23RD JUNE, 2002


PAUL BONGIORNO, PRESENTER: Hello and welcome to Meet the Press. On World Refugee Day the Federal Government introduced into Parliament a bill to cut 3,000 offshore islands from Australia's migration zone. That means islands including Thursday Island would no longer be part of Australia in the same way as Tasmania and the mainland. The bill passed the House of Representatives but faces certain defeat in the Senate this week. So, is the proposal a necessary advance in protecting at least the mainland's borders or is it, as Labor claims, a political ploy? Today Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock meets the press. Welcome back to the program, Minister.


PAUL BONGIORNO: If the Senate, as seems sure, rejects the bill this week and continues to reject it, what are the consequences for border protection?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, the first point I would make in relation to your introduction is that excising an area from the migration zone is an exercise of sovereignty. It's not detaching the islands, in some way from Australia and an abduction of sovereignty. If it was, the Labor Party would not have supported the excision, I'm sure, of Christmas Island and the Ashmore Reef, and the Cocos and Keeling Islands from the migration zone. The only purpose of an excision from the migration zone is to ensure that people who land there cannot lodge a valid application under the Migration Act and that their claims, particularly for asylum, will have to be dealt with in another way, and it's a way which ensures that we have control of that process rather than, what I've called "convention plus", that is, giving people an entitlement well beyond the same entitlement that they would expect if they were being assessed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

PAUL BONGIORNO: When you say 'we', you don't mean Australia and its systems do you? You mean 'the Government' because you're trying to keep these claims out of the court by these excisions. Isn't this the point?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, what we're ensuring is that the international obligations that we, Australia, have accepted - not to refuel, not to send a person back to a situation of persecution - will be honoured. But people do not get entitlements, which go well beyond the simple acknowledgement of our obligations under the Refugee Convention.

PAUL BONGIORNO: But isn't the fact that you've got to make this excision, or you want to make it, an admission that something different pertains on the mainland, in Tasmania, than on these islands? And in that sense, it's different.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, it does. It does. This is the same issue that the PM of the UK is raising in Britain right now. At the very time when the Europeans are getting their act together to deal with illegal movement - people-smuggling - we've got the Opposition here in Australia saying, in no uncertain terms, "We are about unwinding the range of measures that have been very important in sending a message to people-smugglers in the world that Australia is not a soft touch on these issues."

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, if I come back to the other part of my first question - what are the consequences in your view if the Senate continues to block?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: What we know is that people-smuggling is a very profitable business. It's said to be worth approximately US $10 billion to those who are involved in it. And what they're essentially doing is bypassing orderly immigration systems to deliver people who are, in the main, looking for migration outcomes - some will be looking for protection - but in the main looking for migration outcomes, and delivering them to where they want to go. And the fact is that they watch very closely what we do here in Australia. They watch very closely what's happening in Europe and they make assessments as to where it's going to be easiest to deliver people. And at the very time when the Europeans are saying enough is enough, what we've got here is the Labor Party, after we've put in place measures which have sent a very clear and unambiguous message to the rest of the world, that will say Australia is now open for business again.

PAUL BONGIORNO: You told Parliament in concrete terms that we can't afford to be complacent and that you have information that 'thousands' I think was the word you used, that thousands are preparing to come again. Now, is this a real... can you give us any more to substantiate that claim?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: The information is largely public. In Indonesia at the moment there are some 500 people who have had claims considered by the UNHCR and are awaiting resettlement outcomes. There are another 600 people in the hands of the International Organisation for Migration for whom they are trying to make arrangements to get them home because they're not refugees.

PAUL BONGIORNO: But you're suggesting...

