Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the North West Point Detention Centre on Christmas Island, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Doorstop, Christmas Island

06 Mar 2019
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: ... had Christmas Island just over that, in fact. I was the Immigration Minister at the time. At that period of time we were about to embark on our Operation Sovereign Borders turn back policy. This centre had quite a lot of people in it at that time. When I left the role as Immigration Minister there were no more children here in this facility. As Prime Minister, I was pleased that last year we were able to close this facility. As Prime Minister just a few weeks ago, I was pleased to be able to say that the last of the children who were on Nauru had left. It isn't a good thing that we are now in the position, as a result of what the Labor Party has done and the vote they put into the Parliament, that we are now required to reopen this facility. We are required to do that. That was the clear advice of the Department of Home Affairs in response to the Bill that was passed through the parliament, cheered on by the Labor Party and Bill Shorten. I particularly want to commend and thank Border Force, Serco, IHMS and all others who have been part of restanding up this facility in short order. When we took the decision, straight after the vote in the Parliament, when I convened the National Security Committee, that was the standing advice, it was reconfirmed to us and we took the decision to do that. They got to work here and as you can see, this facility stands ready to deal with any of the transfers that would need to take place.

I have seen this facility in many different forms. I was here in… after 2011 when rioting detainees burned the place down. There have been many protests here. There have been many challenging times here. But I want to commend all of those who have worked in this facility and they have learned how to run an outstanding centre and to do it with the care and the support, as well as the strength that is needed to ensure an orderly detention process. Now, the decision we have taken is that for those who would be transferred to Australia as a result of the passing of the legislation in the Parliament, this is where they will come. They are single males - overwhelmingly - and only single males will be transferred to this facility, and in particular those who would under no circumstances previously until this Bill was passed, would they be transferred. Those, there are some very serious cases in which the Minister can speak to, they would be detained here in the highest security of the facilities you have here. This facility can take up to almost 600 transferees. At present they can take 250 and that will be ramping up very quickly. The medical facilities, which you have seen here, are also being ramped up in terms of additional medical professionals who will be here to provide what support is necessary and that will be done in response to demand that is observed.

But let me be clear about why we’ve reopened Christmas Island. First of all, it is to deal with the transfer of people who have been found to be compliant with the legislation that was passed through the Parliament. Those transferees who are coming under that process will find themselves here. The construction camp and Phosphate Hill facilities will be available to support any females who might be subject to that process. The other thing that Christmas Island does is that in the event that if there were to be a resurgence in illegal boat activity, this is the transfer point. This is where the boats would come, those who would seek to illegally enter Australia, they would be quickly processed here and they would be transferred to Nauru. So there is no change to any of those arrangements. Anyone who is thinking of coming to Australia illegally by boat, understand that our border protection regime is in place. We have strengthened it after the efforts of the Parliament to weaken it, by the Labor Party, and we will be ensuring, with the increased support into Operation Sovereign Borders, that if you seek to come to Australia illegally by boat we will turn the boat back and we will transfer you to Nauru if you sought to come that way and nothing on that score has changed. But this facility has been stood up to ensure that we can meet the demand that would come from the passing of that legislation and transfers that would come from Nauru to here and from Manus Island to here.

So I just want to be very clear about what the purpose is here. This facility under Labor got to a point where more than 3,000 people were on this island. That's how bad it can get when Labor runs the borders. I think it is important that we reflect on that when we stand here on Christmas Island. This centre was closed under our Government and it reached well above its capacity under the Labor Government. That is a clear contrast, I think, for Australians to observe. Again, I want to thank those who have been involved in standing up this facility. I thought it was important for me personally to come here and see that the facility was ready and so it can respond to the demand that we would expect. My objective is to ensure that no boats come and we have taken actions to ensure that that occurs, that no boats come. But also any of those who would seek to try and game this arrangement that has been put in place by the Australian Parliament with Labor's cheering it on, well, you won't be coming to the mainland of Australia, you'll be coming here. Anyone who wants to game the system, understand you won't be able to game your way to the mainland if I have anything to do with it. This is why we are here. I want to ask Minister David Coleman, I want to thank him for his incredible work to get us standing up here so quickly, David, to make a few comments. Then we will hear from the Border Force Commissioner and the Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders.

