Expert panel report, offshore processing legislation, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, humanitarian program
Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC News 24
Lyndal Curtis: Chris Bowen, welcome to ABC News 24.
Chris Bowen: Thanks, Lyndal.
Curtis: You've just endured the parliamentary equivalent of an 'I told you so' from the Coalition for quite a few hours. Do you have to take that on the chin because nearly four years ago your side of politics ended offshore processing and now you're restarting it?
Bowen: Well, we've argued for offshore processing now for quite a while and we couldn't get it through the Parliament. The irony here is that I convinced the Labor Party of the need for offshore processing and it's taken me a lot longer to convince the Liberal Party that we needed a Bill for offshore processing.
You know, we could have loaded the Parliament with speakers pointing out that the Panel did not recommend temporary protection visas, for example, or found that turning back the boats was not feasible. We could have done all that. But we didn't because we actually just are more focused on getting on with the job.
Curtis: You are, though, back now to offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, what John Howard did. One thing that is different is potentially those people who go to those places for offshore processing will spend longer there because of the principle of no advantage. Are there actually any existing benchmarks to measure the equivalents of time that people would wait for resettlement in countries like Indonesia or Malaysia, to measure that with how long they'll have to wait in Nauru or Manus Island?
Bowen: Well, we will measure that and that's how we'll develop that process. We'll be looking at resettlement from, say, places like Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur and Pakistan. The key here is from the time that somebody's mandated as a refugee to the time that the UNHCR then refers them for resettlement to Australia or the United States or Canada, for example, resettlement countries; how long that process takes. It varies. It's not like there's a rule book as to this. It varies and relates to the circumstances of the case, the priorities of the case, for example.
Curtis: And it would vary for quite long periods of time. Do you take an average of that time, do those figures on how long it takes actually currently exist?
Bowen: Well, there's no published benchmarks, if you like. But there is obviously evidence which we can draw on from our own department and from consultations with places like the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration, and all our offices and posts around the world who do this every day.
I'm not suggesting this is an easy concept, Lyndal; it's not. There is some complexity and some issues to work through here. But the principle is a very sound one. Anybody who argues against this principle is, in effect, arguing that if you can afford a people smuggler, you should be advantaged over people who are waiting for resettlement elsewhere in the world.
Curtis: While the Defence Force is likely to go for reconnaissance on Nauru and Manus Island on Friday, the deals with those countries are not yet struck, are they? When are you aiming to have those done by?
Bowen: Obviously, we're in discussions with them. I'm not going to provide a running commentary, with respect, through the ABC or any other media outlet. I'll provide updates publicly when I'm in a position to. We are in discussions with those countries. Of course, we had an agreement with Papua New Guinea that I'd already signed before the High Court ruled offshore processing to be, in effect, illegal. That work had already been done so we need to go back and refresh and renew that work.
And of course, there'll be some discussions around all the details with Nauru. That has started, Prime Minister to President. There'll be further discussions. I'm not going to provide a running commentary on it, but I will provide updates and I'm obviously keen to get it done. But I'm not going to provide arbitrary timelines as well.
Curtis: Although the Prime Minister said yesterday that processing could begin in a month's time.
Bowen: Well, the Prime Minister provided, if you like, a guide as to the sorts of things that might be possible. But there'll be further updates that are provided. There's a degree of complexity here, logistically in terms of the engineering works and the construction work, and negotiation wise.
Today was an important step in passing this legislation through the Parliament. I would have liked to have seen it passed last year, of course. But we're here now. It's an important step, but it's one step.
Curtis: You also have to talk to Malaysia on the expert panel's recommendations for strengthening protections. You've dealt with Malaysia before on this agreement. Do you think they're likely to agree to further protections and if they do, does it mean you didn't push for strong enough protections the first time round?
Bowen: No, I don't accept that premise. The Panel made some recommendations about further codifying some things we actually already had spoken to Malaysia about and worked with them on in relation to unaccompanied minors and vulnerable adults, for example, and our own pre-transfer guidelines; nothing to do with the Malaysian Government, how we actually assess people before we transfer them. And we will do that work.
Malaysia's reputation has been very unfairly and quite irresponsibly traduced by some in the Parliament in this area. They are a very, very good partner of Australia's in tackling people smugglers. They are dealing with these issues. They have very significantly made changes to the way they deal with matters of illegal immigration and asylum, even over the last 12 months. And we've worked with them on that, and there is a spirit of goodwill there and a spirit of commitment to ensuring that this agreement is eventually implemented.
Curtis: And finally, many of the 22 recommendations don't require legislation to be implemented. How quickly will you be moving to implement those?
Bowen: We're already at work, of course, on implementing them, whether it's the increase in the refugee program to 20 000; again, there's a bit of detail to be worked through there in terms of cost, in terms of how many of them might come from the private sponsorship program that we've already announced, what the focus around the world would be, etcetera. Changes to the family reunion program; we're already at work on them. I will be providing public updates and you can obviously work on the basis that progress is being made on implementing all of them.
Curtis: Chris Bowen, thank you very much for your time.
Bowen: Thank you, Lyndal.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 10:19 AEST