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Transcript of joint press conference: Canberra: 13 October 2011: asylum seekers; Malaysia agreement; Commonwealth Ombudsman



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PRIME MINISTER TRANSCRIPT OF JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE CANBERRA 13 OCTOBER 2011

E & O E - PROOF ONLY

Subjects: Asylum seekers; Malaysia agreement; Commonwealth Ombudsman

PM: I’m here with the Minister for Immigration to provide an update on immigration policy, and particularly policy relating to asylum seekers and refugees.

Let me just re-cap matters associated with refugee and asylum seeker policy to date and the Government’s response.

The High Court recently found, in what was a decision that took the Government by surprise and certainly many legal commentators by surprise, the High Court found that the power that had been relied upon by governments in the past to transfer asylum seekers to third countries for processing were more limited in their application than had formerly thought to be the case.

Indeed, the outcome of the High Court’s decision was that it would not be possible for the Government, without amending the Migration Act, to implement its arrangement with Malaysia.

The outcome of that High Court case, too, was that it would not be possible, without amendment to the Migration Act, to have a processing centre for asylum seekers in PNG or Nauru.

Faced with that High Court decision, the Government determined to bring to the Parliament amendments to the Migration Act. The purpose of those amendments would have been to enable executive government to act; executive government to make the decisions that it saw fit in relation to the processing of asylum seekers in countries other than Australia.

As is now clear, those amendments will not pass the Parliament. Mr Abbott has made it abundantly clear that it his intention to block these amendments.

Mr Abbott is doing that in circumstances where he continues to claim publically that he believes that there should be offshore processing, but Mr Abbott, in his conduct, is acting to end offshore processing.

Mr Abbott has his own amendments which he has brought to the Parliament. It is also abundantly clear that those amendments will fail in the Parliament.

So, in these circumstances, as a result of the decisions taken by the Opposition, it is clear that the migration law of this country will not be amended and as a result the Government is not in a position now, and future governments without amendments to the Migration Act, will not be in the position to have asylum seekers processed in third countries.

In these circumstances, I believe it is important to update Australians on what we will do, how we will respond to this set of circumstances.

First, I want to make it clear that at every step of the way the Government has been guided by a set of principles in making decisions about refugee and asylum seeker policy.

First, we are committed to strong protection of our borders.

Second, we are committed to doing everything possible to deter people from risking their life at sea and getting on boats. That is why we have been, and continue to be, determined to break the people smugglers’ business model and to do everything we can to deter people from risking their lives at sea.

Third, we have been committed and will continue to be committed to upholding the Refugee Convention.

Fourth, we have been committed and will continue to be committed to working on arrangements in our region.

And fifth, we have been committed and we continue to be committed to a mandatory detention system.

We are also committed and will continue to be committed to working on law enforcement activities to apprehend and stop people smugglers and the evil trade that they ply.

So, they have been the Government’s principles as it’s made decisions in this area. They continue to be our principles as we confront the circumstances in the Parliament as the result of the conduct of Mr Abbott and the Opposition.

In these circumstances, the Government has determined the following.

The Government remains committed to the arrangement with Malaysia. We believe it is the best policy outcome for this country, that it would give the maximum deterrence effect; that it would give us the maximum ability to deter people from getting on leaky boats and risking their lives.

The Malaysia arrangement is an arrangement that is the product of discussions in our region, and has been worked through under the Bali Framework. It is an arrangement born of a regional process, so it will continue to be the Government’s policy that the Malaysian arrangement should be implemented, with an associated processing centre in PNG.

That means the Government will continue to press the Opposition to pass the amendments to the Migration Act before the Parliament.

The Leader of Opposition is fond of saying that I should make various phone calls on the question of refugee and asylum seeker policy. Well, let me say this to the Leader of the Opposition: if he wants offshore processing to continue, and he says he does, if the Leader of the Opposition wants offshore processing for Australia then he only needs to make one phone call - he needs to ring this Prime Minister and say that he will vote for the amendments

before the Parliament.

