Transcript of joint press conference, Canberra
THU 28 JUNE 2012
Subject(s): Asylum seeker legislation; Expert advisory panel
PM: Yesterday the House of Representatives passed legislation which would have enabled our nation to have offshore processing of asylum seekers and refugees.
That bill before the House of Representatives was a compromise between the Government’s plans and the Opposition’s plans.
It was supported by the Government, by every Independent in the House of Representatives and would have been supported by a Liberal Party member, Mr Mal Washer, had his support been necessary for the bill to pass the House of Representatives.
This evening that same bill has been voted on in the Senate. The bill was supported by the Government and enjoyed the support of the two independent senators in the Senate.
So, broadly across the House of Representatives and into the Senate, this bill has secured support. Unfortunately the bill has not been passed by the Senate. Both the Opposition and the Greens voted against this bill.
The Leader of the Opposition has said on many occasions to the Australian nation that he wants to stop the boats. Tonight the Opposition voted against stopping the boats.
Progress has been made over this week; progress in a compromise being brought together and progress in the breadth of support in the Parliament.
But we have not secured the new laws that we need to enable the Government to create a detention centre in Nauru, and to enact its arrangement with Malaysia and to break the people smugglers’ business model.
In these circumstances, I’m here tonight to announce the next step that will be taken.
Tonight I can announce that the Government has invited Mr Angus Houston, the former Chief of our Defence Force, to lead an expert group to work in the coming weeks; that is to work quickly and to provide a report to me and to the nation about the best way forward for our nation in dealing with asylum seeker issues.
The expert group that Mr Angus Houston will lead will also have serving in its number Paris Aristotle. Paris Aristotle is a name well-know to migrant and refugee communities.
He is a refugee himself, a survivor of torture, and he has worked over a long period of time with this Government and with the former Howard Government on detention centre issues, including being used as a lead negotiator in some of our most difficult issues within detention centres.
We will very shortly announce a third member to serve on the panel, with foreign policy expertise.
I want to be very clear about the role of this expert group. This expert group will receive the facts from government and beyond. They will be able at their option to receive briefings wherever they want to get those briefings from.
They will be able to assemble all of the material to help them form their views. They will be able to consult as they see fit.
The Government believes that the proposal we have put before the Parliament is supported by the evidence and supported by the facts. But we are certainly very prepared to see fresh eyes and new expertise brought to the task.
Now in terms of the parliamentary processes, there’s been, actually it mightn’t seem it on the surface, but there’s actually been a lot of interesting goodwill generated during the past week, at least at the backbench level, where parliamentarians have come together across the political party divide to try and find a way forward for this Parliament.
I think it is important that the expert group has the opportunity to relate to the parliamentarians and to understand their perspectives and views.
Consequently I will invite the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Australian Greens and the Independents to nominate parliamentary representatives to a reference group that will be able to be consulted with by the expert group.
So the expert group, using the reference group to understand the perspective of parliamentarians.
Should the Leader of the Opposition decline to formally nominate members of the Opposition to participate in this reference group, then I will invite across the Liberal and National Parties individual members to nominate themselves to participate if they choose to do so.
Now I understand how frustrating this all is for Australians. They rightly want to see us in this Parliament work to get things done.
They understand, I think all Australians understand following the period in which we’ve seen the loss of so many lives, that we need effective action. Effective action to ensure that we deter people from getting on boats and risking their lives at sea.
This is a complex problem that the Government has worked long and hard on. We do believe in the compromise that we've brought to the Parliament. We believe it is the right way forward.
But we also accept that with the Leader of the Opposition determining to vote against stopping the boats, that we do need another step to drive us to conclusion here, and to ensure that our nation can map the necessary policies to deter people from making very risky journeys at sea, and paying a people smuggler the price of that risky journey.
I’ll turn now to the Minister for some comments, then I’ll be happy to take your questions.
MINISTER BOWEN: Thank you, Prime Minister.
Today, the Australian Parliament missed the opportunity to do what the Australian people want: to break the people smugglers’ business model.
The Government worked with the Independents of goodwill, members of the crossbenches and across the Parliament to get legislation which could give the government of the day the opportunity to implement policies of offshore processing which would remove the incentive to come to Australia by boat.
As the Prime Minister said, we’ve got the support of every Independent in the House of Representatives, some of whom had to revise their position and revise their thinking in a difficult process for them.
