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Transcript of interview with David Speers: Sky News Australian Agenda: 28 March 2013: asylum seekers; 457 visas

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DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thank you for your time. There has been a recent increase, it seems, in boat arrivals in the first few months of this year running at more than twice the number as in the first few months of last year.

And, of course, this is since offshore processing was returned to Nauru and Manus Island. Do you think the current policy is working?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, I think it's important that we implement all of the recommendations. For example, we had a very, very high increase late last year, as you well know. Now, in terms of vessels coming from Sri Lanka, I think our quick action to return almost 1,000 people to that country, because we have an agreement with Sri Lanka, has led to of course a very, very huge decline, if you like, in people seeking to come from there.

DAVID SPEERS: So where are they coming from now?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, we've got people coming from other areas, and what we're doing David is, whilst we're looking to implement fully the Houston Panel's recommendations, I'm also dealing with matters bilaterally.

You know, next Tuesday I'll be at Bali, at the Bali Process, where there's almost 40 countries meeting. And I'll be there with Minister Carr and together we'll be talking to those countries of origin, transit and destination about what we need to put in place regionally so that we can deal with this issue regionally.

There is no other way than dealing with the matter with all of the countries concerned.

DAVID SPEERS: I want to get to that, but just returning to that question. Without those extra measures that you want, including Malaysia, is this current policy working? Because the current numbers would seem to indicate it's not.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, what I say to you is this, is that there are signs where it is working, but we've had a few areas where things have opened up that we need to target intensively and specifically.

I make the point, late last year you saw a very significant increase in arrivals from Sri Lanka. We worked out something specific to that issue, a specific measure which led to obviously a very significant decline.

So what I say to you is this; we're confident that the 22 recommendations, if in combination are implemented, will work over time. But we will also attend to those specific requirements where areas arise that we need to attend to. So, I don't want to go…

DAVID SPEERS: So what do you now need to target? If that direct targeting of Sri Lanka has worked, where now do you need to target?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, I don't want to foreshadow all of the areas we deal with, I just make the point… I mean, of course, you know, when we dealt with those issues we did so diplomatically and we used, I think, our good relations with that country and we dealt with it. And we still did it consistent with the refugee convention.

Can I say to you; I'm not going to foreshadow in any detailed way what we're looking to do. I just want to make clear to your viewers and to you, that whilst we're putting in place the 22 recommendations, some of which of course are being stymied by the Opposition, but whilst we're doing that I'm confident that will help reduce the vessels coming. But we'll attend to matters on a bilateral basis where required.

So for example, at the Bali Process next week there'll be collegiate sort of conversation, but I'll be meeting separately with the counterpart ministers to talk about issues that specifically relate to Australia and that particular country.

DAVID SPEERS: You can't tell us what countries in particular you're concerned about here, and I guess the profile of, the recent makeup of, those who've been coming on boats?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I'm not going to go to what we intend to do other than to give you an assurance that we're looking to fully implement the recommendations and, in relation to specific measures, to attend to areas that I think we can deal with bilaterally as well still under the umbrella of the Bali Process architecture. But like anything, you deal with matters… trade matters, you might have a multi-lateral trade arrangement, but you still do bilateral discussions.

The same would apply here with dealing with this complex area of public policy regionally. Having a regional architectural frame in which we can attend to this issue and reduce vessels and people endangering their lives, and at the same time deal with countries bilaterally where required. I won't go to the details of that, no.

DAVID SPEERS: It would appear that if there are fewer boats coming from Sri Lanka, there has been an increase in boats coming from Indonesia. The nationality of those on board, you don't seem to want to reveal, but they do seem to be coming through Indonesia more often now.

Going to that expert panel committee's recommendations here, it did talk about the need for enhanced cooperation on joint surveillance and response patrols with Indonesia. It talked about a number of other measures as well, including changing the Australian law in relation to Indonesian minors and others crewing these boats. Is that the sort of thing you're moving on now?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, I'll be meeting with my Indonesian counterpart, and I'll be with Foreign Minister Carr, meeting with his counterpart next week, and we'll talk about all of those issues.

Can I just say, Indonesia, remember, is unlike Sri Lanka. Indonesia is a transit country. So it's not a fair - you're not comparing apples with apples.

