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Transcript of joint press conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard: Canberra: 13 August 2012: Houston Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers



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Chris Bowen MP Minister for Immigration and Citizenship

Houston Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers Monday, 13 August 2012

Joint Press Conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Canberra

PM: Good afternoon. I'm joined today by Minister Bowen, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. At 7.00 am this morning the government received this report, the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.

This is the report compiled since the Parliament last sat; by Angus Houston, a very eminent Australian, a former Chief of the Defence Force; by Michael L'Estrange, a foreign policy expert; and by Paris Aristotle, a refugee who is an expert in refugee and asylum seeker policy.

I want to thank each of these men for their work over the past six weeks. I asked them to do a very difficult thing. To provide a way forward to a Parliament that at the end of the last session had become gridlocked on legislative change necessary to deal with asylum seeker and refugee policy.

I thank them for their efforts and for their work.

Now in response to this report today, there have been plenty of politicians who have been out and about claiming wins from this report. I'm not going to do that. Because the truth of this report is, it has endorsed some parts of the government's policy, but not all of it and the same can be said of every other political party.

And this report includes some new elements of policy not thought about before. So this isn't a day for commenting or for a political scoreboard. This is a day for action and getting things done.

Consequently the government today has determined to endorse in principle, all of the recommendations of Angus Houston's report. That means that in the coming weeks and months, we will be working through those recommendations and the implementation of dealing piece by piece with those recommendations.

But we will urgently move on a set of these recommendations. First and foremost, we will in Parliament tomorrow, introduce amendments to the government's bill before the Parliament to its piece of legislation on asylum seekers and refugees.

Those amendments will be to enable us to commence processing arrangements on Nauru and on PNG. They will be amendments in the form recommended by Angus Houston. That is, amendments that enable the Parliament to make a determination about each country that becomes part of an offshore processing arrangement.

We will also move to immediately implement the recommendations on family reunion, and Minister Bowen will outline some further details of that.

We have endorsed in principle increasing our refugee intake to 20 000. That is a key part of this report and we have endorsed that part in principle today with proper consideration to be made of managing the costs of an increase in the refugee intake.

And we will do what the report recommends, which is seek to enter into some further discussions with Malaysia on protections in the Malaysia agreement and on oversight of the Malaysia agreement.

Now I am keenly aware that what this report is calling on Parliamentarians to do is to compromise - to compromise and to act. This report is telling us to not stay in our fixed positions, but to act to get things done.

I am prepared to further compromise from the government's position in order to get things done. When our nation looks at what's happening at sea as people attempt dangerous journeys to Australia, too many lives have been lost. And I'm not going to play politics or look at political scoreboards when too many lives have been lost.

This report charts the way forward and I will compromise in order to enact the recommendations of this report. I believe all Parliamentarians should take the same approach.

I'll turn now to Minister Bowen for some comments, and then we'll taking questions.

Minister Bowen: Thank you very much Prime Minister and obviously I'd like to join with the Prime Minister in thanking these three eminent Australians for their very considerable efforts over the last six weeks.

Matters of border protection and saving lives should be above partisan bickering and these three eminent Australians have given the Parliament now the opportunity to do that.

The underlying theme of this report is that people who arrive in Australia by boat, should not be advantaged over those many other thousands seeking to be resettled in Australia through other means. That flows through their report.

That has also been the government's objective as we've moved to implement arrangements under the regional framework that we negotiated at the Bali Ministerial process.

The report has given us suggestions which we have accepted in principle as to how to further implement that important principle of the government that people who travel to Australia by boat should not receive advantage in terms of their processing and chance of resettlement in Australia.

As the Prime Minister indicated, we will be debating our legislation in the house tomorrow and I'll be moving amendments on behalf of the government to reflect the recommendation of this panel.

That if a country is nominated for regional processing, that should be done by way of an instrument which is disallowable. There is no excuse frankly for any member of the Opposition to vote against that legislation because it would enable the Parliament to then pass judgement on each and every proposal going forward.

