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Transcript of interview with Fran Kelly: ABC Radio National: 18 November 2013: discusses Patrol boats gift, Operation Sovereign Borders, secrecy claims, illegal maritime arrival mother and baby

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Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison

Monday, 18 November 2013

Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast

Fran Kelly: Well the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is in our Parliament House studios. Minister, good morning. Welcome back to Breakfast.

Scott Morrison: G'day Fran, nice to be with you.

Fran Kelly: Minister, has the Australian Government placed any conditions on Sri Lanka's use of these two Australian patrol boats, any conditions, any protocols, any limitations?

Scott Morrison: Well, the Prime Minister has announced that these vessels will be gifted to Sri Lanka and it is now for me to confirm those arrangements with the Sri Lankan Government. Some week or so ago or thereabouts - a bit longer than that, actually - I wrote to the Prime Minister and recommended that these vessels do be gifted. It follows on from a meeting, Fran - you may recall in January of this year I travelled to Sri Lanka with the now Foreign Minister and Michael Keenan and we held high level meetings in Sri Lanka and one of the key vulnerabilities they identified to us at that time was their long range patrol capacity and that is the vulnerability we're seeking to address in ensuring that they're able to continue doing what they've been doing for some time and that is stopping boats leaving Sri Lanka.

Fran Kelly: And so when those - when you write to confirm the arrangements, will you be also including in that discussion any kind of protocol or essential agreement that would prevent the Sri Lankan navy for instance using these two patrol boats for military purposes?

Scott Morrison: Well, not only the Sri Lankan Navy but there's also the Coast Guard as well and how these vessels are used within their maritime operations to prevent people smuggling. That is the purpose for this gift. That is [indistinct]...

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] That is our purpose but is there any guarantee from Sri Lanka that that is the only purpose they'll be used for?

Scott Morrison: Fran, we're gifting these vessels and we will work constructively through those issues with the Sri Lankan Government. They have been an outstanding partner with us for some time and despite little support from the previous government. But I will say this: the previous government, when Senator Carr was there last December, gifted surveillance equipment to the Sri Lankan Government to monitor the people smuggling activity.

Now, it's still not clear to me whether that was ever provided and he outlined a range of other things including looking at these types of arrangements for providing patrol assets. Now I don't recall any great hubbub at the time about that from the Government and members of the Labor Party, but we're continuing that approach. We believe in a constructive engagement with Sri Lanka because prosperity and

peace and stability are the way forward in Sri Lanka and that's what we're working towards.

Fran Kelly: Yeah, and I'm just wondering though, as you do organise the arrangements with the hand over of these boats, whether you will be asking for any protocols be put in place to make sure that these boats are only used for the purpose which you said they've been gifted for which is long range patrolling to prevent people smugglers?

Scott Morrison: Well, as I say, we'll work through those arrangements with the Sri Lankan Government.

Fran Kelly: Is that a no?

Scott Morrison: No, it's I'm telling you we'll work through those arrangements with the Sri Lankan Government and that's the appropriate place to have those discussions, Fran.

Fran Kelly: The Greens' criticism is that the Australian Government is, quote, assisting a disgraced government to suppress and control its citizens. Minister, what is to stop these boats from forcing back Tamils trying to flee persecution?

Scott Morrison: Well, if the suggestion, Fran, is that we're giving these boats to stop people coming to Australia illegally by boat, that's true. That's exactly why we're doing this. We are looking to stop people coming to Australia illegally by boat and the Sri Lankan Government has been assisting not only our government but the previous government to achieve that very task. Now, we want to assist them to do that because we don't want people getting on these boats and coming to Australia and drowning along the way and that's why we're working closely with the Sri Lankan Government.

So I make no apologies for the fact that we are endeavouring to work with the Sri Lankan Government to stop boats coming to Australia. That's the point.

Fran Kelly: But what about if you're, in stopping boats coming to Australia illegally, you're stopping people who are fleeing persecution? To quote the Greens again, I don't think Australians who genuinely thought stopping the boats was about saving lives will be comfortable knowing that stop the boats now means preventing people from running away from torture.

Scott Morrison: Well, 79 out of the last 79 people who sought to illegally come to Australia by boat were screened out by immigration officials, 73 of them were all returned back and six are on their way back very shortly. I remember Senator Carr referred to it as economic migration. Now, I was there in January and I had the opportunity to see things on the ground for myself, not as part of a sponsored visit from the Sri Lankan Government at the commencement of that program. We were in the hands of the Tamil National Alliance and we went everywhere they wanted to take us.

So I've had the chance to look at these things first hand, I've spoken to the UNHCR on the ground, the ION on the ground, I've spoken to the Indian High Commission

and others who are very involved in dealing with those issues up in India themselves. I mean, India is 30 kilometres away. Australia is 3000 kilometres away. The choice to come to Australia has very strong economic motivations.

Fran Kelly: Yes, of course, and, you know, there's no doubting that some of that great influx in the arrival of Sri Lankans over the past 15 months or so was, to some degree, economic, but not all of it, was it? Will you be taking any steps to monitor how those returned to Sri Lanka, especially if they're Tamil, are treated by the Government?

