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Transcript of joint press conference: Melbourne: 23 November 2012: Bryce Courtenay; the Government's failed border protection policies; humanitarian intake; mutual obligation for bridging visa holders; AWU slush fund
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WARRINGAH
23 November 2012
TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH MR. SCOTT MORRISON MHR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION & CITIZENSHIP, MELBOURNE
Subjects: Bryce Courtenay; the Government’s failed border protection policies; humanitarian intake; mutual obligation for bridging visa holders; AWU slush fund.
Thanks very much for coming. I just want to open these remarks by expressing my sorrow and the Coalition’s sorrow at the passing of Bryce Courtenay. Bryce was a remarkable man. He was a remarkable writer. I think there would be few Australians unfamiliar with The Power Of One; also his very poignant story of a death in his family in April Fool's Day and of course there were the legendary Louie the Fly ads which he created. So, one way or the other, he has had a great impact on our lives and on our popular culture. He will be missed. Bryce Courtenay has gone but his work lives on and that's to the benefit of all Australians.
What I'm here for today - with Scott Morrison, the Shadow Minister for Immigration - is to make some significant announcements about changes that the Coalition would make should we form a government.
I want to begin by saying that we are an immigrant nation. We always have been, we always will be. But the reason why we have always been welcoming to immigrants is because overwhelmingly the immigrants to Australia have come the right way and they've done the right thing in our country. We've always supported a generous refugee and humanitarian intake - we always have and we always will. What we can't do, though, is sustain something that we simply, at the moment, cannot afford. This is a government which has lost control of our borders and it has lost control of our budget. The announcement that Scott and I are making today will help to re-establish control over both our borders and our budget.
First, a Coalition government would reverse the current government's increase in the refugee and humanitarian component of our immigration programme to 20,000 and beyond. We would reverse this increase and, in so doing, we would save - on the government's own figures - some $1.3 billion over the forward estimates period.
Second, an incoming Coalition government intends to impose rigorous mutual obligation requirements on any who are on the Government's new bridging visas. This is the wrong time and the wrong signal that the Government is sending to the people smugglers by increasing the refugee and humanitarian intake. We can't afford it. It is as simple as that.
The other point I want to make is the Coalition is committed, absolutely committed, to ending the ‘something for nothing’ mindset. If it is right for young Australians to do work for the dole, it is all the more important to have people who have come uninvited to this country pulling their weight - that's why this is very important. The Government doesn't have its heart in work for the dole but the Coalition certainly does.
Finally, before asking Scott to add to my comments, I want to reassure the people of Australia that while this government has created a crisis on our borders, it can be resolved. Never forget that the Howard Government found a problem and crafted a solution. The current government found a solution and recreated a problem which is now becoming a crisis. What has been done in the past can be done again. We did stop the boats in the past, we will stop the boats in the future, but it is going to take a Coalition government to fix this problem.
Thank you, Tony. Labor this week admitted they cannot stop the boats when they announced the expansion of the onshore detention network by another 700 places, when they announced thousands of more places in the community for the thousands more they expect to come. Labor know that they cannot stop the boats and I think the Australian people have seen the demonstration of that over the last five years. We are now in a situation where more than 2,000 people are turning up every single month. This is a record of failure that has exceeded all expectations and it does require significant measures and, more importantly, significant resolve to fix up this mess.
The measures we have announced today build on the significant measures we've already stated: the measure of turning boats back where it is safe to do so, the measures of temporary protection visas denying permanent residency to those who would seek to come to Australia by boat, and fair dinkum offshore processing - not the exception of offshore processing that we see under this government. Offshore processing under this government is the exception not the rule. The only thing more remote than the locations of these facilities is the chance of those who arrive by boat actually being sent there by this government.
The announcements today on reversing the increase will save the Australian taxpayer $1.3 billion, as Tony has said. These extra places are an extra 25,000 places over four years that the government has agreed to. That's a cost of more than $50,000 per place and as Tony has rightly said, this is a cost that simply we cannot afford. But it also says something about the Government's priorities; that they think spending $1.3 billion on 25,000 new places in the programme that will go to people who come on boats is a more urgent priority than the many other demands that are out there and the many concerns that Australians are facing every single day.
