Detention budget, offshore processing, increase to humanitarian intake, Greens policy, boat arrivals, foreign investment, people smuggling, Malaysia arrangement
Tuesday, 28 August 2012
Interview with John Laws, 2SM Mornings
John Laws: Good morning, Chris Bowen, and welcome to the program.
Chris Bowen: Good to be back with you, John.
Laws: Good to be able to talk to you. We get some funny ones, don't we?
Bowen: Oh, well, you know, everybody's entitled to their point of view and shows like yours are an important opportunity for people to put their views forward.
Laws: Okay, tell me why is the budget for asylum seekers expected to blow out by almost $650 million? My God, it's a lot of money.
Bowen: Well, it is, John, and we've always said that detention and processing people are expensive. That's why I've been trying to get a different system in place to get people processed offshore in different countries at the same time as giving more people a chance of a better life in Australia, and that's exactly the policy that we're now implementing.
Laws: Okay, but why haven't you been able to do it sooner? That's the question.
Bowen: Well, because we couldn't get support through the Parliament, John.
Laws: In other words, Tony Abbott wouldn't agree?
Bowen: Correct, and the Greens party, as you know, in the Senate. This is actually not about the hung Parliament. The hung Parliament has its issues, but this is about the Senate. Almost every government has to negotiate things through the Senate, sometimes with great difficulty, particularly when opposition parties are, you know, trying to block things. And in this case, the Opposition and the Greens combined to block our policy.
But we've now seen a breakthrough, which is good. That's why we put the expert panel in place and we've been able to get that legislation through, and we're working hard to get a processing facility up on Nauru in particular and also Manus Island in Papua New Guinea as quickly as we can.
Laws: Okay. The Greens are virtually irrelevant, though, aren't they now?
Bowen: Well —
Laws: And they always should have been, I might say.
Bowen: Well, I have a lot of problems with the Greens party, as you know, John.
Laws: I do.
Bowen: Their policy is often naïve and unworkable, particularly in relation to immigration, and I'm very critical of them for that. But where they can change policies, they can combine with the Liberal Party in the Senate to block government policy and that's what they did all through last year until we saw this breakthrough last month.
Laws: Yeah, it all gets a bit exciting when they start talking about death duties and things, too. They've got some very weird ideas.
Bowen: Well, I also have pretty different views to them on economic policy. There are some things we agree with the Greens on, but there are plenty of things we disagree about.
Laws: Okay, well, I'd find more to disagree about if you could, because the sooner they're out of our lives the better.
Bowen: Well, again, John, we work with the Parliament we've got and we get through the legislation as we can, and I'm pleased that we were able to pass that legislation last month.
Laws: You don't want to agree with me, do you?
Bowen: Well, John, as I say, I'm very critical of the Greens on many things, immigration policy and economic policy included.
Laws: Okay, but don't you think the sooner they're out of our way the better?
Bowen: Well, I think the sooner we have a Labor Government with a clear majority in the House of Representatives and obviously we'd be supporting our Senate candidates as well, so yes, I would agree with that.
Laws: What an excellent political answer. [laughs] Seventeen boats carrying more than 1000 people have arrived since Labor reinstated offshore processing. Is it fair to say the policies are not working?
Bowen: Not yet, John, not yet. You always find it takes time for policies to work. For example, after the Howard Government introduced Nauru, they had 1500 people arrive, as I recall, in the six weeks afterwards.
Laws: Yeah, why does John Howard's name keep getting mentioned all the time?
Bowen: Well, he's been very active in the last few days, hasn't he, calling for WorkChoices to come back and calling for more Chinese investment in Australia.
Laws: Do you see anything wrong with Chinese investment in Australia?
Bowen: I think foreign investment has been very important to Australia's development, and regardless of where it's from — whether it's from America or China — we would have a lot of trouble creating the economic growth that we need without foreign investment. And we've got to remember, Australian companies invest overseas as well; it's not just all a one-way street. So you do need to have rules in place to ensure the national interest is protected, but also we've all got a job as politicians to point out the benefits of foreign investment: it creates jobs, creates more money in the Australian economy.
