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Transcript of interview with Lisa Wilkinson: Network Nine, Today Show: 25 July 2013: PNG asylum seeker deal; debate with Opposition Leader

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25 JULY 2013


Subjects: PNG asylum seeker deal; debate with Opposition Leader.

HOST: Good morning to you, Prime Minister.

PM: Good morning Lisa, from a very chilly Tasmania.

HOST: Well hopefully this will warm you up, Prime Minister.

Can I just ask: are you really comfortable sending vulnerable people who are fleeing persecution into an environment like I’ve just described?

PM: Well, the first thing you’ve got to ask yourself is whether all people leaving to come by boat with people smugglers to Australia are bona fide refugees. That’s the first question you’ve got to ask.

HOST: Are you saying the majority aren’t?

PM: Well let me answer your question Lisa: that’s the first question you put to me about assuming that all people coming to this country by boat are, therefore, by definition, fleeing persecution.

That’s always been a complex question.

The second is this: I make no apology for the fact that we have to make very hard decisions in the international interest.

What we are therefore sending out is a very clear cut message to people smugglers that if you bring people by boat to Australia, they will not be settled in Australia.

It’s a very clear cut message.

Thirdly, on the question of Manus: we will seek to improve the conditions in Manus over time, and that is the responsibility we’ve jointly undertaken with the Government of Papua New Guinea.

These are difficult and hard decisions but we don’t shirk from them.

HOST: How long will those improvements take, Prime Minister?

PM: Well, this is in the hands of a taskforce now.

Under the Government we are obviously undertaking our obligations relevant to the Refugees Convention.

That means making sure that we have appropriate accommodation; that we have, also, necessary security; and that we have, therefore, with settlement, the Australian Government working with the Government of Papua New Guinea to make sure that people are settled in Papua New Guinea over time in safety and security.

Now, what I said the other day when I announced the Regional Resettlement Arrangement is that there’ll be lots of bumps in the road, lots of difficulties, lots of challenges, and these will be nutted out one by one.

You don’t just click your fingers and say - as Mr Abbott does - a three-word slogan will fix everything. This is hard and difficult policy and we are determined to get on with the job.

HOST: When your leadership was challenged by Julia Gillard back in 2010 you promised not to lurch to the right on this issue. Many are saying you’re now further to the right than John Howard.

PM: The challenge we all face right now is that if numbers coming to Australia because of the operations globally of people smugglers continues to grow and grow and grow, two things will happen.

One: you will not see hundreds of people drown offshore from Australia.

You will see thousands drown offshore from Australia.

That’s just what would happen if the numbers continue to go up and up.

And the second reason for acting in this manner is this: there are currently about 12 million recognised refugees who are languishing in United Nations High Commission for Refugees camps right around the world.

And Australians have historically been very generous.

We have now, in recent times, been seeking to settle 20,000 of these folks each year in Australia as part of our global responsibilities.

Those arriving by boat are now overwhelming that number, so that we do not settle any of those people who had been languishing in camps for years and I’m not about to simply sit back and allow that to happen.

Those are two very strong reasons, and these are two very principal reasons, for acting in the way that we have.

The challenge that I put out to anyone who asks that we should consider a different approach is this: what would you do to stop thousands of people, including children, drowning offshore, other than undertake a policy direction like this? What is the alternative answer?

HOST: Prime Minister, you were the one that changed the policy by dumping the Pacific Solution. Do you now accept that that was that a mistake?

PM: What I’ve already said Lisa is that it’s been necessary - and always necessary - for a Government to adjust their policies as circumstances change over time. I have been very upfront about that, and we’ve needed to.

In 2007, we took a series of policies to the election; the Australian people voted for them; we implemented them.

What happened then later in 2009-10 plus is our international circumstances began to change. We had a civil war in Sri Lanka.

We had other disturbances around the world, just like the unfolding…

HOST: Prime Minister, you did not move. At that time, you did not move. You saw this unfolding and over two years you made no change to how the country was dealing with it.

PM: …just like the unfolding circumstances in Syria today.

And Lisa, what I said at the National Press Club recently - I think you would know this - is that of course, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, you would have begun to adjust our policies in 09-10.

But when you have changing circumstances in the world unfolding underneath your feet, it takes a while to adjust.

What I’m saying now is the fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria - which all countries in the world are focused on - with the outflow of 1.8 million people potentially from that country, we must adjust our circumstances.

Australia’s immigration policy and our asylum seekers policy is not chipped in stone so that you never change it if the external circumstances change.

That’s the right and responsible thing to do.

HOST: Well you proved that when you dropped the Pacific Solution, Prime Minister.

How much is it costing the Government to get Papua New Guinea to sign on to this deal?

PM: Well Lisa I will answer the question you just put, Lisa, which is we adjusted our policy accordingly. And then secondly, the policy I would…

HOST: And then the boats started coming again.

PM: No. I am talking about the announcement that we made last Friday.

HOST: Well since you made that announcement Last Friday…

PM: Prior to that, Lisa, on the previous time in 2007, we took that policy to the Australian people and we implemented it.

Circumstances change, we’ve adjusted since then, and I keep going back to this: our policy is clear.

If a smuggler brings someone to Australia by boat, you will not be settled in Australia. That’s ours.

Mr Abbott’s alternative policy is a three-word slogan: stop the boats.

I’d like to know how he would stop the boats. He’s never answered that. In fact he refused any debate on that, which Neil Mitchell offered yesterday morning in Melbourne.

HOST: Prime Minister, since you announced this solution there have been five new asylum seeker boat arrivals, three separate sinkings, and just yesterday another six people - including a young child - died, and 44 other people are missing.

Is this policy not working already?

PM: Lisa, in the statement I delivered last Friday with the Attorney General and the Immigration Minister and the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, what I said was very clear that this policy announcement would not result in an immediate reduction in boats coming to Australia. It would need to be implemented over time.

I also said - last Friday when we announced this policy - that as soon as it became clear to people smugglers around the world that this is the new change in direction on the part of the Australian Government in response to changing circumstances, that people smugglers would then seek to test our resolve by pushing even more for a while, at us.

So, therefore, we don’t intend to flinch. This is the right policy. It is the right message.

I think you heard a people smuggler interviewed by a media outlet the other day say that this was a fundamental assault on their business model.

Well, that’s a pretty gruesome way for him to put that, but the bottom line is this, I challenge anyone else looking at this policy challenge for Australia to deliver a credible alternative policy.

Mr Abbott gives us three-word slogans.

HOST: Ok, Prime Minister. Unfortunately we’ve got to zip. Thanks very much for your time this morning.

PM: Thanks very much Lisa.