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Sunday Agenda -

View in ParlView


Sky News Australian Agenda with David Speers and panellists Patricia Karvelas, Malcolm Farr and
Peter van Onselen

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Topics: Border protection policy

DAVID SPEERS: With us now we have the Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor. Thank you for
joining us from Melbourne today.

There's been confusion, as we were discussing earlier, about, well a key element of Julia Gillard's
border protection plan - where this regional processing centre will go. So a simple question to
begin: where's it going to be?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well David on Tuesday the Prime Minister outlined her vision for border
protection and how we're going to deal with irregular arrivals and how we will deal with the
region. And she outlined, I think, a comprehensive approach forward and that included of course the
regional processing centre proposal and indeed as a result of that, and as a result of
conversations she'd had with the president of East Timor and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, she
said we needed to move forward on this issue.

Now subsequent to that speech on Tuesday, the Prime Minister of East Timor spoke with the President
and charged him with the responsibility of now talking about the details of a proposed regional
centre with Australia. I think that's a step forward.

The next logical stop of course is for us to start really going through the detail because a
regional processing centre is an important part of a sustainable regional protection approach to
this matter.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay so the preference is East Timor. I can understand that you have to get East
Timor to agree to this but that is your government's preference, East Timor, clear and simple.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: And the Prime Minister and President of East Timor have showed a preparedness now
to talk about the detail of a proposal and I think that's an important thing. What we know is of
course that the Bali Process, that was established way back in 2002, and throughout the period of
this government have been talking about the best way to deal with irregular migration, ensuring
that we remove the product that's been sold by people smugglers, luring people on, in many cases,
unseaworthy vessels on perilous journeys. How do we do that?

Well one key plank of the regional protection approach includes a centre, which takes away the
incentive of people being lured on such dangerous passage and I think that's a good step forward
and we now want to sit down with East Timor, the East Timorese President, Jose Ramos Horta and work
through that proposition.

PANELLIST: Minister, why East Timor? Why not any number of other countries including even this

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well East Timor showed us a preparedness to engage on this issue. We believe it's
important that a centre is in a location that's, and in a country, that is signatory to the Refugee
Convention. We believe it's important that we remove the incentive that people smugglers have to
lure people to a particular destination. Now the fact that we can intercept vessels and indeed take
those people seeking asylum to a centre takes away, I believe, takes away the product that's been
currently sold by people smugglers in the region...

PANELLIST: But, but in Australia - but can I ask, sorry to interrupt, but Australia is a signatory
to that convention. This is our political problem. We're the richest nation in the region. What are
the reasons, I assume there are some, what are the reasons why we can't house this regional
processing centre?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well we need to make sure that we place it in a location that's not in those
areas where, which are, I guess, defined as destination countries ...

PANELLIST: So because no one wants to go to East Timor, we're going to put it there ...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: a resettlement country, as a resettlement country and signatory to the
convention, along with New Zealand and other countries around the world, of course we will settle
refugees if they're determined to such by the processes. But it is important that we look at an
area that is less likely to lure people on those very dangerous vessels. And I believe the
important thing here is, Peter, is that we have a conversation now. We engage with the East
Timorese on this issue and they've shown a preparedness to do that because a key element of a
regional protection approach is a regional processing centre. It does take away, or undermine, the
product that's being sold by these people smugglers.

PANELLIST: Minister, minister, accepting that wisdom, on Friday you said you were willing to look
at PNG Manus Island as another potential site. They're also signatories. Yesterday Stephen Smith,
the Foreign Affairs Minister, essentially really poured water on that idea. Where do we stand now?
That seems that there's a bit of flip flopping on that issue as well. Do you think...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well I don't...

DAVID SPEERS: Well do you accept that PNG should be another option at all?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No. Well I don't accept the premise of your question. I was asked about the role
of other countries. We have to engage multilaterally. We have to engage with all of our partners in
the region, insofar as ensuring we have a sustainable regional protection framework...