Laws: Okay, but you would agree with me that at least to date offshore processing is not working?
Bowen: No, what I'd say is this, John: it takes time to work. There's a couple of things. Firstly —
Laws: So it takes time to work. It's not working now.
Bowen: It will become more effective when we actually have planes going to Nauru and PNG.
Laws: Okay, but let's get back, it's not working now.
Bowen: Well, it takes time to work, John, and let's go through why it takes time to work.
Laws: Yeah, but Chris, hang on. Why don't you just say it's not working now?
Bowen: If you'd just let me run through a few points and then we can come to your point.
Firstly, it takes time for the message to get out there. We'll have Internet ads and posters and everything to let people know. Some people would not have got that message yet. Other people would have got the message, but they'll say, ‘Well, I've already paid my money to the people smugglers so I've got nothing to lose.' Other people, the people smugglers will be lying to and we know this happens very regularly; people smugglers just make stuff up about what happens in Australia and say, ‘Look, don't believe that, you won't be sent to Nauru.'
And others will be waiting to see the planes go off to Nauru and PNG, to see whether we're actually serious about this, just as when we announced Malaysia we had a drop in the number of people arriving but we still had some people arriving because they were waiting to see whether we were serious. And all the advice to me was as soon as you get a plane away to Malaysia, for example, then the boats will slow very dramatically. So it does take time to work.
Yes, you're right, it's not having an effect yet, but it does take time to work. And there will always be people a) who are desperate to get here, and b) there will be people smugglers desperate to make money out of them and to lie to them and to encourage them to try it on.
Laws: Okay. Look, I got an email yesterday from a bloke who I thought made a pretty reasonable point. I'll read it to you — it's from a fellow called Greg Clarke — ‘If asylum seekers are not illegal, as you stated in relation to a previous emailer, why then are the captain and crew when identified as such penalised?' You would agree with me that asylum seekers are not illegal, are they?
Bowen: Yes, I do agree with that, John. It's a valid point and it really goes to what we say about asylum seekers. The asylum seekers are doing often what you or I or many other people would do in the same circumstances, which is try and get a better life if you've got the money for it, try and get a better life, try and flee the situation you're in.
So that's why I say, look, it's not about demonising asylum seekers; it is about having a fairer system and not forgetting all the people in camps in Africa who would never be able to afford the money for a people smuggler and giving them a fair chance, and getting a more orderly system and getting a system where people don't risk their lives to get here.
Against that, I have no sympathy at all for the people smugglers because they're just trying to make money out of the situation. So it is not illegal to claim asylum in Australia, that is right. It is illegal to be a people smuggler and to try and profit out of other people's misery, and that's the distinction that your listener very correctly goes to and it really goes to, well, who's doing the wrong thing here.
Laws: Okay, but he goes on to say the refugees need a captain and crew for the voyage to be successful or there would be many more lives lost at sea than there are at present. How can a person be sent to jail for assisting refugees in a legal activity? Not a bad question.
Bowen: Well I understand where he is coming from, but these are not Oscar Schindler's, you know, trying to help people out of the goodness of their heart —
Laws: No, I know that.
Bowen: These are people sitting in nightclubs in Indonesia who often have very serious links to organised crime, who are benefitting from other people's misery, and who don't care John: they'll add — they'll load women and children onto boats that they know have a high risk of sinking, they have no compunction in letting people risk their lives and profiting out of it.
And there's a very big difference between a people smuggler and an asylum seeker, and your listener is correct to go to that distinction, but it is an important difference.
Laws: Yeah, I accept that. So what happens if you do find a bloke who is a people smuggler, a captain of one of these vessels? You put him in jail, don't you?
