Expert panel report, offshore processing legislation, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, refugee intake
Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News AM Agenda
Kieran Gilbert: Minister, thanks so much for your time.
Chris Bowen: Pleasure Kieran.
Gilbert: Do you concede, now five years on, it was the wrong approach to end the Pacific Solution?
Bowen: No. The Report makes clear – Angus Houston's report with his colleagues makes clear – that we need a fresh approach. That matters tried in the past may not necessarily work with changed circumstances and they recommend a different approach. They call for compromise; from us, from the Opposition. They recommend against TPVs, for example, by not recommending them. They obviously have the view that they're not worthy of pursuing. They say turn-backs of boats aren't feasible in the foreseeable future. But they do say that we should open a detention centre on Nauru and one on Manus Island; a facility there.
They recommend quite a different model and the model they recommend –
Gilbert: - Yeah okay. Sorry to interrupt; the point is the whole report vindicates the argument that there are pull-factors and significant pull-factors that need to be considered. Labor, when it came to office, didn't seem to think that pull-factors were an issue. You kept talking about push-factors, you scrapped the Pacific Solution and left nothing in its place; and we've seen the tragic circumstances since –
Bowen: - Well, Kieran, I've said consistently that there's always a range of factors. Push factors, which the report recognises; and I've always said that –
Gilbert: - But the government hasn't; your predecessor did not –
Bowen: As Minister for Immigration, Kieran, on behalf of the government, I have made the point repeatedly, that you can have in place proper, regional frameworks which can provide and will provide a disincentive to boat travel. This isn't a conversion in the last 24 hours, we've had this discussion several times.
There were people who said, Kieran, that we'd never be able to convince the Labor Party of the need for offshore processing. On the contrary, although we had some robust discussions along the way, the difficulty was not convincing the Labor Party of the need for offshore processing, the difficulty was convincing the Liberal Party to vote for it.
Gilbert: Was the government wrong to end the Pacific Solution the way it did? We've had 20 000 arrivals; over 600 people drowning en-route here.
Bowen: As I say Kieran, the Report makes clear that you need a new model; a model different to the old Pacific Solution – to use the common phrase; a model that recognises that as an underlying principle, people should not get an advantage, in terms of resettlement into Australia if they arrive by boat.
That was the underlying principle of the Malaysia Agreement, of course, to say, 'look if you come by boat, you'll be processed alongside all the other 100,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia'.
The Report suggests different ways of achieving that same objective, which we welcome.
Gilbert: Three-hundred and thirty-eight people are believed to have drowned en-route to Australia since you argued in the Cabinet that the government should compromise with the Coalition and allow Nauru and Manus to be re-established.
Bowen: And people have died since we offered the arrangements to the Coalition last year that we could implement both policies.
Gilbert: But you wanted this in October last year. It's taken nearly 12 months.
Bowen: - And we offered an arrangement to the Opposition last year which would recognise a big chunk of your policies, in an effort to get it sorted out. Now, as I say Kieran, the time for going through all of that, for yelling at each other, for making political points, in my view, has passed. The Panel has given the opportunity to draw a fresh line –
Gilbert: – It's taken that long for your own government to listen to the Minister; to listen to you and say, 'we've got to compromise, we've got to move on from this'.
Bowen: I'm frustrated that it's taken so long to get a proper regional framework in place, a regional solution in place, given that we negotiated this with Malaysia long after 12 months but there's been setbacks with the High Court, the Opposition – there's been political argy-bargy.
The Report has called for both sides to compromise. It's called for us to compromise and the Opposition to compromise. They don't recommend –
Gilbert: – you've compromised more though haven't you? Surely?
Bowen: Yes –
Gilbert: Actually, this is largely Coalition policy. In fact, it's harsher than the Howard Government's. Would you concede that it's harsher than the Howard Government's Pacific Solution?
Bowen: There are elements of this policy which do indicate a very tough approach, yes. Because the Panel recommends that it's necessary to save lives and to bring a fairer approach to it. There are people in this debate who get forgotten, Kieran. This is a point that I've made consistently. As I travel around the world as Immigration Minister looking at the plight of refugees in very difficult circumstances, there's people who I've met who would never have the chance of a boat journey to Australia; they wouldn't have been able to afford a people smuggler.
Then you've got the issue of lives at sea. I've sat in living-rooms with people who've lost relatives on boats that have gone down; it's not a pleasant experience. No Australian would want to see that happen again.
Gilbert: But people could be left on Nauru longer under this plan than they did under the Howard Government?
