Expert panel report, negotiations with the Coalition, offshore processing, deaths at sea, Nauru
Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW
Neil Mitchell: On the line, the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. Good morning.
Chris Bowen: Good morning to you, Neil.
Mitchell: Can you explain to me why the government should not be held directly accountable for the deaths of the 338 people since October last year when you recommended the reopening of Nauru?
Bowen: Well, last year, I recommended we try and strike a deal with the Opposition and we did and that failed, and that's why we wanted a circuit breaker. So we asked Angus Houston and Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle to provide a report to help the Parliament through it, and I think they've done a pretty good job. Everybody had agreed that offshore processing was necessary, we couldn't agree on the model, so that that impasse needed to be broken.
Now, what the Panel has done is said all sides need to change: the government needs to compromise; the Opposition needs to compromise. They haven't backed in elements of the Opposition's policy; they've suggested changes to ours. We're up for it, it's got to be done –
Mitchell: But is it not correct, is it not true that that the Labor Government, in effect, discussed your detailed proposal and rejected it because it was considered it would look bad for the Prime Minister's leadership?
Bowen: No, well, I'm not going to go into Cabinet discussions. But what is true is that I've been saying for some time that we needed to get this sorted, we needed to get offshore processing –
Mitchell: Well, somebody's gone into Cabinet discussions. Are you saying that the reports on this are wrong?
Bowen: Well, what I am saying, Neil, is that I've been consistent in public and private meetings that we need proper regional processing, that it would need an agreement between the government and the Opposition to do it because the Greens wouldn't agree, and that we should be pursuing options. And we did: the Prime Minister wrote to Tony Abbott before the tragedy in Indonesia and said, 'Let's get this sorted'.
Now, that didn't work. That was worth a go to try and get an agreement between the parties but it didn't work. So what we needed to get this done –
Mitchell: Let me put it this way, if your proposals had been accepted could some of those 338 lives had been saved?
Bowen: Well, my proposal was to try and get offshore processing through an agreement with the Liberal Party –
Mitchell: Yeah, but were your proposals accepted in their entirety?
Bowen: Well, Neil, as I say, I don't go through Cabinet discussions.
Mitchell: Well, you see, don't tell me that your proposals were accepted when you won't say that they weren't.
Bowen: Well, Neil –
Mitchell: I mean, seriously, you can't have it both ways.
Bowen: Well, Neil, I'm answering your question –
Mitchell: Well, no, you're not.
Bowen: Well, with respect, I am. I have always been consistent that we should be doing everything possible to get proper, well balanced offshore processing and that would entail making an arrangement with the Liberal Party and we tried. I had meeting with the Opposition when Kevin Rudd was Foreign Minister and he came to those meetings with Julie Bishop, and we attempted and we didn't get an agreement. So that's why we said, 'Well, let's try and find something different; yes, it's controversial, it's different, let's get an expert panel in'. And it looks like this process may have worked.
Mitchell: Yes, but Mr Bowen, I understand Cabinet confidentiality, but this is now at a stage where it's reported on the front page of the newspaper that you had a plan that could've worked, could've saved lives, and it was rejected for political reasons. That is damning of this government if it is correct.
Bowen: Well, Neil, if you want to talk about confidential Cabinet meetings 12 months ago we can have that conversation –
Bowen: But what would be better –
Mitchell: No, good, let's have it.
Bowen: What would be better is to talk about this: the agreement –
Mitchell: No, no, no, I'm talking about the deaths of 338 people and whether this government has got blood on its hands.
Bowen: No, Neil, I completely reject that assertion.
Bowen: I completely reject that assertion because what we want is a model that actually works, and we have been consistent in our approach, that if you just have a detention centre on Nauru, not part of a proper regional framework and not part of other measures, then it would not save lives.
That's been my approach publicly and privately; that's the Panel's approach. They've recommended a proper integrated package: 22 recommendations of which we've accepted all in principle and which we'll work to implement.
But the time for who said what and who thinks what and what's better, Malaysia or Nauru, and who should have done what and is the Opposition right or the government right, the time for that has passed. The Australian people want to get this sorted.
Mitchell: Who is accountable for one of the most significant stuff ups in Australian political history?
Bowen: Well, Neil –
Mitchell: Who's accountable? You say the time's gone, well, we've got to decide who we vote for. How do we decide who blew it?
Bowen: Well, the Australian people will be able to judge which party, if this does not pass the Parliament this week, which party has not been –
Mitchell: Oh, Minister, you had a chance in October which you – even though you won't confirm it – which you argued to sort it out. The rest of your party – or a section of your party – rejected it for political reasons, and you're trying to put moral responsibility on the Opposition?
Bowen: No, I'm putting moral responsibility on the Parliament and Government and Opposition and everybody to get this sorted, as I have done consistently in my 18 months as Immigration Minister. Now, Neil, in some ways you're trying to flatter me, you know, I understand that, but I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in getting this through.
Mitchell: I'm not trying to flatter you. I'm trying to get to the essence of what looks to be a decision, a political decision that may have cost lives.
Bowen: No, well, I don't accept that premise, Neil.
Mitchell: But you won't say why because it is confidential.
Bowen: Well, other people may wish to talk about Cabinet meetings from time to time, Neil. I've always made it a practice not to because that's the appropriate thing to do.
Mitchell: Okay, do we now accept that offshore processing saves lives?
Bowen: I've said that consistently all the way along, Neil.
Mitchell: Since when?
Bowen: Since I became Immigration Minister.
Mitchell: Okay, so really, going right back to the original decision to end offshore processing, that was a mistake?