THE HON DAVID COLEMAN MP, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION: Thanks PM. So, in July 2013 there were 3,200 people on Christmas Island and that included more than 600 children. More than 600 children were placed in detention here on Christmas Island in July 2013. When we came to office, there were 2,000 children in detention in Australia. They were all removed from detention by our Government. There has not been one child on Manus Island for years and there are no children on Nauru. So we have cleaned up the extraordinary mess that Labor left behind. The population of people in detention under this Government is 90 per cent less - 90 per cent less - than it was under Labor and we have closed 19 detention centres. The population on Manus and Nauru, as I said, there are no children, 96 per cent of the people on those islands are adult males and there is a small number of women remaining on those islands.

So we now have to respond to Labor's law and it's upending of the successful system of offshore processing and one of the things that we have to respond to is the fact that under Labor's law, there is a very limited capacity for the Government to stop someone from entering Australia on character grounds. There are only two - a breach of the ASIO Act and someone who has been to jail for 12 months or more. Now, there are dozens of people for whom we have been - the Government has been advised - are not captured by either of those elements of Labor's law but nonetheless have serious character concerns. And under Labor's law we will be required, should those people present and pass the assessment or treatment test under the law to bring those people to Australia. Those people include people who have posted extremist imagery online. They include people with allegations of sexual assault, including allegations of sexual assault against children. And they include people whose online behaviour raises very serious concerns of their potential links to banned organisations. So there are a serious number of people who are… we have grave concerns about under this law and the use of Christmas Island and parts of Christmas Island will be an important component in ensuring that should those people come to Australia they are in a secure facility.

I'd also, along with the PM like to thank the staff, the Border Force staff, Home Affairs staff and many others who have contributed to the rapid stand up of this facility and thank them for all of their efforts.

MICHAEL OUTRAM APM, BORDER FORCE COMMISSIONER: Thank you Prime Minister, thank you Minister. Good morning everybody. A little bit over two weeks ago, this facility was essentially in mothballs. The fact that today it stands ready in terms of us garrison support, the security facilities, the medical facilities, the facilities management, is a testament to some tremendous work. Not only by our Border Force officers, and I’d like to thank Superintendent Jenny Green and here team here and her colleagues back in Canberra, but it is a whole of Government team effort. Colleagues in the Department of Home Affairs working with our contractors Serco and IHMS in particular. So my thanks goes to all of those people because you can see today, it is a world class facility now. We are ready to take any number of people who come this way and it is ready to take on operations. So thank you to all those people, great job. Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Commissioner. Commander Furini?

MAJOR GENERAL CRAIG FURINI CSC, COMMANDER OF OPERATION SOVEREIGN BORDERS: Thank you Prime Minister and good morning. Notwithstanding the excellent preparations that have been done here, I would like to reiterate the points from the Prime Minister that Operation Sovereign Borders has fundamentally not changed. My mission remains to protect Australia's border from the threat of illegal maritime arrivals and prevent the needless loss of life at sea. To effect that mission, I have been reinforced in using my multi-layered approach. I will continue to deter, disrupt and interdict people smuggling efforts and where necessary return people and to pick up on a point if people can't be returned, they will not be coming here to Christmas Island to stay, they will be moving off to regional processing in Nauru. Thank you, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Commander. Happy to take some questions. Jenny is also here to take any particular questions on the details of the stand-up.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you expect all 940 people still on Manus and Nauru to want to get treatment in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: We will see. We are ready to respond to that type of demand but I think those who thought that this would be some easy passage to the mainland and would seek to try and take advantage and game the system, well, I think they are getting a very clear message that it won't be as simple as that. They will come here to Christmas Island and this is where they will receive that assessment. In the normal cases where people are requiring significant health treatment, I mean, those cases were already dealt with under the previous arrangements where people needed that care. They were getting that care.

JOURNALIST: So they will go back to, say, the Mater hospital in Brisbane?