Bowen: Well look, in fairness John, again, there's a distinction here: you've got people smugglers who are the ‘Mr Bigs', the kingpins —
Bowen: - and they hardly ever get on a boat themselves, they wouldn't risk their lives. Then you've got the others — the captains and the young crew. Now what we've got is when we have a crew member who can clearly be identified as a minor, under 18, we send them back to Indonesia because, you know, they're young, poor, and they're not the guys who are the villains here frankly, it's the ‘Mr Bigs' who are the villains.
Where we have an adult who's on the crew we deal with them separately, and there's some recommendations in the Houston Panel about how we should deal with them which we're currently working through, and obviously we work with Indonesia on that.
So there is a distinction, there's the ‘Mr Bigs', and then you've got the people, who are often fishermen, who'd really, sometimes know what they're doing and other times might be caught up in something they don't realise the full implications of. So we deal with those issues separately.
Laws: Okay and people keep asking me what you do with the boats. The last I heard is you tow them out to sea and set them on fire. Is that right?
Bowen: Correct, correct, the Navy sets them on fire and they sink.
Laws: Okay, so that — other people have asked me why aren't the boats towed back to Indonesia, and the answer to me is pretty obvious, because it'd be used again for the same purpose.
Bowen: That's right, that's right, and there are some who say, and this is Liberal Party policy, that they should be towed back with the people on them. Now that doesn't work John, it just simply doesn't work, because when — once the Australian Navy is there, the people smugglers — or the crew, would be instructed to sink the boats and then they have to get on the Navy boat, then it's a rescue at sea and they're obliged to bring them to Australia under international law. So that's a pretty naïve approach as well.
Laws: Yeah, finally, we've heard some dreadful reports of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing war-torn areas like Syria. Do you think Australia is overemphasising our problem with asylum seekers?
Bowen: Well it is true that we get, always, about two per cent of the world's asylum claims John, that's a fact. So there are other countries that get a lot more and, in fact, as an Italian MP said to me a little while ago, ‘We get as many in a week as you get in a year' —
Laws: That's probably true.
Bowen: That is true, that is true, but that doesn't mean it isn't an issue that we need to worry about: the people who are risking their lives at sea. And also, Australia is a generous country, we don't mind giving people a chance of a better life in Australia, but we want a fair system and as I say, that means the people who are in Syria or in Jordan or in Africa who couldn't afford a people smuggler if they dreamed of it — you know, wouldn't be able to imagine having $200, let alone $20 000 — they deserve to be remembered in this discussion, this debate as well.
Laws: Okay, our humanitarian intake's going to increase from 13 000 to 20 000 this year. Where are those — we haven't got a lot of time — but where are those extra refugees going to come from Chris?
Bowen: Well they'll come from a range of places, not only Afghanistan, but also there's been, for example, a million people flee Iraq over the last ten years, mainly Christian minorities, they'll be in the intake. Some of the Burmese people who fled that pretty ordinary regime in Burma. Then you've got people, around the world, in difficult situations and what we do is we work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and we identify the priority cases.
And, you know, there have been many people who've come to Australia as refugees who've made a wonderful contribution —
Laws: Sure, a lot.
Bowen: - like Frank Lowy for example, and others —
Laws: Oh, plenty, plenty.
Bowen: - who go on to, really, they recognise that they've been given a one-in-a-million chance of a better life in Australia and they want to give something back.
Laws: Okay, and finally, and again sadly, very quickly, do we put any limit on the number of Muslims we allow to come to Australia?
Bowen: Well the number of Muslims — people of Islamic religion — in Australia is low, it's under two per cent of the population. We have a non-discriminatory policy, so we work out who needs to come to Australia, either for humanitarian purposes or who can make the best benefit to Australia under our skilled program.
So we don't actually look at people's religion, but the number of people of Islamic faith who come to Australia is actually a small proportion. Most people who actually come to Australia are either from the United Kingdom, China or India under our migration program.
Laws: Okay, Chris Bowen, thank you for your time, you're always very generous with it —
Bowen: I do my best John, it's always nice to talk to you.
Laws: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you very much indeed.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 28 August 2012 at 13:35 AEST