Interview with David Speers
Sky News Australia – PM Agenda
10 April 2013
Topic: Asylum seekers
DAVID SPEERS: Well, Jason Clare, thank you for your time. Can I start by asking for an update on exactly what’s happening to these 66 asylum seekers right now?
JASON CLARE: Yeah. The men are at the Northam Immigration Detention Centre and the women and children are in Perth. They’re now conducting fitness to fly tests and health checks. The intention is to transfer them to Christmas Island as soon as possible.
DAVID SPEERS: So they won’t actually be interviewed until they’re at Christmas Island?
JASON CLARE: That’s right. The processing will happen at Christmas Island, that’s because that’s where most of the processing occurs. That’s where the immigration officials and experts to do this work are based.
DAVID SPEERS: And only then, I suppose, will you have a better idea as to how they managed to complete this journey?
JASON CLARE: That’s right. When those interviews are conducted we’ll get a better idea about what their motivations were for this journey. I’ve been speaking to Customs and Border Protection Command overnight and again this morning to ask them for their best advice about how the vessel arrived at this location. Their view is that it’s quite likely – their preliminary advice is that it’s quite likely that the boat travelled directly from Sri Lanka to the coast off Western Australia.
If you draw a line between Sri Lanka and where they arrived you can see that that’s quite a way south of Christmas Island, which may explain why the Customs and Border Protection patrol boats and their surveillance aircraft didn’t identify this vessel before it arrived on the Australian mainland. But we’ll have more information about that once those interviews are conducted at Christmas Island.
DAVID SPEERS: Because of that huge distance between Christmas Island and Geraldton it wouldn’t appear as though they were trying to reach Christmas Island. Could this signal a new deliberate attempt here to reach the mainland?
JASON CLARE: Well, I’m not sure what their motivations are. We’ll know that when we talk to them. If that’s the case, what it means is a much longer journey and a much more dangerous journey. Something like 44 days at sea. What we saw last year was people aiming for Cocos Island because it means a shorter journey than Christmas Island.
It might be possible, David, that they were trying to get to New Zealand. They held up a sign yesterday saying that was where they wanted to go. It may be that they lost direction and were hoping to get to Christmas Island but ended up going further south. We don’t know the answer to that question and we’ll have better information once we’ve interviewed them.
I’ve asked Customs to review the circumstances of this and based on the interviews they do, provide me with advice about whether changes need to be made to where our patrol boats and our aircraft are postured.
DAVID SPEERS: So you are considering re-posturing, repositioning some vessels in terms of border security and customs if this is in fact a new deliberate strategy to reach the mainland?
JASON CLARE: Well, that will be an operational decision made by the experts based on the best advice available to us. I want to put things in the right order, though. Let’s interview the people first, understand why the vessel arrived at Geraldton, whether it was via a direct route or otherwise, whether they were trying to get to the mainland, got lost, were trying to get to New Zealand. We don’t have the answers to those questions at the moment but we need to get those answers and that will inform the review I’ve asked Customs to conduct.
DAVID SPEERS: Because it is of course a much longer and more dangerous journey to get to somewhere like Geraldton on the Mainland but…
JASON CLARE: It is. That’s right.
DAVID SPEERS: There are a couple of potentially attractive options here. You’re less likely to be detected on the way, but then also the migration status. Can you just explain to us how that differs to those who arrive at Christmas Island?
JASON CLARE: Well, that’s right. There’s legislation before the parliament to excise the mainland effectively. What that means is that somebody that arrives by boat, whether they arrive at Christmas Island or Ashmore Island or Cocos Island or the mainland for that matter, would be subject to the legal changes that were made last year, which means they stand the risk of being transferred to Manus Island or to Nauru.
Now, that legislation sits in the Senate at the moment. It has passed the House of Representatives. We need that legislation to pass the Senate and we’ll be prosecuting the case for that in the Senate when the parliament returns. Now what that means…
DAVID SPEERS: But until that does pass through the Senate, this means that anyone who arrives on the mainland cannot be sent to Nauru or Manus Island.
JASON CLARE: That’s right. And these people are currently in that circumstance. However, the rule of the no-advantage rule does apply to them. That means that they wouldn’t be processed any quicker than people that are currently at Nauru or Manus Island. And I should mention, David, that if they don’t meet the requirements of the refugee convention, then they stand the risk of being flown back to Sri Lanka, one of the most – or the most successful thing the Government has done in this area in the last few months has been to fly over a thousand people back to Sri Lanka and that has significantly stemmed the number of boats from Sri Lanka to Australia over the last few months.
These people potentially stand the risk of being flown back to Sri Lanka. We’ve seen too many obvious examples of this but the risk of death is not stopping people from getting in a boat. The risk of being flown home a couple of days after you land does have an impact and that’s why I’ve been a strong arguer for the Malaysian Agreement. We can’t fly people easily home to Afghanistan or Iran but we can fly them halfway back to Malaysia, the route that they come on to come to Australia and that’s why I’ve made the case last year and will continue to make the case this year that we need the parliament to pass legislation to allow people fly them back to Malaysia.