PRIME MINISTER: That depends. It is a case by case assessment by the medical teams which has been for years. There is no change to those arrangements. The real risk here is the loopholes that have been opened up by the Labor Party in changing the laws means that there will be plenty who want to game the system, just as they sought to game the system to try and illegally enter Australia in the first place. So they have form. This hardened facility here will be able to deal with them. This is a place where their procedures I think have firmed incredibly over the years, having dealt with some real significant challenges. And let’s not forget that those on Manus have participated in riots before in those places. So this facility will be able to deal with it and they have the systems and the people in place to be able to deal any threats should they arise.

JOURNALIST: You have said before this is all about messaging when it comes to people smuggling trade. What kind of message do you think it is sending today to people smugglers to have you here, the first Prime Minister visiting Christmas Island, because there are going to many people criticising you for effectively advertising that Christmas Island is back open and that in fact you’re almost daring people smugglers to restart their trade?

PRIME MINISTER: Any time that people smugglers see me they see a brick wall to them coming and plying their trade in Australia. Any time they see Bill Shorten they see an open door. That is what my record demonstrates and that’s what Bill Shorten's record demonstrates. Bill Shorten was part of a Government that sent 3,000 people here. Bill Shorten was part of a Government that allows 820 boats to bring 50,000 people to Australia and see 1,200 people die. My record in this place is I shut it down, I got every single child off this island. That is my record. When people smugglers see me, they see a brick wall.

JOURNALIST: Has Home Affairs actually received any doctor endorsed applications for transfer here?

PRIME MINISTER: It has only been a couple of days since the laws have been stood up. So we’ll deal with those in course. The doctors panel is still being formed. David might want to respond to that. So we will deal with demand as it presents but I don't intend to provide a running commentary on that. My intention here is to ensure that vexatious acts by those who would seek to game the system to come to Australia using these loopholes will think twice about it. I mean, if we see less than otherwise we might have expected, I think that will be as a result of the actions the Government has taken to thwart and not provide incentives to that sort of vexatious behaviour.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask a question about the list of 57 detainees that the Government has concerns about? Does that mean that the other 900 detainees you are not concerned about, and that any application by them would proceed on the basis that they are legitimately seeking asylum and they are of good character?

THE HON DAVID COLEMAN MP, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION: There are 57 people who, as I said, under Labor's law, the Government would be required to bring to Australia and for whom we have very serious character concerns. People who have posted radical extremist material online. People who have been accused of sexual assault, including against children. So we are very, very concerned about those people.

JOURNALIST: I understand, and you’ve detailed their particular circumstance, we understand. But is it fair to group them in with all asylum seekers? It would seem if you looked at 950 of them, you have concerns about the vast majority would be of good character.

THE HON DAVID COLEMAN MP, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION:  We have clearly highlighted the 57 who are of greatest concern. And there are some very significant concerns about that group.

PRIME MINISTER: But of the other group, I would say this, they sought to illegally enter Australia, they sought to come to Australia by the wrong means. We have one of the most reputable and credible refugee and humanitarian programs of any country in the world and we take 18,250 people through the front door every year. But if you want to come by some other way, the policy of the Government is you don't get to resettle in Australia. So if they want to seek to use Labor's law, which sought to weaken regional processing - indeed end it as we know it - then what I am saying is we will be putting those obstacles in the way as you would expect me to do and the Australian people would expect me to do. I am serious when it comes to integrity of our border protection regime. I think Australians understand that. I know why we are reopening Christmas Island. Bill Shorten has had a different position on Christmas Island almost every single day. How would he have a position because he has never been here?

JOURNALIST: He says it is a waste of money coming here today. Can you tell us how much it has cost to reopen this centre?

PRIME MINISTER: That will be made available through the normal process. I don't have those figures at hand.

JOURNALIST: It’s not important to you, knowing how much you’re spending on that?

