Asylum seeker transfers to Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Enterprise Migration Agreements, Sydney protests
Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Press Conference, Canberra
Chris Bowen: Good morning everybody. I wanted to give you a brief update on our steps to implement regional processing. Firstly, at four o'clock yesterday Christmas Island time an airplane with our second transfer to Nauru left. It arrived at 7.20am this morning Nauru time. This transfer consists of 36 adult men of Sri Lankan background. Again, the transfer occurred smoothly and without incident.
There will now be regular transfers from Australia to Nauru, and my department will be providing you with regular updates. Of course, from time to time, I'll be providing commentary and updates on those as well.
Again, this transfer tells the lie to the people smugglers' rhetoric. We know people smugglers have been out in the region misleading asylum seekers, telling them that people wouldn't actually be transferred to Nauru, that this wouldn't occur or that they could provide some sort of guarantee that it would not apply to them.
Every transfer to Nauru is a reminder that the government's determination and resolve to implement not only this recommendation of the Houston Panel, but all the recommendations of the Houston Panel.
I also wanted to report to you on Papua New Guinea. This morning, four C-130 aircraft left Australia for Papua New Guinea. These consist of 25 ADF personnel and a substantial amount of heavy equipment and logistical support necessary for the construction work on Manus Island. These personnel complement the four command operations team who are already positioned in Papua New Guinea to ensure the timely construction of the facility on Manus Island.
Happy to take some questions. Mr Coorey.
Journalist: You said last Friday that you were leaving your options open as to who was sent on transfers, including women and children and so forth. Would you send women and children while there are still tents there, or will you wait for.?
Bowen: Look, I'm not going to provide any advanced commentary about particular operational transfers, other than to say that broad cross-sections of people - including families, different ethnic groups - will be represented in transfers in the coming period.
Of course, we are working to ensure that all the appropriate facilities are in place for any particular groups with special needs like children, or families more generally.
I might go to Andrew, and then I'll go to you Michelle.
Journalist: Minister, have you got agreement from the Nauruans that they will host women and children?
Bowen: Yes. Michelle?
Journalist: The Salvation Army has said more needs to be done and they've been a bit critical this morning. What is your response to that and how are you reacting?
Bowen: I'm not sure I'd quite agree they've been critical but they've made those public comments. We are obviously working very closely with them; I really appreciate the support of the Salvation Army in making this work. We're in constant dialogue with them, obviously, about the operational needs on Nauru and the needs that might go with any special groups and further transfers; we'll continue to work constructively with them.
Journalist: Mr Bowen, I was just wondering, are your comments about the fact that people smugglers are telling lies in the region, does that mean there isn't any sign of any slowdown in the number of people leaving, trying to make their way to Christmas Island?
Bowen: Obviously, as I've said all along, we would need to see transfers being operated and implement to show the people smugglers and asylum seekers this policy is actually up and running and working. And that will take a little bit of time; it will take the transfers to be working on a regular basis.
I'm not going to provide a commentary on intelligence reports, other than to say our communications plan through the region and in source countries is working well. And I think we are very clearly communicating all the elements of the policy including that there are alternative pathways to seek residence in Australia through the increase to 20 000; including all the other steps we're taking in relation to the over 20 recommendations and including the fact that people would be transferred to Nauru and Papua New Guinea under these new arrangements.
Journalist: Minister, why are Sri Lankans, and have these people at Nauru - taken over to Nauru arrived since the government warned that arrivals would run that risk? And do you expect that according to figures from the UNHCR, that 80 per cent of Sri Lankans will be found not to be, in fact, refugees?
Bowen: Firstly, in relation to your question about whether they all have come since that warning was made; yes everybody transferred has arrived in Australia after August 13, which is when we announced that people arriving in Australia would run the risk of transfer - they're in that group of people who've arrived after the government's policy announcement.
