Designating Nauru as a regional processing country, transfers to Nauru, asylum seeker boats, the Greens
Monday, 10 September 2012
Press Conference, Canberra
Chris Bowen: Well, good morning, everybody. I wanted to give you an update on progress in implementing regional processing.
As you know, the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding on Saturday to allow regional processing to occur on Manus Island. The next step will be for Australian Defence Force personnel to deploy. This will consist initially of 30 Australian Defence Force personnel and two Department of Immigration staff who will be deployed on a C-130 aircraft. I envisage this happening in the coming days.
Secondly, I'd like to deal with Nauru. This morning – early this morning – I signed the instrument designating Nauru as a country for regional processing. Copies of the designation and my statement of reasons for doing so are being made public as we speak. After Question Time today, I'll be moving a motion in the House of Representatives explicitly authorising that designation. I envisage a similar process occurring in the Senate, and for that to be progressed today and tomorrow.
I'm also announcing today that the government is contracting Transfield Services to provide the services in relation to the initial facility on Nauru. This will include catering, cleaning, security, transport and facilities. I am also announcing that IHMS, which provides our medical support across our existing detention network, is also being contracted to provide medical support on Nauru. This will also, of course, include mental health provision.
I'm also pleased to announce that the government is contracting the Salvation Army for the provision of support services to people accommodated on Nauru. This will include case management, community liaison programs and activities. I'd like to thank the Salvation Army for their very positive interaction with myself personally and with the government and my department in relation to making sure that the services they can provide on Nauru will be of assistance to the people accommodated on Nauru and the broader Nauruan community. There are currently, as I understand it, 10 Salvation Army personnel on Nauru and they are moving to deploy more people to Nauru before Friday.
The operation of these three contracts will be jointly overseen by the governments of Australia and Nauru. Obviously, extensive planning has been occurring in relation to the transfer of people from Australia to Nauru. The governments of Australia and Nauru have been working towards a transfer to occur in the latter part of this week.
Of course, after the Parliamentary approval process is completed, I'll then be making further announcements about logistical arrangements. But the very detailed work that has gone into arranging these transfers will continue and the government continues to work towards a transfer in the latter part of this week.
Over to you for questions. Mr Coorey.
Journalist: The Opposition have been critical; they've said John Howard was able to get the first people to Nauru within 19 days and you've taken longer. Can you explain why it has taken longer; what your answer is to that?
Bowen: Well, firstly, in relation to the Opposition, let me remind you: the Opposition to great fanfare made an announcement in February this year that they would have Nauru up and running, with 350 beds within three months. Three months they said it would take to get it running, and yet they criticise me for taking a month to get this up and running. So I think we can take that criticism with a grain of salt.
Secondly, of course we have been engaging in very extensive preparations, both logistically and making sure we are on very strong legal ground, given the litigious basis, the litigious nature of this area. And we've been working very closely with our lawyers to make sure that all the necessary arrangements have been in place.
Mr Morrison asked me to designate Nauru as a regional processing centre, which I'm obliged under the Act to do, taking into account assurances received – before those assurances had been received. So frankly, I don't the criticism from him very seriously.
Journalist: Just on the legal ground, are you sure that there is no other channel by which people could challenge this legally, or put an injunction on proceedings?
Bowen: Well, Chris, as you know and as I say, this is a very litigious area, and we've all been around this track one or twice in this room or elsewhere. I'm sure that lawyers on both sides will be examining their options. Our obligation is to make sure that our case is on as strong ground as possible. That's what we've been doing.
Journalist: Is it your intention to transfer all the people who've arrived since 13 August to Nauru and Manus Island?
Bowen: Well, our position has been made clear in relation to the risk they run. Obviously, there are challenges here, just as there would be challenges for anybody implementing this arrangement, as there were last time when 1500 people arrived in the weeks following the opening of Nauru by the previous government.
Our position has been made clear. Of course I'll provide further operational updates as we go. Our position is clear.
Journalist: Minister, the Salvation Army, last time I looked, were Christian. Has there been any thought given to using Muslim charities?
