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Transcript of interview with Ben Fordham: 2GB Sydney Live: 19 February 2013: Asylum seekers

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BEN FORDHAM: Minister O'Connor, good afternoon.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Good afternoon, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: Thank you for talking to me. Congrats on the job.


BEN FORDHAM: It's not a job that a lot of people ask for, Immigration Minister.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: It's a tough area, as you know, but I think it's a very important one, and a lot of good things are done there. But of course there are some tricky areas and challenging areas, not least of all irregular maritime arrivals.

BEN FORDHAM: Now, have you had some advice from Chris Bowen?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, he - I think he was right and the Prime Minister was right - to get the experts panel together and get their recommendations. This is a pretty difficult area, and the best way to deal with it is having enough types of measures in place, whether it be the no advantage principle that we introduced from 13 August, whether it's about returning people to countries of origin, like we've done with nearly 1000 back to Sri Lanka late last year, whether it's putting in place enough places so that people don't seem to get on those dangerous vessels but apply properly, formally, and take the regular path to migration. You need a combination of things. Some things we have put in place, some we have yet to put in place, and I think step by step if we do that - not overnight, but over time - we will see a reduction in the arrivals.

BEN FORDHAM: You wouldn't be surprised that people are sceptical when they hear you say that, because we have had so many discussions about what the Government was going to do about this, and none of it has worked. Let me just go through the last month. In the last month: 20 January, 31 arrivals; 21 January, 11; 24 January, 106; 25 January, 15; on the 26th there were 59; on the 30th there were 58; 6 February, 49 arrivals; 8 February, 37; 10 February, 55; 12 February, 37; 15 February, 97; 16 February, 60. It adds up, doesn't it?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: It does, and that's - now, that may only be… Since we were elected in ‘07 three per cent of the total immigration intake, I mean, 97 of every 100 people come, you know, in the regular path to migration.

BEN FORDHAM: You're not defending it, are you? I mean, this…

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No, no. I think it's really important to know the scale because I know that sometimes listeners think…

BEN FORDHAM: Yes, but it's not about the scale, Minister. What it's about is the danger of people dying at sea.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I'm glad that you are concerned about that, because I am, and I can tell you what: I mean, I arrived on Christmas Island on 15 December 2010 as the Home Affairs Minister just after that awful tragedy where 50 people perished - men, women, and children. And if I needed any convincing that we needed to find a successful way to, you know, reduce these arrivals that was the day that certainly left a long impression on me, because…

BEN FORDHAM: This, I'm sure, will affect you as well - I don't know whether you've seen these photos today. I've just noticed this come off Associated Press: shocking pictures have emerged of a group of asylum seekers rescued after their boat sank after two months at sea as they desperately tried to reach Australia. The photographs inside this vessel - I presume these photos are taken. You've got men who are coming off - limping off. They're emaciated; absolutely heart-wrenching stuff.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: It's - look, it's just horrific, and it underlines the tragedy. Sometimes we don't see that. I mean, the thing about the Christmas Island tragedy and the pictures to which you refer, that - you know, we get to see just the awful, distressing pictures, but of course on many occasions vessels sink without trace - not just coming to Australia, but seeking to go to all places around the world. And it's tragic, and that's why we have to do everything we can to stop people smugglers luring people onto vessels with a promise that they can get to another place without any conditions attached.

BEN FORDHAM: So far, your government has failed to do that, hasn't it?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: We have - look, we've still go to do - we need to implement this experts' report. I think that…

BEN FORDHAM: I mean, the - I mean, I don't need to be telling you. You're an experienced politician, but you need to acknowledge the failure so far, correct?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, look, we haven't resolved this matter and we haven't resolved it because I don't think we've actually implemented the things that Angus Houston and Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle announced.

And I think they were right, that there had to be a combination of things. You need to deal with countries of origin, transit, and destination. You need a whole bunch of things in place, but can I just say this: you know, the regional processing centres alone with bridging visas or anything like that isn't going to be sufficient to stop people dying at sea. And that's why, you know, it's disappointing that we haven't had a bipartisan approach to these things, listening to the experts, in my view.

BEN FORDHAM: Yes, the Government is forecasting expenditure will fall in this area by $2 billion over the next two years. How can you predict a cut to the cost of handling all of these arrivals when more and more boats are arriving?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, firstly, we do think there will be a decline, and you're right to say it has been a very significant time if you compare January's, but as you might recall late last year we had unprecedented numbers coming in October/November. Now the returns of those peoples - up to 925-odd are sent back to Sri Lanka - has sent a very strong message to that country. And we've seen a very significant reduction - in fact, a trickle - since then.

There is no doubt, therefore, that we will see decline and, look, in relation to the cost - and I think that's an important point you raise, Ben - the budgeting is obviously based around costs for the detention network.

What we have done by having people on bridging visa is reduce per capita costs significantly, so of course we keep people detained for health, security, identity reasons, and of course we keep people detained if they've got - if there are any security issues that are not resolved, as advised by ASIO.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay, but it…

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: But bridging visas have reduced the cost dramatically per capita.