PHILIP RUDDOCK: And there are reports beyond that of another 1,000 or so people who are simply washing around in Indonesia at the moment looking at smuggling opportunities and who would, if there were people able to deliver them, would be using them.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Simon Crean says that your own task force advised him that excising the islands wouldn't stop these people trying to come. Hasn't he got a point?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No. He asked the task force to give him a cast-iron guarantee that if this measure was implemented, it would stop boats leaving. Now, nobody can give you that cast-iron guarantee. But that's what he was seeking. And it's quite disingenuous, on his part, to suggest because they refused to give him a cast-iron guarantee that in some way, that cast doubt on the advice that they were giving. Let's be very clear about this - there is information that suggests that smugglers are again planning to try and deliver people to Australia or into the Pacific. Now that information is clear and unambiguous. He was given that information by the task force. They said, "In order to deal with this we think this additional measure is important to give us a full range of measures that will deal with people-smuggling." And he's saying to them, "Look, I don't accept your advice". Well, we do accept that advice. We think it was right and appropriate and it's on his head if something happens in the meantime while they're opposing these measures, that suggests that Australia is again open for business and other people then start using smugglers. He has opposed measures that would help us to deal with that.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Picking up on that point - we know the clear support the Federal Government has on border protection from the last election. Do you believe that if the Senate continues to block these measures that the people should be asked, should be allowed, and indeed have a right to break the deadlock at an election.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: What I do believe is that the Labor Party is out there complaining that we're in some way trying to divide them on this issue and that it's a political stunt. That's essentially what they're arguing. And I'm saying, "If you think it's a political stunt, support the measure because that will defuse the argument overnight. People will not be able to see you as being soft on border control if you support these measures." And that's what he ought to be doing but he is trying to ameliorate the concerns of some members of the Labor Party who are wanting to line up with the Democrats and Greens to oppose those measures, which give a very strong view about border control.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Is this issue important enough, in your view, this particular issue, for an election to be held on it?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No. This an issue about effective border control. And I want to see implemented those measures that will enable us to protect Australia's interests.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Minister, it was reported over the weekend that you in fact have been discussing with the British, the UK government, our border protection measures. Who have you been talking to and what sort of things have you been telling them?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I regularly talk to the British ministers who have had responsibility for this area. Jack Straw was the minister for Home Affairs, and his successor, David Blunkett, are both British ministers who I have talked regularly to about these issues, and they acknowledge that if you are going to have effective immigration controls, if you are going to be able to assist those refugees who have the greatest need for protection and who are in vulnerable situations, you need to be able to regulate your borders to be able to manage migration flows and to be able to deal with refugee resettlement. And they're saying for the first time, "If you want to have in Europe sensible immigration programs..."

PAUL BONGIORNO: Just briefly, obviously we can't offer them the sort of advice, there's no equivalent to the Pacific solution or detention. They've got tens of thousands crossing their borders.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I've said if you wanted to adopt failed policy you would look at what they've been doing up until now in Europe and you would implement it. You would essentially open up the detention centres, let everybody loose, and you would see the result.

PAUL BONGIORNO: We'll have to come back to these issues because we're running out of time. Time for a break when we return with the panel, the public mood seems to be to send all the asylum seekers home. We ask - what are the Government's plans for those found to be genuine refugees and for those still in detention who are not?

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're on Meet the Press with Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. And welcome to the panel - Megan Saunders, the 'Australian' and Peter Charlton, the 'Courier Mail'. Australia is holding in detention, offshore and on the mainland, genuine refugees and those whose applications have been rejected. That raises questions for Megan.

MEGAN SAUNDERS, THE 'AUSTRALIAN': Hi, Minister. There are almost 200 people in detention under the Pacific solution now that have been found to be genuine refugees and that have family links to Australia. They've been in detention for over two months. Why isn't the Government moving on this one?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, we are. We have made it very clear that those with close family links - not all the links are close - that we will consider them for resettlement. But what we are exploring in relation to those who are being considered are the nature of those links at this time. We need to be satisfied that if someone claims to be a spouse or a dependent child of somebody who is in Australia that they are in that relationship. We need also to be able to deal with issues of health and character which are the normal further considerations that are given after a determination has been made that a person is a refugee. We're looking, in relation to the others, to see what other resettlement opportunities are available and we're doing that through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

MEGAN SAUNDERS: But you're clearly not in a hurry on this one, are you? Are you worried that this might send a message, perhaps, to the thousands of people waiting in Indonesia that if they come through the Pacific solution then they'll end up in Australia anyway?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, what we're seeking to do is to give priority to those who are in the closest relationships. Those who are not may well have to wait longer. We will be exploring, with other countries, those people who have links with those countries. For instance, I think the Canadians are sending out a delegation in the next fortnight or so to look at nine people who have links with people who have been settled in Canada. And we're also looking at people who have links to parts of Europe and making those same approaches to other governments.

PETER CHARLTON, THE 'COURIER MAIL': You've also got large numbers of people, particularly off the 'Tampa', who don't qualify for refugee status and who would be, in the ordinary course of events, sent back. When are you going to start sending them back?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, some have already been slotted for return. One has returned. And there are people who have been returned to other countries. The numbers of people in Nauru and off Manus Island that have been returned home number in the order of 100 or so, along with those who have been resettled in New Zealand in particular. So we've had around about 100 people who have left already. And we have further Afghans who will be leaving in the next fortnight.

PETER CHARLTON: Will they be forcibly repatriated?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, these are people who, at the moment, are returning voluntarily...