PRIME MINISTER: It is going to be $1.4 billion was the estimate over the four years to actually stand up this facility and run it and expect a high rate of occupancy over four years. And it’s be half a billion over the next two years. So they were the decisions that the Cabinet made based on the information that was provided to us. I wish we didn't have to do that. The reason we are doing this is because Bill Shorten went into the Parliament and he weakened our border protection laws. He was warned. He was warned clearly that this would have to be done in the event that he supported those laws. He chose to vote for it in the Parliament. He has basically voted for this centre to be reopened. He can't walk away from the consequences of that. If he thought the Government wasn't going to take its border protection responsibilities seriously when he wasn’t going to do that, then he is sadly mistaken.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you’ve come here today with the media in tow. This is an area where we have previously been banned from filming, never before have we been beyond the barbed wire so to speak, why now? Why are you inviting the media here today?

PRIME MINISTER: What we have showed you today is what is here at this facility. There are no transferees at this facility today. That is one of the reasons why previously, I understand both under the previous government and ours, that has been one of the reasons why there hasn't been open filming of detention facilities anywhere in the country. There are no transfer here today. So that’s the first point I’d make. The second one is you have seen very clearly the standard of facilities that are here to support people in terms of medical assessment and treatment. This will be ramped up in response to demand and most of that ramping up will occur for people with mental health medical professional experience and those treatments and those support assessments are done at several locations here on the island. There are not only facilities here but the facilities at Phosphate Hill and elsewhere on the island as well as a lot of that assessment and support is being provided in the facility itself.

So the suggestion that this facility is not up to this job, I thought it was important for Australians to know that it is up to this job. That the medical support that is necessary to do the job that is being required of this facility will be able to be delivered through the very professional staff of IHMS who are also operating in Nauru as well and will have a lot of familiarity with many of the cases. This is why we are here today, to show very clearly that my Government is responding to the threat that has been posed by Labor passing that Bill. We are doing it in two ways - ensuring that the boats don't come and ensuring that those who might want to take advantage of this new law to find another back doorway to get into Australia onto the mainland, that they won't have that opportunity.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it has been some weeks now since the Medivac law passed Parliament, with all of the attending fuss and effective advertising of Australia's change of laws took place, what evidence have you or your agency seen in the weeks since that that has had any impact on the demand for asylum seekers to actually get on the boats and come to our country, and if you haven't mightn’t we be actually standing in the middle of a giant white elephant?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s funny you say that Tim. The Labor Party said, back before 2007 when this facility was built by John Howard, that it would be a white elephant. That is what the Labor Party said. And then they sent over 50,000 people here when they got into Government after 2007.

JOURNALIST: It’s 2019 Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: My point is this, Tim. People have said before when we have raised these points and the Liberal and National Parties, oh no that’ll never happen, this will never happen, the Labor that will never happen under them, that's exactly what happened in 2007. And the same criticisms were made of the Government for putting these out, for putting these facilities in place and the Labor Party used them beyond their capacity because of their weakness on the borders. Now my hope Tim, my hope, and this would certainly be the case should we continue in our roles and be re-elected at the next election, that the need for this facility would subside again. Because if re-elected, I will get rid of those laws and I will make sure that we preserve the situation.

JOURNALIST: Any boat movements, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: What I do know is this, they are continuing not to come because they know I am still the Prime Minister, Peter Dutton is still the Home Affairs Minister, Operation Sovereign Borders is still in place. That’s what I know for a fact, Tim. What they are waiting for is for Bill Shorten to be Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: You cited the Department of Home Affairs advice as the requirement to reopen Christmas Island.

PRIME MINISTER: We agreed with their advice, yes.

JOURNALIST: What reasons did they give for that and what reasons did they give for not detaining people in [inaudible] or any other immigration detention centres?

PRIME MINISTER: I set those out at the start of the press conference. I set those out. The purposes are twofold. The first of those is to ensure that we can bring people to a hardened facility because the laws, as they have been passed, deny us the opportunity to prevent people coming from Australia who otherwise would never be able to come and in addition to that, to ensure that those who might seek, frankly, to game the system, those who might seek to take advantage of these laws and seek to come to Australia by that method, that the alternative and the option that the Government would be using here at Christmas Island would not provide an incentive for them to do that. Now thirdly, on top of that, in the event that there were to be vessels coming again, then this facility obviously would have to be used for the transition purposes that the Commander set out which would see people transition through here and be sent directly to Nauru. That would be its purpose.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you take responsibility for the fact that the economy is now deep in a per capita recession?

