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Electorate Office, Stirling, SA: transcript of doorstop interview: meeting with Nauru President Rene Harris; people smuggling and illegal migration; International Criminal Court.

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DATE:Friday, 14 June 2002 VENUE: Doorstop - Electorate Office, Stirling, SA

TOPIC/S: Meeting with Nauru President Rene Harris People smuggling and illegal migration International Criminal Court

ALEXANDER DOWNER: There are two things I want to talk about. Just talk a bit about my lunch with President Harris but, secondly, on behalf of the government to say a little bit about Mr Crean’s latest flip-flop on the whole issue of dealing with illegal migrants and people smugglers.

First of all, as far as President Harris is concerned we had a very amiable lunch, a very successful lunch. We talked through the aid program which is part of the memorandum of understanding that President Harris and I signed in December of last year. We talked about the issue of the asylum seekers in Nauru and the timing of those people leaving and he was happy with the arrangements. Both in respect of aid and the asylum seekers I think he’s felt reassured by the messages that we’ve able to deliver.

We had a discussion about the long-term economic prospects of Nauru; that’s obviously not an issue related to the asylum seekers but is nevertheless an important issue. And we have two Australian economic advisers going to Nauru I think next week, very soon, and they’ll be working with the Nauru government to help with long-term economic management issues.

I would say this: that I’m very appreciative of not only President Harris’ assistance to Australia on this issue of asylum seekers and helping to deal with people smuggling, but that I think it’s important to understand he’s doing a lot to try to rectify the legacy that he inherited of economic mismanagement in Nauru and we appreciate very much as a brother country in the Pacific Island Forum the work that he’s been doing to restructure Nauru’s finances and its economy.

Mr Crean today announced Labor’s latest position on dealing with the problem of people smuggling. At the end of last year Mr Crean himself voted for the excision of some of the islands from Australia’s immigration zone. Today, straight after a briefing, and obviously not prompted by the briefing, Mr Crean announced that this time he’s going to vote against the excision of islands from Australia’s immigration zone.

The problem with Mr Crean and the Labor Party is that they have absolutely no idea what they stand for. One month they support the government on the excision in order to counter people smuggling and deal with the vile trade of people smuggling, another month they’ve decided to go along as they have today and support measures which will be of comfort to people smugglers. The bipartisan strong stance against people smuggling has been a very

important component of making sure we are successful in dealing with people smuggling. Today, Mr Crean has broken that bipartisanship. He’s sent a message to people smugglers which is that Australia isn’t as strong on people smuggling as it used to be. Mr Crean is giving comfort to people smugglers and he will stand responsible for any weakening of our capacity to deal with the problem of people smuggling.

REPORTER: You said that he learnt nothing which convinced him (indistinct).

DOWNER: Mr Crean was absolutely convinced at the end of last year the excision was necessary. It’s now May, June this year, it’s now June 2002, and nothing can convince him that any further excisions are necessary. The fact is that Mr Crean doesn’t know what he stands for, the Labor Party doesn’t know what it stands for, it’s internally inconsistent on this issue and the Labor Party is sending out a very encouraging and warm message to people smugglers, and I think Australians will be confused about where the Labor Party stands and I think Australians will be concerned that the Labor Party is giving comfort to people smuggling.

REPORTER: Will the Australian government be giving more aid to Nauru?

DOWNER: Ah, no we have a memorandum of understanding and we have an earlier agreement and we are still fulfilling our obligations under those agreements.

REPORTER: Mr Harris said you’d renegotiated your package in some way. What priorities have been brought forward?

DOWNER: We haven’t changed this package of arrangements. What we’ve done is we’ve gone through the details of what commitments we’ve made with the President. We’ve had a look at each of those areas where we’re providing assistance, we’re not providing any additional assistance over and above what we committed ourselves to in the memorandum of understanding. What we have … I mean we decided to do this some weeks ago, but what we have done is sent, or in the process of sending, two economic advisors to Nauru who are going to assist with the longer term planning of the economy and that obviously is a big issue for the Nauruans. And that’s not offering further aid, that’s just talking about helping the government address some of their … as I have mentioned this already … their quite substantial financial issues.

REPORTER: How long will it be before non-refugees are shipped off the island?

DOWNER: Well, I’ve explained precisely the situation to President Harris and he’s happy with this and that is that we hope that just about all of the processing will be complete by the end of this month and for those who are found to be refugees, obviously not very many people, we’ll be arranging for the resettlement of those people in appropriate places and for those who are found not to be refugees, in the case of the Afghanis which is the bulk of them, we’ve … we’re offering a financial package for them to return to Afghanistan and we and others will be

encouraging the Afghanis to take up that offer and we hope that it won’t take too long for them to leave.

But, you know, President Harris, you’ve spoken to him yourselves, I mean his position is that he’s happy with the arrangements now that are in place as I’ve explained them to him and as the AusAID officials did during the course of yesterday morning, I think it’s all working out fine.

REPORTER: What are you going to do about asylum seekers that refuse to go?

DOWNER: Well I don’t … I think, you know, that’s a hypothetical question, they haven’t refused to go and I think the important thing is that they recognise that where they’re no longer asylum seekers, their applications have been rejected, they’re clearly just illegal migrants, that people who are illegal migrants should return to their homes.

REPORTER: (Inaudible question)

DOWNER: Well, we’ll provide them with incentives to go.

REPORTER: UNHCR is saying that there aren’t sufficient resources for them to go home to and that if Australia is serious about getting them back, we ought to increase our foreign aid so there’s food, water and resources there.