PANELLIST: So it's about consulting PNG, but not about...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: In relation to the PNG, the Foreign Minister's made clear that they have not been
approached and nor have they proffered any particular view. They've been briefed by the Foreign
Minister, when he was there on a regular ministerial visit, about our Prime Minister's speech on
Tuesday. Of course we want to talk to partners in the region because we do want a regional
approach, a regional solution to a regional problem. We all share...

PANELLIST: Is it possible that we might have...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: We all share the problem but insofar as centres are concerned, we have our focus
now on East Timor and talking to them about the detail and we'll work through this methodically one
step at a time. This is a step forward and it's the next logical step.

DAVID SPEERS: So it will not go in PNG at all?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well you're putting to me hypotheticals. I can only say to you David...

DAVID SPEERS: No, it's a direct question Minister. Will there be a regional processing centre in
PNG under this government?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: You put that question to me and the Prime Minister's made clear that we are going
to relentlessly pursue having a centre in the region for the reasons I've already outlined and we

DAVID SPEERS: Which leaves PNG very much on the table.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: And we are now sitting - well look, if I can just answer the question, we are now
sitting down with a country, a country by the way that has a great humanitarian record, a country
that's led by not only a President, who has great international standing, but a Prime Minister who
understands the complexities of this issue and understands the problems of people being displaced
in the region...

PANELLIST: This is something that's going to take ages and ages and ages. This is going to take
ages. It's going to take ages to do this, isn't it? I mean I know the Prime Minister has said
there's a long lead time involved in this. The previous government set up two similar processing
centres in a matter of months. I don't think in a matter of months you are going to work out who
you're talking to.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: And that was a failed approach, a unilateral approach, which led to, of course,
the closing down of that centre, but also...

PANELLIST: No hang on, two centres operated for quite a while and Nauru is still ready to move
into, should you wish to.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: And we've said we want a regional approach Malcolm that will ensure we, that we,
indeed ensuring that our obligations under international law are fulfilled and that we engage the
region. We don't unilaterally impose a solution on a country.

Now the fact is the East Timorese President will be sitting down with Australia and working through
the details of the centre. We do want to engage the region fully about the framework but insofar as
a centre's concerned, let's just take this one step at a time.

As for how long this will take, the Prime Minister on Tuesday said there wouldn't be a quick fix so
I was surprised when people were concerned that it hadn't been fixed by Thursday.

DAVID SPEERS: Can you guarantee Minister that there will be anything in place by the end of next

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well there's no timeline but there is a determination and focus of this
government, of our Prime Minister, on ensuring that we have a regional solution to this problem and
for that reason she outlined, in her second week as Prime Minister, an approach forward. After
dealing with a very complex fraught issue in the area of the mining sector, we resolved that matter
through her intervention, providing certainty for the sector and our economy. We're now moving onto
a very complex area where there is no quick fix but there is a determination and focus by this
government to find a long lasting solution to this issue.

PANELLIST: Minister, you have to concede that to all those Australians that the Prime Minister
talked about, that are concerned about these arrivals of unauthorised boats, they might actually
want to know about how long this might take. That's a pretty reasonable thing for voters to want to
know. How long will this processing centre take? So if you can't commit to a time frame, what will
you tell the Australian people on how long you're prepared to talk to East Timor. For instance if
it takes six months or a year, will you then walk away from those talks and go to plan B because,
you know, they've gone on for too long. How long will you talk before you move on to another

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Let's just at least have the first series of meetings around the detail. The fact
is on Tuesday the Prime Minister outlined that she'd spoken to the President. On Thursday, of only
this week, the Prime Minister and President of that country had indicated the preparedness to talk
through the details of a centre. That bodes well for those discussions but in the end East Timor is
a sovereign nation, it's a democracy, and of course the decisions around these matters are entirely
dependent upon their decisions as well as our own.

