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Transcript of interview with Paul Murray: 2UE, Sydney: 21 February 2013: Deaths at sea; people smugglers

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PAUL MURRAY: Whatever you think on asylum seekers, no one wants deaths at sea. Well this morning I can tell you that 98 people have died on board a boat that was trying to get to Australia. Even worse, their bodies were reportedly thrown into the ocean by some 30-odd people who were left on the boat.

Brendan O'Connor is the Immigration Minister and he joins me on the phone now. Minister good morning.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Good morning Paul.

PAUL MURRAY: So what details do we have of this that 98 people died trying to get here and even more ghastly the bodies were being thrown off into the water?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: At this point no more than that. They were picked up by the Sri Lankan Navy and of course I saw the news reports. I'll be getting a full briefing on this as soon as possible when we can confirm those things. But look, it just underlines the danger of getting on these boats and taking these perilous journeys looking to get to Australia or elsewhere around the world and underlines the resolve required to implement the Expert Panel's recommendations to reduce the flow and ultimately see it stop.

PAUL MURRAY: So let's talk about the incident as best we can, going off reports and what your office knows here. Where did the incident happen and where were the bodies being thrown off?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: All I've heard and it's through the news reports - it would have been reported overseas that the Sri Lankan Navy have intercepted this vessel, rescued the survivors and then there's been of course stories coming out about 98 or close to 100 people perishing at sea.

Now this is another example where we've witnessed by way of photos the awful consequences of getting on dangerous vessels and we saw that in of course back in December 2010 with the vessel foundering on the rocks of Christmas Island. But of course this has gone on for a very long time. In October 2001 of course 400 people perished on SIEV X.

So it's not new but I think people need to understand how important therefore it is that we send the message that it is too dangerous to get on these vessels and too many people perish at sea and that's exactly why the Government is determined to implement the Houston recommendations as put to us in August last year.

PAUL MURRAY: Okay, I'll let you get into that in a second -


PAUL MURRAY: - but I just do want to get in around this issue. How do we know that these people were headed to Australia? I understand that the nationality of refugees or rather the asylum seekers on board this boat are people from Myanmar, the old Burma, and as you say it was off the coast of Sri Lanka, how did we know that they were coming to Australia?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Again there's reports been made to us and we want to confirm that. As I understand it was those on the vessel that said that to their rescuers.

PAUL MURRAY: Okay, about the politics that you've mentioned a couple of times here, clearly somebody has decided to - more than 100 people decided to wedge into a boat and 100 people died trying to come to the country but they've come to the country at a time when we have essentially reinstated offshore processing. Short of the Malaysia deal, what else could have been done to send a message that this is the wrong thing to do? You have already adopted a policy that is offshore processing.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well of course often the smugglers will lie to the people they cram onto these vessels. We need to implement all of the recommendations because we need the breadth of initiatives that's going to stop this type of tragedy happening again and that can only happen if we - we've got, we have three eminent Australians, 60 years of geopolitical experience, understanding multilateral, bilateral arrangements in the region - you know, Angus Houston, appointed by the Howard Government as chief of the Australian Defence Force, reappointed by us, Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle.

They themselves came from different perspectives, but they put together 22 recommendations, and I think it's really now time for certainly the Opposition to have a rethink about their opposition to some of those recommendations because, you know, I just think we've got to take the politics out of this, focus on what we can do to prevent people dying at sea in this manner.

PAUL MURRAY: And I accept that, Minister, but surely the very day that we are learning about 98 people dying and being thrown overboard is not exactly the day to start saying it's Tony Abbott's fault.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No, no. Look, this is happening throughout, and I'm not laying the blame at anybody's feet here other than the people smugglers. It is the people smugglers who have lured people onto unseaworthy vessels, it's the people smugglers who peddle lies to these people, take their life savings, sometimes sadly take their lives. That's where I target the blame.

I just ask, I guess, for the Parliament to rethink this. This is not about pointing fingers at people in Australia, it's about what we can do together, and I'm hoping my appointment allows me to have another, I guess, a new set of eyes looking at this issue and reaching out to those in the Parliament who might be able to rethink the issues around the Houston recommendations.

I mean, you've got 60 years of experience, these are very eminent people, they've come to the realisation we need a breadth of policies. Whatever may or may not have worked in the past, it is not going to work today, and I think therefore we really need to look at how we implement those policies, because I do not want to see, as Minister, any further lives lost at sea.

PAUL MURRAY: So, put simply, obviously this is going to become a renewed priority, it's an area the Prime Minister wants you to get on top of, it's clearly an area you want to get involved in. First week back in Parliament, does that mean we're going to see reconstituted bills? You going to put things back to a vote in the Parliament, even if you lose that vote? The true test is to get people to vote. Will you be getting them to vote sooner rather than later?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, you know, we have to be mindful of the sensitivities here. We're involving a range of countries, and I would like to think that if we were to put something up we were doing so with a unity of purpose of the Parliament. I will, of course, be formally approaching the Opposition about a number of these things. Clearly they know the issues because they've been presented before, but this is an opportunity for us to, I think, reassess the situation.

We have done some things that have sent very strong messages in recent times. Just late last year we sent back to Sri Lanka 938 people. The re-sending back of those people sent a very strong message about the Government's resolve. Yes, we've got regional processing centres set up. I'm about to visit those shortly in PNG and of course on Nauru, and we need to continue to implement, step by step, these recommendations so that, not so much overnight, but over time we will see a reduction and ultimately a cessation of these boats.

PAUL MURRAY: Alright Minister, thanks for talking to us this morning. Thanks for confirming what details you know, and congratulations on your appointment. Hopefully you can get done what others haven't in the past.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Thanks very much, Paul.