In relation to Sri Lanka, I saw Mr Morrison's comments this morning now complaining that we're transferring too many people of Sri Lankan background - I mean this guy is only happy when he is complaining. Fair dinkum. This is just a couple of weeks ago where he was saying we weren't doing enough about Sri Lanka and we should be ripping up the Refugee Convention to deport people to Sri Lanka before their claims were even assessed. So I'm not going to have any criticism from him.
Operational decisions are made about timing, about who gets transferred when, but as I've already said to you this morning, broad cross-sections of people will be represented in transfers in the coming period.
In relation to approval rates, they go up and down. They move around from time to time, depending on the types of people who've arrived and the strength of their claims. All our recognition rates are reported regularly through an initiative that I introduced for quarterly updates in relation to recognition rates for particular types of people in countries of origin, and I'd refer you to those.
Journalist: You said there'd be regular transfers. How regular and when do you expect people to be moved to Manus?
Bowen: Well, quite regular in relation to Nauru. In relation to Manus, look, we have a deal of work to do. The site is in a poor state and does need substantial reconstruction. I'll provide further updates, just as I did with Nauru. But obviously, our very dedicated Defence Force personnel are working very fast to get it up and running ASAP.
Journalist: What conditions have the Nauru Government imposed or asked for on the condition that women and children are transferred there? Have they asked for special treatment?
Bowen: No. No, all the conditions that have been placed by Nauru are in the Memorandum of Understanding, which has been publicly released, in relation to that. We're working very closely with Nauru. They understand the reason for a very good, clear and strong message, and they'll work closely with us on providing and ensuring that all the needs of any particular family groups or other groups are catered for.
Journalist: Minister, how long do you think it will be before you actually have Manus up and running? Will that be before -
Bowen: I think I just answered that question, with respect, Sabra. I'm not going to provide a timeframe today. I've been providing you with regular updates and I'll continue to do so.
Journalist: Customs only has $1.3 million in its budget to advertise these policy changes in source countries, at least five source countries. Do they need more resources to get the message out there to prospective boat people?
Bowen: They've not asked for more resources, to my knowledge. We are working very closely with Customs and Border Protection, although they answer to Minister Clare. We are working hand in glove on this. They've not asked for any more resources. The campaign, I think, is being distributed very, very effectively by a combination of agencies; my department is involved in that as well, and so they are working well together and doing that with the appropriate resources.
Journalist: Minister, can I ask you about EMAs. Dave Oliver has called on Labor to abandon its Enterprise Migration Agreements, including its one with Roy Hill, because of the softening of the mining sector. What's your response to that?
Bowen: Look, the ACTU's position has been well known on this through a very public debate for some time. We take a different view. We think that EMAs are very carefully calibrated. A lot of work went in to making sure that Australians get the opportunity for those jobs but that there is appropriate provisioning for certainty for these very, very large projects to be able to proceed in the knowledge that they can get the workers necessary if they're not able to source the labour in Australia. So a lot of safeguards and protections to ensure that have been built into the EMA guidelines.
And I'd point out to you that the 457 program generally reflects economic activity very closely. You find when employment is falling, the number of 457 applications fall. Why? Because the vast majority of Australian employers prefer to employ Australians, for all the obvious reasons, including the fact that the government has ensured that employing Australians is cheaper and easier than bringing in 457 workers.
But I expect the ACTU to continue with that position, but we'll continue to ensure - particularly in this environment, where some resources projects very publicly have decided not to proceed - that we give every support necessary to ensure that they have the capacity to show their financiers that they are able to source workers in what continues to be a tight labour market in many instances.
Journalist: What's the link of the 'no advantage' test for these Sri Lankans?
Bowen: Well, as I've said before, Michelle, the 'no advantage' test will be applied with a view to benchmarks across the region. It will vary from individual to individual -
Journalist: - But for these people.
Bowen: - Even for those individuals, it will vary depending on the circumstances that we will assess in conjunction with our posts and other non-government organisations around the region about how long somebody would have waited were they waiting for resettlement in our region and hadn't taken the boat journey to Australia.
And I'm not going to provide a how to guide to people smugglers in relation to how that applies for one particular group of people who we've already transferred. But our principle here is very, very clear.