The Coalition’s policy, as we announced before the last election and as I’ve affirmed and Tony’s affirmed on many occasions is simply this when it comes to the intake: 13,750 places for permanent visas under our refugee and humanitarian program. Not one of those places will go to any anyone who comes on a boat to Australia. They will go to people who have come the right way. Temporary protection visas will be provided to those who, at the end of the day, if they're in a position to substantiate their claim under our processes, they would only ever be provided with temporary protection visas not permanent visas. Then we have the split programme. This would ensure basically under the Coalition, no longer could anyone who comes on a boat take the place of someone who has come the right way and applied offshore. Under the Government's programme of 20,000 that policy will remain in place - people who come on boats will continue to take places from those who come the right way.
On work for the dole, I wanted to make this point just quickly. Firstly, these are for people who are on Labor's bridging visas to permanent residency. That's what they are for. This is Labor's mess that these policies are designed to address. It will be done as a condition of the bridging visa. If people are in breach of the conditions of their bridging visa then they are able to be taken back into detention. For those who are already in a process for their asylum claim they are able to be put in detention while the course of their
processing continues. This is a measure that Chris Bowen could introduce today and I would call on him to do it. He can make it a condition of these bridging visas which he will issue in their thousands, he can do that when we return to Parliament next week. He can do it with the stroke of a pen with regulation and he should do it because it is the right thing to do.
Ok, are there any questions?
Isn’t the first thing that a refugee lawyer is going to challenge is the ability of you to legislate out someone’s right to claim a humanitarian place because of the way they arrived?
If I understand the question, it has long been the practice that if someone who was what is an onshore entry person comes to Australia, then the visa which they are given if they're found to be a refugee is a matter for the Government. There's no obligation under the Refugee Convention to provide permanent residence. You will not find a clause which provides that guarantee anywhere in that document. All we have an obligation to do is provide safe haven and safe haven is provided in the form of a temporary protection visa and that's what they will have under a Coalition government if they're successful. Under the current government they will continue to get permanent residence and a pathway to citizenship.
So, that's purely a cost saving measure? It is not anticipated it will have any impact on the number of marine arrivals?
Certainly, denying permanent residence to people who come on boats removes the product from the people smugglers’ armoury. That's always been the purpose of temporary protection visas.
The other point I should stress is that if people come to Australia illegally by boat, if they are going to be supported by the taxpayer, they will be expected to work for their dole, in effect, and the point I make is that people who come here will not be able to enjoy life on the Australian taxpayer without giving something back to the community. We expect it of Australians and certainly we should all the more expect it of people who come uninvited to our country.
When you talk about coming illegally by boat, what’s illegal about it?
Look, obviously someone who comes to our country not in accordance with our law, not in accordance with our procedures, is coming to this country illegally and the terminology has been used by the Prime Minister, the terminology has been used by the former Foreign Minister, the terminology is enshrined in the terms and concepts that this government uses all the time, and I make no apologies for calling them for what they are: they are people who have arrived illegally in this country and I've got to say that the Australian people are
sick of being taken for mugs; of being taken for a ride by criminals because that's what these people smugglers are - they are criminals who have been taking us for a ride for too long.
Illegal entry is a term defined in Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. It is also a term that's defined in the convention on people smuggling. People who arrive in Australia without a valid visa for entry, that is not a legal form of entry to this country, and I, Tony, no other member of parliament have ever voted for a law which has changed that. It is a method of entry that is illegal. There is no question about that. If someone then subsequently in Australia once they're here applies for asylum, there's nothing illegal about that. That suggestion has never been made by anyone on the Coalition side. But it is illegal to enter the country in the way that this is being done and that is backed up by the terminology of the UN itself and we make no apology for making that description.
The Government has said today that they believe that their policy sends a strong message, that there are other ways to come; you don't have to come in by boat. Is reducing the intake sending the opposite message?