PETER CHARLTON: Take the money, yes?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: ..and who will be receiving the reintegration package. We expect - and there is already considerable interest in that package, from people who are on Nauru - I expect the numbers of people going back voluntarily will increase.

MEGAN SAUNDERS: Do you accept the argument of the UNHCR and the people on the ground in Afghanistan that these people shouldn't be rushed back. They're going back to humanitarian crisis, there are still Taliban strongholds outside Kabul, and landmines on the ground.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I don't accept those assertions. The fact is that 1 million people have returned voluntarily.

MEGAN SAUNDERS: But that places pressure on the country.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, that's the only issue of substance in relation to the points that you're making because the fact is, with 1 million people who have already returned, and the anticipated 2 million people who are going to return, there is very considerable demand on the resources to assist those who are going back. But the fact is, those who go back with a reintegration package will be in a significantly better position than the millions of people who have been returning from Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. These are people who will receive approximately $100 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as against the $2,000 that is being offered per individual and $10,000 for a family if they accept our package. Yes, look, it is reasonable to say that while you are getting voluntary returns it is appropriate to postpone forced returns but the reality is that as the situation is restored to a semblance of normality in Afghanistan forced returns will be required. When that happens those who are here in Australia and those who are on the islands will be required to leave.

PETER CHARLTON: Minister, it's now been months since we've had any sizeable boats come towards Australia, really since the 'Tampa' picked those people up. The military blockade, the naval blockade has worked, has it not?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, the package of measures are working. You can say that it's the fact that we've been able...

PETER CHARLTON: The first point is really the naval blockade, and that's worked.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: The first point I would make is that we've gone eight months without substantial boat arrivals and that is an indication that the range of measures, including essentially Operation 'Relics' which has enabled us to return four vessels to Indonesia, has had a significant impact on smuggling operations.

PETER CHARLTON: So does the Government see that operation continuing indefinitely?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, we see it as continuing while there is a requirement for it.

PETER CHARLTON: And continuing successfully?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: It will be a very important part of the range of measures we implement.

PETER CHARLTON: So, why are we spending $200 million on Christmas Island, for a processing plant to process people who, in all likelihood, will not arrive?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, the reality, Peter, is Operation 'Relics' returned four vessels. It was very important to get those returns because it undermined the activities of the smugglers.

PETER CHARLTON: With respect, Minister, you haven't answered the question. Why are we spending the money on refugees who, in all likelihood, won't arrive?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Operation 'Relics' enabled us to return four vessels. At the same time, other vessels were sabotaged by the people on them and the people had to be dealt with and they were dealt with under the Pacific solution. The Pacific solution is part of the range of measures that have ensured that we have sent a very strong message. I can't guarantee that every vessel that leaves Indonesia is going to be able to return successfully, particularly if the vessel is sabotaged.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Minister, just before we go in this break - 11 asylum seekers escaped from Woomera at Easter and are still at large. What's the latest on them?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I have no further information in relation to them in particular. What I can say is over time we do successfully locate people who have escaped migration detention. We've caught a number of people who were amongst those Villawood escapees and what we find every month or two, compliance operations turn up one or other of them. We found a number of people in Griffith recently who were Villawood escapees.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Just very briefly, in regard to the Woomera escapees, does it suggest the AFP, the federal police, aren't out there actively chasing them?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, it says if people want to try and escape detention they can do so successfully in terms of secreting themselves within the Australian community. And it reinforces the view that I have, that if people arrive and are not refugees and have an intention to get a migration outcome in Australia locating them is a very difficult task.

PAUL BONGIORNO: OK. Time for another break. When we return - what next for Philip Ruddock? What ambitions are left for Australia's longest serving federal politician?

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're on Meet the Press. Philip Ruddock is the father of the house - 29 years continuous service as an elected representative. That gives Peter Charlton cause to ponder.

PETER CHARLTON: 15 years ago, in 1988, you crossed the floor and voted with the then Labor government on an immigration issue and were seen to be a small 'l' liberal. What's changed? What's changed now, 14 years later, that you're implementing some of the toughest immigration policies ever seen?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Peter, you have to look at it in the context of what I'm seeking to do. I am strongly committed to helping bona fide refugees and those who have the greatest need. And the reason for strong border control is to enable us to play that role internationally.

PETER CHARLTON: How is that helping bona fide refugees, to excise all of the islands to Australia's north? Why not then take that whole thing a step further and excise Australia from the treaty?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, we honour our obligations under the Refugee Convention and we honour them in relation to excised islands, as well as in relation to those who are in Australia per se. Now, the reality of the process that we've gone through is to ensure that we are able to manage that so that we don't offer what I call 'convention plus' - that is those people who are able to bypass processing and the queues that exist elsewhere being given better outcomes because they've simply got to Australia. That's the reason for doing it. We run an orderly refugee resettlement program that is the most generous in the world and we run it for those who have the greatest need for a resettlement outcome...