Whilst we are committed to the Malaysia arrangement and believe it is the best policy outcome, clearly until Mr Abbott faces up to the national interest we will not be able to implement it.

In those circumstances, we are determined to continue to work in our region with our regional neighbours to do everything we can to combat people smuggling. We are also determined to continue our law enforcement work to combat people smuggling.

We are determined to maintain a mandatory detention system, and we will maintain a mandatory detention system.

We currently have unused capacity in our mandatory detention system, but I want to be very clear and very frank about this - as a result of the conduct of Mr Abbott, and as a result we are not in a position to implement the arrangement with Malaysia, we are at a real risk of seeing more boats.

If we do see more boats, whilst we have unused detention capacity now, that will put pressure on the detention network. We will manage that pressure on the detention network, by I do want to indicate we will use existing tools to make arrangements as necessary to manage pressure on the detention network. That is not an immediate issue because there is unused capacity, but we are at real risk as a result of Mr Abbott’s conduct of seeing more boats.

Before turning to the Minister for Immigration, I do want to say this: we are at a real risk of seeing more boats, and I understand that that will cause community anxiety. I believe it is very important, if we do see more boats, to separate in the community’s mind, in all of our minds, the problem of seeing more boats from the people who are on those boats.

It is not in my mind a question of blaming the people who are on those boats. We are a generous country. We are a compassionate country. Of course, we want to extend that compassion to genuine refugees, and in those circumstances it is not a matter of blaming the people who are on the boats for these circumstances.

I’ll turn now to the Minister for Immigration for some comments, then we’ll take questions.

MINISTER BOWEN: Thanks very much, Prime Minister, and as the Prime Minister indicated, I will deal with some of the practical implications of the Opposition’s failure to act in the national interest.

As many of you know, there have been a reduction in the number of boat arrivals to Australia over recent months, particularly since the announcement of the Malaysia arrangement. That, combined with faster processing arrangements put in place by this Government, have meant less people in immigration detention facilities over recent months. At the moment, we have 3,555 people who’ve arrived in Australia by boat in immigration detention facilities. We have a further 1,145 irregular maritime arrivals being accommodated in the community. That does mean because of those factors we do currently have some excess capacity in our detention facilities. In addition, I have previously announced the commissioning of detention facilities at Wickham Point in Darwin and at Yongah Hill in Western Australia, and they are due to come online later this year, providing further capacity. Of course, that means that we do have some short-term capacity availability.

The Government is not inclined to open more detention centres, more detention facilities. What we will do is continue to manage the network prudently and efficiently. There are a range of mechanisms available to the Government to do that. As you know, we currently have been moving families and children into the community. That has been an ambitious task, but it has

been a task that we have fulfilled, moving the majority of children into the community. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll also continue to do that as we do at the moment with some vulnerable adults. In addition, there are a range of

powers available currently to the Government that are used regularly for people who arrive in Australia irregularly by air or are visa overstayers and are used from time to time for people who arrive by boat. Of course, they will be used more regularly as we manage the detention network so that we avoid opening more detention centres. There, of course, I’m referring to bridging visas, as well as the current community detention availability that we have been implementing over the last 12 months.

As I say, we can expect, as the Prime Minister has said, we can expect the possibility of more boat arrivals after the success and the various factors which have led to reductions in boat arrivals over recent months. Because of Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison failing to act in the national interest, that does

mean that we will need to continue to manage our mandatory detention system and our network in such a way that ensures we maintain mandatory detention for health, identity and security checks, but we also manage people as appropriately in the community as they proceed on their processing.

JOURNALIST: What’s the state of legislation, Prime Minister?

PM: Well, it is apparent that the legislation won’t pass the Parliament. It is apparent that Mr Abbott’s amendments would not pass the Parliament. It is also apparent the legislation, unamended, will not pass the Parliament. That’s the situation there.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is it the case that, acknowledging that but leaving, as I understand, the legislation out there, that you are really saying to us here that the circumstances that will arise, that you fear of more boats coming, are really Tony Abbott’s fault and that you’re leaving that there in the hope that he will come around?

