INTERVIEW WITH PAUL BONGIORNO, JESSICA WRIGHT AND MALCOLM FARRPosted August 09, 2011
PAUL BONGIORNO: Welcome back to the program, Chris Bowen. Good morning minister.
BOWEN: Well, this is a controversial area, Paul. Plenty of people will say one particular policy is too soft or tough. We have the balance right. What this does mean is that we take more refugees, refugees who have been waiting for resettlement, who can't afford a people-smuggler or aren't inclined to risk theirs or their family's lives. We've seen the first of those refugees who'll arrive this week, publicised this morning, the Taithoul family from Burma, who were forced into labour in Burma, fled, and had been waiting in Malaysia for resettlement for almost seven years. They are the forgotten side of this equation. There's lots of focus of course, on the 800 people we send to Malaysia, that's perfectly appropriate. But I think the Australian people do say that we should accept refugees and I say – and I think many agree – that we can accept more. We need an orderly process and this is what this arrangement delivers. A proper, orderly process is part of a regional agreement.
BONGIORNO: Well, let's go to what's happening on Christmas Island as we speak. It seems that there is a hunger strike going on?
BOWEN: Yeah look, as I said on May 7 when we first announced this, we could expect protest, we could expect resistance and expect legal challenge. And we do see these sorts of protests and it is perhaps unsurprising and we had been prepared for this sort of protest. But the situation remains, we are determined to implement this. We've been going through all the mechanisms as outlined in the arrangement, as I've said publicly. And this sort of protest does not change the outcome. People who come to Australia by boat can work on the basis that they will be returned to Malaysia, regardless of any protest activity that is undertaken.
BONGIORNO: Well, the Government set itself a time limit of 72 hours for people off the boats, on to the planes up to Malaysia. 15 going tomorrow, when are the rest going?
BOWEN: Well look, we're very advanced in our discussions with Malaysia, we want to get it right. I've said from the beginning that 72 hours is the target turnaround time from arrival at Christmas Island, but I've also said very clearly from the beginning it would take some time to ramp up to that. We want to make sure that the process goes as smoothly as possible. So it will be done in tranches. We are going through that process and we are well advanced in that process, as it is well-known.
BONGIORNO: Well, is the message that if you come by boat you'll all be going to Malaysia?
BOWEN: Well, that's the very clear message: that you should work on the basis you'll be returned to Malaysia. No blanket exemptions. And I know how people smugglers work, Paul. And if there was a blanket exemption, they would use that to further their trade. They would use that to say, 'Look, you've got a blanket exemption, I can guarantee you're being processed and resettled in Australia and then you can sponsor the rest of your family’. It is not morally acceptable to me to provide that sort of loophole, to be able to encourage more children or other vulnerable groups on the boats. We never want to go through the sort of scenes we saw last year again, watching children drown in our shores. And that's a very important message.
BONGIORNO: Well, we have a question from Twitter, from Belinda: "How can Chris Bowen guarantee the Malaysian solution is going to stop the boats when one arrived after the deal was announced?" And Minister, you have just put out a statement saying that another boat has been intercepted. So, two boats before the Malaysian solution starts working. Already you're being sorely tested.
BOWEN: Well, I have said that we should expect people smugglers to test this arrangement, of course we should. One signature does not provide that sort of outcome. We have seen some effect, we've had about a thousand less arrivals by boat than the same period last year. But I think for this arrangement to be fully operational, have its full effect, then people smugglers and asylum seekers need to see it in operation. And that's what they will see in the very near future. It does take time. People talk about Nauru solution working – 1,789 people arrived in the same time span after the announcement of Nauru, compared to the 624 people who have arrived before today's arrival. So, that's a big difference. And as I say, people can expect to see this arrangement being implemented across the region and people watching it being implemented. I think that then means that asylum seekers and people smugglers will think twice and three times and we will pull the rug out from under the people smugglers' trade and business model.
BONGIORNO: The test of the success will be no more boats.