No, not you personally David, but…

DAVID SPEERS: No, no, I'm saying they're coming through Indonesia, but that's…

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yeah, I understand that. What my point was that we deal with them differently. Look, can I say they've helped disrupt literally thousands of people seeking to get on these dangerous vessels, and they've done that because the Indonesian National Police and the Australian Federal Police work very closely. As do other agencies, as does my department with their counterpart agency, and so let's not - I don't want to leave the impression that Indonesia is not seeking to help us here.

It's a more complex issue for them, for two reasons. It's a huge country, with many ports, and of course the people seeking to come here are not from Indonesia, they're travelling through. But there are things I would like to discuss with that country; they're our good friend and close neighbour, and I know that they want to assist us in this area. And of course…

DAVID SPEERS: What more can you do with Indonesia?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, there are issues. We had, for example, very good cooperation in disrupting ventures, and there are 16 what they call SATGAS which are task forces disrupting ventures and apprehending people smugglers.

They now have criminal sanctions for people smuggling, they didn't have that when I started as Minister for Home Affairs some years ago. They have that now, and that's in response to, I know, their own concerns and in discussions with us, and I appreciate their efforts there. And we've had convictions; you're now getting people getting years sentencing because of those new laws.

And the other thing we can do of course is work with them insofar as working together about monitoring people coming into the transit country, with a view to continue on to Australia. I know the Indonesian Government doesn't like that approach, I know they want to help us. They've done a great deal so far, but we need to keep working with them. But we also need to keep working, David, with Malaysia, and obviously that's something I need to continue to talk to Malaysia about.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, I want to get to that, but just on Indonesia, we also saw this week an alleged people smuggling kingpin who's awaiting extradition from Indonesia to Australia, so that, if the Australian Government adopted the Howard Government policies, including turning back the boats to Indonesia, that would work.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Oh, righto. Yeah well look, we don't take advice from liars and cheats and crooks. You're talking about a convicted people smuggler. He'll say or do anything to cause disruption, in fact I would suggest to you that he obviously, you know, certainly is not of a good character that we should be taking advice from.

Let me just go to the issue about that. The Indonesians have made perfectly clear that they will not receive vessels, they said that, and that's why the Howard Government stopped it. That's why in an interview today, the Shadow Minister could not explain that policy because it's inoperable, it's unsafe, it's undiplomatic, it won't work, it won't able to be done without Indonesia's cooperation.

Instead, though, we've got a return by flight to another transit country. We have an agreement that the Opposition is refusing to support. I mean, we have a situation where they want to turn back boats on the high seas, endanger our Customs and Navel personnel on one hand, where we don't have an agreement, and at the same time oppose an agreement we had in place which is a safer approach for our people and indeed for those on those vessels, and they won't even try it, and that is the height of negativity and cynicism by Tony Abbott and he should be asked to listen to the experts and do the right thing here.

DAVID SPEERS: Let's look at what the experts said on Malaysia. The Houston Committee that you put together last year. Now, they did say that Malaysia should be pursued as a building block towards a regional - stronger regional cooperation on this issue. But it also said that there needed to - the arrangement needed to be strengthened and revised as a matter of urgency, in particular the adequacy of protections for asylum seekers set out in the agreement, measures of accountability for their implementation should be strengthened. It said there should also be ongoing discussions between the Australian and Malaysian Governments to facilitate a positive outcome or a memorandum of understanding because there is no legally binding strength to this Malaysia agreement.

Have you pursued any of this since becoming Minister for Immigration? Have you met with the Malaysian Government?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: No. Look, I haven't. The agencies have and certainly the agencies will be discussing these matters but there is a threshold question here, David. The Malaysian Government feel quite bruised. I mean, they put on offer - they put on the table an offer to help this country reduce people, you know, endangering their lives and coming in this matter and since they did that the Opposition, not only here but they - the Shadow Minister flew to Malaysia and basically attacked the reputation of that country and that Government.

Now, what do you think that does for the relationship between the Opposition and the Malaysian Government for him to act in that manner and for Tony Abbott to sanction that behaviour? I...

DAVID SPEERS: But let me...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Let me just finish. Let me finish - You've asked me the question. That is the context in which we find ourselves. You - there's a threshold question here. If the Malaysian Government's expected to consider any further efforts to the agreement we have in place, they need to know from the Opposition that there is some chance that they will support it.

It seems to me that the Opposition's hiding behind the tiniest fig leaf given that they're willing to turn people back on the high seas. Don't expect me to believe that they're doing this on the issue of safety for the refugees.

DAVID SPEERS: The Opposition may be willing to look at this if you enhance some ...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Oh, come on.