MEGAN SAUNDERS: Minister, can I just ask you -

PHILIP RUDDOCK: ..those that are in danger where they are now. That's the rationale and it's a very strong and compelling argument for being able to manage your borders effectively. Otherwise, you simply give it away...

MEGAN SAUNDERS: Minister, can I just ask you -

PHILIP RUDDOCK: ..and the only people you end up helping are those that are not themselves bona fide refugees, they're looking for an immigration outcome, or those who are refugees but have already been safe and secure and aren't in any immediate danger.

MEGAN SAUNDERS: OK. Can we now turn to your own political ambitions? You are now the father of the house. You've been there for a long time. You are arguably one of the most high-profile ministers on the front bench. Do you think possibly the deputy leadership at some stage would be in your sights?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Look, what I think is important is to do the job I'm doing now and doing it effectively. And what I enjoy most at the moment is to also be Minister for Indigenous Affairs, where I believe we are playing a very important role in healing some of the wounds of the past and are able to move forward in raising people's standard of living.

MEGAN SAUNDERS: But how long do you see yourself in those portfolios? Surely you can't be there forever?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I don't know that anybody's ever there forever and I don't make that claim but while I am playing a very useful role, I'm happy to pursue it.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Would you seek preselection for the next election?


PETER CHARLTON: But it must come at some personal cost. You have a considerable security detachment.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: We don't talk about those issues.

PETER CHARLTON: I know. It's an observation. You aren't welcome in some state schools. Does that effect Philip Ruddock the individual?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I am concerned when some people seek to deny the opportunity for free speech and walk away from the values that I think people who come through a migration program see operating in Australia. And I think it's a great pity when some people take the view that a minister ought not to be able to present arguments to part of the Australian community.

MEGAN SAUNDERS: Can I just turn your attention to Captain Arne Rinnan, the captain of the 'Tampa'. He's received international acclaim as a humanitarian and also been recognised by the UN. Why can't the Australian Government do the same?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I think we do recognise that his rescuing of people at sea was…

PETER CHARLTON: Oh, come on. You treated him as a people-smuggler. You used the immigration law against him as a people-smuggler.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Peter, what happened was that, having rescued the people at sea, he allowed himself to be intimidated by those he rescued and instead of taking them to a place where they were going to be safe, he sought to bring them without authority to Australia. The point is you have to look at the two roles separately. His rescuing at sea is an act of courage for which we commend him. His seeking to bring them without lawful authority to Australia was something which we very clearly not only discouraged but condemned.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Minister, are you satisfied that the so-called people-smuggling boat 'SIEV-X' sank in international waters and that the Australian Navy could do nothing to rescue them?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Let's go back to what happened. The information that we get is never precise. It comes from a variety of sources and we seek to use that to deal with unauthorised arrivals. The fact is that a vessel did depart with a very large number of people, it was overloaded. There were reports after it sank that it had sunk in Indonesian waters, whatever that meant. Some people are tying to make a point that wherever it sank it was in some way a reflection on what Australia may or may not have been able to do. The fact is that wherever it sank it was in at least the Indonesian air, sea and rescue zone responsibilities. It was quite possibly within its contiguous zone and also quite possibly within the 12 mile limits. We don't know precisely where it sank. We never did. But the assertion that it was in those areas for which Indonesia is responsible is incontrovertible. [emphasis added]

PETER CHARLTON: You're off to Thursday Island next week. Are you going to explain to the people of Thursday Island the reason for excising them from Australia?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I've already explained that and they are not excised from Australia, let me make that point. It is an act of sovereignty that we are able under the Migration Act to say that some areas will be valid for the lodgement of applications and other areas not. What I do know is that the leadership in the Torres Strait has made known its concern about people-smuggling operations. They don't want the Torres Strait to be used for people-smuggling and they understand the need for these measures.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Minister, just before we go - you've announced an inquiry into ATSIC. What do you hope to get from that?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: A more effective organisation. It's been more than 10 years since ATSIC was established and it's got dual roles - effectively it advocates on behalf of indigenous Australians but it also has to administer certain programs. What we want to do is to see whether or not we can look at each of those roles and assess whether or not the service delivery can be more effective, if there is a new way of dealing with these issues.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Thank you very much for joining us today, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. And thanks to our panel - Megan Saunders and Peter Charlton. Until next week, it's goodbye from Meet the Press.

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