BOWEN: Well, I have made it very clear that we want to stop people making that dangerous journey by boat. And I think that this has a huge impact on the business model of people smugglers. Why would you spend $15,000 to come to Australia by boat, risk your life, only to be returned to Malaysia, where between 80 to 90 per cent of boat arrivals in Australia begin their boat journey. You achieve nothing, and at the same time, we give those people who have been waiting patiently for resettlement, who could not afford a people smuggler in their wildest dreams, the chance of a better life in Australia – that's something this Government's very proud of.
BONGIORNO: Time for a break. When we return with the panel, the dilemma of sending children to Malaysia. BREAK
BONGIORNO: You're on Meet the Press, with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, and welcome to the panel Jessica Wright from The Sun Herald and Malcolm Farr from News.com.au. Well, the Federal Opposition have run a relentless campaign on a tidal wave of boat people. They now accuse the Government of going too far to stem the flow. Here's Scott Morrison on Insiders this morning, talking about sending children to Malaysia. RECORDING - Scott Morrison, Shadow Immigration Minister: They've driven themselves into this cul-de-sac. Now they have to make a choice. Now, any exception will be an exception, and that's the problem they now face. And that will actually encourage kids to get on boats.
MALCOLM FARR: Now that's right, isn't it? An exception for one under-age asylum seeker, one minor, is essentially encouragement for boatloads of minors.
BOWEN: Well, I think that's why I've said that there will be no blanket exemptions. People have criticised me for that. But that is the right decision, to say, ‘no blanket exemptions’. It is appropriate that we consider each vulnerable case on a case-by-case basis, which is what we have done and what we'll continue to do.
FARR: That's an excuse, though isn't it?
BOWEN: No, it is not. It's a very clear message. Nobody will be able to doubt this Government's resolve or people smugglers will not be able to sell the product that they have sold, after they've seen this arrangement implemented and very clearly implemented. It is appropriate that we say, ‘no blanket exemptions’. That's why we negotiated it as part of this arrangement with Malaysia in consultation with the UNHCR and IOM, appropriate support and protection for children, access to basic education, the right to remain lawfully in Malaysia. That is why we have negotiated those very important protections in. It's very important, no blanket exemptions.
FARR: OK, they have no access to public education, and as I understand it, no guaranteed access to health services.
BOWEN: They'll have guaranteed access to basic education, and basic health services. And that's appropriate. We have done that to get the balance right. We want the appropriate support, but it is basic support. Life in Malaysia is not easy for asylum seekers. I'm not pretending that it is for a second. Of course it is not. It will be a basic support and protection in place.
FARR: It is forecast to be so rough, you even have Joe Hockey, and the Premier of WA, Colin Barnett, saying that you are being too harsh on them.
BOWEN: Well, talk about hypocrisy. Let's put aside Nauru for a moment; their other policy is to turn around the boats, to tow boats out into the sea and to drop people off in a jetty in Indonesia. No protections, no basic guarantees, no rights to work, no human rights standards. If Mr Hockey is fair dinkum and he says you should not take children and unaccompanied minors to a third country, then he should come out today and distance himself and repudiate Tony Abbott's policy of turning around the boats. Otherwise, this should be called for what it is – absolutely hypocrisy on Mr Hockey's behalf.
JESSICA WRIGHT: The ink is barely dry on this deal, we've had two boats arrive. It seems the people smugglers are out to test your resolve. Can you be clear with us, what happens to the deal when and if the 800 is reached and exceeded?
BOWEN: Well, let's be clear about a couple of things. Firstly, what we're doing is really making a huge difference to the people smugglers’ business model, putting a huge hole in it. So let's not assume that the people smugglers will be able to find 800 volunteers.
WRIGHT: But you've got 624 since it was announced and they were going to Malaysia before you...
BOWEN: Well no, that's not quite right, Jess. What we said was that they could work on the basis that they could be taken to a third country...
WRIGHT: But they're not going to be now.