Bowen: Well let's be clear: the Salvation Army is not here to proselytise, they're there to provide services as they do across Australia on a daily basis to people of all faiths and backgrounds. There is, of course, provision made for appropriate worship at the centre. I have full confidence in the Salvation Army's ability to provide services without fear or favour to religious background.
Journalist: Just getting back to Lyndal's question about who goes of the 1,700 roughly that have arrived since you've announced this policy. It is essentially a lottery, isn't it? Those who are going to be let into Australia and given refugee visas here, and those people going to be sent to Nauru and Manus Island?
Bowen: I wouldn't use that description, David.
Journalist: How do you make that decision? Who makes that decision?
Bowen: David, let's be clear. We have said that people should work on the basis that they'll be transferred to a regional processing country if they arrive after 13 August. I'm not going to provide people smugglers with a loophole or a selling point in relation to that.
Now, of course there are challenges in implementing this policy. But our determination is very clear and you will see that playing out with the transfers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea; Nauru in the first instance. We're working towards the latter part of this week and of course any further operational announcements that need to be made will be made by me.
I daresay I'd lay money on me standing before you again in the course of the coming days and the period after that.
Journalist: Just on the legal status issue, the legal status of the people that you've intercepted or Australia has intercepted, the legal status of people who have been intercepted and then transferred to Christmas Island or wherever else, is there any difference in their legal process?
Bowen: No. Anybody who is an offshore entry person under the descriptor of the Act – that means they were intercepted in an offshore place, an excised place under the Migration Act – regardless of wherever they're accommodated after that, whether it be the mainland or Christmas Island, their legal basis doesn't change.
Journalist: So it won't make any difference from your perspective as to whether people are sent direct from Christmas Island to Nauru, or direct from a ship and taken straight there?
Bowen: Well, I know what you're referring to there, Andrew. You're referring to Mr Morrison's comments this morning. He might like to explain how he's going to transmogrify people from the high seas over to Nauru. We are implementing this policy practically and that involves transfers from Christmas Island to Nauru in this instance.
Journalist: Minister, last time when you had Malaysia and you had a deal in place or you were going to have a deal in place, you did the same sort of thing, retrospectively saying anybody who, you know, seeks to arrive after a certain date will end up running the risk of going to Malaysia. In the end, you did that twice and they ended up staying on Christmas Island and the retrospectivity disappeared. Is that going to happen this time round?
Bowen: Well, it wasn't so much about retrospectivity, with respect, in that case, Alex. We had a High Court case which changed the entire arrangement in relation to Malaysia.
The statements I've made in relation to people running the risk are clear, as will be evidenced by the fact that people who will be transferred to Nauru – and we're working towards later this week – will be people who arrived after 13 August.
Sorry, we'll go up the back first and then over to Mark, yes.
Journalist: Minister, Transfield Services is a global engineering firm. It's not a firm that specialises in processing. What makes you think it can do this job?
Bowen: Well, I have full confidence in Transfield Services. The department has engaged with a number of potential providers. Transfield Services, in the view of my department, has come out as the best possible value for money provider. They have a wide range of experience, not just in engineering. They do a lot of work across the world in service provision; that's why they're called Transfield Services. So I have full confidence in them.
I'll go to Mark.
Journalist: Minister, do you have a dollar figure for the contracts, one; and two, are you any closer to any detail on how the 'no advantage' test will work, in other words, how long people will stay?
Bowen: I do have some figures in relation to the contracts. In relation to the IHMS contract, the indication is $22 million for the first six months. In relation to the Transfield Services contract, that is $24.5 million for the first six months.
The second part of your question went to the permanent structure. Again, there's a lot of work going into the planning and costing of the permanent structure on Nauru. Again, I would provide further updates. I'm providing those as regularly and in as open a way as I can, bearing in mind it is a complex task.
Journalist: Minister, could I just clarify how long will take to get PNG up and running?
