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Transcript of interview with Marius Benson: ABC Newsradio: 31 October 2012: changes to Migration Act

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SUBJECTS: Changes to Migration Act.

MARIUS BENSON: Chris Bowen, good morning.

CHRIS BOWEN: Good morning to you, Marius.

BENSON: What impact do you expect this excision, if it goes ahead, to have?

BOWEN: Well, it’s an important recommendation from the Houston Panel in order to stop people continuing on a boat journey to try and get around Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef to strike the mainland. Now, the numbers that have come to the mainland are relatively small compared to -

BENSON: How big?

BOWEN: Well, we’ve had 1,500 people since 2008 either get close to the mainland or reach the mainland. And there have been just over 200 who have actually made it and have been regarded as mainland arrivals.

BENSON: Two hundred?

BOWEN: So those numbers are small.

BENSON: Two hundred out of how many total over that period?

BOWEN: Again, Marius, 1,500 -

BENSON: No, no, of the total arrivals on non-mainland.

BOWEN: Let me finish my sentence, please, Marius.


BOWEN: Now, 1,500 who have attempted to make it to the mainland and come very close. Two hundred who have succeeded in getting to the mainland. Now, that is a small proportion of the total numbers, but there has also been less incentive for people to strike the mainland because for a long part of that period there was not that much difference in the way those groups were treated.

But when you look at, when you have a quite different set of arrangements in place - that is if you get to Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef you can be taken to Nauru or PNG, but if you make it to the mainland you wouldn’t - then you do create a perverse incentive to make it to the mainland and that is an incentive to stay on a boat for maybe three or four more days, to risk your life three or four days longer, and risk that tragedy occurring.

BENSON: So that was an unintended consequence of your changes to offshore processing, that you made the mainland that much more attractive?

BOWEN: No, again, recommendation 15 of the expert panel was very clear: it said you should reintroduce Nauru and Manus Island as offshore processing places, you should work to introduce Malaysia, but you should also do this to make sure you don’t create that perverse incentive to continue. So we’ve said for a long time, Marius, that we would accept all the recommendations of the Houston Panel and that is what we’re implementing by this legislation.

BENSON: The charge, one charge against you from the Opposition and others is of hypocrisy. Are you guilty of being hypocritical, given the extremely - some say sanctimonious - criticisms you made of the Howard Government when it attempted the same measure in 2006? Are you a hypocrite?

BOWEN: Let me make a couple of points, Marius. Firstly, I’ve changed my mind and this is a change in the Labor Party position, that’s very clear, based on the evidence, based on trying to save people’s lives. If I have a choice between saving somebody’s life and being entirely consistent with something I said in 2006, well, I’ll go for saving the life, thanks very much.

Secondly, this is part of an integrated package. This is not just a one-off measure like the Howard Government proposed in 2006. This is part of a package of increasing the refugee intake to 20,000, giving more people the chance of a life in Australia. Last week I was in refugee camps in Lebanon talking to people who wouldn’t dream of having the money to get to Australia by boat, but would love the chance of resettlement in Australia. There’s many hundreds of thousands of people like that around the world. So this is part of an integrated package which gives people a safer way to come to Australia. As well, gives people the chance who would never dream of having the money to come to Australia by boat a chance of a life in Australia, unlike that one-off measure that the Howard Government proposed in 2006.

But yes, Marius, as Minister for Immigration, I have said consistently that we need to take a different approach, that we need to do everything possible to save lives. And you know what? I wish the Opposition would do that as well. I wish they would say, ‘Well, we previously opposed Malaysia, we’re going to change our minds to save lives’. I think that

would get them credit. You’ve got a choice here: you take the evidence into account, you take the changed circumstances into account, and you do what you can to make people’s lives safer at sea trying to get to Australia.

BENSON: In 2006, you said excising the mainland would be ‘a stain on our national character’. Do you see it that way now?

BOWEN: Look, very clearly, Marius, as I just said, I’ve changed my mind. The Labor Party’s changed its position. I don’t hide that for one second. I recommended to the Government that we take a flexible approach to try and do what we can to get a more orderly approach to people arriving in Australia and to save lives.

BENSON: Will this stand up legally, because you previously relied on legal advice that the Malaysian Solution would be successful in the High Court and that proved untrue? Are you more confident this time?

BOWEN: Yes, yes, very clearly, we’ve always, for a long time had the case that people who arrive by boat had an excised place, had a different set of arrangements than those who arrived by plane with a valid visa and then later claimed asylum. So if you arrive by boat without a visa, yes, there’s a different arrangement in place than for those who arrive by plan with a visa and then claim asylum.

That is consistent with the Refugee Convention and what this change does is actually make the treatment of people more consistent, so that there’s no difference as to whether you arrive at Christmas Island or you arrive at Darwin or Broome or anywhere else; you will get treated the same way. So this is entirely consistent with the Refugee Convention. You know what, Marius? The Refugee Convention is often quoted, but little read. It’s often quoted by people who say, ‘Oh, this is a breach of the Refugee Convention’. But I would suggest that if you actually read the Refugee Convention, you’d see that this is consistent with it.

BENSON: Chris Bowen, thank you very much.

BOWEN: Thank you, Marius.