BEN FORDHAM: But, Minister, it doesn't pass the kitchen table test. I mean, if you have a problem in your household, a budgetary problem that is increasing and it's only getting bigger and bigger, you don't all of a sudden predict that it's going to cost you less.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No. What I'm saying to you is that the - we believe that we will see a decline if we implement these measures, and I'm saying to you also the way in which we now manage the system is cheaper per capital

BEN FORDHAM: But you've already budgeted for that decline, haven't you?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, we have - well, firstly, we revised the budgetary figures upwards, as we should have, to take into account the investment required for the construction of the centres on Nauru and Manus Island, so we certainly accept that there has to be an increase. And this year the budgetary figures have been revised upward to take into account that expenditure. We are now - the per capita costs are falling because of the way in which we manage this but, yes, we are - we do believe over the four years we will see a decline.

Because of the no advantage principle, because of the returns, we will start to see a reduction, and we will see fewer people endangering their lives getting onto unseaworthy vessels.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay. The message seems to be an important one in terms of letting people know or how we react to people who do the wrong thing and come here, which brings me to Captain Emad, who was exposed on Four Corners. His wife, daughter, and son had their permanent visas cancelled, but then the federal Government gave them a 449, a safe haven visa. Were their claims reassessed?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: That is now under consideration. They have got rights to, of course. What we know is that there was information that was not correct. We will…

BEN FORDHAM: So why were they given another visa?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, they are in this country. We will determine whether they have got any rights whatsoever, and, of course, if they do not have any entitlement or…

BEN FORDHAM: But they lied.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: …obligations, they cannot stay in this country. That matter…

BEN FORDHAM: But, Minister, they lied on their last application.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: …has to be dealt with properly, according to the law, and that's all that's happening here. That's not to suggest for a moment that they will be staying in this country; that is entirely up to the process which will ensure whether, in fact, they have the capacity to be afforded any entitlement or protection or not.

BEN FORDHAM: It's - it hardly send a harsh message, though, does it, when you've got people here - a wife, a daughter, and a son - who lied on their application. They said that their father was dead; we now know that he wasn't, and apparently he was one of the ringleaders in one of these people smuggling operations. He has now fled the country, but the wife, the daughter, and the son have been given an extra visa, a safe haven visa.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, I don't know whether - when we started imprisoning relatives of people who have committed offences. We don't do that.

BEN FORDHAM: I wasn't talking about imprisoning anyone; I was just suggesting…

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, you're suggesting that the character of the person or persons who are related is somehow - we automatically determine…

BEN FORDHAM: No, no, no. I'm…

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: We can't do that.

BEN FORDHAM: No, no, Minister, just hear me out. Just hear me out.


BEN FORDHAM: I'm not suggesting they are guilty by association, I'm suggesting that they are guilty by lying on their application.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: And what they're suggesting, as I'm advised, is that they were coerced into doing that. Now, I'm not saying whether their argument is correct or not; what I'm saying to you is we will verify that or otherwise. And if, you know, they are not able to be afforded protection under the law they will not be able to stay in this country. It's as simple as that.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay. What about those who are currently here in Australia and they're not allowed to work, they're on welfare. How does that help the situation? How does that help them?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, we cannot send the message that if you get here you start working, you've got a job here. That's what the people smugglers…

BEN FORDHAM: So you send the message, you get here and you get a handout.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, people smugglers want, of course, is to say that if you get on a boat you will have a job in Australia. Now…

BEN FORDHAM: Yes, but it's still a decent message they can pass onto people to say, “Get on a boat and you will get a handout. You don't even have to work when you get to Australia.”

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, insofar as the bridging visas, it is far cheaper for the taxpayer than actually any other form of approach taken. So you talked about costs before. We want to reduce costs, but what we're doing is suspending certain entitlements from 13 August so that they are not provided benefits. So, in other words, whether you're offshore or onshore you do not get that extra benefit, and I think that's the better approach.

No one is suggesting these things are easy, then, but that, I think, is a better message to be sent back up the pipeline, to say that you do not get a guarantee of a job purely by getting to Australia.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay. Before I let you go, just to go to a few more figures for you: 10,579 people have arrived since the reopening of Nauru; 25,700 since the election in August of 2010; 33,000 people since November 2007 when Kevin Rudd came to power and changed the policy, and Kevin Rudd is the bloke people are talking about as coming back in and becoming the leader again?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, commentators, you mean, talking about it?


BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, that's commentators talking about leadership, so I don't talk about the leadership issues of the Government; I get on with my job as a minister.

BEN FORDHAM: It would have been a lot easier if he just had have left things how they were, wouldn't it?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No - well, look, you know, there was a decision made three - almost three years ago, and I think it's important for us, rather than to talk about ourselves, to get on with governing…


BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Disunity is death, and I don't think it helps anyone or any party to be, you know, just sort of navel gazing.

BEN FORDHAM: Well, you've got a hell of a job on your hands, but I hope we can keep the lines of communication open, and I hope we can come on once in a while and give us a bit of an update on things going on.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Yes, sure, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: Brendan O'Connor. Thank you.


BEN FORDHAM: Brendan O'Connor, who's the new Minister for Immigration.