INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS KENNY, SKY NEWS SATURDAY AGENDAPosted April 16, 2012
CHRIS KENNY: But also this week, all the while, while we've been talking about these other issues, the constant policy failure confronting the Gillard Government on border protection has been unfolding as boats have continued to arrive, so joining me today is Immigration Minister Bowen. Thanks for joining us, Chris.
CHRIS BOWEN: Pleasure, good morning, Chris.
KENNY: Good news today to start with, though, in the asylum boat that was missing in Indonesia has been found, and we understand no loss of life?
BOWEN: It appears so, Chris, yes. Just before coming on the show, I was advised that BASARNAS, the Indonesian search authority, has located the boat in Lombok. It appears that the people on board have returned to Lombok. Obviously a very dangerous situation. They managed to return to Lombok, so that's a big relief. It's been a big worry over the last 36 hours or so about what will happen with this boat. I think this whole episode, though, is just another reminder of the dangers, and why we need a proper deterrent and offshore processing to stop these boat journeys, because this is, if you like, a bullet missed. There will be, inevitably, more tragedies with a high number of boat arrivals.
KENNY: Yes, it is good news, but we do understand that this was an asylum seeker boat; it was headed for Australia.
BOWEN: Oh yes, I think there's no question about that. There were a number of, I believe, Afghans on the boat. And this is, again, we see the tragedies. The Christmas Island tragedy was front of mind for us. There was footage, it was in our waters, it was very clear. I said at the time this is not just the only tragedy we've seen or will see.
Unfortunately, tragically, boats go down, sometimes in the middle of the night; no TV cameras around. It's a constant reminder, for me, about why you need to have a much better deterrent in place in terms of offshore processing. This is the argument I have with some people who say onshore processing is the only humane alternative. With respect, I disagree. There's nothing humane about telling people they have to risk their lives to get to Australia in order to resettle in Australia.
KENNY: Well, exactly. Yet we've had seven more boats this month, nearly 600 more asylum seekers arrive this month. Clearly, you don't have control of our borders.
BOWEN: Certainly the numbers go up and down. We did see a drop earlier. But there has been a big increase in recent days, no question about that. I said that last year, that if we don't have a proper deterrent in place in terms of an offshore processing regime, which importantly just doesn't see people processed for their refugee claims offshore but also resettled offshore, and this is the disagreement that I would have with the Opposition –
KENNY: But it's even worse than that, isn't it? Rather than not have the strong deterrent in place, back in November last year, you brought in new policies for community detention and bridging visas, which now can be seen as a green light, yet again, to people smugglers, because we've seen a great uptick in people arriving since then: 37 boats and 3000 people since you relaxed those laws back in November.
BOWEN: No, I don't agree with that analysis, Chris. Firstly, I first announced community processing not in November last year; in October 2010. That's when I announced we'd be moving families and children into the community. And people said at the time you might see a big upsurge in arrivals. We actually saw arrivals fall through 2011, through a range of factors. I don't regard detention as a deterrent. I don't think you can just keep people in detention longer and longer as a deterrent. That's where I might disagree with the Liberal Party. They say detention is a deterrent.
KENNY: Or indeed, with the Labor Party that brought it in back in the early 90s.
BOWEN: Well, no, but see, we don't see detention as a deterrent. We see detention as important, but not as a deterrent. Detention is important for assessing people's identity, doing the health checks, the security and character checks, and at least an initial claim, an analysis of the strength of their claim. I do see mandatory detention as important for that reason. So you might see us as the middle ground. You see the Greens who say no mandatory detention at all; the Liberals as saying mandatory detention as a deterrent and keep people in until their claim is completely finalised. We say no, you need initial mandatory detention, but then you should have the processing of people in the community, particularly for families and children, but also for other people, as one of the suite of measures you have available to you.
KENNY: But if you're saying detention's not a deterrent, obviously you're opposed to TPVs or temporary protection visas. Effectively, you're talking about a regime that has no deterrents.
BOWEN: Well, no, let's remember, Chris, we could have been having a very different conversation today. If we'd reached agreement last year, we could now have the Malaysia Agreement implemented, a detention centre in Manus Island and a detention centre in Nauru. That was on the table over Christmas. That was the offer from the Government. If we'd seen the legislation passed, that's a situation we could be in today.
BOWEN: And we would have a much more effective deterrent. Whether you think Nauru's a deterrent, Malaysia's a deterrent, we'll have disagreement. If you had that suite of measures in place, that would be, I think most people would agree, an effective deterrent. That's what I'm saying. You can't have a domestic deterrent. You can't just make your domestic arrangements harsher and more punitive. You need to have a proper regional framework in place, which we have, but then you need to fill that out with proper offshore processing and offshore resettlement as well.
KENNY: Okay, we understand that. And you blame Tony Abbott for rejecting your Malaysia solution legislation. We understand that point, you've made it repeatedly. Why then now, given boats are still coming, given lives are still being placed at risk, won't you just swallow your political pride, and adopt, effectively, the Liberal Party policies that we've seen work in the past? You say that might be more difficult now, but why not adopt Nauru and temporary protection visas and see if you can't stop the boats and save some lives? You'll actually kill off this as a political issue as well.
BOWEN: No, I don't think you would, but let me just take a couple of minutes to run through that, Chris, because it's a reasonable question. Firstly, the fact is you can't have offshore processing in place unless you have the legislation passed. That's just a statement of fact. And just as John Howard needed Kim Beazley's support in 2001 to implement offshore processing because he didn't have the numbers in the Senate, likewise we would need Liberal Party support in the Senate.
KENNY: But what I'm saying: if you put up the Liberal Party's policy, they're obviously going to support it.
