Expert panel report, offshore processing legislation, boat arrivals, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, humanitarian intake
Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Interview with David Speers, Sky News Agenda
David Speers: Chris Bowen, thanks for your time.
CHRIS Bowen: Pleasure.
Speers: The legislation has now passed. The big question: is this new solution going to work?
Bowen: Well, everything takes time. Obviously, we need to make every step possible to reduce and eliminate this trade. Now, what I do know is that people smugglers don't give up easily. They will be out there, they will be telling lies, they'll be lulling people into a false sense of security, they'll be encouraging, still, people to risk their lives.
And we'll be taking all the necessary steps. Of course, we'll be running a communications campaign in the region making sure that asylum seekers know about the changed arrangements. That obviously has its challenges in circumstances around the region -
Speers: With posters and radio advertisements?
Bowen: Yes, Internet, all sorts of activities that both my department and other agencies will be undertaking. But of course, as I say, this will take time.
Speers: How much time - you're the Minister - how much time would you give it, to make a judgement?
Bowen: Well, it's not a matter of giving it time to make a judgement, it's about implementing all the recommendations methodically, step by step.
Speers: Surely you've got to make a call as to whether this worked or not? I mean, six months down the track if boats are still coming, can you then say this hasn't worked?
Bowen: Well, I'm just focused on getting it done, David, and not just Nauru and PNG, but all the recommendations. It is a package -
Speers: But it will work? You're confident of that?
Bowen: I'm confident it is going to make a difference and, as I say, I'm not going to say, for example, that people smugglers are just going to pack up and go home tomorrow. We have seen in the past announcement effects. When we announced Malaysia it clearly had an impact, people said, 'Well I'm not going to pay my money to a people smuggler if I'm just going to be taken back to Malaysia.' So you do see some impacts, but other people still try it on and people smugglers certainly will tell people anything to encourage them to get on that boat.
Speers: So it will slow the boats; you're just not sure if it will stop them entirely?
Bowen: Well, let's give it a go, David, and let's give it a chance. The main thing is I think all Australians are looking to see policies implemented which make a big difference here and that's what we're doing.
Speers: Only three weeks ago you described Nauru as just another Christmas Island that would cost $2 billion to set up and would not deter asylum seekers. What gives you the confidence that it might work now?
Bowen: Well, let me say a couple of things. Firstly, this is about getting things done, and in the spirit, yes, it is a compromise. Yes, we have changed our position in order to get something done; yes, we make no bones about that.
Speers: But why bother doing that unless you've had in your own mind a change of view?
Bowen: Well, secondly, may I make the point, that the expert panel - bi-partisan, non-political panel - made the point that you have to have the 'no advantage' test, quite different to the way some of these things have worked in the past where you are regarded as a refugee and then brought to Australia. You've got to be able -
Speers: So that's the key?
Bowen: That is a big part of this package and a big difference as to, say, how Nauru and Papua New Guinea worked in the past.
And thirdly, these are just part of a package, part of a suite of regional arrangements. Very important too is increasing our refugee intake so that people can see another way of getting to Australia.
Speers: So if this is a big part of the package, this 'no advantage' test, tell me, how it is going to work? Could asylum seekers be processed, found to be refugees and then kept on Nauru or Manus Island indefinitely?
Bowen: Well, what we'll do is we'll assess - and there's no exact science - but we will assess as to how long that person would likely have waited if they were waiting in, say, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur to be transferred to Australia under the normal UNHCR processes.
Speers: That can be five or 10 years.
Bowen: It can be a long time. Now, it varies, I mean, we do have less times than that as well. And also, increasing our refugee program will make a difference there as well; it means that people will be waiting less time offshore in other places before being resettled to Australia, and there's a range of circumstances, of course. Take the 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia, for example: people say, 'Well, you can wait there for years.' Many of them aren't seeking resettlement. You know, the UNHCR regards local integration as the best outcome so that's not -
Speers: A lot of these people will want to come to Australia, it's where they are trying to get.
Bowen: Of course.
Speers: Nauru wants more specifics around this time issue. So what are you going to say to them?
Bowen: Well, I'm not going to provide a running commentary on negotiations.
Speers: But you can't walk in and say no number at all. I mean, you've got to have some timeframe, haven't you, whether it's five years, 10 years or less?