But I'd say this, over the last week, over the last month, we have seen a surge of people risking their life to try and get ahead of the Parliament taking action. We have seen what an impact it can have if the Parliament takes action.

The Parliament cannot, must not miss this opportunity tomorrow. The panel has provided the Parliament with one last opportunity to embrace what is a common-sense solution that the Australian people are demanding.

In addition, as the Prime Minister indicated, there are a range of recommendations which do not require legislative amendment, which we are moving to implement. Some of them require some detailed work. For example, we're accepting the recommendation for an increase in the refugee program to 20 000.

There's a considerable amount of work that needs to be done on settlement capacity and on how that would be implemented, and of course we will provide further updates. And one of the key recommendations of the panel is that that increase take into account the discussion paper that I released last May on possible community sponsorship options - there are some details to be worked through there - and of course I will keep you and the Parliament updated with that.

In addition, as the Prime Minister indicated, the panel makes some very important recommendations as to family reunion and changes again we accept those recommendations in principle.

The key principle here will be that somebody who arrived in Australia by boat would have family reunion applications processed on the same basis as every other Australian who is seeking to sponsor somebody into this country. That passes the fairness test and of course there is some detailed implementation which has been left to the government and to me as the Minister to look through, which we will do.

The bottom line is this: there has been plenty of time for talk, there's been plenty of time for consultation, the panel has consulted very widely. The panel has reflected on all the evidence the government has had at its disposal and community views. And the recommendation is very clear: we need to have a hard head and a soft heart as we try and deal with all the issues of resettling people into Australia and dealing with people who are seeking to come to Australia. But it's got to be done in a way which does not provide an advantage to those who seek to come by boat.

PM: We will comprehensively take people's questions, so settle down and we won't reward those who are yelling the loudest. I didn't hear Phil Coorey, so you can start.

Journalist: Thank you Prime Minister, if the Opposition does cooperate here, are you hoping to get the legislation through both Houses this sitting fortnight, or sooner, and perhaps to you Mr Bowen, when do you realistically, what realistic time frame do you think you can meet those requirements on a Malaysia plan that (inaudible)?

PM: I'll go to Minister Bowen for that part, but let's be clear. If the Opposition cooperates I want these amendments through the Parliament by the end of this sitting week. If the Opposition cooperates, the Minister will then make the relevant determinations for processing on Nauru and PNG immediately and those determinations will come to the Parliament as disallowable instruments.

If the Opposition cooperates, then those instruments will not be disallowed. As a result we would be in a position in a number of days to commence all of the arrangements necessary to have the kind of processing on PNG and Nauru that Angus Houston and his fellow panel members talk about.

Minister Bowen: Thanks PM. The report makes a recommendation in relation to accountability and protections in relation to Malaysia. It makes the point that there's a number of ways that can be achieved through pre-transfer arrangements. For example, there had been a considerable amount of work done on, and had been very well advanced before the High Court made its determination. That work will be reinvigorated.

Of course there has been considerable work done with Malaysia on treatment of unaccompanied minors, the report has recommended some of that codified. Again, I'm not going to put a time frame on it, Phil because obviously there is a lot to do here and obviously we'll talk both to Malaysia and the UNHCR and we will review our own processes on the pre-transfer arrangement.

I welcome the fact that the panel recommended that the Malaysia arrangement is an important one which should proceed. In fact I think they used the words, it's too important to discard. Obviously I welcome that and obviously we will take on board their input as to how it can best be progressed.

Journalist: Have you or any of your Ministers or government officials spoken to the Nauruan President or any Nauruan official and the same question with regards to PNG - that's today or recently. And secondly, when it comes to Nauru detention centre and re-establishing it, what do we know Mr Bowen with regards to the cost and how long it would take and what planning we've already got in place for that?

PM: I instructed our diplomatic posts to advise the governments of PNG and Nauru and Malaysia that this report was coming, and then today to advise them of its contents, so that diplomatic work has been done.

