Press Conference – Canberra


Parliament House


8 July 2013

Topics: KIAPS awarded Police Overseas Medal; asylum seekers; boats

JASON CLARE: Today is a historic day. Today we are recognising the work that Australian’s did in Papua New Guinea from 1949 to 1973. These men were police officers, they were magistrates, they were what they called ‘Kiaps’ and they did a difficult job in remote parts in Papua New Guinea and for many it was a job where they lost their lives. It was a very dangerous and difficult job, their work has never been truly recognised – honoured the way it should be. Today we are doing that, we are writing a wrong and recognising men who served their country so well for so long. Even though it should have happened a long time ago and I am ashamed it has taken a long time to recognise these men, but I am so glad it has happened today.

Happy to take your questions on this and any other matters.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: Chris Viner-Smith, the man that has led the campaign to recognise the work of the Kiaps, has been fighting for this for ten years. Previous governments have said no. When they came to me and made the case that they should receive the Police Overseas Medal, I thought it just made sense, and I wondered why it hadn’t been done before so I made it very clear that it needed to be done, and it needed to be done quickly.

QUESTION: Asylum seeker issue now. Can you confirm that this boat over the weekend, did they threaten suicide when they did [indistinct]…?

JASON CLARE: It’s my understanding that the people on that boat threatened self-harm and the captain of the merchant vessel made the decision to return to Christmas Island.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: Let’s be very clear about this. It’s the job of people in uniform to make these decisions, not politicians. If there was a siege and there were hostages, it wouldn’t be right for politicians to tell the Police to go in all guns blazing and it’s not right for politicians to tell people in uniform or captains of ships what to do.

QUESTION: Isn’t that what John Howard did by sending the SAS in? And it sent a very clear message to the region, according to Scott Morrison.

JASON CLARE: Kieran, it’s worth going back and having a look at what happened then. The SAS went in, no one was arrested, no one was charged. Most of the people that were on that vessel live in Australia today.

QUESTION: But he demanded that the boat was sent back. You haven’t done that. Should you show more – stronger will in sending the people smugglers in the region a message you are not going to cop threats like this?

JASON CLARE: My view on this is very clear. These decisions are made by the captain of the ship where there is the safety of life at sea issue and they’re made by people in uniform. They shouldn’t be made by politicians. Now, the same point could be made about turning boats back.

There are three problems with that. The first is it doesn’t work. Of the 250 boats that arrived when John Howard was Prime Minister, only about five or six were successfully turned back. Most of the other times when they tried to turn back boats, they couldn’t. The boat was sabotaged and the people who were on the boat ended up going to Nauru or Christmas Island.

The second problem is it’s not safe. On many occasions, Australian naval personnel were injured or could have been injured in trying to turn a boat back, and I ask people to go back and a have a look at what happened with SIEV 36. That was in 2009. The boat wasn’t turned back but the people on the boat thought the boat was going to be turned back, and there was an explosion on the boat, five people died and 40 people were injured. When the WA Coroner did an investigation into this, he determined, he said that it was because people on the boat thought the boat was going to be turned back, that the boat had an explosion and that’s the reason people died and it’s the reason people were injured, including Australian personnel.

Now, the third point, and this perhaps one of the most important points, is that even if you wanted to push a boat back to Indonesia, you can’t without the permission of Indonesia. That is what the Chief – former Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston said in his report to Government last year, you can’t turn a boat back without the permission of the sovereign state that you’re turning the boat back to, and Indonesia’s made it clear that it will not accept that. It may have happened in the past. Indonesia is not prepared to accept it now.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] though. Will have any people on board have broken the law by threatening to kill themselves?

JASON CLARE: The advice to me from the Police Commissioner is that they have interviewed the captain of the ship and they’ve spoken to the shipping company and they do not wish to take the matter further.

QUESTION: Also, were you offered the Immigration portfolio by Kevin Rudd?

JASON CLARE: I think I’ve answered this question a couple of times. I had a conversation with the Prime Minister and I said I want to be the Minister for Home Affairs and Justice. I want to keep that portfolio, and the reason I want to keep the portfolio is because of the big reforms to Customs and Border Protection that I announced last Wednesday. I’ve been working on that over the course of the last 18 months. We announced those reforms last week, now we need to implement them. Developing reforms is the easy part. Implementing it is the tough part.

There is a lot of work I want to do in my portfolio. I made the case to the Prime Minister that I need to be there doing that work and he agreed and I’m very grateful for it.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: Let me explain this in a bit more detail. I’m the Minister for Home Affairs and Justice. I was the Cabinet Secretary as well. Now, that was the primary reason that I was in Cabinet. I said to the Prime Minister that if he wanted to give somebody else that Cabinet Secretary role, then that’s fine, I’m very happy with that. That was the reason that I was in Cabinet. If I don’t have that position, then it’s appropriate that I would be in the Outer Ministry. No former Home Affairs Minister or Justice Minister has been in the Cabinet.

QUESTION: Are you talking generally about wanting to return Iranians to Indonesia? Would you require an act of Parliament to do that? How advanced is this plan to return people? How would it actually work in practice?

JASON CLARE: It would work in a similar way to the way in which we return people to Sri Lanka. We didn’t need legislation to do that. Someone has determined they are not a refugee, that they are an economic migrant and you can fly them back to Sri Lanka. As I’ve said a number of times, it’s worked, it’s had an impact, it’s dramatically reduced the number of boats coming from Sri Lanka to Australia. What I’m saying is we need to be able to fly people back to Iran or fly people back to Iraq.

The problem that we confront here is that Iran refuses to take their citizens unless they voluntarily want to come back to Iran. Now, if we can’t do that, then the next best thing is to fly them halfway back to Iran, fly them back to Malaysia. It’s fly-backs that work, and that’s why we need to press the case for things like the Malaysian Agreement. We need that plus more. We need to build on those sorts of agreements with the countries of our region.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: I’m not being specific to countries. I’m saying that we need to work on similar agreements with countries of our region. That’s what worked after Saigon fell almost 40 years ago, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, working with the UN to process people and when people were identified as being refugees, transfer them to different countries around the world. That’s the sort of approach we need to look at now.

QUESTION: On the issue of Iran not accepting failed asylum seekers who don’t want to go back, are there any efforts being made to convince Iran to change their stance on that?

JASON CLARE: There are, we have an embassy in Iran, and there are always conversations going on at a diplomatic level between our officials and Iranian officials. We will continue to pursue that matter, because we believe that if you can transfer people back to Iran, it’ll have a very big impact on the number of people coming by boat to Australia.

QUESTION: One of the [indistinct] Iranians arrive in Indonesia is by plane and they get a visa on arrival. In talks last week, did the Prime Minister raise that with the Indonesian President, whether or not the visa on arrival system needs to be tightened?

JASON CLARE: I can’t speak to that. You’ll have to talk to the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister’s office.

QUESTION: Do you think the visa on arrival system, which is the mechanism by which most Iranians arrive in our region, do you think that needs to be tightened?

JASON CLARE: It’s one of the issues we need to look at. I think the Foreign Minister has made some comments on that recently, and I’d refer you to the comments that the Foreign Minister’s made.

QUESTION: Going back to the issue of returning Iranians possibly one day back to Iran, are there concerns about human rights issues? I mean, considering that we’ve supported many sanctions against Iran for this very reason, and…

JASON CLARE: It would be done on the same basis that we process people and

transfer people back to Sri Lanka, taking into account all the factors whether the person is a person fearing persecution or whether the person is an economic migrant.

Okay. Thanks guys.