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Transcript of joint press release: Parliament House, Canberra: 19 June 2014: Six months without a successful people smuggling venture; Operation Sovereign Borders; High Court decision on chaplaincy; Iraq; Budget 2014.



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PRIME MINISTER

19 June 2014

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE HON. SCOTT MORRISON MP, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION,

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: Six months without a successful people smuggling venture; Operation Sovereign Borders; High Court decision on chaplaincy; Iraq; Budget 2014.

E&OE……………………….……………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Prior to the election, the Government made a series of commitments to the Australian people. We said we’d stop the boats, we’d scrap the carbon tax, we’d build the roads of the 21st century and we'd get the Budget back under control and we are making good progress towards all of these objectives. We're making particularly good progress towards the vital objective of stopping the boats.

What I can say is that today marks six months since the last successful people smuggling venture to our country.

I'm not declaring victory. There's no hint of ‘mission accomplished’ about today. But nevertheless, this is a very satisfactory milestone that we've had six months since the last successful people smuggling venture to Australia.

So, since the 19th of December, there have been zero successful illegal arrivals in Australia and in the equivalent period of the previous year, there were almost 200 boats with almost 13,000 illegal arrivals.

So, this is a very good outcome from the policies of this Government.

Thanks to the policies of this Government, we not only have a complete absence of successful people smuggling ventures to Australia but in consequence of that, there have been no deaths at sea. There's been a very dramatic budget saving and obviously we have said to the wider world that we are a country which is once more in substantial control of its borders.

I want to pay tribute to the people who have been principally responsible for this outcome. Obviously, Minister Morrison has done a really outstanding job, but the Government has been supported by

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extraordinary professionalism from the whole Operation Sovereign Borders team led by General Angus Campbell, including people like Mike Pezzullo because there's police, there's Customs, there's intelligence, there's Immigration, as well as the Naval and other military personnel involved in this.

As well as paying tribute to the professionalism of everyone involved in Operation Sovereign Borders, I should also thank our international partners, Nauru and Manus, so the governments of Nauru and PNG for hosting the processing centres in Nauru and Manus; Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka in particular for the cooperation that we continue to get from them to end this evil people smuggling trade.

I think the Australian people can be quietly satisfied that we have achieved this significant milestone and I hope that the Australian people are now confident that while this problem has not been finally resolved, while vigilance continues to be required, they have a Government which is serious, they have a Government which has policies that work and they have a Government which is utterly determined to make our borders as secure as the professionalism of our staff and the will of our Government can make them.

Scott?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BRODER PROTECTION:

Thank you, Prime Minister. Today is just another day at the office at Operation Sovereign Borders. Today we do pass this important milestone of six months without a successful people smuggling venture to Australia, as the Prime Minister has said. But this is just another day at the office.

The only ones, I think, who would be surprised about this day are those who said it could never be done. They have been to date proved wrong on this point and it is our job to continue to ensure that this this is the case each and every day as Operation Sovereign Borders continues. This work continues because the threat continues and we remain ever vigilant.

We've always believed in our policies - not just today, not just the last month, not just the last year, but for over a decade. We have believed in these policies that they would work. We are doing what we said we would do. We're getting the results we said we would get. But we have also believed in the people who would implement these policies because it's the people who have been implementing these policies, often putting themselves at great risk in the process, they are the ones for whom I think this milestone is the most significant achievement. They are the ones who we know could do the job that we've asked them to do.

These are the same people that were available to the previous government. What has changed is we've given them the orders, we've given them the leadership, we've given them the policy environment and we've given them the backing to get on and do the job and I want to thank them most sincerely and I thank the Prime Minister for his commendations to them also because they have been well earned, by General Campbell in particular whose leadership has been without peer on this matter. But also, Mike Pezzulo, the Chief Executive of the Australian Customs and Border Protection service and Mr Martin Bowles who’s the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and all the other agencies that have been involved - whether it's the Federal Police, Foreign Affairs or more broadly, they have done an outstanding job.

I want to thank also, with the Prime Minister, our regional partners in this exercise and he's nominated them all: in Papua New Guinea, in Nauru, in Malaysia, in Indonesia and in Sri Lanka where I will be shortly for the second handover of the Bay Class vessel there in Colombo.