Scott Morrison: Well, that process already exists, and…

Fran Kelly: How?

Scott Morrison: Well, that's done through the UNHCR and the IOM and other international agencies, and that's the process that the Indian Government is currently engaged in with the Sri Lankan Government with the return of thousands of people back out of India into Sri Lanka. Now, those processes are already established, Fran, and I think they're good processes and I want to continue to work with those processes in the ongoing dialogue that I have with the Sri Lankan Government. We're working here all together to ensure that we put an end to this terrible trade, and that's our purpose here.

I mean, the Greens approach was tried by the previous government - the softening of our borders and all of that. They tried it all and over 1100 people ended up dead. Now, I'm not going to repeat the mistake of the previous government in being led around by the Greens.

Fran Kelly: It's 11 to eight on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Minister, if I can go to the concerns about the level of secrecy around the boat arrivals, hasn't it become absurd, when last week an asylum seeker boat arrived in Darwin Harbour, on Wednesday you were asked in the Parliament to provide details on its arrival and you wouldn't give any? Two days later, it's confirmed in your weekly briefing. Why was it a secret on Wednesday and there on offer without even a question on Friday?

Scott Morrison: Well, I think Lieutenant General Campbell went into quite a lot of detail last, Fran, about that, and he was also backed up prior to that by the former CDF Angus Houston, and…

Fran Kelly: Can you just explain for people listening, what was achieved then in denying the Australian people that information for two days?

Scott Morrison: Real time reporting of people smuggling activities only advantages people smugglers by confirming voyages which provide proof of voyage for payment. It disrupts cash flow operations of the people smugglers, it ensures that the people smugglers aren't able to use official government statements with high levels of detail, as was provided by the previous government, to go around claiming responsibility for voyages and to encourage other people to get on boats. Now, both Lieutenant General Campbell and Air Chief Marshall Houston, the former CDF, had made it

crystal clear that there is great advantage for the Government to manage how this information is used. Now, I'm not…

Fran Kelly: Well, just on that though, because we spoke to the Shadow Minister Richard Marles earlier about this, and he said in government they were never given any advice by anyone, including presumably from Angus Houston, that this was damaging their efforts, this release of information.

Scott Morrison: Well, they weren't running the operation we're running, Fran. They were running a water taxi service. They were running an accommodation service for people smugglers.

We're running a…

Fran Kelly: They were trying to stop the arrivals, weren't they?

Scott Morrison: They were accepting arrivals at a rate in the thousands per month and just taking them direct to CI as part of a water taxi service. We are running a regional deterrence framework, not a regional accommodation framework the previous government was running, and we're running at a much higher level of operational intensity, and the nature of things that we're involved in requires operational security, and that's the very point that Angus Houston was confirming last week.

Now, I notice there hasn't been a great deal of coverage of Angus Houston's comments, but I certainly noted them and I appreciate him making them because it underscores the point that both General Campbell and the Government have been making, and that is you need to manage information carefully so as not to advantage the people smugglers. Now, I know the Opposition wants to run a people smugglers' right to know campaign, but the Government won't be joining them.

Fran Kelly: It's nine minutes to eight on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Minister, you say you need to manage information carefully. Do you also need to manage how you use the military carefully? Because on the - on Friday, you've announced a change in the way the media briefs on Operation Sovereign Borders will be undertaken. General Angus Campbell will no longer be present for the full briefing. Is that an admission that there were concerns about you politicising the military?

Scott Morrison: No. That's a preventative step, which is how I referred to it on Friday. It was taken at my initiative because I wanted to ensure that no inappropriate reflections were being made against the military and their involvement in this exercise. It was a preventative step taken on my behalf, and I stand by it, and I think it's the appropriate way to continue to manage those briefings, and so if others want to make inappropriate reflections against the military and against the operation, well, they may still try to do that but they won't be doing it with any assistance by the way that we're handling matters.

Fran Kelly: And Minister, just finally, this concern about the Rohingyan woman, Latifa, who gave birth to a baby boy in Brisbane last week. Where are mother and son now?

Scott Morrison: Well, they're in the detention facility of the - I should say, the alternative place of detention facility up in Brisbane. I should stress that I asked for a review of these matters because the policy that we have on this is that women in that situation should be treated no differently to an Australian in those situations. That was the advice we were receiving at the time, and that's why I've asked for a review to see where there may have been some departure from that practice. And…

Fran Kelly: And mother and son now? Have they - will they be returned to Nauru?

Scott Morrison: Well, once there is a medical clearance that is provided, that is the plan.

Fran Kelly: That is the plan, to send them back to Nauru with a baby?

Scott Morrison: That's the plan. There are no exceptions to offshore processing, Fran. That is the purpose of offshore processing, that there are no exceptions. That's when it is effective, but there was no intention by the Government to separate a mother and their child inappropriately or inconsistent with any practice that would've applied to an Australian in those circumstances, and that's why I've asked for a review, and any suggestion to the contrary I think is frankly making it up.

Fran Kelly: Minister, thanks for joining us on Breakfast.

Scott Morrison: Thanks very much, Fran. Nice to be with you,

Fran Kelly: Scott Morrison is the Immigration Minister.