PANELLIST: Minister, I'm still struggling to understand why it has to be offshore and why it can't
be in Australia. You say that there's an element there of removing the incentive to come here, but
if they come here you'd process them and send them to East Timor anyway. If they came here, you'd
process them to an onshore facility. There's really no difference in that. You mentioned before
that it had to be East Timor or that you'd look at East Timor. Is it because East Timor is just a
less attractive country than Australia so it can't be in a first world nation like ours? I'm trying
to understand why we can't house our idea in our own country.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well in relation to the options, I mean this is subject to the conversations
we're having broadly, but the fact is that if you look at where centres have been before, they're
not normally placed in countries that would be depicted as destination countries. The more
important thing here is Peter...

PANELLIST: Why is that?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: The more important thing here is Peter is that we have a preparedness now on
behalf of East Timor for its President to sit down and engage in the detail. Why wouldn't we do
that? It would be foolhardy not to. We are determined to discuss these matters with the President
of East Timor and we are also prepared of course and indeed wish to continue to discuss the broader
regional protection framework with all our partners in the region.

PANELLIST: So you're happy to go to the election with absolutely no idea for how long this might
take. So will you tell the Australian people that it will happen in your second term at least?
Within a three year period?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: What we won't do Patricia is go to an election with a promise based on a lie,
like the Leader of the Opposition. What we won't do is tell the Australian people a lie about what
can be done with a simplistic slogan of turning back the boats. The Prime Minister on Tuesday said
- enough of this. We are telling the Australian people the truth. On Tuesday she outlined who she
spoke to and she's drawn criticism for that, but she's been open and honest with the Australian
people about her direction and I believe the Australian people, what they want is honesty in this
debate and they haven't had it from the Opposition and they're getting it from this government.

DAVID SPEERS: The truth then Minister is that there is no guarantee from this government that any
regional processing centre will be delivered in the next term at Parliament.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: There's a guarantee David that we will work relentlessly to pursue this option
because it is an important element for the entire regional framework approach. It's the only way
we're going to have a sustainable solution to this complex issue.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. Just to clarify, we may not see a regional processing centre in the second term
of the Gillard Government.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No. You put words in my mouth David. I've said to you that we are working this
through. We are now talking with a country that happens also to be a signatory to the Refugee
Convention. We're talking to that country about this, as we speak, we're talking about the detail.
That bodes well for a centre to be established but we will, as a government, focus our energies and
as the Prime Minister said, we would relentlessly pursue this issue as we go forward.

DAVID SPEERS: Let's go back a step to, Malcolm mentioned earlier Nauru. It was used before by the
Howard Government. It still has a centre there. It's expressed some readiness to take on that role
again. I understand this - the Labor Government does not want to go with a country that's not a
signatory to the UN Refugees Convention.

Can I ask you why not? What is the problem here? Is it a fear about sending asylum seekers back to
their troubled homeland? Why? What's the reasoning for going with a signatory country?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well firstly we believe we need a regional approach and we need to make sure that
when we establish a centre it actually is a centre for the region. It is not a quick fix sort of
unilateral imposition on a small nation, which drew international criticism, raised questions of
breaches of international law. This is not the approach of the Gillard Government. Our approach is
we want to remove the product that's been sold by people smugglers, luring people on dangerous
vessels, but do so that has regard to our humanitarian and international obligations.

The best way to do that, David, is to ensure that we have direct engagement with a country that's
signatory to the convention because we will have, and not only of course a refugee signatory, but
also, also ensure that we are engaging fully with the UNHCR and the International Organisation for
Migration. We do need a holistic approach that has regard to our international obligations. The
Nauru solution is not an approach that this government would take.

PANELLIST: Minister, if it has to be a country that is a signatory to the convention, how do you
then explain what was being termed the Indonesia Solution last year that Kevin Rudd was promoting
in the second half of last year, because Indonesia's not a signatory?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well look I don't recall exactly the point you make but we of course work closely
with Indonesia. They are a transit country dealing with this problem themselves and that's why the
Prime Minister spoke to the President of Indonesia this week and will continue to have
conversations with them. We co-chair the Bali process with Indonesia. They are indeed an important
partner, a very important partner, in dealing with this issue and that will continue to be the

PANELLIST: Minister, could you give us a bit of a history of this policy? There's a suggestion that
it was raised last year, that the then Prime Minister knocked it on the head, but it kept being
developed. Is that true? What is the history of it?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well can I say in relation to the regional centre, the Prime Minister, that is
the Prime Minister Gillard, believed we needed to enhance our regional approach, we needed to
consider a regional processing centre...