The dividend they have earned is what the Prime Minister has said - no lives lost at sea this year, 20,000 places freed up within our refugee and humanitarian programme which would have otherwise gone to people who arrived illegally by boat and that's over this year and over the budget year and over the forward estimates. An extra 4,000 places have been freed up within that programme to ensure that those who are

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waiting can now have their places made available to them. The number of children in held detention has fallen by a third since we were elected and in particular on the mainland, it has fallen by almost a half. There has been a $2.5 billion saving to the Budget as a result of the success of these measures to date and we are closing the detention centres that Labor opened because they could not sustain proper border management systems.

But it's not over yet, and the same policies, the same people, the same resolve will be at work today, they will be at work tomorrow and they’ll be at work into the foreseeable future as long as the Australian people allows to us ensure that this threat is never realised again.

It requires us never to roll over, never to retreat, never to be intimidated and that's what you'll get from in Government under the Prime Minister's leadership.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, now that you've reached this six-month milestone, can you finally tell the public how many boats have been turned back, how many people have been turned back?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the last thing I want to do is to compromise the effectiveness of our operations by giving out information that will just be used by those who would cause us difficulties; by those who would put people's lives at risk by running people smuggling ventures. So I'm just...

QUESTION:

Isn't this historical information? Isn't it public information that should be [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

A full account of all of this will one day be given, but not yet.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, could you tell us your reaction to the High Court decision this morning and what the Government's going to do about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let's deal with people smuggling issues first then we'll come to other issues. Dennis?

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, do you regard this as a signature achievement and do you rank it above what else you've been able to do in your first nine months of Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the last thing you're going to get from this Government is self-congratulation or trumpet-blowing, but there is certainly some quiet satisfaction that we have stopped the boats - if not for all time at least for six months, particularly given the absolute shambles on our border that we inherited. So, there is some quiet satisfaction with this. I guess there's also some satisfaction that we've signed two out of the three big trade

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deals that we were seeking to do. We believe that we have appropriately handled the issue of the age of business entitlement, so to speak. We believe that we've brought down a strong but necessary first Budget.

We think we've made a very good start on our infrastructure projects and we're pleased that the endless delay over the announcements and decisions for Sydney's second airport is finally over. So I think there's a lot that the Government can be quietly satisfied with, but in the end it's not about us it's about the people. It's about serving the people of Australia and I think that in the last nine months the people of Australia - certainly the fair-minded people of Australia - looking at this Government, would say yes it's been purposeful, it's been methodical and it's been effective. So that's all good.

Lane.

QUESTION:

You say the boats have stopped arriving. Can you at least say they've stopped leaving?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I can say that because the whole point of a boat leaving another country is to arrive in Australia and if they don't arrive in Australia, sooner or later they stop leaving other countries.

QUESTION:

But you're saying they've actually stopped leaving?

PRIME MINISTER:

They have.

QUESTION:

Mr Morrison, we've learnt that some of the data that was inadvertently released on your website about asylum seekers was downloaded in some of the countries from which the asylum seekers had come. Does that have any ramifications for the processing of those asylum seekers?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

Not necessarily. Every single individual case of a person's asylum claim is assessed on its individual merits and any factors that are relevant to that assessment are taken into account and the extent to which those matters may be relevant will be considered at that time. There have already been a number of cases where that issue has been raised and has been dismissed.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, in Question Time a couple of days ago, you said Labor could not be trusted with national security. Was that a reference to border protection or something broader?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, principally, border protection, but if you do look at Labor's record on defence spending, for instance, I think there was a $25 billion cut. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP had shrunk to its lowest level since 1938, and if anything, the events of the last week or so in Iraq have reminded us that this is an uncertain and rather dangerous world and it's important that we maintain our preparedness and our

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capability, not just our military preparedness and capability, but also our intelligence and security preparedness and capability and that's certainly what this Government will do.