DAVID SPEERS: But you’ve got, as you’ve mentioned, this bill there to excise the mainland, which would allow those – these people who have arrived to be potentially sent to Nauru or Manus Island. Why is it still stuck in the Senate? If the Coalition supports it and Labor supports it, shouldn’t this just sail through?
JASON CLARE: Well, we need to get it through as quick as we can. I think I said this morning the Senate’s a funny beast. I don’t understand its processes as well as I do the House of Representatives. But you make the good point that both the Government and the Opposition support this. We need the legislation passed as quick as possible. And as soon as the parliament returns, we need that legislation passed through so we can remove any incentive that might exist in this area for boats to aim at the mainland.
DAVID SPEERS: Will that happen in the budget session?
JASON CLARE: That’s my understanding. I don’t have responsibility for this legislation. It rests with the Minister for Immigration, but my advice is that it’s the Government’s wish and the Government’s desire for this to be debated and passed as soon as the parliament returns.
DAVID SPEERS: And you mentioned the success the government has had in reducing the number of Sri Lankan arrivals but there potentially is a new wave of economic migrants, if we can use that term, coming from Sri Lanka. Is that what you believe?
JASON CLARE: Well, if you have a look at the break up of people that are coming to Australia in the last few months, you’ll see the overwhelming majority are from Iran. Still a high number coming from Afghanistan. It’s very difficult to fly people back to Iran because Iran says they refuse to take people. It’s much easier to fly people back to Sri Lanka because the Sri Lankan Government are very happy to receive their citizens back.
What I’ve been arguing for, what the Government has been arguing for, is that if you can’t fly people all the way back to Afghanistan or to Iran, then fly them halfway back. Fly them back to Malaysia as part of a regional solution and that will help to reduce the incentive for people to pay people smugglers thousands of dollars, get on a boat, and risk their life.
DAVID SPEERS: But Minister, that has been rejected by the high court in its current form and the parliament won’t support it. So let me just ask you this; can you understand Australians feeling frustrated and alarmed at the increased number of boat arrivals and now one arriving in Geraldton Harbour?
JASON CLARE: Well, I can understand members of the public being frustrated. I’m frustrated by it as well. I’m frustrated that in a fraught area of public policy, which is so difficult and where people’s lives are at risk, that as a government, we’ve been denied the powers that we think we need to stop people risking their lives at sea.
My view on it, David, is this; that whatever you think the solution is, the government of the day should be given the power it thinks it needs to stop people dying. We’ve been denied that by the Liberal Party and we’ve been denied that by the Greens Party. We believe that we’ll be able to reduce the number of people getting onto a boat and risking their lives if we can fly them back to Malaysia and the Opposition have refused to allow us to do that.
DAVID SPEERS: But Minister, the Malaysia only allows for 800 asylum seekers. We’re seeing that number arrive every week or two at the moment.
JASON CLARE: Well, I think the point I would make here is that we need to do things like the Malaysian Agreement and do it in other countries across the region as well. If you tell people that not only by coming by boat to Australia do you risk spending a couple of years at Nauru or at a couple of years at Manus Island and then you may end up in Australia or New Zealand, but that you could be flown back to Malaysia and have no prospect of coming to Australia, that’s a much greater disincentive.
Angus Houston and his expert panel said this must be done. It’s an essential part of reducing the number of boats and the reducing the number of people who risk their lives coming to Australia.
DAVID SPEERS: They also wanted improvements to this agreement that haven’t happened yet.
JASON CLARE: And I should say, David, that our officials and Malaysia’s officials are talking about this. They talked about it in Bali last week. But the Malaysian Government and the people of Malaysia are pretty bruised with the debate that happened in Australia last year when Tony Abbott in the parliament…
DAVID SPEERS: Are you suggesting that Malaysia is prepared to put down some sort of written guarantee around the conditions on this agreement? That’s the sticking point here.
JASON CLARE: I’m not the Minister for Immigration. I’m not a party to those discussions. But what I can tell you is that our senior officials are talking with their senior officials. They met in Bali last week. But what I want to tell you is this, and that is that the Malaysian Government’s pretty bruised by the debate that happened in the parliament last year where Tony Abbott said “we don’t like Malaysia”. And there’s trepidation there amongst Malaysian Government officials that if we negotiate a new agreement, it’ll still be rejected by the Opposition.
The main problem here is this whole debate for more than a decade has been poisoned by politics, by politicians seeking political advantage. We need to implement what Angus Houston has recommended and work together to do every single thing we can to stop people risking their lives at sea. That’s not happening at the moment. That’s why the people of Australia, like myself, are so frustrated with this awfully difficult issue.
DAVID SPEERS: Jason Clare, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us.
JASON CLARE: Thanks, David.
DAVID SPEERS: Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare.