remains my position, Barrie. I took a public and controversial decision with my vote in February to support Kevin Rudd. That was very clear, it wasn't the easiest thing I've done politically in my life.
But I did it because I felt that it was the right decision at the time. But I also said the time to deal with this is now, we must make a decision, whoever wins, we must get behind. And that's been the focus that I've had since February and it will continue to be so.
Cassidy: Thanks for your time this morning, appreciate it.
Bowen: Thank you, Barrie.
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Last update: Monday, 13 August 2012 at 09:21 AEST