Bowen: Well, as I say, David, we're in discussions with Nauru. I'm not going to do that, with all due respect, through your program.
Speers: Will you give them a timeline?
Bowen: We're going to talk to them about the arrangements and we've already begun that -
Speers: But they want some certainty around this. Will you tell them a time limit?
Bowen: I'm going to talk to them, David, with respect, and we're going to run through all the key parameters with them and then I'll make public statements after that, not during that.
Speers: The UNHCR also want some details on this as well. Why have you not yet spoken to the UNHCR?
Bowen: Well, my department has been in contact with the UNHCR. I'm in regular contact with Rick Towle, the Australian representative, also with representatives in Geneva -
Speers: Have you spoken to him this week?
Bowen: Not personally, but the department, they were briefed by the Panel and the department has been in contact with the UNHCR.
Speers: But you're asking the UNHCR to, well, get involved with this whole thing?
Bowen: Well, actually David, the UNHCR will make its own decisions; we will implement this policy. We work with the UNHCR very closely around the world. We're third largest, and hopefully about to become the second largest resettlement country in the world, we're one of the largest donors to the UNHCR -
Speers: So what will they do in Nauru and Manus Island?
Bowen: Oh look, I'm not envisaging them being involved in the processing on Nauru or Manus Island -
Speers: Okay, they won't supervise the process?
Bowen: No, they haven't been in the past and I don't envisage that changing. Of course we talk to them. They will be very interested in this; they'll want to provide us with feedback on it, of course. But this will be an operation which doesn't require UNHCR involvement in terms of the processing of people. We would talk to them about how it's working. Of course they will be involved in the processing of the increase in the intake to 20 000, as we work with them very closely around the world on a day-to-day basis today.
Speers: However long the timeframe is, will those found to be refugees be accepted into Australia eventually?
Bowen: Well, the principle is very important: no advantage. So yes, if you're a refugee you would be taken to Australia at the time you would have been if you didn't make that boat journey. We're not about -
Speers: So you'll just have to wait it out?
Bowen: We're not about harsh and punitive measures here. We're about saying that there's no advantage. And what's the alternative? To say, 'Yes, sure you should be advantaged if you can afford a people smuggler, advantaged over the people in Africa and the Middle East.'
I understand some people will have a problem with this but you really have to look at the fairness test and common sense test, and the fairness test is there's a lot of people out of sight, out of mind waiting for resettlement in Australia who wouldn't dream of having the money for a people smuggler.
Speers: And if you're not found to be a refugee, what happens then?
Bowen: What we would do then is talk to you about your options, including return; just as we do to people in Australia.
Speers: They could be sent back, forcibly, to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan?
Bowen: If you're not a refugee, we talk to you about return: there's voluntary return -
Speers: They're not going to want voluntary return, are they, so what do you do?
Bowen: Well, we do actually have some voluntary returns. We do have people returning voluntarily.
Speers: Not many.
Bowen: We actually do have reasonable numbers actually returning voluntarily.
Speers: Most still want to stay.
Bowen: Of course.
Speers: So what do you do? You force them back?
Bowen: We have a range of options available to us, which we would talk to both Nauru and PNG about, and to the International Organisation for Migration about, but -
Speers: Including forcible returns?
Bowen: Well, forcible return is always one of the things that we do. We do them from Australia, when necessary. We, obviously, prefer voluntary return but we do have forcible returns. Not only for boat arrivals of course; we have them for visa overstayers and plane arrivals. It's a pretty fundamental part of the immigration system that if you're not entitled to stay, then the government has to be able to implement return.
Speers: Final question, Minister: the cost of this, is it going to be make the Budget bottom line better or worse off? I know that there are swings and roundabouts here.
Bowen: Well, you're right. In terms of very large arrival numbers, that is a very significant impact on the Budget; and when you have proper offshore processing and proper arrangements and less arrivals then you can have a positive impact over and above what you would call the business as usual model that we have had.
Yes, a processing centre on Manus Island and Nauru is expensive; of course it is. But you still have very significant costs if you don't do that and you have much higher arrival rates.
Speers: So it'll be a break even?
Bowen: We'll provide all our updates at MYEFO and I'll provide further costing information as and when it becomes available.
Speers: Chris Bowen, thank you.
Bowen: Thank you, David.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 10:19 AEST