Well, the trouble at the moment is that the increased intake is going to be entirely filled by people arriving illegally by boat. That's the problem. The point the Coalition has made over the years is that we are not against increasing the intake under the right circumstances but you should never increase the intake under the wrong circumstances and the wrong circumstances are now when we can't afford it and when the current government has completely lost control of our borders.
Increasing the intake does not stop the boats. Minister Bowen admitted that on ABC Radio yesterday. Minister Bowen may have many reasons for wanting to increase the intake but stopping the boats is not one of those reasons and as a result, it is for him to explain if he does think that now but he certainly made it pretty clear on radio yesterday that he doesn't think it will stop the boats.
Mr Abbott, I just want to ask you on the slush fund. You said the Prime Minister has some explaining to do on that. Exactly what does she have to explain?
I think anyone has been listening to Parliament over the last few weeks, anyone who has been listening to the ABC's 7.30, for instance, over the last couple of nights, would know that there are a lot of questions that have been put to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister has simply been stonewalling them. Now, I think all of us are more than ready to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt but in order to give her the benefit of the doubt we have got to hear her side of the story; we've got to hear from her the kind of candour and openness about how she conducted herself professionally as a lawyer and how she has conducted herself in answering these questions as a Prime Minister. We've got to have the same openness from her on this as her ministers have been demanding from Julie Bishop and receiving from Julie Bishop.
The Prime Minister every time she's asked the question points back to the media conference where she exhausted journalists. What else could she do? Does she need to hold another news conference now?
She needs to give clear and complete answers to all of the legitimate questions which have arisen over what she herself has said was a slush fund that she helped to set up. Look, I want to stress that this is not a matter which the Coalition has been instrumental in raising. This most recently came to the fore because one of the Prime Minister's own former Cabinet colleagues, Robert McClelland, raised it in the Parliament a couple of months ago and since then we've had people such as Ian Cambridge - who was put on Fair Work Australia by the current government - continuing to call for a Royal Commission into all of this and most recently we had Bill Shorten himself say that the setting up of the slush fund by the Prime Minister was inappropriate, unauthorised and out of bounds. Now, I think under these circumstances, the least the Prime Minister can do is give the people of Australia, her former colleagues in the union movement, her current Cabinet colleagues, a full explanation.
Ralph Blewitt met with the Victorian fraud squad this morning [inaudible]…?
Look, I wasn’t there. I don't know what he said. That's a matter for him.
A lot of people are talking about his credibility. Do you think he's credible?
This is not something that depends upon any one individual. As I said, Ian Cambridge, the former head of the Australian Workers’ Union, who the current government has placed on Fair Work Australia is a person of great credibility and great integrity and much of the new material arises from the diary that he kept at the time. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has questioned the credibility or the integrity of Nick Styant-Browne, the former Slater & Gordon law partner who was one of those who at the time was questioning the Prime Minister's professional conduct and whatever you might say about Bill Shorten, he is certainly someone of considerable standing inside the Government.
At what point does your willingness to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt disappear?
Let's see how the Prime Minister can answer the questions which have quite legitimately arisen out of all of this and, as I said, there are issues about what happened back in the 1990s with the slush fund, there are issues of union governance and how these matters are handled by the current government and then there are issues about the truthfulness of the answers that Julia Gillard has given as Prime Minister. Now, I think all of these issues need to be addressed. Let's see what kind of an account the Prime Minister can give of herself and then let's see what's appropriate for an Opposition.
Is there a time limit?
Look, I think the sooner the Prime Minister responds to the questions that have quite legitimately been put to her, the better for her and the better for our polity. I am very keen to try to ensure that as far as is humanly possible, people can respect our polity, can have trust in our leaders and when these sorts of questions are put but not properly answered, when they're stonewalled, I think it is much harder for people to respect our polity and respect our leaders than would otherwise be the case.
I think new evidence has emerged, documentary evidence, evidence from credible people in a position to know, that suggests that that can no longer be considered a complete answer. Denials are all very well, but in the face of new evidence, a simple denial is not enough - an explanation is necessary and that's what the Prime Minister should be giving us.