DAVID SPEERS: ...some of the legal protections around it. Their main concern is that Malaysia is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: That's nonsense.

DAVID SPEERS: ...and this is not a legally binding agreement.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: That's nonsense. You know that's nonsense.

DAVID SPEERS: Wouldn't it assist if you...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Indonesia's not a signatory to the convention either...

DAVID SPEERS: No. But I'm just saying that this is the Opposition's position. That they see them as different because you're turning back boats that have just left Indonesia, whereas here you're talking about sending people who have arrived in Australia to Malaysia. There's no legally binding terms around these assurances that are in place. Wouldn't it assist if you, as a Minister, spoke to the...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, what's the legally binding arrangements between - well, what would be the legally binding arrangements between Indonesia and the Opposition if they were to be elected, on turning back the boats?

DAVID SPEERS: Well, I'm just saying that the Opposition's position is that that is Indonesia's responsibly...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, it doesn't make any sense.

DAVID SPEERS: These people are Australia's responsibility once they arrive here.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Sure, David, we...

DAVID SPEERS: And wouldn't it assist - just back to this question - wouldn't it assist if you as Minister pursued this with Malaysia, the issues around protections on these arrangements.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, look, we - my predecessor did that and I will continue to do that, but let me just make it very clear, David...

DAVID SPEERS: But you haven't met with Malaysia.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Let me just make it very, very clear. You cannot expect the Malaysian Government to continue down this path if they're going to be completely and utterly rejected and criticised again in a most outrageous fashion by Tony Abbott and the Opposition.

This is a very important neighbour of ours. They are a very significant transit country. We've got...

DAVID SPEERS: And you haven't met with them yet.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: The fundamentals - we've got a fundamental agreement, but let me make it clear. You can understand their reticence in not resolving this matter unless the Opposition accept the advice of the experts that they would agree to this. Now, it's no point - there's no point me just finalising details for the Opposition again to say they will not accept this approach. They have to say, in principle, they're willing to take this approach, because let me tell you, it's a real agreement and it's certainly safer than the idea of turning back the boats, which will not happen.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. A couple of other issues, if I can. Families; are you going to release families who have come as asylum seekers on bridging visas into the community?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, we have, obviously, people on BVEs now in the community with the support of the Red Cross and other providers and as I've made very clear a decision to allow families to be placed in those circumstances would have to be considered in the context of will it deter people getting on dangerous vessels. We do not want to see women and children dying at sea.

So, that's the first threshold question for me.

DAVID SPEERS: [indistinct] appear that it would be another incentive to come?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, look, that's something, certainly, the Government is considering. We want to look, you know - it's all very well to say, let's make it easier. I mean, we do want to make sure that people are dealt with properly but our first commitment, our first obligation, David, is to make sure that we don't encourage people to endanger their lives, and that's what we're looking at before we make any decision around placing families on bridging visas.

DAVID SPEERS: And just finally, on 457 visas. The Government has been copping a fair bit of criticism for its recent crackdown including around the rhetoric on this from some of your former ministerial colleagues who quit on Friday. Is the Government determined to press ahead with this to the extent that you may legislate changes to how the 457 visa system works?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Yes, we may because the Opposition has said that they want to open it up and remove all protections. This is not a debate about just the reforms that Chris Bowen recommended to Government before I was appointed minister. This is about also - in the context of the Opposition making it very clear that they're going to not support the reforms but also remove the current protections in place that were introduced in 2009 signalling to business that it's okay to bring people in regardless of whether we have skill shortages. That's not why this scheme was set up.

We've seen some spikes in occupational groups where there's not been a demand and so that's something that's amiss. And we've seen a fall in nominal and real wages in some of the occupational groups in some of the sectors.

Let me make it very clear, David. I support 457s when there's a genuine skill shortage. No problem at all with that, and I've said that to business, I say it to the employer groups. But to make sure we've

got confidence in this visa scheme we must not allow rorts to continue because that undermines the confidence that this is for a temporary skill shortage. And we don't want to send...

DAVID SPEERS: So you'll [indistinct] legislate to lock that in?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, I think legislation is certainly one of the options, and I think that is a good idea because we want to protect Australian workers. We want to protect young people so that they can get the training and get into work. Immigration helped build this country but we must put our citizens and permanent residents first, in terms of getting a job. I think that's not unreasonable.

DAVID SPEERS: Immigration Minister Brendon O'Connor, thanks so much for joining us.