BOWEN: Well, we're not going to implement a policy we don't believe would work. I mean, you would then be questioning here, me, ‘Well, how come you're implementing a policy you don't believe would work?’ and I would not have a sustainable answer to that question because –
KENNY: But you keep saying you don't believe it will work. We know it worked in the past and yet you won't even try it now. You just say, ‘Well, it won't work this time.’
BOWEN: Well, no, I disagree with that analysis. But let's go through it. Firstly, Nauru: a Christmas Island further away, unless you can say to people, ‘We'll process you on Nauru, and then resettle you in some other country, not Australia.’ Now, the Liberal Party can't say that. If you had Scott Morrison sitting here this morning, he wouldn't be able to say that. He would have to say, if he was honest, ‘Yes, they'd be processed on Nauru and if they're refugees resettled in Australia.’ That's what happened last time. The people smugglers know that, the asylum seekers know that.
KENNY: With less than half of the people who went there.
BOWEN: Well, yes, but if you're regarded as a refugee, over 90 per cent resettled in Australia or New Zealand; a pretty compelling figure. Temporary protection visas, the figure went up, the number of boat arrivals in Australia went up over the two years following, particularly children on boats, went up, because family reunion was withdrawn. It had all sorts of mental impacts, and it didn't work.Now, we offered again, in good faith, to the Liberal Party: ‘We disagree about temporary protection visas. Let's have an independent inquiry into it, we'll jointly agree for people to undertake the inquiry. We won't just decide, we'll jointly agree with the terms of reference, and let's see what it recommends.’ Rejected out of hand.So this is just a statement of fact, Chris, it's not about blame. This is just the historical fact. We sat down with the Liberal Party, I sat down with Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition and said, ‘The time for politicking on this has passed. Lives are at risk, let's try and strike an agreement.’ We came to the table with a substantial offer and not a particularly politically easy offer.
KENNY: Alright, we're obviously not moving on from there, though. It's either the Malaysia solution or what we're dealing with now.
BOWEN: Well, what's clear is that, clearly, we tried, just as John Howard went to Kim Beazley and said, ‘I need your support for offshore processing.’ We've tried it; that's looking very unlikely, I think that it's fair to say. So we're not going to get any help from the Liberal Party to resolve this issue, that's very clear.
KENNY: I just want to move on to other issues: of course, the big news yesterday that Bob Brown is quitting as Greens leader, has quit as Greens leader, and will be quitting Parliament. What does this do for the stability of the Gillard Government? He's the man you negotiated your alliance with and he's gone. It must make it a little bit more difficult for Prime Minister Gillard to maintain the stability of the Government.
BOWEN: No, I don't think so. Firstly, can I say, look, those of us who would have disagreements with Bob Brown – and I think you and I would both in that camp from time to time – but you do have to acknowledge he's been a very substantial figure and a very substantial figure particularly in the Greens, taking the Greens from nothing to a political force. I think he was the sole representative of the Greens in the Federal Parliament at one stage. He's been a substantial figure and of course everybody would wish him well in retirement.
On your question, it's an agreement between two political parties, signed by Bob Brown as the leader at the time. We have no indication, and I would expect no change in the Greens' commitment to honouring that arrangement, the Greens Party commitment to that arrangement. In particular, we have the Budget coming up. I would expect the Greens to be responsible in assisting the return to surplus. They have, in fairness, shown that responsibility in other instances in the past, when the Liberal Party has not. So we would expect that to continue. And political leaders change. As Bob Brown exits the stage, there's no grounds to think that the agreement is in any way not going to be honoured.
KENNY: The same could be said about the Labor Party, I suppose.
BOWEN: No, not at all.
KENNY: They could change leaders and the whole deal would still stay in place. But we'll stick with the Greens at the moment. They have dragged the ALP, they have dragged your Government to the left on a number of issues, including the carbon tax most dramatically, of course, but also on your own area of border protection policy. Is it time now for the Labor Party to finally stop dancing to the Greens’ tune now that Bob Brown's going and actually just govern from a Labor Party point of view?
BOWEN: Well, let me fundamentally disagree with the premise of your question, Chris. For example, in my space, I stood before the national conference of the ALP and argued that we need to have a very explicit and clear policy in our platform for offshore processing; not something that the Greens would endorse, and has been an area of explicit disagreement between the Greens and I.
You'd see the Greens Party saying mandatory detention should be completely abolished; not something I've contemplated or proceeded to do.
Yes, I've said that we need a suite of measures in place, so I fundamentally disagree with the premise of your question. The Labor Party's been committed to a price on carbon for years, for a long time, from Opposition. We've gone to elections promising it, so that's not something I think I accept.
Yes, we sat down with the Greens and worked our way through in terms of getting legislation through the Parliament. But the principle of the Labor Party being dragged to carbon pricing by the Left is not one that I would accept.
KENNY: Well, on that, the carbon tax is something that Julia Gillard ruled out before the election. It is Bob Brown's policy. Is Bob Brown getting out of Parliament before the reckoning of the carbon tax and the next election?
BOWEN: No, look I think people can be too cynical about these things. I think politics is not a particularly easy lifestyle. Bob's been doing it a long time and there comes a time when you just say, ’Enough's enough, I'm going to do something else.’ I think people can always be reading in, and we see it with political retirements, ‘Oh there must be something more to it’, all the time. No, there doesn't need to be something more to it. It can just be a time when there's time for a change, and I think because –
KENNY: Maybe he's heading off to form, get started on his one world government project.
BOWEN: Oh, I'm sure there'll be plenty of people out there thinking that, Chris, as we speak.
KENNY: Alright, thanks for joining us today, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
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