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Transcript of interview with Jim Middleton: Newsline, ABC News 24: 3 April 2013: Bali process; asylum seekers; 457 visas

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Bali process, asylum seekers, 457 visas Wednesday, 03 April 2013

Interview with Jim Middleton, Newsline, ABC News 24

Jim Middleton: Minister, welcome to the program.

Brendan O'Connor: Thanks Jim.

Jim Middleton: At the meeting you asked other Bali Process nations to consider processing asylum seekers bound for Australia, did you get any takers?

Brendan O'Connor: Look, we haven't asked anyone to be involved in the same manner in which Nauru and PNG are involved. What I made clear in my statement to the Bali Process Conference today was that all of the Bali Process members need to work together, countries of origin, transit, and destination, need to work together in order to tackle this complex issue and the best way to do that may depend upon where they sit within the region.

But law enforcement's a critical part of that, so is responding to the humanitarian need, and so is managing the movement of people. I think it's a complex issue and to try to bring it - drill it down to a simplistic solution is clearly wrong. We need to engage fully. The one great thing about the Bali Process now, 11 years since its inception, is it's the one vehicle within the region that we have to tackle this in a multi-lateral way.

Jim Middleton: So there are no other nations within the region that you consider to be in a position to do what Nauru and Papua New Guinea are doing, and indeed what Malaysia was offering to do, that is to engage in offshore processing of asylum seekers who had been heading for Australia?

Brendan O'Connor: Look, we haven't sought that and I'm not saying for a moment that other countries can't be involved in that approach, I just wanted to make clear that we have not sought from other countries to take up that approach at this point, and I think it is important for countries to make their decisions around this. But there's no doubt we need levels of deterrence to stop people getting on these unseaworthy vessels, we need a better way to work collaboratively to prosecute those who seek to exploit people, desperate people in many circumstances.

And I think you've seen over the last several years, countries increasing penalties for the organisers of these ventures, I'm not talking about the crew here. We've seen

Indonesia, for example, legislate penalties, quite significant penalties, for people smuggling and human trafficking. That I think is really important, that part of it. But I think, also is the need to ensure that we have a better way of deterring people themselves, having that secondary movement.

I mean we can understand why people might flee persecution, but then to endanger their lives by getting on a very unseaworthy vessel when they're not actually immediately at that point fleeing persecution, I think needs to be prevented wherever possible. And I really do appreciate the efforts of the Indonesian Government in co-chairing this process, I think they've shown great leadership. There's more to be done, but I think with their leadership others will follow.

Jim Middleton: Wouldn't one of the things which would deter people from trying to use these services of people smugglers be speeding up the processing of refugee claims from asylum seekers already in transit countries. Isn't that something the Bali Process nations need to consider as a matter of urgency?

Brendan O'Connor: Look, I think that's absolutely right. Not only the expedition of the processing of people seeking asylum, so they take a regular path, if you like, in having their status determined, but also an increase in the number, and that's why the Federal Government of course increased to 20 000 the humanitarian program places, so we can have more people processed offshore, that we do it more efficiently. And I can assure you yesterday the officials of 37 countries met to discuss a range of things, including how do we make - how can we become more efficient and effective processing plants?

These are not always easily done, Jim, as you can imagine. There are times in which people don't have documentation, they don't have sufficient evidence, so we do have to think of ways we can ensure that people are properly and justly processed, and speedily processed, in order to prevent people taking that other option, you know. Getting into those crammed vessels, finding themselves literally at sea and on a vessel that won't make it to Australia. I mean, you know, we've just seen too much of that, and so I think the countries under the auspices of the Bali Process are more focused than ever, and they'll need to be because there are challenging times.

Jim Middleton: Jakarta would like Australia to take more refugees from Indonesia. Are you in a position to agree to such a request?

Brendan O'Connor: Well, look, we always look at the way we break down the allocation of claims. Indonesia is a great partner with Australia in dealing with not only the transnational crimes but the humanitarian effort, and will always take seriously any request they make. And you have to remember too that we need the direct involvement of the UNHCR. I mean, that's the main body that helps Australia determine the status of people offshore, so we need to make sure they're able to be looking at processing more, that the Indonesian Government is seeking more places. We'll look at those things, but it needs to be able to be done. It's no point saying I put my hand up for X number of places and then not have it fulfilled.

The one thing I'd like to see as minister in this area is that the 20 000 places that we've dedicated are indeed filled so that we can do our part, do our fair share of

helping people that are in desperate need of help, and at the same time of course find ways to prevent people increasing the likelihood that they will get on those boats.

Jim Middleton: One other subject. How do you respond to the statement from media magnate Rupert Murdoch that your government's crackdown on 451 (sic )visas, temporary work permits for skilled foreign workers, is effectively racist?

Brendan O'Connor: Well, that's just clearly absurd, and I know that he may have read some of the opinion pieces in his own newspapers but I can assure you I haven't got a racist bone in my body. And I can assure him the intention behind the reforms is to make very clear that we have temporary skilled labour when there are genuine shortages, and when there are not genuine shortages we offer them to Australian citizens and permanent residents. I think that's the obligation of every national government, to look after their citizens and permanent residents first, make no apology for it, and with respect I disagree utterly with Rupert Murdoch.

Jim Middleton: But it is the case, is it not, that prominent figures on your own side of politics are uneasy about the crackdown, concerned about what's behind it?

Brendan O'Connor: No, look, I think that this debate's been framed by some who want to see the liberalisation of employment conditions in this country, that is in Australia, and they've framed it in a way to suggest that if you support reforms and remove the rorts of 457s that somehow you are racist. This is just clearly and patently untrue. Immigration helped build Australia. It will continue to help build Australia. It's vital for Australia's interests. No one's suggesting it's not.

What we are suggesting is you don't use a temporary skills stream to fill jobs that could be filled by locals who have the skills, and you don't replace training young people with bringing people in on a temporary skills stream, because that will create a lack of social cohesion. That will cause the undermining of the confidence in the efficacy our immigration system. In fact, everything I am doing is to ensure confidence in the immigration system and confidence that employers do want to employ locals first and train young people first and not find that the only option is to go elsewhere. That would create an underclass in Australia if we were to neglect people who have the skills and not give them the jobs and neglect young people so that they can be trained.

Jim Middleton: Minister, better leave it there. Thank you very much.

Brendan O'Connor: Yeah, thank you very much Jim.