PM: Well, there is only one reason that we are not in a circumstance to have offshore processing, and that’s because of Mr Abbott and his determination to trash the national interest. The legislation will be there, on the notice paper and before the Parliament, and if there is ever a day when Mr Abbott wakes up and is prepared to act in the national interest, then the legislation will be immediately brought on, but I believe it’s important that Australians understand where this conduct leads us to.

Mr Abbott’s conduct leads us to circumstances where we are at real risk of seeing more boats. That is very, very clear.

If we do see more boats, as the Minister for Immigration has said, we have capacity in the mandatory detention network now, but if we do see more boats, then we may have to confront the circumstance - indeed, it’s quite

likely we will have to confront the circumstance - of how we manage the mandatory detention network under increasing pressure.

The Minister has outlined those directions today, and we will more to say about those directions in the weeks to come. Of course, in the coming weeks we continue to have capacity in the detention network to use.

PM: We’ll go to the back, then to Michelle, then come to the front. Chris?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, (inaudible) do you take any responsibility at all for the circumstances you find yourself in now?

PM: Well, I certainly take responsibility for having worked alongside the Minister for Immigration to structure a new, innovative and I believe the most effective response that we can have to asylum seekers coming by boat. That is the arrangement with Malaysia.

We should be clear that the advice to us from all experts within the Government has been that that is the most effective approach we can take. In circumstances where the High Court effectively changed our understanding of the law in Australia, I brought amendments to the Parliament. Those amendments need a majority to pass the House of Representatives, and with Mr Abbott playing wrecker, then it is clear that they will not get that majority.

Michelle?

JOURNALIST: Are the people now in the community on bridging visas and what capacity do you have left and how quickly do you anticipate that you’d have to be siphoning people into the community?

MINISTER BOWEN: The majority of people who are irregular maritime arrivals in the community are in what is known as community detention. It is detention only to the extent that they must live in a place designated by the

Minister for Immigration. They are free to come and go from that place.

JOURNALIST: So the bridging visas is new?

MINISTER BOWEN: The bridging visas are currently used as a matter of course, particularly for people who have arrived irregularly by air. They are used less frequently for people who arrive by boat. I’m indicating that you could imagine and expect that they would be used as part of the suite of measures to respond to pressures on the immigration detention network going forward.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

MINISTER BOWEN: Look, obviously, as I said before, it’s been a substantial and ambitious task to move a very substantial number of people into the community. As I said, there are currently 1,145 people living in the community. More than that have been moved into the community over the last 12 months; they’ve subsequently been granted permanent visas, been found to be refugees.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

MINISTER BOWEN: For community detention? For immigration detention facilities? Currently we have excess capacity in centres of 1,100 and in alternative places of detention of 1,300.

PM: OK, we’ll come across the front. We’ll go Andrew first.

JOURNALIST: It appears that there’s absolutely no deterrence any more for people wanting to come to Australia except for a great, big dangerous sea, if you do have the interests of those taking these enormous risks at heart, wouldn’t you at least choose something that some deterrence, and that might include Nauru?

PM: Well, I don’t agree with the premise of your question and I don’t agree with the conclusion of it, either. The premise of your question about deterrence, is of course we work in our region through our law enforcement agencies to act with our regional partners to detect and disrupt people smuggling networks. We have been vigilant about that and we intend to continue that vigilance. We’ve been very determined to work with our regional neighbours, on things like working with Indonesia, which has now legislated people smuggling as a crime. Obviously, that acts as a deterrence, that something that wasn’t viewed as criminal conduct in Indonesia before is viewed as criminal conduct now.