Clearly to negotiate agreements now with Nauru and PNG and to further build on the Malaysia arrangement as Minister Bowen's outlined, will require intensive dialogue with those governments and we'll do it.

Minister Bowen: In relation to Nauru, obviously last year, when we offered the Opposition at that point to open a detention centre on Nauru, I asked my Department to go to Nauru and assess the suitability of the site and the amount of work that would need to be done.

The report was the amount of work was very, very substantial and that the site was not ready or anywhere near ready to be utilised as a facility and would require substantial rebuilding at considerable cost, which I released at the time.

I know that has been the matter of some controversy - today's not a day for point scoring - but I would point out that our costings have been done by relevant experts, not by firms which have no expertise in actually building a detention facility. Those remain the costings that we're working on in relation the amount of time it would take, we've got to get, first thing's first here we need to pass some legislation, have some discussions with the Nauruan Government and of course there will be some detailed implementation be do worked through and of course we will use, at the Prime Minister's direction, a range of capabilities available to the government to ensure that happens as quickly as possible.

Journalist: But we can expect you'll do the same as you did last year when you had the Malaysian deal, when you thought you had the Malaysian deal under your belt, you released the press release which said these people would be held in Christmas Island, tending their removal to Malaysia. Is that what we can expect from now on?

Minister Bowen: This is an important point, thank you for the question. From this point forward, anybody who comes to Australia by boat runs the risk of being transferred to an offshore processing place. From this point forward, anybody who comes to Australia by boat should be very clear about the possibility of not being processed in Australia.

Journalist: As in anyone after 4.45 Canberra time?

Minister Bowen: I just answered your question, Andrew.

Journalist: On that point though, are you worried given there have been a large number of boats in the past week and over the weekend, are you worried now that there'll be a surge if you like, of people trying to beat this deadline , trying to, sort of beat the Parliament signing off the instrument? And is there anything that you're working on with Indonesia or any other country to try and stop that and provide safety itself?

Minister Bowen: I answered Andrew's question very deliberately because I do not want to see people thinking they can beat this arrangement by getting on boats over coming days and weeks. Hence the government has considered this, and we have taken the decision that we need to be very clear with people about their expectations should they get on a boat to Australia and think that they can somehow beat the amount of time it will take to get a facility at Nauru or PNG or the arrangement with Malaysia finalised, that is not the case.

Journalist: You always said that Nauru wouldn't act as a deterrent a second time; the panel seems to be saying that it would have some impact as a first step. Do you accept that now, were you wrong in your assessment before? And are you concerned that we might see the outcome that we get legislation and we get Nauru and Manus through the disallowable instruments, through the Parliament and then that's the end of the action and any future disallowable instruments and Malaysia

arrangement can't get passed the Parliament, what would the impact of that action be?

PM: Okay, I'm happy to take those questions. On Nauru and PNG in this report - this is a new approach from the panel - it's actually different to what has happened on Nauru and PNG in the past.

The significant difference is that they say not only would you process asylum seekers on Nauru and PNG, but you would not give them a protection visa which would enable them to come to Australia until the passage of the same amount of time as if they had waited at a refugee resettlement place earlier in the pipeline. Maybe Malaysia, maybe Indonesia, maybe in the source country they came from.

So the whole panel's ethos, their outlook, their insight, is that you need to equalise treatment for asylum seekers so you don't get a better deal if you get on a boat.

And as part of that, they're saying the arrangements with Nauru and PNG should have those time frames built into them so you don't get a better deal if you get on a boat.

Having said that, Lenore, I'm well aware of the kind of political points that will be made about this and I'm not interested in any of them. I'm not going to play policy wonks' argument over here or a lawyers' argument about the wording. If people want to put banner, 'this is a compromise from the government', dead right, in order to start saving lives.

And about Malaysia, yes Malaysia, subsequent to the work Houston and his panel have pointed out, would need to come to the Parliament as a disallowable instrument. It is possible that the Opposition would disallow that instrument. If they did then that would be something I think the Australian people would judge the Opposition on.

