Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Transcript of press conference: Melbourne: 23 August 2013: opposition asylum seeker policy; coal seam gas; opinion polls

Download PDFDownload PDF

Campaign Transcript


E & O E - PROOF ONLY _____________________________________________________________

Subjects: Opposition asylum seeker policy; Coal seam gas; Opinion polls _____________________________________________________________

TONY BURKE: Before I deal with the issues that have been raised by the Opposition today, can I provide some information on some other issues where there's been a number of enquiries and some media reports already.

First of all, I've noticed on social media actually there's been some reports of a 75-year-old dementia patient who reportedly is currently in a situation where she might find herself being, or the person might find themselves being deported back to South Africa. I've asked for a brief on that to be brought to me by the beginning of next week with an indication to the department that I intend to view this case with sympathetic consideration, so I'll look at that at the beginning of next week. But for the first reports I've seen of that, it certainly doesn't match up with how you'd want Australia's immigration system to be dealing with a dementia patient.

On the next issue there's been a number of letters which go back and forth between departments all the time, between Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Ordinarily they are letters that remain within government, but one of them from about a week ago has made its way into the media and has resulted in some speculation that Australia would not have access to the East Lorengau site on Manus Island.

I want to be able to inform you that we received yesterday in writing from the Papua New Guinea Government, from the Chief Migration Officer, that the issues relating to the East Lorengau site have now been settled, and that site is now available for us to begin work on. So the speculation that's been occurring was with respect to an old letter now that that's been clarified I believe that that detail at least is important to bring down on the public record in this way.

The Opposition today have claimed, and they've claimed that they've been working on this announcement for four years, it takes a very special skill to work on something for four years and then still deliver it like you're on the run. But that is unfortunately what the Opposition have done. If you look at both the papers this

morning as to how they’ve dropped the announcement out there and the media conference they've just completed, if I could just point out a few concerns.

In the first instance, in the drop that was given to today's papers, they started to detail how they would conduct covert operations in other countries. I don't think it takes a lot of consideration before we get to principle number one of covert operations, which is you don't drop them to the media. The whole nature of a covert operation is that you, it would be dealt with in a covert fashion, and the immaturity of the Opposition in thinking it was a clever media line to start talking about covert operations as sort of a match up to the kindergarten child who runs around saying hey I've got a secret , do you want to know what it is? The entire power and nature of covert operations is that you don't telegraph them through the media, and the decision of the Opposition to do so, I just find odd.

The second part of their policy today has Tony Abbott effectively doing the exact opposite of everything he said almost exactly three years ago, the quotes are all out there to find, where he objected to the East Timor announcement at the time, from the former Prime Minister. Go back over Tony Abbott's words then about the need to receive consent from a country before you make an announcement, and mind you, on his comments about the need to receive consent from a country before you make an announcement, that was right.

The sad thing is today he's done the exact opposite. They've in some way informed embassies of an announcement, sought no consent whatsoever and then rushed out to the media. Now let's remember, what we're talking about here and the nature of the announcement that they're saying what they'll do in other countries, they're talking about deploying Australian Federal Police. Now just think from the perspective as an Australian, if another country unilaterally announced they were sending their policy force to our country to conduct their own operations, you can imagine how that would be received within Australian. And the clumsy nature of simply letting embassies know at the last minute that this was about to come, without seeking consent, without seeking cooperation, without seeking any direct engagement of that fashion with the other countries, is a recipe almost guaranteed to fail, and certainly puts Australia at a disadvantage from the moment of announcement because they are more concerned with the media strategy than they are with the policy strategy.

The final part, and I think the most bizarre part of what they've announced today, is the boat buyback scheme.

They've talked about going through villages and buying back fishing vessels that might be used for people smuggling. Indonesia is an archipelago, Indonesia has one of the largest fishing fleets in the world. In 2004, the Food and Agricultural Organisation did its estimate of how many fishing vessels there were in Indonesia. The figure they came up with, and they said at that point, this is 2004, the figure was continuing to grow, 1998 had been the last time they'd done figures, so from 98 to 04 it was continuing to grow: 726,000 fishing vessels in Indonesia. If you presume that that has increased at all, we are talking about a buyback scheme in a market of three quarters of a million boats.

Of all the mad ideas I've heard in immigration, I think boat buyback wins. The whole concept that you can deal with three quarters of a million boats, most of which are being used for poor villages to make a livelihood, and Australian officials are going to wander in and buy boats from them, and whatever pace we were to buy them, it wouldn't match the pace at which new boats were then be manufactured to replace them.

It is simply crazy policy - no other way of describing this, no other way at all. Three quarters of a million boats, and they'll know which ones are going to be used for people smuggling, and they'll have a boat buyback scheme. We have a situation where, if you were to do it, I have no doubt at all it would be great for the shipbuilding industry of Indonesia, and they would be lending a hand to the shipbuilding industry of Indonesia in a way in which they're not willing to lend a hand to the car building industry of Australia.