PANELLIST: Before she became Prime Minister?


PANELLIST: Before she became Prime Minister? Was that her view when she was Deputy Prime Minister?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: You'd have to ask her that question. I can only say to you that from Tuesday she
outlined the approach she believes this government, this country should take and I think that was
the right approach and that's what we're doing now. We are now focusing on sitting down with East
Timor and discussing the detail of the proposal.

PANELLIST: Minister do you concede that it could be possible to have more than one centre? So there
could be one in East Timor and perhaps a smaller centre in PNG on Manus Island. Is that a potential
equation that could come out of this process?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, I'm not going to be nominating how many or where the centre should be. At
this point in time Patricia we are now talking to East Timor on the details...

PANELLIST: So you're open to the possibility, which is what I'm trying to find out here.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: After the invitation they provided us to sit down and talk and that's what we'll
be doing.

PANELLIST: But are you open to the possibility that it might be a sort of a bigger configuration
than just having this one centre in East Timor? Perhaps for instance that would appease some of the
concerns of the East Timorese that they wouldn't be the only, the only place where people would be

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well that may be subject of the conversations that are held between East Timor
and Australia. What we said is of course we'll talk all partners in the region about the regional
protection framework. At this point however our focus is in having detailed discussions with the
President of East Timor.

PANELLIST: If that's your view why did the Prime Minister earlier this week back away from that?
What was the concern there because you seem to be quite strongly saying East Timor is our priority
and that's fair enough. But why did she move away from that position?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well look, I understand people have concerns about some of these issues but the
Prime Minister was not going to be making any unequivocal comments about location. She would never
have done that until there was a clear view by a country in question that they wanted to talk to us
about the proposition.

Now on Thursday the President and Prime Minister of East Timor made clear they did want to sit down
with Australia and talk about the detail and until then the Prime Minister was not going to presume
anything and we can now go forward and discuss the details as agreed by the Prime Minister and the
President of East Timor.

PANELLIST: Minister, can I just get a handle on how long you think this is going to take? Is it a
fair characterisation to say that you are hopeful that you'll get it done in the next term of
government but there is no guarantee that you'll get it done in the next term of government?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: It is a major priority of this government, the Prime Minister has said there is
no quick fix but it is a priority of this government and as she has said we will relentlessly
pursue it and that's all I can say on the matter and people will understand that these things are
complex but it is the focus of this government to ensure we have a sustainable regional protection
approach to irregular migration and this is the best way forward?

PANELLIST: Minister, other than this policy are there other policies that the Government might be
developing in this area, as interim measures, considering this might take so long? I mean
Australians are sitting there in their lounge rooms concerned about these boat arrivals. The Prime
Minister's acknowledged that. So do there need to be perhaps policy solutions that are found before
this centre eventually gets off the ground?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well there are things already going on of course...

PANELLIST: I mean new approaches...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Patricia, there are - for example what seems not to have been reported much in
the speech on Tuesday was the lifting of the suspension in Sri Lanka on the advice of well, varied
advice, but including the advice of the UNHCR that was published on Monday and other advice we
received. We lifted the suspension to continue the processing of those claims. We know now that the
situation in Sri Lanka, whilst not perfect is markedly improved and we expect to see a higher level
of rejections. We also of course made comment about the changing circumstances in some parts of
Afghanistan because, as she also outlined, we've seen a much higher primary rejection rate of
applications from Afghanis. So there are indeed changes that are leading to a greater likelihood of
people being returned home.

But can I stress those people who are genuine refugees will be settled here or another country.

DAVID SPEERS: All right Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor. On that note we will have to leave
things there. Thank you very much for joining us today from Melbourne.