DOWNER: Well, we have a very substantial foreign aid package to Afghanistan and the UNHCR has said that they don’t want people to be forced back to Afghanistan and we’re not proposing to force people back, we’re providing them with financial incentives so they’ll have the wherewithal to re-establish their lives when they get back to Afghanistan. Already I’m advised over a million people have returned to Afghanistan, over a million Afghanis have returned to Afghanistan since around December of last year. So I think it’s obvious, people who at one stage left the country because they feared persecution from the Taliban no longer have to fear the Taliban because the Taliban are no longer in office.

REPORTER: But it’s the returnees that are causing some of the problem, a million extra people, they don’t have the food to actually cope with any more.

DOWNER: Well, there’s substantial aid programs in Afghanistan. Actually I don’t know that it’s lack of aid which is the problem, I think the problem in Afghanistan depends very much on where you go in the country. Some parts of the country are peaceful. In some parts of the country there’s still tension. Some of that revolving around fighting between al Qaeda and the Taliban against coalition forces including Australian troops and in some cases, some tensions between warlords.

But take this as an … I take this opportunity to say that the overwhelming vote for the interim president Karzai to become the president of Afghanistan for the next 18 months is a symbol of a greater degree of national unity than some may have originally thought would be possible and that’s a very good sign that the president has been able to rally such strong support. And so I think the situation is progressively improving in Afghanistan but, I mean, it is a difficult situation still, of course, there’s no question of that.

But in the context of the United Nations convention on refugees, people no longer have to fear or need fear persecution in returning to Afghanistan and, I mean, one of the points we make is that if we provide people with some financial assistance when they do return to Afghanistan, even though they’ve endeavoured illegally to come to our country, in those circumstances they’ll have an opportunity to re-establish their lives there.

REPORTER: And what if they don’t, how long is too long …

DOWNER: Well, I mean that’s a hypothetical question, what if people don’t do things. You don't know whether they will or they won't. I think as time goes on they’ll increasingly realise that this is the intelligent option for them.

REPORTER: So presumably you have fallback situations … ?

DOWNER: In case they refuse? Well, we discussed how we’re going to encourage them to take up the offer that’s been made to them, and we’re optimistic that in time they will.

REPORTER: Those repatriation packages haven’t proven very popular with people in the (indistinct) have they?

DOWNER: Well I think it’s too early to say. I think we have to wait and see. These people we’re talking about are in any case not in detention centres in Australia, these people are in Nauru. The message that I would send to all of these people is a strong but a fair message. And that is that they have … where they have been found not to be refugees they are illegal migrants. They've endeavoured to come to our country without passports or visas or appropriate documentation. There are perfectly well used and effective methods of coming to Australia … to this country … which are entirely legal. They've chosen to circumvent legal methods of coming to Australia, they're not refugees, and they should return home.

REPORTER: There are a number of Iranians on Nauru that have been processed and accepted as refugees (indistinct). What percentage of (indistinct) Australia?

DOWNER: Well, as we said, people who are refugees, Philip Ruddock is managing the exact destinations, but they’ll all be looked after.

REPORTER: Will some come to Australia?

DOWNER: Well, you'll have to ask Mr Ruddock that question.

REPORTER: So will you be urging Labor members to cross the floor and support the excisions?

DOWNER: Yes, I would, I would urge … well because the Labor Party traditionally runs sort of a three-line whip, that if you vote against the Labor Party in the parliament you get expelled from the Labor Party. I wouldn't call that a soft and democratic way of running an organisation but anyway, that’s Labor for you. It’s an authoritarian sort of a party.

But look, I would say to the Labor Party the problem with Mr Crean’s position is that nobody knows what the Labor Party stands for. One week they say they're going to be tough on asylum seekers, they're going to be tough on people smugglers; the next week they say they're going to give people smugglers a free kick. And today the Labor Party has given a present to the people smugglers. The only people who’ll be opening the champagne tonight will be the people smugglers celebrating the decision that the Labor Party has made.

REPORTER: Have you considered ways of forcibly removing people from Nauru, and, if so, what are the ways?

DOWNER: No, we’re not considering ways of forcibly removing them. We’re providing incentives for them to leave and we are optimistic that in time they will accept those incentives.

REPORTER: Is there any (indistinct) way that you are having those incentives applied? Like …

DOWNER: Well look, we’ve only just announced them. I mean, if I may say so, without wishing to sound, as a foreign minister would never sound, even remotely exasperated with the repetitious nature of these questions, they … these people, remember the bulk of these people have only just been found in the last few days not to be refugees. So they will obviously be going through a period of contemplating their options. And we present them with a positive option for settlement back home with some assistance from Australian taxpayers so they’ll be able to re-establish their lives.

REPORTER: But one of the … this government’s biggest beef is the length to which authorities will go to expire all their avenues of appeal and so on. So …

DOWNER: Mmm, well they can, as I understand it, in most cases, they still have an option of further appeal. They can do that of course, and once that’s expired there is no further option for them.

REPORTER: Why is President (indistinct) happier today than he was a few weeks ago when he was calling for (indistinct)?

DOWNER: I don't know, are you happy today? If you're happy today that’s something you could explain. You'll have to talk to him about that and you've had the opportunity to talk to him.

REPORTER: Finally Minister, International Criminal Court. I understand that your Coalition partners are saying they're concerned that Australian courts should have authority over Australian cases. Is that something which you believe would be achievable? Can we put that (indistinct)?

DOWNER: Yeah, oh look, definitely. I know that some … well, not just people in the National Party but there are people around the country who have some concerns that Australian courts should have primacy. That’s my view too. I think Australian courts should have primacy over Australian citizens and I am confident that the International Criminal Court will not in any way undermine the primacy of the Australian legal system in relation to Australians. And I am reassuring my colleagues of that.