But we are not making the amendments that we are bringing to the Parliament this week contingent on an agreement that at that stage they say yes.

Houston has said we should go to Malaysia and do a few things; we will do those things and then the Opposition judge Malaysia at that point.

But I would counsel the Opposition: Angus Houston and his team make it very, very clear in this report - and they've made it very clear today - this is an integrated package. And at your peril you try and pick one bit out, or pick another bit out, or say not to a bit you don't like.

The government has taken the approach of endorsing the recommendations in principle as a whole because of the force of that.

Journalist: In those last days of Parliament when the Parliament reached that deadlock position, you didn't have a meeting with Tony Abbott. Have you sought to have direct discussions with him or will you be doing that in the next couple of days?

PM: Look I'm open to whatever will get this done but let's be clear, we're saying this is the report, these are the recommendations, let's go.

Journalist: Prime Minister, many of the recommendations have been considered previously by the government in October last year and were rejected - the figure of 20 000 for instance - specific recommendations. Do you feel it's a missed opportunity in not adopting those recommendations earlier?

PM: Well I'll turn to Minister Bowen on the absolute details. I mean our aspiration as a political party over a long period of time has been to increase the number of refugees we take from overseas. Indeed I believe our party platform says that we've got an aspiration of 20 000.

What is recommended here by Angus Houston and his team is that that increase comes with companion measures that mean for trying to recalibrate the thinking of asylum seekers about risks and rewards.

So to recalibrate they are saying more places available to people will go into refugee processing overseas, yet get less, indeed you get no more if you move. So these are important aspects. They'd tied together and that's why we've endorsed the lot.

Journalist: How confident is the government that it will be able to successfully negotiate with Malaysia the complications proposed in the Houston report and if that happens is the government as committed as ever to proceeding with the Malaysian arrangements?

PM: We are committed to the Malaysian arrangements and we draw strength from the Houston report on that, he uses the terminology at one point of 'vital' about the Malaysian arrangements. But he's pointed to some work that needs to be done and we will obviously have a red hot go at doing that.

I'll turn to Minister Bowen for some commentary on that.

Bowen: Thank you Prime Minister and obviously we would continue to engage with Malaysia and Malaysia has made very clear with us that they are very committed to this agreement, as we are because both governments have recognised its importance.

Obviously there are some issue that we need to work through and as I said before some of those can be handled domestically by us. There's some engagement recommended with the UNHCR about pre-transfer guidelines and other issues and there are other matter that we would discuss with Malaysia.

I'd also make this point, the panel also says there are some things you should do before proceeding and there are some things you should build on as you go in this report in relation to Malaysia. So they see it as a building block.

There are some things which they indicate we should do as a matter of some urgency before we proceed, and there are other things which they say over time you

would work with Malaysia to build on, and that's certainly something we would discuss with them.

The other point is the Prime Minister made is that this is a very fundamental change in approach, and this partly answers to Dennis' question from before, and I'm not sure I agree with every premise of Dennis' question with respect, when you recall that I moved at the Labor Party National Conference that we adopt 20 000 as an aspiration, Mr Morrison came out and condemned us quite roundly for that and said it was irresponsible to do so.

Then for a fleeting period, that was Liberal Party policy when he made that offer to Judy Moylan to stop her crossing the floor. As I understand it that is no longer Liberal Party policy. We remain committed to it.

And I also would point out to you the key paragraph in relation to the operation in Nauru, which represents a fundamental change in the recommendation, which is paragraph 350 of page 48, which makes it clear that Nauru and PNG work if there is a fundamental principle of no advantage and that people would only be transferred to Australia when they would have been transferred on your best assessment, under normal regional processing arrangements if they hadn't got on the boat.

And remember again, previous experience that people were processed as a refugee and then brought to Australia. And again I'd remind you that Mr Morrison again in a commitment to Ms Moylan said that he'd make sure that people were processed and transferred very quickly within 12 months.

The panel makes the very clear view that there should be no advantage which is a principle the government is happy to accept and to implement.