PRIME MINISTER: I have been warning since last year, I was warning as Treasurer. What you have just set out, that is not how those matters are assessed. That's not how those economic circumstances are described. What I do know is that living standards as measured through the national accounts has actually continued to grow. What I do know is that the Australian economy does face real challenges globally and the Treasurer has been setting them out. I noticed that the Leader of the Opposition, that Bill Shorten is talking a lot about wages. I will tell you this - the only wages that will go up under Bill Shorten's Prime Ministership will be the wages of the people smugglers.

JOURNALIST: The classified leak today is saying that cuts to Australian Border Force are affecting our ability to protect our borders?

MICHAEL OUTRAM APM, BORDER FORCE COMMISSIONER: I will respond to that. So there have been no budget cuts. In fact, patrol days that we spent at sea since 2014 have increased every financial year since 2014. This year what we have received is an additional $74 million in funding as well, which allows us to not only maintain our presence on the water but also be ready to increase that posture in the coming period ahead. The other thing I would say is that Maritime Border Command that sits within the Australian Border Force as a joint agency task force, headed up by a Rear Admiral from the Royal Australian Navy, that task force deploys vessels on the water, yes, and there are a combination of border force and defence vessels. Not only that, we have a range of aircraft of course surveying the water and we have a range of satellites and other capabilities. So this really is about a security in depth principal and we work very collaboratively with a range of agencies to deliver the effects. The key point I would make is that our maritime posture and our border protection capabilities have not been weakened and nor will they be.

JOURNALIST: According to this leaked briefing, the Defence Force is having to pick up the slack and you are running 20 per cent below your targets on sea patrols. Is that accurate and if that is not because of budget cuts, why is it?

MICHAEL OUTRAM APM, BORDER FORCE COMMISSIONER: I’m just going to answer the question, I’m not going to talk any leaked documents. I haven’t seen leaked documents and I don’t know about the providence of leaked documents. What I will say is this, as I have just repeated, our budget has not been cut. We have received an additional $74 million this year in relation to our on-water operations. Maritime border command also provides aerial and satellite surveillance over and above what we put on the water. And so we are very well postured.

JOURNALIST: You are 20 per cent below your patrol targets though?

MICHAEL OUTRAM APM, BORDER FORCE COMMISSIONER: No, I don't believe that is true. But I haven't seen the document you are referring to, I’m afraid.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, your thoughts on publicly-funded abortion?

PRIME MINISTER: This is a very controversial and sensitive issue and on these matters I have never sought to divide Australians on this. I'm a bit disappointed that it is being raised in the eve of election in a very politically charged context. These are matters that are dealt with by the states and territories. I have no desire to overstep what the constitutional authorities are of the Commonwealth in these matters. They are rightly dealt with by the states and the territories. I don't find that debate one that tends to unite Australians and I certainly am not going to engage in the political elements of that discussion because frankly, I don't think it is good for our country. Thanks very much.

JOURNALIST: The leaked defence briefing, it’s appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, will that be referred to the AFP?

PRIME MINISTER: The Commissioner has already, I think, has already put what has been suggested is in that document, he has addressed those issues that are raised in that document and I'm sure that any issues that arise from that from the nature of this document, which I haven’t seen either, will be dealt with in the normal way.

JOURNALIST: One for the Commissioner sorry if you wouldn’t mind. So just to be clear, the assessment that we have seen that is unclassified with the 57 detainees, have you carried out the same assessment on every detainee on Manus and Nauru? Because we have only seen details of about 25.

MICHAEL OUTRAM APM, BORDER FORCE COMMISSIONER: What I will say is the assessments have been undertaken by the intelligence area within the Department of Home Affairs, not by the Australian Border Force.

PRIME MINISTER: It’s not an ADF role. Thanks, everyone.