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Transcript of doorstop interview: Smithfield: 18 June 2011: Opposition stunt; Malaysian transfer agreement; Nauru; High Court case; polls

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SUBJECTS: Opposition stunt, Malaysian transfer agreement, Nauru, High Court case, polls.

CHRIS BOWEN: Thanks everybody.

Well, today we see the announcement that Mr Abbott is sending Mr Morrison to Malaysia. This would go down in the Guinness Book of Records for political stunts. For weeks, the Liberal Party has been railing against the Malaysian

arrangement. For weeks, the Liberal Party has been making all sorts of allegations about the Malaysian arrangement. And now we see, at taxpayer expense, Mr Abbott saying he needs Mr Morrison to go to Malaysia to find out

about the arrangements. This is nothing more than an expensive political stunt at the expense of the taxpayers of Australia.

This also underlines Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison’s hypocrisy. Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison say the position for asylum seekers in Malaysia is difficult, yet they oppose us taking 4000 extra refugees, genuine processed refugees, out of Malaysia. This takes Mr Abbott’s hypocrisy and negativity to new lows. He’s sending a senior shadow Cabinet member to another country to be negative about that country.

I suspect the Liberal Party has a real fear that this arrangement will work, not just to pull the rug out of the business model of the people smugglers, but pull the rug out of their business model of cheap, three-word slogans when it comes to asylum seekers. We want to pull the rug out of the business model of people smugglers; Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison just insist on being negative on every single occasion and this takes their negativity to a new low.

Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Can you imagine, Minister, a situation where Scott Morrison could come back and say, ‘Actually, it seems like a good idea’?

BOWEN: Well, if Mr Morrison was fair dinkum, that’s exactly what would happen. If Mr Morrison was fair dinkum, he would look at the Government’s arrangements, he would look at the arrangements which mean that people

transferred from Australia to Malaysia will be treated not as illegal migrants, but as people transferred in terms of an agreement between two countries.

He would look at the arrangements and say, ‘Well, this is a real effort to pull the rug out from under people smugglers’ and he would say, ‘Let’s give it a go’. If the Opposition was fair dinkum, if the Opposition really cared about this issue and not just about three-word slogans, they’d say, ‘Let’s give it a go and let’s see if it works’. Of course, they can’t do that because that would be too positive for their approach.

JOURNALIST: Do you not believe the Opposition is entitled to go on this fact finding mission?

BOWEN: Never before has somebody gone so far to hold a press conference on being negative and to attack not only this Government, but another Government. Now, if Mr Morrison was fair dinkum, he’d sit down with the Government, he’d go through the details of the arrangement and if he wanted to he could check them out.

But he’s going off on this so-called mission. I don’t know who he’s going to speak to. He says he’s going to visit a detention centre; people transferred from Australia to Malaysia won’t go into a detention centre. So there’s all sorts of indications that this is nothing more than a political stunt and what’s worse, even worse than Nauru, a political stunt at the expense of Australian taxpayers.

JOURNALIST: When it comes to Nauru, now that they’ve made the first step towards the UN Convention, the Opposition says you’re running out of excuses not to consider using it.

BOWEN: Well, the problem with Nauru is twofold. Firstly, it didn’t break the people smugglers’ business model. People transferred to Nauru, if they were genuine refugees, then came to Australia. So people know if you come to

Australia, even if you’re sent to Nauru, you’re eventually going to make it back into Australia. So it doesn’t reduce the incentive to come to Australia.

The other thing about Nauru is, under the previous Government, they didn’t break the people smugglers’ business model, they broke the people. They left people on Nauru for so long that there was significant mental and emotional damage.

And I’d make this point about Nauru as well, and it again underlines Mr Morrison’s hypocrisy: he says he’s going to Malaysia on a fact finding mission. When Nauru was operative, the Nauruan Government wouldn’t issue visas for Australian journalists, lawyers, monitors to go and assess the situation on Nauru. And I’d question Mr Morrison whether that would be the case again should he have his way.

JOURNALIST: Now that it appears Nauru is making steps, you know, to help out Australia, so to speak, on this issue, is it never going to be a viable option?