Journalist: If I can just take it to another matter. Slater and Gordon has said that it intends to ask the AWU to wave legal privilege to allow for the release of files relating to alleged misappropriation of monies (inaudible). Since you were working for the firm at the time, do you think that that would be valuable to the public debate and do you have any objection to that happening?

PM: It's a matter for Slater and Gordon and the relevant clients.

Journalist: I was just going to ask, what then is Minister the time limit for processing - will you put a cap? For asylum seekers sent to Nauru?

PM: Let's just be a bit clear here about what's recommended in the report. What Angus Houston and his team are saying is it's not so much how long you take to do the processing; it is when you give someone a resettlement opportunity that is when you issue them with a protection visa.

We can make the determinations about how long that should take. Angus Houston and his team are saying we should make some assessment about waiting times in the region and generally to find out what's fair. To put people in the same situation as if they had not moved.

At the same time, we'd been making a difference to waiting times for people who don't move because we would be increasing the number of humanitarian places. We cannot give you what that time is today, we received this report at 7.00 am and I think you would understand that.

But we certainly endorse the concept because the concept means that there is no benefit from putting your life at risk and getting on a boat. There is no benefit from paying a people smuggler. That is the fundamental underlying principle of this report and it's a good one.

Journalist: Prime Minister, in 2007 many people who voted for Labor voted to get rid of Nauru, get rid of Manus Island, get rid of the Pacific Solution. What's changed? What do you say to those Labor voters who wanted to get rid of that horrendous system that was causing people great anxiety and psychological problems?

PM: I would say to those people who were motivated by humanitarian concerns, now very, very squarely in front of us we've got another humanitarian concern. And that humanitarian concern is more people are trying to reach Australia by boat and more people are drowning as they do it. That's the humanitarian concern.

I don't precisely know whether Paris Aristotle said this in his press conference today, but he talked this morning to me and Minister Bowen about providing counselling to an asylum seeker who had lost six family members when a boat went down. That is the humanitarian concern that is squarely in front of us today.

And it requires us to do things that are really hard. We've been to our Labor Party room meeting today and we had endorsement for this position from the Labor Party and it is the policy of the Labor Government.

For many of our caucus members it is not an easy thing. For many members in the community it is not an easy thing. But I tell you what's a harder thing, and that's watching more people drown, and we're not going to do that.

Journalist: Just on an update, one of the issues that Labor took up particularly when John Howard had this Pacific Solution, was the psychological damage to many people who were on Nauru for years and years and years. Now obviously if there's no cap, that situation could rise again, people being incarcerated for a long time. How concerned are you about that and what sort of mechanisms would you put in place to try to deal with those problems with that uncertainty?

PM: First and foremost I'd say stay where you are, don't move: message number one. Don't get yourself to Nauru in these circumstances. People do wait for a long period of time in other parts of the world, but don't get yourself to Nauru in these circumstances.

There will be more places available in refugee resettlement areas as a result of us working through the challenge that Angus Houston has set us about increasing the humanitarian intake and we have endorsed that in principle.

So message number one, don't move, don't put yourself in that circumstance. If people do move, then of course it is possible for people to negotiate with the government return arrangements to places that they came from, which may in their view, offer them a better prospect than sitting on Nauru.

And like we do in detention facilities in Australia and on Christmas Island, of course we would be resourcing mental health professionals to work with people.

But I am not trying to shy away from the toughness of this policy, but if I can put a rhetorical question to you, Michelle, which I think all of us have to think about, what's the mental health trauma for that person who lost six of their relatives when a boat went down at sea?

These are the judgements we're making, they're hard judgements but they need to be made. Angus Houston and his team are providing us with assistance in the making of them; we've got to get this done.

Journalist: If you move to processing at Nauru and Manus Island, what will be the treatment of unaccompanied minors in that situation?

PM: You will see in the Houston report that he talks about some arrangements for particularly at-risk people, including some special visa classes that may enable them to come to Australia, so when we've said we've endorsed the lot, we've endorsed the lot - endorsed it in principle, there's a lot of work to do with working through the implementation of these recommendations.