On the question of Nauru, the very clear advice to us from the experts that have advised this Government and past governments, who were relied on at the highest levels of the Howard Government, the advice from those experts

is Nauru, by itself, won’t work; that it does not have deterrence effect. That is clearly the advice for anyone, and I understand that Mr Abbot does, for anyone to claim anything other than that is to not tell people the truth.

Phil?

JOURNALIST: Those same experts said about Nauru (inaudible) about 600 people a month arriving by boat (inaudible) are they the types on numbers you’ll be expecting in the short or medium term?

PM: Well, we’re not going to start forecasting numbers, but we do believe there is a real risk that we may see more boats as a result of Mr Abbott preventing their being offshore processing arrangements.

Yes?

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) Police, particularly in Indonesia, around those areas, in order to have that deterrence effect?

PM: Sorry, I didn’t catch the first few word of your question?

JOURNALIST: Are you going to throw more resources at intelligence and policing, given that’s your only deterrent now?

PM: We are certainly keeping a very close eye on resources and work in the region and work on disruption and detection. We will continue to do that. We will give active consideration to what more we can do in that area.

Dennis?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given that you are now going to use bridging visas, effectively treating illegal boat arrivals in a similar way to people who overstay their visas, have you given any consideration to a new visa class to try and make it a stronger deterrent?

PM: Well, before we get too many premises into the question, let’s just be very clear here: what the Minister has said to you is that we have capacity in our detention system now. Obviously, we are concerned about a real risk of

more boats. We will need to manage mandatory detention in those circumstances. We’re determined to see mandatory detention continue. I’ve made the point before and I’m happy to make it again - mandatory detention in this country was created by a Labor Government.

Mandatory detention must serve its purpose for having people who arrive unauthorised detained, and to make sure we do appropriate health, security and identity checks. The Minister has referred to a number of existing policy instruments that are used in circumstances where people have made asylum claims, so we are obviously giving consideration to the full set of policy tools that the Minister has at his disposal, and we will have something more to say about those things in the weeks to come.

JOURNALIST: Can you just explain what would a bridging visa - on what conditions does that (inaudible)

MINISTER BOWEN: There are a range of bridging visas available under the Immigration Act which also goes to Dennis’ question and there is no need for a new category because there’s a range of bridging visas available. The bridging visa which is most regularly used, for example, for people who arrive in Australia by air that I’ve referred to, has for example the ability to seek work but only a very limited availability of asylum seeker support scheme for some basic access to payments in situations where that’s necessary.

JOURNALISTS: (Inaudible)

PM: We’ll just answer here and then we’ll come across.

JOURNALIST: My understanding is that they will have work rights but they would also (inaudible) payments, housing. What about (inaudible) like Medicare?

MINISTER BOWEN: No, somebody on the type of bridging visa that I referred to doesn’t not have access to the type of arrangements that are in community detention where a house is procured through the Red Cross, for example, and care is provided. Somebody on a bridging visa, and again as I emphasised there are various types of bridging visas available with various conditions the Minister and the Department for that matter have available to them at any time to issue to an individual and they are taken on an individual case by case basis. So for example it’s open to the Department to look at the types of needs of a particular asylum seeker and either make a decision to recommend that they be placed into community detention or a various type of bridging visa. Bridging visas generally have work rights, generally speaking the access to payment support is limited to situations where it’s means tested and it is necessary for somebody’s ability to continue to live in the community and it’s available at a rate of 89 per cent special benefit.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on a slightly side issue, Bob Carr today has written on a blog that he believes the Ombudsman should resign because it was inappropriate for him to be scripting questions to the Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

What comment do you have about Mr Asher’s conduct, and is his job safe?

PM: Well, there are a set of procedures and processes that apply to the Ombudsman, as you would expect. They are not there, if you like, by prime ministerial command, in that sense. So, from my point of view, I do have some

concerns about this conduct, but there’s a set of proper processes and they need to be gone through.

Yes, at the back. We’ll go to Latika and then come to Phil.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, will there be any adjustment to the refugee intake, and specifically on the 4,000 (inaudible) some of those have already started, is that still going to continue in the future?