But if you look at it purely from an immigration perspective, the scale of what you're dealing with just leaves it as doomed to fail. And I look at today's announcement from the Opposition and I see one thing, and one thing only: they know that the way to be able to deal with this is through the Papua New Guinea arrangement, they know that the key to be able to do something about people smuggling is to take away the product that is being sold, and they know in particular from the video footage that was released yesterday of asylum seekers speaking in their own words about how what they paid for was no longer available. They know that the regional resettlement arrangements are what will break the back of people smuggling operations. Now we said at the time when we announced it, they will test our resolve for a period of time and they will keep doing it. But make no mistake on the ground now, people are moving away, people are registering with the UNHCR, more people are going home and every time another plane lands in Manus Island just like another plane load landed there this morning, just like family groups landed in Nauru the other day, people are realising the Government is serious on this policy and increasingly people will be finding their way back home.

JOURNALIST: Going back to your own policy, you budgeted for 3000 places on Manus Island in your economic statement, but you say there is a capacity for 10,000?

BURKE: There is a capacity well beyond that.

JOURNALIST: Where is the money coming from (inaudible)?

BURKE: If I can take you through the figures because I saw it was reported in that fashion in the Australian today and maybe I didn’t provide clarity on the numbers sufficiently yesterday but if I can go through it again. From the Lombrum and east Lorengau sites combined that’s where you get your 3000. There is another site, not favoured by the PNG Government at this stage which has also been raised at the old airport site where you would be able to get in the order of about 4000 people. But there is a site at the western end of Manus Island where if we went there and that has been identified by the PNG Government and the Governor of Manus Island as a potential site. That site on its own would take 10,000. Now at the moment, I don’t expect that we are going to need those sites. If we need them and if we need to build

then we will make those positions. But there is a mistake being made by some people who are looking at the numbers and I’m not saying that the paper made this mistake, the previous media conference did and that is believing that the number of people who arrive by boat must match the maximum capacity of whatever the processing centre is.

Unlike the old situation where people would remain in a regional processing almost forever unless they ended up coming back to Australia. Under the regional resettlement arrangements people get processed and then they get settled. That’s what happens. As people are settled, they leave the centre and they move into the community and what matters is you have the processing happening that you have people start to move through the system. You have a steady pace of people arriving and a steady pace of people leaving. And some people will leave voluntarily in advance of a settlement determination. Because they know that if they actually wanted to get to Australia the moment they are settled in Papua New Guinea, they no longer have a refugee claim so if they wanted any chance of being settled in Australia, they have to actually go home or go to another country and register with the UN to come through the offshore program. Settlement in Papua New Guinea doesn’t provide a pathway to get closer to Australia. In terms of a refugee determination it actually prevents you from getting further because it’s the end of your refugee claim. So the capacity that is required at Manus is to be able to deal with the processing as it goes through. If we had a much bigger surge than what we have had so far, we would have to make decisions about increasing the capacity on Manus.

JOURNALIST: You would therefore have to increase funding?

BURKE: If you increase capacity, you would have to increase funding, I’m not expecting that we would have to but if you were to make that decision it would cost more money. There have been reports in the Papua New Guinea press about a number of other provinces, not on Manus Island, but elsewhere within Papua New Guinea where different governors they believe would have come forward offering sites. But at this stage we are only looking at Manus and the sites that we’ve got and the rate of capacity increase. When you take account of the numbers who are making inquiries about leaving and the numbers who will find themselves being settled in coming months means that I see no evidence that we have a capacity problem.

JOURNALIST: The Opposition is saying that they are going to give more money to help Indonesians with their own search and rescue operations, will you match that?

BURKE: We already have extensive work through AusAID in different ways with helping the Indonesian Government with capacity. But I think it’s important that whey you make announcements about capacity building in other countries that you actually involve them in the conversation. It makes a difference to cooperation, it also makes a different to having policy that has common sense. I think you can absolutely guarantee that the opposition never tested the boat buy back policy with the Indonesians, I think you can pretty much guarantee that because the Indonesians know how big the fishing fleet is for their country. I used to be fisheries minister, I used to deal with Indonesia on it. Straight away when I heard this, I thought you

couldn’t know anything about Indonesia and be promoting a policy of that nature. So on anything about capacity building, we continue to work with other countries in the region but that is not something I would unilaterally announce, I don’t think it is proper to do so. I think it’s pretty patronising to our neighbours to think that a team of people who believe that they want to be in government in a couple of weeks’ time are willing to just unilaterally make announcements about what they will do in other people’s nations without the concurrence of the other nation.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned by the latest polls that shows that Labor Party is really flagging in key seats?

