INTERVIEW WITH MARIUS BENSON, ABC News RadioPosted September 21, 2010
MARIUS BENSON: Chris Bowen, the latest reports say 11 men are on the roof at Villawood, they’ve been there all night; that’s your understanding of what the situation is now?
CHRIS BOWEN: Yes, I do understand that’s the case, Marius.
BENSON: It sounds pretty perilous to be on a roof all night.
BOWEN: Yes, obviously it is a difficult situation at Villawood. My understanding is that the people who are protesting are protesting at what they believe to be their visa outcomes. They’re protesting that their visa outcomes will be negative, they fear their visa outcomes will be negative, and they don’t want to be repatriated from Australia. This is not primarily a protest about any other issue.
While I understand people’s emotions, I understand people are wanting to make their point, we do have a very rigorous process for the consideration of applications to stay in Australia and they were not influenced and won’t be influenced by any protest.
BENSON: The man who killed himself yesterday, it’s been reported that he warned authorities he would do so if he were deported. Is that the information to you?
BOWEN: Look, there’s a police investigation underway, Marius. I’m constricted in what I can say about yesterday’s tragic incident. It is a tragedy, obviously, anybody who feels so distraught to put themselves in that situation. It is a very difficult situation.
BENSON: These protests have been a recurring situation. What can you do to prevent them happening in the future, either by addressing the grievances of the people involved or changing the security arrangements?
BOWEN: Look, Marius, I think when emotions are running high, as they are at Villawood at the moment, certainly were yesterday, it’s always going to be a very difficult situation. People, as I say, when they fear they’re going to be deported from Australia because their application for asylum has not been accepted by Australia, are always going to consider what they can do to push their case.
But I need to be very clear: we have the rule of law, we have a very clear process and the application of their case, the consideration of their case, won’t be and can’t be influenced by any protest actions. Obviously, in relation to security, I’ll have a look at this incident and see if there’s anything to learn from this incident. Obviously, I’m having a look at all our detention centres and visiting them as the new Minister, and I’ll be talking to the management of those centres about security issues and I’ll be taking on board any lessons. But apart from that, it is an operational matter and I’ll be, it’s appropriate that the people on the ground make the decisions on the ground as this unfolds.
BENSON: These are private contractors who manage the centres, as I understand it. Should they be managed better to prevent these situations occurring?
BOWEN: Well, certainly if they are private contractors this is a long standing tender. Obviously, as I say, Marius, I’ll be looking at any lessons to be learned from this. I’ll be looking to see whether there’s anything which could be improved, but that’s something that’s best done in the cold light of day, not while there are events unfolding at Villawood.
BENSON: In broad terms, is it clear that there’s general tension at the immigration facilities, that they’re at breaking point simply because of the pressure of number of arrivals in Australia?
BOWEN: Look, I’ve been very clear, Marius, that our detention centres are under pressure, not just because of the increased number of boat arrivals but because of a number of factors leading to more people being in our detention centres. There’s a High Court challenge which means we’re not repatriating some people at the moment. Rejection levels have increased and that means that people stay in detention for longer because it takes longer to repatriate somebody than it does to release them if their asylum claim is proved.
So there are pressures on our detention centres but I do need to say, Marius, the events of yesterday and today, as I understand it, are primarily not being driven by conditions in detention centres. This is not a protest about detention centres; it’s a protest about being sent away from Australia, about being deported from Australia, and that is a completely separate matter to detention.
BENSON: Could I just leave the immigration issue there and go to a separate one: Parliament resumes next week and there’s still no settlement on the question of a Speaker. Rob Oakeshott, the Independent, has said he is out of the hunt for that job and there’s talk of a Liberal taking that post. What’s Labor’s view on a Liberal Speaker?
BOWEN: Well, Marius, we’re in a difficult situation at the moment, because we did have an arrangement with the Liberal Party that the Speaker would be paired and the Deputy Speaker would be paired. The Liberal Party is now walking away from that; they now claim that there are constitutional difficulties which apparently they weren’t aware of or didn’t check before they put their signature on the dotted line and signed up to this agreement, which we entered into with the Independents in good faith. And frankly, they are playing very cheap politics. When the hung Parliament was being worked through, when there was a chance that Tony Abbott could be Prime Minister, we heard all about a kinder, gentler Parliament, about a new paradigm, and now that the Independents have chosen to support the Labor Party they’re walking away from that agreement, which is very unfortunate, I think.
BENSON: Chris Bowen, thank you very much.
BOWEN: Nice talking to you, Marius.
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