PM: I have determined that we will honour the 4,000 places from Malaysia. We are intending to do that within our current humanitarian quota.

Phil?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, did any of your MPs or Ministers today suggest that you abandon Malaysia all together, or did any suggest that you adopt Nauru?

PM: Look, I’m not going to canvas discussions that happen within Government, but I want to be very clear with you about what the policy of the Government is.

Having the arrangement with Malaysia has been discussed by our Cabinet and relevant Cabinet sub-committee on a great number of occasions. It’s also been discussed by Labor Caucus now on a number of occasions. The policy of the Government is that Malaysia is the best way of putting people smugglers out of business. The Malaysia arrangement is the best way of

stopping people getting on boats and risking their lives.

If Mr Abbott ever wakes up with the national interest in mind and passes the legislation before the Parliament we will implement the arrangement with Malaysia.

Yes Catherine.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in relation to Mr Asher you said the proper process has to apply, I don’t know what you mean by that-

PM: As I understand there are some bureaucratic processes within PM&C about these matters so I’m not intending to get drawn on running commentary about it.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

PM: No I’m not.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you’ve spoken about more boats, bridging visas, community detention - how sustainable is this position, do you think the community will accept it and won’t you have to arrive at a firmer position at

some point down the track?

PM: Well let’s be very clear before we put out information that isn’t accurate. This Government created community detention because we wanted to do everything we could to ensure that women and children, children in particular were not kept in high security detention. Anybody who remembers the days of the Howard Government would remember that it was a matter of huge

community concern that children were literally kept behind razor wire and we gave a set of commitments about that, about community detention and we have worked to honour those commitments, that is what Minister Bowen has been referring to. So that has been the policy and the actions of this Government over some period of time now to have community detention.

On maintaining the mandatory detention system which we are determined to do, I have said to you during the course of this press conference, we have capacity in the mandatory detention system so we will use that capacity. We are obviously concerned if boat numbers rise, and we believe there is a real risk of that, that that will put pressure on the system. We will manage that pressure on the system with existing policy tools and we will have something further to say about that in the weeks to come.

Lenore.

JOURNALIST: The processes, the PM&C processes regarding Mr Asher that you referred to, to what end are they, they’re not disciplinary action what are they for?

PM: We’ll get some further advice for you.

Yes, hang on, we’ll just be fair and go to the back first and then come forward.

JOURNALIST: The Human Rights Commission has recommended the use of bridging visas for asylum seekers who’ve gone through the refugee process and it failed, that they can’t be sent back. I’m sure there’s a large group of Iranians that fall into that category, is that the type of use that you’re looking at?

MINISTER BOWEN: I wouldn’t flag the particular policy response in relation to failed asylum seekers as you say Kirsty that is a particularly vexed area because you do have people in relation to Iranian asylum seekers in particular where returns are very difficult, where they have failed to meet the criteria for a refugee. What I am flagging is as part of managing the detention network, as the numbers, if they increase, that that would be one of the suite of measures that are currently available to the Minister and the Department, I’m just flagging in an open and transparent way that they would be considered for various people in the immigration detention network.

JOURNALIST: Minister what’s your view of Mr Asher’s conduct?

MINISTER BOWEN: As I said this morning I think integrity and openness and transparency are key values for the office of the Ombudsman, it’s up to the Ombudsman to explain how his conduct meets that criteria.

JOURNALIST: Just back on the 4,000 from Malaysia. (Inaudible) Prime Minister that we’ll still take those within the existing quota. Does that mean we won’t be expanding our quota by 1,000 a year and there will be 4,000 fewer from other camps-

MINISTER BOWEN: Prime Minister.

PM: I want to be clear about this, we made a commitment, there are genuine refugees in Malaysia who have been waiting a long period of time. For the Government’s policies, we have a humanitarian quota so we will manage it within the humanitarian quota.