BURKE: Can I tell you I’m probably in an unusual situation on this. In terms of media interest, in the work that I am doing, there is probably no campaign where I have been more relevant. But it’s also the case, there has been no campaign where I have been involved in less campaigning. And the work that I have been doing has been very much logistical implementation of a policy and then making sure that I’m taking the opportunity to keep you up to date on it. From what I have seen and I’m probably more removed from this than almost anyone else on the front bench. But from what I have seen, we have a situation where we have been the underdogs on this the whole way through and we have some ground to make up. If the opposition keep making announcements like they have made today, then we should be able to make up that ground pretty comfortably. What they have announced today is ludicrous.

JOURNALIST: The UN Committee on Human Rights handed down a report yesterday on the detention of 46 refugees saying they should be released, compensated and given counselling. What is your advice to that?

BURKE: The people who they are referring to, are people who as I understand it have had a negative security determination. We take the advice of security agencies very seriously. I haven’t gone through the report in detail, but if the implication of the report as I understand from the notes that I have seen on it. If the implication of that report is that we should ignore security clearances and put people into the community when we have been advised when it’s not safe to put them into the community, it is not something that I would do, not something that I would do.

JOURNALIST: Are you worried about long term harm to the refugees?

BURKE: These are incredibly difficult situations and I don't deny how difficult this one is in the sense that you have somebody who has been found to be a refugee, so therefore it is reasonable that they can't go home. But at the same time, you have a security determination that they shouldn't be released into the community. Now that does create a diabolical situation, but when making responsible decisions as an Australian Government Minister with the implications that happen for the Australian community, I continue to back the advice of the security agencies.

JOURNALIST: I'm asking you this because you were recently Environment Minister, but there was an online survey released today, 400,000 Australians showing that they're very nervous about coal seam gas. Do you think there should be more federal oversight?

BURKE: There was a need for more federal oversight, and we changed the law to make sure that that happened, that's what the water trigger is. And the principal issue with coal seam gas, they'll be a whole lot of different issues, fracking and principles like that, but the core of the environmental issue has always been the impact on water, whether it be underground water or surface water. And those changes to the law were made by the Parliament earlier, anything on further responses to that you'd really have to go to Mark Butler.

JOURNALIST: If people are saying that this is something they're really worried about, what would you say to them?

BURKE: And we changed the law to make sure that those issues get taken into account, and we provided very significant funding to make sure that instead of the companies paying for their own research and just presenting that, that there was an Independent Expert Scientific Committee that would conduct independent research and have that applied.

If you have a science based processed, you generally have a safe process, and unlike our political opponents, we've respected the science regardless of the issue.

JOURNALIST: Can I just clarify on Jean Goldblatt, so it's looking extremely likely that she will get residency, that's the woman in Western Australia, sorry.

BURKE: I'll wait for the file to come to me, I've seen the reports about it, and the reports to me have caused me to in my instructions to the department to say that I want a brief, I want it soon and I want them to understand that I intend to give very sympathetic consideration to this particular case. Now I'll wait for the brief to actually come to me, but there's a formal process where the Minister can either let these things go through to the keeper or you say I want to call this one in, I've decided to call it in.

JOURNALIST: How quickly will you, sorry, how quickly are you moving people to Manus? You keep saying that there's capacity there but isn't there a bottleneck in Australia at the moment and isn't that putting a temporary strain on the Australian detention network?

BURKE: No, no, I don't accept that. We've got fewer people on Christmas island now than when I first became Minister. Obviously you want your detention network numbers to be as low as they can be, that gives you an ease of management, it's a more effective outcome for the Australian people in terms of tax dollars as well, but the numbers on Christmas Island now are lower than they have been previously. That doesn't mean that they're not higher than I'd like them to be, they are, but the way, and we found this with Sri Lanka. It wasn't the first plane load of people who were sent back to Sri Lanka, that that meant suddenly the boats stopped coming directly from Sri Lanka. But it was the constant path of people would come, people would be screened out, people would be put on a plane and they would be sent back, and it would happen time and again when people weren't activating our protection obligations, and the pathway of those boats directly from Sri Lanka to Australia stopped.

Now with this, I don't believe that the correct answer and you know, Tony Abbott keeps daring me and Scott Morrison keeps daring me to you know do the frenzy of let's get lots of planes over and do it in a chaotic, immediate way. We don't need to do that. Everybody who arrives will end up leaving Australia, everybody, and they know that, and they don't like it, but they know it will happened. And we're making sure in an orderly way that the planes will keep going across. And for a while they thought no family groups have gone across, they thought maybe family groups would be ok. Well family groups are now going directly to Nauru and there will be family accommodation worked through on Manus Island, but it is not at the standards that I want yet. But it will all happen, but it will happen in an orderly way. And if I’m being dared into an alternative frenzy and I’m saying no I’m going to do it in an orderly way then I’m pretty relaxed about my role in that debate.