We also had the support this afternoon of Senator Xenophon and the Democratic Labor Party Senator, the Independent Senator for Victoria. This shows, I think, considerable goodwill across the Parliament.
But we do need to take it to the next step and the Government, of course, worked to compromise. We provided the Opposition with an offer to implement one of its key policy platforms: the opening of a detention centre at Nauru. The Opposition rejected its own policy.
As I’ve said repeatedly over recent days, we can argue about how effective Nauru may be, we can argue about how effective Malaysia may be.
I don’t think anybody could argue that Malaysia and Nauru implemented together, opened together, would provide a significant deterrent. Nobody could argue that that is not the case, not one Member of Parliament, not one Senator could argue that that is not the case.
The political system has reached an impasse. So now we need to break that impasse. We need to call on the experts who’ve been advising the Government.
The Government’s had the benefit of advice now for many months about what is necessary to break the people smugglers’ business model. We’ve acted on that advice. We’ve made those briefings available to the Opposition.
But now we need a formal process to make that level of advice open more widely and broadly amongst the Parliament to see this impasse broken.
This impasse needs to be broken to save lives. This impasse needs to be broken to get a more orderly system. It is not acceptable to the Australian people that our two major political parties, both of whom support offshore processing, have not been able to implement this legislation.
The Government today progressed legislation to stop people risking their lives to get to Australia to claim asylum. The Opposition voted that down. That is not a sustainable, accountable position for the Opposition or for the Parliament
So the measures the Prime Minister has announced today are designed in every sense to provide all the expert information that the Government’s had available more broadly for a formal structure.
The Opposition has been given that advice before. It’s been available for crossbench MPs in a formal structure to review that advice, to refresh that advice and make it available more broadly so that this impasse can be broken.
PM: One at a time. Matthew Franklin.
JOURNALIST: Thank you. Prime Minister, you probably were aware of Mr Abbott’s press conference a little while ago in which he said, he quoted John Howard saying you should take what you can get from the Parliament. And he was basically saying that you could have agreed at least to Nauru.
I know that that is not your position, but could you explain why you believe that going for that single piece of common ground, that is re-opening Nauru, would not have taken the issue forward?
PM: Firstly, let’s just be very accurate about the history here and I didn’t have to opportunity to watch Mr Abbott’s press conference but I’ve been advised of its contents, and I think it’s very important that the record here is clear.
Mr Abbott has not moved one millimetre in this debate. He has not moved in any way for a compromise on offshore processing. Yesterday he did make an announcement about the number of refugee places.
Well, we all want to see more genuine refugees come to this country, but that was not a compromise in the debate before the Parliament about offshore processing.
Mr Abbott has said consistently the only thing he is prepared to vote for is his plan of Nauru.
Now in contrast, the Government, recognising the seriousness of this issue, recognising the fact that people are drowning at sea, has been prepared to compromise and try and find a way of working together.
We said, originally, it was Malaysia that was the best way forward. Our expert advice said that; the same experts who advised Prime Minister Howard when Mr Abbott sat at Prime Minister Howard’s cabinet table.
The same experts who advised the Howard Government when they created the Pacific Solution.
That obviously wasn’t going to get the support of the Opposition and so we moved, and said you have a very entrenched view around Nauru, we have the benefit of expert advice around Malaysia, let’s put the two of them together and get an effective package.
Let’s also find a way of taking forward issues like Temporary Protection Visas through an expert-led process, and having an expert review of that.
Mr Abbott did not move one millimetre at any stage of this discussion. Mr Abbott tonight has basically reiterated he is not prepared to move one millimetre while people are drowning at sea.
But the Government has said – yes, and I’ll answer your question – the Government has been consistently advised by the experts who advised this Government and former governments, that Nauru by itself will not work.
That is the reason for not accepting Mr Abbott’s proposal about Nauru. Mr Abbott has received those briefings himself. The experts have looked him in the eye and said to him ‘Nauru will not work.’
Now we need to find a way here to move away from this politics, the politics that the Leader of the Opposition has mired himself in, and actually get people to look at the policy and look at the facts.
In putting together this expert panel, we are getting people of the highest calibre. I do not believe that it will be possible for anybody in this Parliament to utter one word of criticism of Australians like Angus Houston.
No-one will be able to do that. Australians of the highest calibre and we are making them available to independently provide advice and assistance and a report. We believe the outcome of that will be very persuasive.
JOURNALIST: By the appointment of this reference group, does that signal in any way you could abandon your preference for Malaysia if they come back (inaudible) or are you saying you’re pretty confident of what they’re going to find and report back?