Can I just be clear though, well I just want to be clear. It is always the aspiration of, I think, it’s always the aspiration of the Government and I think it’s genuinely always the aspiration of the Australian community to extend our compassion to genuine refugees in need. So of course we want to do the best we can to assist people who are in very difficult circumstances, there are people in Malaysia who have been waiting a long period of time for a resettlement opportunity. They, many of them, are Burmese, but there are people of other origins who have been there waiting for a long period of time. I think Australians understand that there is real reason why people have to get on the move from Burma given the nature of the regime and so we do believe it’s appropriate to continue to honour the 4,000 places. They are, I would stress, at a rate of 1,000 places over four years.

JOURNALIST: That won’t be additional to the humanitarian intake though they’ll be part of it?

PM: Correct.

JOURNALISTS: (Inaudible)

PM: We’ll do the last three questions and then we’ll go. Well, you haven’t asked a question yet so in the interest - oh hang on, we’ll go here and here and then just get the lads and that’s it.

JOURNALIST: The Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has called for your resignation again, he says you botched this Malaysia solution, he’s holding a press conference in another few minutes, he’ll no doubt say that again. Did you botch it and will you resign?

MINISTER BOWEN: Mr Morrison said some pretty ridiculous things in his time but that really takes the cake. He won’t act in the national interest and he calls for my resignation- I think that says it all.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you’re (inaudible) not to blame the people that are arriving on the boats. Are you concerned that more arrivals could lead to cultural clashes and civil unrest?

PM: It’s not a question of that, no. It’s always a concern in our domestic political debate to, in leadership positions like mine, to be clear with the community about asylum seeker and refugee policy and to be clear too about why people come here in leaky boats and take real risks. I’ll always remember taking the phone call that advised me of the tragedy on the shoreline of Christmas Island and a lot of Australians are always going to remember where they were when they first saw that come through on the TV news. I

think it’s important for us to keep in our mind that this is not about laying blame on the people who get on those boats, that is why our focus has always been on smashing the people smugglers’ business model and our focus has

always been on doing everything we can to deter people from putting themselves in that kind of danger. So we’ve always had a focus on making sure that we have border protection but that we are also protecting our values

in relation to the treatment of refugees, that’s my point.

Dennis.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why did you wait two weeks to make a decision today that the amendments couldn’t go ahead and try and look at working within the system now? Why would you not abandon them two weeks ago?

PM: Well there was speculation Dennis about what would happen in the House of Representatives but there was not certainty until Mr Crook announced his decision.

So we’ll take the last two and that’s it.

JOURNALIST: The new shape policy is going to have a lot of reliance on the NGOs, the Red Cross that you mentioned and a few other community housing organisations. Given that they will be having to find housing, having to find resources for asylum seekers while - the ones that are on bridging visas. What extra money will you be giving them?

MINISTER BOWEN: Let’s be clear, there’s a formula for community detention which currently is administered on our behalf by the Red Cross and can I say they do that very well and we’d obviously pay their expenses in that regard.

People on bridging visas as I’ve said before, most of those bridging visas, it’s not an automatic availability of any provided housing and of course there’s availability of asylum seeker support scheme which has a set formula for funding to that individual. I have engaged of course with the Red Cross over recent times about various options, now that the situation in the Parliament is clear that enables me to have further engagement with the Red Cross and other organisations.

PM: Last question from Latika.

JOURNALIST: -on this policy question (inaudible) has now found it’s way?

PM: Look Latika we found a good policy. The Malaysian arrangement is a good policy. I believe you are one of the people who’s had the opportunity to be briefed by the experts who advise Government and when you got that briefing they would have left you with absolutely no doubt about the degree of innovation in this policy, about the strength of this policy, about the difference it has from past approaches. They would have left you in absolutely no doubt that in their expert opinion, given the options from which we are choosing as a nation, that is the best option to do everything we can to really hurt people

smuggling. I want to implement it, I’m very determined to implement it, the person who is preventing me implementing it is Tony Abbott.

Thank you.

[ENDS]