Bowen: Well, PNG is obviously – we've got to take this step by step. We had discussions with them about the MoU that had been signed pre-High Court. That then needed to be updated to take into account some of the developments since then. I thank the government of PNG for their cooperation in doing that. That took a little longer than it did with Nauru. Then, of course, there are a range of factors I need to be satisfied about in terms of the Act before I designate. Obviously, we're working our way through that.
We don't let that stand in the way of the beginning of work; we didn't in Nauru and we're not on PNG. That work will commence. Obviously, there is a range of logistical issues that need to be worked through in terms of how long it will take to have the physical structure up and running on PNG. I take the advice of the Defence Force in relation to that.
And then there's the matter of designation. Now, we're working away on the designation. Again, as soon as I'm satisfied – not a day before, not a day after – I would designate PNG as a regional processing country, the same way I did earlier this morning in relation to Nauru.
Journalist: Minister Bowen, there's some suggestion that an asylum seeker boat intercepted overnight by Indonesian authorities transferred those on board to Christmas Island. Can you confirm that?
Bowen: Look, there was a rescue conducted under difficult circumstances last night. I would leave the Border Protection Command and Minister Clare to provide any further updates on that.
Journalist: But can you confirm that Indonesian authorities –
Bowen: No, I'll leave that update for later. Thank you.
Journalist: Obviously, Minister Bowen, these places are going to be full pretty quickly and people are not going to be moving through fast with the 'no advantage' test. What happens then? Secondly, are you getting any indication of prospective slowing of boats and also are you vigorously prosecuting the case for Malaysia?
Bowen: We're vigorously prosecuting all of the 22 recommendations, including the recommendation that the Malaysia agreement should continue to be built upon and acted upon.
In relation to intelligence, obviously I don't comment on intelligence, but I do continue to have the view based on advice that this will take some time to have an effect. But once you see the policy being implemented – in the first instance, the transfers to Nauru, the implementation of the increase to 20 000 – you will see some impact. But I'm not going to provide a running commentary on the intelligence the government receives.
Journalist: What happens when they're full, which will be quickly?
Bowen: Well, as I said at the outset, Michelle, there are some challenges here, but we are implementing not just one or two recommendations, 22 recommendations of the Expert Panel. You need to let them all be implemented. We haven't implemented the policy yet; we're in the process of doing that. There hasn't been a transfer to Nauru. I see lots of commentary to say, 'Look, none of this is working yet.' Well, the policy is in the process of being implemented, and I don't think –with due respect to the commentariat – it's helpful to rush to judgement on what is a complex policy area.
Journalist: Where are you [inaudible] from?
Bowen: Lyndal, they're ongoing. Next question? Phil hasn't had a go yet.
Journalist: I know a couple of others have asked, but I don't think you've answered the question so I'll ask it again. Who exactly decides of the people who arrived after, I think it was August 13, who goes to Nauru? Is that you, is it the head of the immigration department, is it a full session of the sub-committee in Cabinet –
Bowen: No –
Journalist: Who actually decides?
Bowen: It's certainly an immigration decision, certainly an immigration decision. These are not matters made by wider – decisions made by the wider-government, it's an immigration decision. The Act is clear that Department of Immigration officials are obliged to take offshore any person who arrives by boat, unless there is an instruction to the contrary on public interest grounds, exercised by me as Minister, or by an official delegated by me.
Phillip. You've had lots of goes Alex. Phillip.
Journalist: You said a week or so ago you plan to have 500 people on Nauru by the end of this month. Is that still on the table?
Bowen: That's still our target. Andrew.
Journalist: In regards to Malaysia, are you pushing for Malaysia to make it a legally-binding document –
Bowen: Oh look, I'm not –
Journalist: - have you been to Kuala Lumpur in the last two or three weeks – we only discovered last recently that you'd been there plenty of times last time; and how else are you looking to progress this deal?
Bowen: No, I have not been to Kuala Lumpur in the last few weeks. Yes, I did go to Kuala Lumpur several times to negotiate the original agreement with Malaysia; I have not been in the last few weeks but we have been in contact with our Malaysia counterparts at various levels. As publicly commented, the two Prime Ministers have spoken, I've been in contact with my ministerial counterpart, and there has been departmental-level contact.