Journalist: Are you pleased at the response from Muslim leaders in Sydney and Melbourne today, and what of their claims that the images from the weekend are being manipulated by politicians for their own advantage?
Bowen: Well, look, I'm certainly very pleased with the response from the Muslim community generally. I think they've made clear that this violence was completely unacceptable and not done, not done, in the name of Islam; and as I said yesterday, certainly not done in the name of multiculturalism - done in the name of thuggery, nothing short of that.
In relation to that particular claim, I haven't seen their comments so I wouldn't be able to provide commentary on that; I've been focused on other issues this morning.
Journalist: Minister Bowen, just in terms of the numbers of arrivals since August 13; already enough people to fill the estimates of the camp quotas in Nauru, probably for Manus Island as well. Will you be looking to speed up the transfer of people who arrive by boat, say in the next coming weeks, in order to speed up that process to send a stronger deterrent message, so that somebody wouldn't spend very long on -
Bowen: Well as I've said before Daniel, of course this is not without challenge, and of course you've got people smugglers out there who, until recently, have been running a closing-down sale, telling people that they could get in before this policy was implemented or that the policy wouldn't be implemented.
The law is very clear. The law is very clear that people who arrive in Australia by boat will be transferred to Nauru and PNG. I've said before that we'll assess the situation in relation to arrival rates and ongoing challenges, but our resolve is very, very clear in relation to ensuring that people realise if they arrive in Australia by boat they run a very, very real risk of being transferred to Nauru or PNG.
Last couple of questions?
Journalist: Nauru's Foreign Minister said on Friday that Nauru will be responsible for the processing, assessment and determination of asylum seekers. Will they have access to avenues of appeal through the Australian courts?
Bowen: Yes, Australia and Nauru have agreed in-principle that the processing would occur under Nauruan law, despite the bleatings and misinformation spread by the Opposition last week to the contrary.
In relation to appeal mechanisms, I'll refer you to paragraph 3.46 of the independent panel review, which recommended how the appeal mechanism should work and we'll be implementing that recommendation.
Journalist: On the preacher, Taji Mustafa, did you - are you satisfied with the information your department gave you about his visa approval process and did you sit on your hands as Scott Morrison said?
Bowen: Well, again, Mr Morrison has engaged in abject hypocrisy and stunt-making here. I have, in my time as Minister, personally withdrawn or refused 27 visas on character grounds. Each one of those has been done appropriately, methodically, based on the evidence, based on the rule of law, and not with one dollar of compensation paid to somebody who's had a wrongful decision made - not something that the Liberal Party can say in relation to their record.
So I'm not taking one second of criticism from them about this matter.
We implement the law - and I noticed all through yesterday Mr Morrison could not point to one element, one statement, or one factor which would lead to a successful withdrawal of a visa which could be sustained in a court. This is just a political stunt from Mr Morrison who is very, very keen to make this a political issue. If he really wanted to engage in the government - with the government on this there are well accepted forms for opposition's to request briefings on classified matters. Instead they've decided to make a political issue and make a stunt. That says more about them than it does about me.
Journalist: Minister Bowen, Mr Morrison says he wrote to you last week and Tony Abbott wrote to the Prime Minister. Have you responded?
Bowen: He wrote to me on Thursday. I understand Mr Abbott wrote to the Prime Minister on Friday, and I understand members of the press gallery we're being briefed at a very similar time about this issue, which indicates that this is an issue that the Opposition wants to make political points on, not engage in a stunt - to not engage in a proper dialog with the government. I always respond to letters that are sent to me by the Opposition.
Journalist: Minister, were Sri Lankan asylum seekers sent to Nauru first because they're less-likely to cause trouble?
Bowen: No, look, operational decisions are made by my department in relation to the order in which people are transferred for a range of reasons. But as I've said to you, you could expect to see a very broad cross-section of people represented in transfers in the very near future.
Thank you very much guys.
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Last update: Tuesday, 18 September 2012 at 14:52 AEST