Bowen: But it has got to be the right type of offshore processing, Neil, it can't just be a Christmas Island that happens to be a bit further away; that doesn't work. That is not what the Panel has recommended.
The Panel has said you need a new approach here; the government need a new approach, the Opposition needs a new approach. They've said temporary protection visas aren't worth pursuing, that's a big part of the Opposition's policy. They've said we should modify the Malaysia arrangement, we've got to take that on board and we have.
You know, this is not about who's right and who's wrong; it's about getting it sorted. The time for, as I say, the argy-bargy and the political debate, in my view, passed long ago. I've wanted offshore processing for a long time, not because –
Mitchell: So nobody wears responsibility for this massive failure, correct?
Bowen: Well, Neil, the Parliament has a responsibility to pass the legislation.
Mitchell: And who has the responsibility for the fact that 604 people have died since 2009 when this was changed?
Bowen: You can have arrangements in place and you can still have tragedies at sea. You know, there's –
Mitchell: Of course, of course, I'm not saying the whole 600 would –
Bowen: But Neil –
Mitchell: But it is now accepted, by the fact that you accept the policy that offshore processing will reduce the number of boats coming and therefore reduce the numbers of death. You dumped offshore processing.
Bowen: That's not a revelation. I've said that consistently.
Mitchell: Well, who carries responsibility for 604 people dying?
Bowen: Well, Neil, let me tell you something: there's a memorial at Christmas Island for SIEV X where 353 people died. Not many people have seen it because not many people go to Christmas Island. It's one of the most moving memorials you could ever hope to see. It's got the name of every person that died. The majority of those were kids: we're talking two-year-olds, three-year-olds.
Mitchell: That's why it's awful, Minister.
Bowen: Yes, it is awful, and that's why you have to act. Now, SIEV X happened after Nauru was opened last time. So it is not like there's any magic bullets out there, but what we all have to do is do everything possible to reduce the number of boats and save people's lives and give other people who are forgotten in this debate a chance.
There's people I've met in terrible situations around the world. You know, when you're Immigration Minister you go around the world, you get to see some pretty awful things, people in refugee camps who would die for the chance of resettlement in Australia.
Mitchell: Well, some did.
Bowen: And some have. There's others who would really love the chance for resettlement in Australia and they shouldn't be forgotten in this debate either.
Mitchell: You've raised the children. Will children go to Nauru under this scheme?
Bowen: Yes, the proposal is that of course we need to have something which doesn't provide a loophole where people smugglers can just say, 'Yeah, look, put your kids on the boat, that's fine and they'll get to Australia and then we'll sort the rest of you out later'.
Mitchell: Which, again, was John Howard's policy, wasn't it?
Bowen: Yes, but the Panel has also recommended a range of other improvements to say there should be improved monitoring and you should have the ability to bring people to Australia when they're vulnerable; obviously children are right at the top of that list. If they need to be processed in Australia they should still not get an advantage in terms of resettlement in Australia, and that is the important point here Neil, that's the underlying premise of this whole report: there should be no advantage for people who arrive in Australia by boat.
Mitchell: How do you work out, when somebody goes to Nauru and you say that they won't be into the country any quicker than they would have been if they went through the normal process which could be years, how do you work out how long they're going to be there?
Bowen: Yes, well, that will be a complexity which we'll need to be working through. Now there's various times that people wait. So in Indonesia you can wait, say 18 months or two years for resettlement once you've been referred through the UNHCR. People in other parts of the world – Kuala Lumpur and Pakistan – wait a lot, lot longer.
So we'll have a mechanism in order to establish that, but the important message is, to asylum seekers, to people smugglers, is look, we're going to increase the program, we're going to increase the number of people we bring to Australia so you get a better chance. Twenty thousand will make us the second biggest resettlement country in the world; a good thing, we should do it. So you're going to get a better chance of getting a life in Australia, but if you risk your life to get here, actually, don't give your money to the people smuggler because you're not going to get anything out of it, you're not going to get an advantage.
Mitchell: But a year ago in Parliament you said, 'We know Nauru will not work, we know it is an expensive option.' Has anything changed?
Bowen: Well, this recommendation is actually a different one to the old Nauru option run by the Howard Government because of the no advantage principle. But Neil, I'll say this: if you want to run through anything anybody has said –
Mitchell: You've said many times Nauru wouldn't work. Now it will work?
Bowen: But by itself, if it wasn't part of a proper framework. The Panel has recommended a proper framework. And yes, sure, you can point out things that people have said that aren't entirely consistent on it, I think the Australian people care about –
Mitchell: Entirely consistent? They're totally contradictory, Minister.
Bowen: But Neil, when you have a report and when circumstances change, you change your position. What's the alternative?
Mitchell: Why did we need a report? The report is blindingly common sense. Why did we need it?
Bowen: Well, because last June I tried to get the Parliament to pass legislation; it failed. It was apparent to the Prime Minister and I that we weren't going to get a circuit breaker through the Parliament if we just left it to politicians shouting at each other. So yes, sure, people said at the time, 'Oh, why would you need an expert panel?' Well, the expert panel appears to have worked, it appears to have a breakthrough. So it was worth it and the right decision in my view.
Mitchell: So politics ahead of people?
Bowen: No, people ahead of politics if we accept this Panel's recommendations.
Mitchell: Even in October last year?
Bowen: All through, all through this debate I have argued internally and externally that we should be doing everything possible for offshore processing. We offered the deal to the Opposition, we offered the arrangement to the Opposition last year; we weren't able to get their agreement. If it takes an expert panel to get the Parliament to agree, well that's something worth doing.
Mitchell: It wasn't quite what you wanted, but thank you very much for your time.
Bowen: Good on you, Neil.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 16:48 AEST