QUESTION:

Just on asylum seekers from Iraq, would you consider what the Greens are asking for which is to allow asylum seekers from Iraq currently in Australia to stay in Australia given the current danger you're talking about in Iraq?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

What the Greens have proposed is that we prevent people returning to Iraq. Now, the overwhelming almost exclusive universality of those who are leaving Australia, whether from Australia or indeed those who choose do leave Manus Island or Nauru are doing so voluntarily. It is their free choice to make that decision and those movements are facilitated by the International Organisation of Migration. Now, if they choose to wish to go back to their home country then that is a matter for them and that will be facilitated. If there are other issues that are relevant to us preventing them returning to Iraq for other security reasons that that would be considered separately.

QUESTION:

Would that involve people on Manus Island?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

That is a matter for the government of Papua New Guinea, but you could expect us to be cooperating with the Government of Papua New Guinea on the related security matters, but for those who are leaving Manus Island, they are doing so voluntarily where they make that choice and those movements are facilitated by the IOM.

QUESTION:

So, there could be people on Manus Island who might come to Australia?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

No, they're not coming to Australia, they’d be seeking to go to Iraq.

QUESTION:

But we’re talking about people from Iraq who have security issues back in Iraq. Are you saying that you might allow consideration for them to come to Australia?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

No.

PRIME MINISTER:

Latika?

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QUESTION:

Thank you, Prime Minister. You said that there's been no deaths at sea for the last six months. Can you provide a guarantee that no-one has died during a turn back operation specifically when they've disembarked in Indonesia, for example?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

That is my understanding.

PRIME MINISTER:

Michael?

QUESTION:

Are you concerned at recent political developments in PNG, I'm talking about the sacking of the attorney-general and the deputy police commissioner, the disbanding of their anti-corruption task force. Are those concerning and does Prime Minister O'Neill have your total confidence?

PRIME MINISTER:

The political situation in PNG is a matter for the people and the government of PNG. Obviously we want to work closely and cooperatively with the government of PNG insofar as we have shared ventures and shared interests and the shared ventures and the shared interests that we have are being cooperatively prosecuted by the two governments.

QUESTION:

In terms of resettling in PNG, earlier you talked about May/June being the time for resettling. What's the latest there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, Minister Morrison and Minister Bishop are in regular ministerial dialogue with their counterparts in PNG on this very issue, so I might ask Scott to handle that.

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

The expert panel report is still being considered by the PNG cabinet. We understand we're getting very, very close to those arrangements. That's been a hard task over the last nine months. We were left with a complete blank page on resettlement. There were no resettlement arrangements put in place by the previous government. That has all had to be done from scratch and commendation to the expert panel and particularly Minister Pato in Papua New Guinea for driving this process through and I believe we're very close. I was just there a week or so ago and received the latest update.

QUESTION:

Do you have a number on the people who might be resettled in PNG?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

Currently, we've had over 100 people who've had determinations, recommendations…

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[Interruption]

PRIME MINISTER:

All questions should be accompanied by a fanfare like that!

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

…we've had over 100 recommendations and determinations in both Nauru and Manus. Those decisions splitting around 50/50, 60/40 and all persons who are found to be refugees in Manus Island will be resettled in Papua New Guinea.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, on the High Court decision on chaplaincy, what's the Government's response and what importance do you place in terms of chaplaincy?

PRIME MINISTER:

This is a policy that was invented by the Coalition. It was supported by the Coalition. It was confirmed by the Coalition. So we very much support it and we want it to continue. We've only just got this judgment. We'll carefully study the judgment and we will make an appropriate response after we've made that study.

QUESTION:

Are there other federal programmes that could be effected by [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, we've only just got the judgment. The Attorney-General is having a look at it as we speak, and there will be a response as soon as we can, appropriately respond. Obviously we want our existing programs to continue. We particularly want the chaplaincy program to continue because it’s one that we invented. It's one that we supported. It's one that we took to the election. But we have to look at the decision and see exactly what its ramifications are and then we will be in a better position to respond.

QUESTION:

Are you willing to fund it through the States?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again, let's see exactly what the decision involves and then we'll be in a position to respond.