PM: They will act independently, the expert group, Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and the third person we appoint. They will act independently.
So they will form their own views based on the evidence and the facts.
For us, we have taken a lot of advice about the evidence and the facts, and that is what has informed our view. But I want to be absolutely clear here, Angus Houston and the team he leads are free to come to any conclusion that they want to, any conclusion that they believe is in the national interest.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, about 400 dead since the election, 100 or thereabouts in the last six days. We’ve got a six week break before Parliament comes back.
Are you asking Angus Houston to come up with his ideas, his (inaudible) ideas, within the next six weeks and that you will offer a response legislatively when we gather back in August?
PM: We have asked Angus Houston to provide a report as soon as possible, and certainly before the Parliament resumes, so the Parliament has it and can act on it in the next parliamentary session.
I can’t be clearer with you than that. We have asked him to provide the report as soon as possible, and certainly before the Parliament resumes.
JOURNALIST: Back to Phil’s question, if the report comes back saying not Malaysia, does that mean that you’ll abandon the Malaysia plan?
PM: Look, I am not going to prejudge what is in a report from an expert panel that I have appointed today. I am asking eminent Australians of huge capacity to apply their intellect, their judgment, to this question and to provide a public report.
I would only be doing that if I think their views are of the utmost significance.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you believe this expert panel could convince the Greens, given that they’ve been key in blocking this legislation, can convince the Greens to back fresh legislation?
PM: I think you’ve misunderstood the Senate numbers. The single biggest bloc that voted against stopping the boats today is Mr Abbott’s team.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, if the expert panel – are you prepared to say now given that you want to break the deadlock, if the expert panel comes back with a series of recommendations, that you are guaranteeing that you will adopt those recommendations?
And you said you wanted to come back quickly, of they came back say in three weeks, would you be prepared to recall Parliament early?
PM: Well, let’s get the expert group going. We are setting them a formidable task. A formidable task.
They will do it as quickly as they can do it, but we just need to be practical. We are asking them to do it as soon as possible, and certainly before Parliament resumes and I'm sure that they will get about that task with as much efficiency as they possibly can.
But we live in the real world and doing a lot of work takes time and there’s no other way to do a lot of work than to take the time to get it done. So, you know, we’ll get the report as soon as we possibly can.
In terms of what the Government will do with the report, I would not be setting up this group if I wasn’t prepared to take on board with the utmost seriousness the recommendations of this panel.
Of course, we have government and Labor Party processes which will be gone through, but I am asking the group of very eminent Australians to find a way through here on such a significant issue to the nation’s future.
JOURNALIST: Mr Aristotle is very experienced in the area. Will the other members of the panel bring a fresh eye to the – have they got no preconceptions – to the area?
PM: Well none of these people are political partisans, none of them have got, you know, a political view to push here.
Mr Aristotle has expertise from his own personal life and in the work he does, and in the representative roles that he has engaged in; work with the Minister for Immigration, indeed with Minister Ruddock when he was Minister for Immigration. He has a wealth of expertise in refugee and asylum seeker matters.
Angus Houston obviously has a wealth of expertise in defence matters. But you don’t get to be the Chief of the Defence Force in a nation like ours without having formidable public policy capacity. I know Angus Houston personally, he most certainly does.
We will want to add to that someone with foreign policy expertise given the importance of regional work to this agenda.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader said not now, not ever in respect of the policies you put forward in this debate over the past few days. What makes you confident that – have any confidence at all – that the process that you’re embarking on now will change the numbers at all in the Parliament?
PM: Well this is really a question that needs to be directed to the Leader of the Opposition.
But I would put the question perhaps slightly differently.
If, and they will do their work, but if an eminent panel with the likes of Angus Houston on it, came up with a recommendation, would the Leader of the Opposition say that was of no worth?
That would seem to me a very extraordinary conclusion.
JOURNALIST: But hasn’t that been the case with Andrew Metcalfe’s advice-
PM: We’re talking about a man who served this nation as the Chief of the Defence Force as we had soldiers fighting overseas.
Relied on; viewed as an impeccable Australian by both sides of politics, I would think it remarkable indeed if the Leader of the Opposition said tonight or at any other time that an Australian of that eminence, his views are of no worth. I can’t believe that’s possible.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how quickly will you be setting up the parliamentarians’ group?
PM: I’ll be issuing the invites during the next days.