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Transcript of doorstop interview: Canberra: 20 November 2013:revelations in Senate Estimates about the Government's 'buy back the boats' policy; Indonesia spy allegations; asylum seekers and the debt ceiling

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SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison refusing to answer questions; Government’s failure to ‘buyback the boats’ ; Indonesia spy claims; Asylum seekers; Debt-ceiling

BURKE: Last night at Senate Estimates we had General Campbell answer questions that Scott Morrison refused to answer in the Parliament. Sometimes you get very long questions asked in the Parliament but you don’t get a sharper question than when Scott Morrison was asked how many boats have you bought back.

Scott Morrison claimed to the Parliament that it was an operational matter that couldn’t be disclosed. Well that’s clearly not the case, because when the General was asked he gave the answer. And the answer is what Australians thought it would be. Zero.

Buying boats back was one of the most absurd policies that was taken to the last election. Everyone knew it was ridiculous, Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott couldn’t swallow their pride and admit it, but then what was worse was they refused to provide answers to the floor of the Australian Parliament. And last night we discover not only is the General willing to answer questions that the Minister’s not, but secondly, it clearly isn’t an operational matter because it is not happening at all.

JOURNALIST: The Coalition says it’s still on the table. The policy hasn’t been completely scrapped?

BURKE: Well it’s a funny old table if it’s still there, because it’s one that no one is going near. The policy itself, I mean just think through the logic of it. What happens if you buy a vessel, now how much are you going to have to pay for it? If people are paying thousands of dollars to try and get on the vessel you’re going to have to beat that and what do they then do with money. You can only presume they either walk away and buy more vessels or just buy one that is a whole lot better than the one they started with. At every level the boat buy back policy is absurd. No one has been able to defend it and we now find that the General being willing to answer questions that Scott Morrison claimed were operational. If they were operational we wouldn’t have got the answer last night.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that Tony Abbott should have apologised yesterday in Parliament?

BURKE: Look I’m not going to add to the words that Bill Shorten put forward. We want this issue to be resolved. We want the, and it’s in Australia’s best interest that this is resolved as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: Jakarta has rejected (inaudible), they’re not happy with the explanation.

BURKE: That’s right, and Bill Shorten put forward a particular formulation to be considered, I’m not going to relitigate that or add to that. The most important thing is that Tony Abbott doesn’t allow this to become a running sore. We want to make sure that we work together; we want to make sure that we work with the Government, and get this resolved as quickly as possible. It is absolutely in Australia’s interests for this issue to be resolved.

JOURNALIST: So should he pick up the phone to the Indonesian President?

BURKE: As I said I’m not going to add to the formulation that Bill Shorten put forward yesterday.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

BURKE: Look specifically on that I haven’t heard that raised, there’s a range of areas of cooperation which are very important to Australia

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

BURKE: That’s information that I don’t have.

JOURNALIST: In Senate estimates yesterday it was revealed yesterday that 76 minors on Christmas Island, and also when it comes to the 48 hour turnaround the pathology tests are actually being done on Manus and Nauru. Was this the case when you were the Immigration Minister and do you have any concerns about that?

BURKE: Look the medical advice that I was given was that you certainly couldn’t safely send people inside seven days. You couldn’t conclude the necessary tests.

JOURNALIST: So what does that pathology test actually mean? Are people going to Nauru and Manus Island without being properly screened for diseases like Tuberculosis?

BURKE: I never challenged or questioned the medical advice I was given. I was simply told that was the timeframe and I respected that.

JOURNALIST: What about the minors on Christmas Island?

BURKE: The circumstance there was, I had not transferred anyone who was a minor to Nauru or Manus Island , an unaccompanied minor to Nauru or Manus Island because I didn’t believe the facilities were up to scratch to where they needed to get to. I was working to get them to that point but they weren’t there yet. So therefore people had to remain on Christmas Island. Some minors ended up in Nauru but they were in family groups.

JOURNALIST: So 76 unaccompanied minors are on Christmas Island would that say to you that this Government isn’t sending them to Nauru and therefore there is nowhere else for them to go so they have to stay on Christmas Island?

BURKE: There’s a difference between how we handled this issue and how Scott Morrison handled it in Opposition. We don’t want to give language that encourages people smuggling, we don’t want to talk down the effectiveness of the program that actually works. Let’s face it, what they are implementing, and the only thing that they have, in what they describe as their arsenal that actually works, are the regional resettlement arrangements. They’re not turning boats around, they’re not buying back boats, they’re implementing our policy. And that’s why when you look at the boat figures, even though they keep wanting to go back a full six weeks or eight weeks or something like that to include periods when boats were already on the water at the time that the new arrangement was announced.

Actually just look at the figures two weeks before the election, for those two weeks before the election as the boat numbers had come down the arrival rate is

about the same as it is now and that’s because the policies that we put in place did in fact work. What they’ve adopted has been a cultural of secrecy, a culture of secrecy that last night even the General couldn’t abide by, and he answered the questions about issues that in truth were not operational matters, if they had been operation matters he wouldn’t have answered it. What Scott Morrison had provided to the Parliament against a straight question was not a straight answer and last night it was proven to be false.

JOURNALIST: Is it appropriate that there is a pregnant woman on Nauru living in tents?

BURKE: Look the medical advice should drive those decisions and I don’t know what the medical advice is.

JOURNALIST: What would Labor need to hear from Parkinson this morning to persuade them that the half a trillion dollar debt ceiling is the right way to go?

BURKE: The position that Chris Bowen has enunciated and that we hold firmly is the documents should be bought down. It shouldn’t be a case of whether or not the right question is asked, or the right answers given or things are done on the run, there is a full budget update called MYEFO, it’s the mid-year forecast. It should be released and put on the table. Every time Joe Hockey says oh I want permission to go to half a trillion dollars of debt but I’m not willing to give you the documents, you know you’ve got to ask what’s he got to hide. It’s a reasonable question what on earth does Joe Hockey have to hide on that. So the critical issue for us and I will make this the last one because I have to get to a meeting, but the critical issue for us is to make sure that the information is put forward.

Four hundred billion on the table already from the Senate, the Government can take that at whatever time they want. We are also willing to look at the higher figure but they’ve got to release MYEFO and provide the documents to justify it. No one gets an increase in their credit limit without having to provide any paper work. That’s what Joe Hockey is asking for the biggest permission to go into debt in the country.