But in terms of the policy whole, he's dealt with that issue in the policy whole.

Journalist: Does that cover all unaccompanied minors?

PM: We're not in a position, Denis, to give you that level of detail today, we are providing in-principle, endorsement to the recommendations and the panel has not left that issue unattended to.

Journalist: What's your reading of the section referring to the turning the boats back? Was it an absolute veto of it, or did it say that with a bit of tidying up, it was a legitimate policy and therefore one that you would follow from now on?

PM: I think the, and I would turn to Minister Bowen on this as well, he'll be able to take you to the relevant paragraph. But the Houston panel observations are that so-called turning back of boats cannot be done in contemporary circumstances.

Cannot be done because Indonesia does not receive the boats back; cannot be done because the reaction of people smugglers has changed and they now sabotage boats and I think Angus Houston talked about that in the media conference today so cannot be done in current circumstances.

Now you have to deal with the facts of the world as you find them not pretend that you live in some different form of reality. They are the facts and they are the facts that we've got to deal with. Mr Bowen.

Bowen: The report makes clear that (inaudible) or turn backs or whichever formula you want to use would only be viable under a very limited set of circumstances including the agreement of the nation for which the vessel is flagged and the nation of disembarkation.

So that is not turn a boat around on the high sea and pointing it off to Indonesia but it is a very different thing and the position of the Liberal Party has been that we don't care what Indonesia says, we're going to do it, I quote; that Indonesian flagged vessels disgorging their people into Australia has been Mr Abbott's approach and he has said they would implement the policy regardless of the view of Indonesia. I note that he did not have the gumption to raise it with the President of Indonesia in their bilateral visit as was alerted by the Indonesians not by My Abbott.

So it's very clear in the view of this report that this will be a policy that could only ever be implemented with the full agreement and cooperation and assistance of the Indonesian Government. So it's now up to Mr Abbott to say whether he maintains position that it would implemented regardless of what Indonesia says or whether next time he chats to Mr Yudhoyono he might actually bother to raise it.

Journalist: Papua New Guinea has hardly been a stable political country for the last six or eight months or so. You yourself have expressed some real concerns about the direction the country's heading. Why is Australia able to criticise dodgy practices in PNG if we're relying on them to process people seeking asylum?

PM: Look we will always raise our voice appropriately about international matters. On circumstances in PNG we are in different days post the election than we were when I was indicating some concern about whether or not elections would be held, whether they'd be held on time and some of the other events that were then happening in PNG.

So we have seen Prime Minister O'Neill returned, the election has been, you know, held and counted, there is a government in PNG now which I think will be able to proceed with governing PNG and entering into discussions with Australia about the proposed arrangements from the Houston panel's recommendations.

Journalist: Prime Minister, the business tax working group doesn't seem to have any concrete recommendations. Are still comfortable with the way that's progressing?

PM: I'll leave you to discuss that in detail with the Treasurer.

Journalist: Prime Minister, what will be the government's response if the Coalition maintains its position and insists that offshore processing can only occur in countries that are signatories to the Refugee Convention and if they move amendments to that effect?

PM: Well, Paul, I would have thought that what is appropriate now is not politicians crowing about politics. To be very clear with you I think Australians are sick at heart at watching it, just, they're over it. I am over it, we're all over it.

It's time to get something done, so I would think that no one would have the temerity to play some lawyers' game about wording with legislation. For heaven sake, we want to get people to Nauru and PNG for processing under the arrangements outlined under the Houston panel, expert report. We want an outcome here, we want change. We don't want pedantry and politics. That's the spirit the government is taking into this.

I said very clearly to you at the start, we have compromised; we set up this expert panel to bring change, to get change done. That's what Australians are looking to us to do; they don't want to see us mired in the politics and the pedantry.

We've got a good report here. The challenge is now for us to get on with it and we will be getting on with it as early as just after Question Times tomorrow in the House of Representatives.

Thank you very much.