BOWEN: We have had to adjust our position, because other discussions with other countries have taken longer and it,s well-known that we've been in discussion with Papua New Guinea. But on the issue of the people smugglers' business model and the 800, let's not assume that the people smugglers will successfully sell to 800 people the product of being taken to Australia for $15,000 or $20,00 and then returned to Malaysia, where they started – the majority started their boat journey. That is a big assumption to make, that they will find 800 volunteers to make that important decision at this great cost.
WRIGHT: Well, that may well be, but surely you have to have a contingency plan in place. If you don't have a contingency plan, why not? This is a very big policy of yours.
BOWEN: Well, it is a very important policy. We have been in discussions with Malaysia for months, as is well-known, I started that discussion with my counterparts last December. This is an arrangement which in international terms, has come around quite quickly; an arrangement of some complexity and importance. But we have been focused on that. It is well-known that we have been in discussions with Papua New Guinea, that's public. It's well-known they've had some issues. The Government of Papua New Guinea fell during the week The Abal administration fell, the O'Neill administration has been sworn in. We will continue those discussions and we'll continue other discussions under the regional framework which we negotiated successfully – many people said that we would not be able to but that we have – through the Bali process, which means a regional framework for countries to enter into proper arrangements.
BONGIORNO: Well Minister, the Greens have flagged a private members’ bill to tighten the time limits on people in detention. Here's Sarah Hanson-Young.
RECORDING - Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens spokesperson: Under my bill, we would ensure that once people's health and security checks were done, there would be assessment as to whether it was safe for them to move into the community.
WRIGHT: Well, let's put 72 hours aside. Labor is not even abiding its own rules, which states 90 days should be the limit on detention. Do the Greens have a point here and are you going to look at this bill?
BOWEN: No. The Greens policy in many areas of immigration is frankly, unworkable and naive. What we do need to do is speed up processing. That is what we have done, sped up processing by a new protection determination, and a much more streamlined but still very effective ASIO security clearance. Now, what does that mean? Well, it's already been working. We now have had 2,000 less people in detention facilities than we had three months ago. We now have just under a 4,000 irregular maritime arrivals in detention facilities compared to around 6,000 just two or three months ago. So this is not just talk. The Greens can talk about it; we have got on with the job and the policy that this Government has implemented over the last period have had a real impact in getting people processed more quickly and out into the community, where they are genuine refugees. That is something is that is appropriate and will continue to do so. There will be more complex cases where people don't meet refugee status or have complex security issues. They will take longer, which is why the Greens policy is unworkable.
FARR: Minister, in your electorate, there would be a lot of people coming to you, you are the local member, a cabinet, a former finance spokesman. And saying, "Look, I'm insecure about what is happening in Europe, the United States, and now you blokes want to hilt us with carbon pricing – please, don't do it." What do you say to them?
BOWEN: Well, I say, 'look at our economic management.' It's been very important in the strength of the Australian economy, the way this Government managed through the global financial crisis and avoided recession means that we are in many senses, one of the strongest world economies. Our debt is low. One-tenth of the average of advanced major economies. And that is appropriate. But just because there's world instability doesn't mean that you don't embrace the need for economic reform. The carbon tax is an economic reform. Previous governments didn't put off hard reforms and we have a very strong economy, and it is appropriate that while maintaining that strong economy and excellent record of economic management that the Treasurer has under its belt that we also continue to tackle those very important economic reforms for the long-term future of the Australian economy, so that that growth is not taken for granted but can continue.
BONGIORNO: Well Minister, briefly, and finally, do you think we are in danger of talking ourselves into a recession?
BOWEN: Well, look, I think it is important that we recognise the strength of the Australian economy. That is important, that we have an economy that many treasurers and finance ministers and prime ministers around the world would die for. That we managed to get through the global financial crisis with very strong growth, with very low debt, and we continue to have low unemployment compared to the rest of the world. We do need to remind ourselves of that. We need to remind ourselves of the fundamental strength of the Australian economy. Our AAA rating is under no threat at all. It's recently been reaffirmed due to the good economic management of the Treasurer and this Government.
BONGIORNO: Thank you very much for being with us today, Chris Bowen.
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