Bowen: Yes, the entire model to this is that people should not be advantaged. So the government will develop a process for determining when people would have been – had a chance of resettlement in Australia if they had waited in the normal way for resettlement. Now, there'll be some – that'll be a tough decision in some instances.
The Panel also recommend some important oversight, some involvement of non-government organisations in the monitoring of the implementation in Nauru and the ability to bring people who are suffering particular vulnerabilities to Australia without advantaging them in terms of resettlement, but letting them be processed in Australia.
So it's a well-considered, well-drafted document, which is drawn on not only the experience of Angus Houston, but Michael L'Estrange, a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and, you know, adviser to people of the other side –
Gilbert: Labor –
Bowen: - and Paris Aristotle, who has done, arguably, more for refugees in this country in terms of the services delivered, than any other Australian. He has brought his expertise to this as well.
Gilbert: They're all eminent Australians, no doubt about it, the three of them on the Panel, but do you think that many in your party have had a 'road to Damascus' conversion on this, that just a few years ago we spoke to Labor day in, day out, who said it was inhumane to put people on Nauru, to leave them there indefinitely, and now the Labor Party is going to introduce a policy which will see people there for longer than they were under the Howard Government?
Bowen: Of course this has been difficult for many in the Labor Party, Kieran, we're a party which is dedicated to improving people's lives, we're a party which takes very seriously our responsibilities in the world. Of course we've grappled with this issue over many years, of course we have, and yes, I've had to recommend to the Cabinet, to the Caucus, to the National Conference, some very difficult decisions – decisions that I haven't taken lightly or come to particularly easily.
But when you have the responsibility of having a fairer system that gives people around the world a chance of resettlement in Australia and saves lives, yes, you have to make difficult decisions, been difficult for the Labor Party, yes. But the Labor Party reached the view some time ago that we need offshore processing, carried overwhelmingly at our National Conference when we moved it last December.
Now the challenge is for all political parties to put aside policies which have been important to them for a long time, to work together to see this implemented.
Gilbert: The Panel found the Coalition and other critics were right on the need for more protections in the Malaysia deal. How will you go about rectifying that and how soon will we see progress on it?
Bowen: Well the Panel, can I say, I welcome the fact the Panel found the Malaysia agreement an important one, that our work with Malaysia was vital, said it should not be discarded, should not be walked away from, was absolutely part of the same principle about 'no-advantage'. Now I'm more than happy to take on-board the Panel's recommendation for us to better codify some of the things we had already been working on of course with Malaysia and the UNHCR.
Gilbert: Tony Abbott this morning says you can't do it, he doesn't believe you'll do it.
Bowen: Yes, well he can be negative if that's what he chooses to do.
Gilbert: Will you be able to do it and how soon?
Bowen: Well Kieran, there's a number of things that we can do. Now let me be very clear about what the Panel says here. The Panel says you can – you should work to better codify some of the protections that you've already worked on, that's fine. They've also said over time you should work with Malaysia to improve the arrangement, that's not necessarily something that they say should happen immediately but they say you should work with them and the UNHCR over time, of course we would do that.
Our first priority Kieran is getting this legislation through. I would not designate Malaysia as an offshore processing place in the first instance, we would do that work. I would designate Nauru and PNG once we have agreement from those countries, that would be the first step.
Gilbert: But they've also said, this Panel, that turning back the boats possible in the future?
Bowen: No, let's be very clear about what they've said here Kieran –
Gilbert: They've said it's possible.
Bowen: They have said you would need agreement, a very clear, transparent agreement; and operational guidelines with the country that the vessels are flagged with, Indonesia, and the country of disembarkation, Indonesia. Now it's very different to turning a boat around on the high seas and pointing it off on its own. They basically say you would need a fully-fledged agreement where you take people to that country, a bit like the Malaysia agreement where we would take them by plane, except take them by boat. They say you would need that.
Now the Liberal Party has said, 'We don't care what Indonesia says, we're just going to go up there and tell them we're going to do it'. Now the Panel is very strongly against that point of view.
So Mr Morrison and Mr Abbott clarify how they still have the view that they would do it regardless of what Indonesia says, which is what they've been saying up until now, or are they going to try and strike this agreement with Indonesia? The Indonesian Government has made pretty clear what they think about that and how workable and achievable that would be.
Gilbert: Minister, thanks for your time.
Bowen: Thank you Kieran.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Wednesday, 15 August 2012 at 11:13 AEST