BOWEN: Well, look, we welcome the fact that Nauru has made those steps, as the Prime Minister said last week. But we believe our model is much superior: it breaks the people smugglers’ business model in a much more effective way than any Nauru option could. It also means that we assist another country in our region, a friend of Australia, Malaysia, in taking 4000 people who’ve been processed as genuine refugees, and that’s a good thing. Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison say we shouldn’t do that, we shouldn’t take these 4000 genuine refugees. I couldn’t disagree more.

JOURNALIST: If you’re so confident in the Malaysia solution, why are you concerned about Mr Morrison’s visit?

BOWEN: I’m not concerned about Mr Morrison’s visit, but I’m making the point that it’s a stunt at the Australian taxpayers’ expense and that is something that they should be held to account for. I’m also making the point that if he was fair dinkum, he’d sit down with the Government, go through the details of the arrangement and then come to a considered view, instead

of opposing everything.

I mean, remember, Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison came out on the day of this announcement and opposed it. And now, several weeks later, they say they need to go to Malaysia to check it out. Well, this is ridiculous. This is nothing more than a stunt. If they wanted to check it out, they could check it out and then come to their view. They’ve come to their view, and now they’re going to Malaysia to prosecute that view and to attack another Government, and that’s outrageous.

JOURNALIST: Minister, are you concerned about this court case being taken against the Malaysian deal?

BOWEN: Well, the court case isn’t against the Malaysian deal, the court case is on behalf of one woman in a very particular circumstance who has been told that she would not be processed in Australia. There have been very particular circumstances around that case and as I’ve said repeatedly, the people currently on Christmas Island would not necessarily be sent to

Malaysia. So it’s not a court case against the Malaysian arrangement.

But I’ve said from the day we announced this that we expected legal challenges to the Malaysian solution. But we’re also very confident, of course, of our legal grounds. We’ve been through this before we made the announcement and the Government’s legal advice is very strong.

JOURNALIST: Are you surprised by the news in a poll showing that Kevin Rudd is much more popular [inaudible] Gillard and how much do you think it has to do with the Malaysian solution [inaudible]?

BOWEN: Look, I think governments, when they’re making tough decisions, should expect to lose some bark, should expect to lose some popularity. If you look, for example, at the Howard Government, for much of that 12-year period the Howard Government was in office they were behind in opinion polls, as I recall. Governments, when they’re dealing with difficult issues,

whether they be carbon pricing or asylum seekers or economic reform, tax reform, will go through unpopular periods. Any Government worth its salt will go through an unpopular period when they’re making tough decisions and this Government is no different.

JOURNALIST: It does seem like the Government is much worse off than a year ago, when the leadership change took place?

BOWEN: Well, look, as I say, governments dealing with tough issues will go through difficult periods. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t deal with tough issues. People respect governments which deal with tough issues, which make tough decisions, and sometimes unpopular decisions or decisions which need some explaining, some conversation with the Australian people. At the end of the day, you act in the national interest and not your own political interest, and the Australian people, I think, in the long run respect governments which act in the national interest.

JOURNALIST: Is Kevin Rudd a viable leader once more?

BOWEN: Julia Gillard’s the leader of the Labor Party and she’ll remain so, and speculation to the contrary is idle speculation on behalf of the media, with due respect. Julia Gillard is a very strong Prime Minister and she’ll remain a strong Prime Minister tackling the tough issues in the national interest.

JOURNALIST: Will you support Nauru? Sorry, I missed some of it.

BOWEN: That’s okay.

The issues with Nauru are that it didn’t break the people smugglers’ business model: people who were processed in Nauru and were refugees were then transferred to Australia. People who come to Australia by boat, if they’re transferred to Nauru, would know that they’re eventually going to end up in Australia anyway. So it doesn’t provide the disincentive to come to Australia.

The other thing about Nauru under the previous Government, is that while it didn’t break the people smugglers’ business model, it broke the people. They left people on Nauru for a very long period of time and there are still people going through mental and emotional hardship as a result of that. So we don’t support Nauru as part of the measures to combat people smuggling.

JOURNALIST: So how do you address the issue that Malaysia is not yet a signatory to the United Nations convention?

BOWEN: Well, because Malaysia has given commitments at the Prime Ministerial level to not return people to danger and to treat people with dignity and respect, and that is a very big step forward and means that the fundamental principles of the appropriate approach to refugees have been accepted by the Malaysian Government. That’s a very big step forward and it means that the appropriate standards of care and protections would be in place.


JOURNALIST: Thank you.

BOWEN: My pleasure.