I'm not going to provide a running commentary on what we're talking to Malaysia about, other than to remind you that the Expert Panel made it clear that they regarded this as a vital agreement for the people smugglers business model to be broken and they recommended, to the whole Parliament, that this be implemented.
And I would also point out, perhaps some would say gratuitously, that the entire basis for the Liberal Party's opposition to the Malaysia agreement has disappeared with their rather bizarre policy announcement that they would return people directly to Sri Lanka, before their claims are assessed, directly to the country they are fleeing, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.
So it's okay to take people to Sri Lanka, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, before their claims are assessed, but somehow it's wrong to transfer people to Malaysia, which is also not a signatory, to have their claims assessed. The hypocrisy of that position, I would have thought, is crystal-clear to all of us.
A couple more questions, over here you haven't had a go.
Journalist: How long do you think it will take to process asylum claims offshore for boat people, once they've had the determination made under the holding pattern, under the no-advantage principle?
Bowen: So you're asking how long will the actual processing take, as opposed to resettlement? Well processing will vary from case-to-case. Some cases are, frankly, crystal-clear that somebody has refugee status, other cases are a lot more complex, and some are crystal-clear that somebody does not have refugee status, and the department works those issues through and of course it will vary. I can't give you an average processing time for refugee claims because they will vary very dramatically, depending on the individual.
A few more questions, yep, the boys from the West.
Journalist: Minister, will children be among the first –
Bowen: I'm not going to comment on who makes up the first transfer. Our position about families and children has been well-known, but I'm not going to provide you, this far out, with a commentary on who is going to be in what particular transfer. Lauren.
Journalist: Minister, could I just clarify, when the processing centres are fully up-and-running, will boats take asylum seekers directly to Nauru –
Bowen: We are transferring to Nauru by plane.
Journalist: Minister, as a student of politics in New South Wales, you have been in local government, do you believe that the Greens position on this issue has affected their standing with the public?
Bowen: Well I believe the Greens position has been entirely naïve and unworkable, and I would be unsurprised if that has affected what we have often said, what we have consistently argued, is their naïve position, has affected their public standing, but that's a matter for them. I'm interested in the public policy outcomes, and I think their public policy approach has been, frankly, naïve and I think the Australian people have seen the Greens approach, in a very prominent policy area, laid bare over the last few weeks.
What impact that's had I'll leave for others to comment, but just as we're disappointed with the approach of the Greens, I wouldn't be surprised if many in the Australian community are as well.
Everybody's had a good go. David, yep?
Journalist: Minister, I'll refer to this again: you said to Phil's question that departmental officials are obliged to take offshore anyone who arrives by boat, unless designated by you, the Minister.
Bowen: Or by delegate.
Journalist: Or by delegate. So you, or a delegate, will decide who doesn't go of the 1,700 who've arrived?
Bowen: Well, for example, the Panel makes clear that people should be transferred to Nauru, if vulnerabilities emerge they could be brought back. I've said previously in relation to Malaysia and Nauru and PNG, there will be pre-transfer guidelines which will go into any particular vulnerabilities. There's a process to deal with that, of course that process would be handled appropriately by me and my department.
I'm going to – you haven't had a question, you did have one but –
Journalist: Just in regards to the rescue last night, you said it was difficult, why was that? Was it the condition –
Bowen: Because any rescue at sea at night is difficult, any rescue at sea at night.
Journalist: Can you advise which countries the asylum seekers will go to, without the cooperation of the UNHCR or the IOM?
Bowen: You mean after they're processed?
Bowen: Well, we've said very clearly that we would move to process on a 'no-advantage' test, which means that people would have the chance for resettlement in Australia after the period would have elapsed that they would have been resettled to Australia had they been waiting for regional processing under regional arrangements, in terms of the Expert Panel.
Thanks very much guys, thank you very much.
Journalist: Thank you Minister.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Monday, 10 September 2012 at 15:26 AEST