QUESTION:

On Iraq, there are reports coming out from America that the United States wants Nouri al-Maliki to step down, it looks like it might be one of those conditional conditions ahead of any greater help towards that administration. What's Australia's position on Nouri al-Maliki and do you think he has what it takes to bring together the Sunni and Shia elements of the country?

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PRIME MINISTER:

We are disappointed that the Iraqi Government has not been better at ending sectarianism inside Iraq. Nevertheless the al-Maliki Government is the nearest thing to a legitimate government that a country like Iraq currently has. We are working closely with our US and UK allies to see how this situation might unfold, but at the moment all we can say is that it is a dangerous and difficult situation: you have a terrorist army consolidating its hold over a large swathe of Iraq and Syria with the intention presumably of creating a terrorist state with dangerous an unpredictable consequences for the region and for the wider world. So, this is a very serious situation. As yet there is no clear way forward.

I want to assure people that we are putting preparations in place to ensure the safety of Australian personnel in Baghdad if that was to come under threat and we are redoubling our vigilance at our borders to try to ensure that jihadists do not gain access to our country, or are monitored if they have the right of access to this country. So, that’s what we're doing but I don't anyone to think this is a difficulty in a faraway country that has no consequences for the wider world.

QUESTION:

Just on the visas for Australians who might be in Syria or Iraq fighting alongside extremists, are you considering revoking Australian citizenship for any of those people?

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

I will let the Prime Minister deal with the issue of the broader debate around citizenship other than to say that nothing is ever ruled out on these matters and they're always subject to continued discussion. Issues of people who are on visas is a very different matter and the 501 powers, I think are very clear. As you know, we've just used those powers in relation to Mr Alex Vella, the President of the Rebels motorcycle club. We take these matters very seriously. So, whether it's those like Mr Vella or whether it’s terrorists or others engaged in these sorts of acts, then they can expect me to do what they would expect me to do.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, on your Budget and your general legislative agenda, you were fairly bullish before the election about the prospect of a double D. Is that now something that's definitely off the agenda?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are determined to get our Budget measures through and we are determined to secure the policies for which we received a mandate at the election but we will work with the Parliament that was elected to get them through. We are confident that we will get a degree of constructive cooperation from the Senate that will be in place after the first of July. So, I just really want to reiterate our essential position which is that we will implement the policies that we took to the election. We will secure the measures that we brought down in the Budget. We will work with the Parliament that we have to ensure that is the case.

QUESTION:

Any plans to talk to Clive Palmer personally, yet?

PRIME MINISTER:

Michelle, I've written to all of the minor party leaders and incoming crossbench senators offering them a meeting. I have had meetings with some of them. Others I haven't yet had meetings with.

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QUESTION:

Did he write back?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I'm not aware that he has, but certainly the offer is there, and I'm happy to meet with him. I know senior colleagues have met with him. As you know, at least one senior colleague met with him in rather convivial circumstances, as you'd expect!

QUESTION:

Maybe you could send him an invitation to dinner?

PRIME MINISTER:

But look, I will treat all of the crossbench senators, all of the minor party leaders, with respect and courtesy as you'd expect and I am determined to work as constructively as I can with them to ensure that the policies of the Government are implemented.

QUESTION:

How important is it that the US not be left with the burden of acting alone in Iraq? And I guess related to that, how vital is it that there be a coordinated international response in relation to Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Mark, I am determined that Australia will play its part in the affairs of the wider world, but we have to appreciate our limitations as well as our potential and that means that we will continue to consult with our allies - particularly the United States - on what is the best way forward in an extraordinarily difficult situation. I mean, this is a witches brew of difficulty and complexity and while we should be ready to do what good we can, we should be careful about anything that might make a bad situation worse and that's why it's important to consult, to consider and to plan, rather than to act precipitately in a very difficult situation such is as obviously unfolding in Iraq right now.

MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:

One point, just as we leave, on the people smuggling issue and that is it is true that we haven't seen those departures now out of Indonesia for some time but I just want to assure everybody that our assumption remains that they will always try, they will always attempt and that's why Operation Sovereign Borders has stood up and always stands at the ready to deal with any such venture that may attempt. So, those who may think about it offshore know that the same people will be out there tomorrow, they're out there today and have been out there for last six months.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]