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Asylum seekers set to be key election issue -

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Asylum seekers set to be key election issue

Broadcast: 29/03/2010

Reporter: Chris Uhlmann

One hundred boats carrying asylum seekers have now been intercepted heading for Australia during
Kevin Rudd's term of government, and the question of unauthorised boat arrivals is emerging as a
key election issue yet again.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Today the Rudd Government chalked up a ton - 100 boatloads of asylum
seekers intercepted heading for Australia so far in its first term, which the Opposition is seeking
to convert to what they're calling "a century of shame".

Clearly the Opposition is intent on making the question of unauthorised boat arrivals a key
election issue again. Adding to the Government's headaches are questions over the weekend transfer
of 89 asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre - a transfer the
Government had said would not happen.

Political editor Chris Uhlmann.

CHRIS UHLMANN, POLITICAL EDITOR: The steady procession of unauthorised boat arrivals is stretching
Christmas Island to breaking point.

SANDI LOGAN, IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: I have just heard that there has been confirmation
of an intercepted boat as well as a boat that has sailed into Christmas Island - into Flying Fish
Cove. We're naturally responding operationally to that as we speak.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And it's putting as much strain on a government which promised to process asylum
seekers offshore.

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS, IMMIGRATION MINISTER (Yesterday): As you know, last night the Immigration
Department transferred 89 men from the Christmas Island detention facility to Villawood Detention
Centre in Sydney.

CHRIS UHLMANN: As of this afternoon, there are eighty spare beds in the Christmas Island detention
centre, which has a capacity of 2040 people.

DETENTION CENTRE OFFICER: Two-zero minutes...

CHRIS UHLMANN: And there are 138 asylum seekers on their way there in three boats being towed by
customs. Mid-afternoon it was announced that another two boats were intercepted last night and this
morning.

They're carrying another 78 asylum seekers.

SCOTT MORRISON, OPPOSITION IMMIGRATION MINISTER: This is a government that needs to own up to the
fact that it has a crisis on its hands and a crisis of its own making. They are the ones who chose
to roll back the border protection regime of the Coalition Government. They are the ones who've
gone from three boats a year to nearly three boats per week. They are the ones for whom 98 boats
have arrived on their watch and we are only two short of Kevin Rudd's ton of boats.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The two boats announced this afternoon do take the count to 100.

TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: Today the 100th boat has arrived at Christmas Island since the Rudd
government abandoned the Howard Government's border protection policies. This is a 100-fold
indictment of the Rudd Government's policies.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Putting it in perspective, people arriving in Australia on unauthorised boats is a
fraction of the immigration intake.

In the year to last September, legal migration added 297,400 people to the population. Over the
same time, about 2,500 came on what's called irregular boats.

But it is hard to argue that the Howard Government's tough line on unauthorised boats didn't slow
the people smuggling trade.

Because in the first six years of the Howard Government boat arrivals were routine, but immediately
after it cracked down with its controversial Pacific solution that slowed to a trickle.

Since the Rudd Government unwound that policy there has been a spike in the number of boats.

And the Government says that's all due to external factors.

JULIA GILLARD, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well we are, as a country, obviously, facing the same
pressures as countries around the world.

TONY ABBOTT: When Julia Gillard was the Shadow Minister for Immigration she would regularly put out
press releases headed "Another boat, another policy failure". Well, this is a policy failure
compounded 100 times.

Journalist

In April 2003 you released a press release entitled "Another boat on the way, another policy
failure," that was attacking the unauthorised boat arrivals under Howard Government. If that was
true then, why isn't that true under your government's policies?

JULIA GILLARD: Well of course, I know Tony Abbott's been shopping this press release around to
media outlets. He personally gave me a copy last Friday.

Obviously the points that I made as Shadow Minister for Immigration was, as a country we've got a
responsibility to manage asylum seeker flows. We've got a responsibility to work with source
countries to work on the issues that cause people to get on the move and of course we're doing
that.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The Government is in the process of tying itself in knots over asylum seekers
because it doesn't want to admit that the press of numbers on Christmas Island is forcing it to
move some of its immigration processing onshore.

That's created several problems today.

SCOTT MORRISON: The Minister amazingly declared today that the reason that people were transferred
from Christmas Island to Villawood was for security reasons. Now, Christmas Island is probably - I
would say, most definitely - the most secure immigration detention facility that the Commonwealth
runs. I mean, it is behind fences on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And, alas, three men escaped from Villawood this morning. The Government has taken
aim at the company that runs the centre.

JULIA GILLARD: As I'm advised this poor conduct has led to Serco sacking a number of employees and
putting some new measures in place. Obviously they did need to respond because people in detention
should stay in detention.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And this morning the Deputy Prime Minister seemed utterly unaware that asylum
seekers had been transferred from Christmas Island to Villawood on Saturday night.

JULIA GILLARD: Well there's no suggestion of transferring asylum seekers from the Christmas Island
facility to that detention centre. There have been some people transited from Christmas Island
through Darwin...

CHRIS UHLMANN: Yesterday the Immigration Minister argued that the processing of the men transferred
to Villawood was essentially complete.

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Those men have been transferred because they are on a removal pathway. They've
been assessed by us as not being owed Australia's protection, as not being refugees and they have
been taken to Villawood as part of a process of returning them to their homeland.

CHRIS UHLMANN: That's disputed by David Mann who represents 17 of the men.

DAVID MANN, IMMIGRATION LAWYER: The Government's set up an independent review process and that
process is currently the one that our clients are agreeing to be processed under. And it's quite
improper to be speculating as to outcomes when decisions haven't been made yet.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Under laws drafted by the Howard Government, the men have no right of appeal through
the Australian legal system if they are picked up in waters that have been excised from the
national migration zone.

That holds true even if they are brought ashore before their processing is complete.

But the Minister's statements open the possibility that a case might be brought that he has
prejudiced the administrative process.

The lawyer refuses to speculate.

DAVID MANN: We'll certainly be going to Sydney to speak with our clients and the focus there will
be on ensuring that their claims for refugee protection from brutality in their homeland are
properly pursued and properly heard and that they get a fair hearing of that case.

CHRIS UHLMANN: It's just possible that the Minister's words might come back to haunt the Government
in court as these words will haunt the Prime Minister.

KEVIN RUDD, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: In November 1999 there were fourteen boat arrivals - the
highest number of boats in any one month on record.

CHRIS UHLMANN: That record's just been broken. Fifteen boats arrived in March.