Subjects: High Court judgment; offshore processing; resettlement of refugees.
JOURNALIST: The Minister Peter Dutton joins me now in the studio. Minister, thanks so much for your time.
PETER DUTTON: Thanks Laura.
JOURNALIST: What does now happen to these 267 people?
PETER DUTTON: Well Laura, obviously for a long period of time we’ve said for people on Nauru that if they’ve got medical needs and it can’t be treated in Nauru or in Port Moresby, the international hospital there, then people come to Australia – and that has happened in some of these cases. Once the medical assistance has been provided and there’s no need for medical assistance any longer, then those people return to Nauru.
Now, that’s been the existing practice and nothing will change in that regard.
JOURNALIST: There’s 37 babies here that have obviously been in the headlines. Some of them were born here, some of them, as you say, have been treated for medical conditions, I think some of them have been here for a few years. So what happens now? How quickly will this process get underway? Will they be sent immediately? Are there some compassionate grounds to look at here?
PETER DUTTON: Laura, one of the things that I’ve wanted out of this portfolio is to be the Minister that removes kids from detention and we’re now down to under 80 children in detention – bearing in mind that Labor had put 8,000 children into detention when they lost control of the borders.
So we’ve got a compassionate approach. We’ll look at cases individually, but we’ve been very definite and I think the people smugglers need to hear this message that if people have sought to come to our country by boat, they’ve not been found to be refugees, then we’ll help them go back to their country of origin – otherwise Nauru is the alternative for them.
JOURNALIST: I mean, looking at compassionate grounds as well, I know you can’t go into individual cases but can you give us an idea of how many will be looked at in that way?
PETER DUTTON: One of the points that I think needs to be made is that of the over 250 people that are here, many of them are family members for one individual within the family that’s required medical assistance.
So it might be, for argument’s sake, that it was a complicated pregnancy; mum has come to Australia but we’ve brought the three children and the father with the mother as well. So five people haven’t come here for medical attention, but the mother obviously has given birth.
So to put into perspective, the number of people that are here, not all of them have required medical assistance.
We have approached it in a compassionate way. We’ve seen a drop off in the number of self-harms on Nauru. I think there’s a lot of emotion out there. But people who think they’re doing the right thing by saying to these refugees that, just hold out, the Government’s position will change, there’ll be success in the High Court, wait for the election, whatever it is, they are promising false hope.
I want to provide support for these people that have been found not to be refugees to return to their country of origin and I hope that we can do that sooner than later.
JOURNALIST: The deterrence factor is obviously pretty huge here, so are you worried that if you allow some of these children and their families to stay, it might encourage more women to get pregnant, therefore that’s a pathway to Australia?
PETER DUTTON: There’s no doubt that people smugglers message out all the time about this very issue, that if you’ve got children in your family, pay your money, hop on the boat, come to Australia, you’ll be released into the community – that’s not the case. We’ve been very definite about it. I don’t want to see a situation unfold where the boats restart and I don’t want to see a situation as we’re seeing unfold across Europe.
We have an orderly migration programme. One of the benefits of maintaining control of our borders, firstly, is that people don’t drown at sea, and secondly, we can increase the number of refugees that we welcome into our country – we’ve done that with the Syrians and we’ll ramp up the numbers over the coming years – but we want an orderly process and we want to help people return to their country of origin as soon as that’s possible.
JOURNALIST: I’ll get to some of the resettlement issues in a moment, in returning people to country of origin, but the High Court today hasn’t given the Government….blanket authority if you like, to lock up people. It said detention must be reasonable and connect to the purpose of processing. So what’s the warning in that for the Government?
PETER DUTTON: Well, I think a couple of points. Firstly, costs were awarded in this case – and that’s a pretty significant step by the High Court and I think it demonstrates that in a six to one judgement, the Commonwealth’s position was very strong, and we’d made changes to the legislation last year which strengthened the Government’s position – so it is an emphatic position for the Commonwealth coming out of this case.
But nonetheless the main thing here is not to lose focus of people. I’m not going to put children back into harm’s way. I want to look at individual cases. But we have a very definite policy and we’re not going to deviate from that.
The point that the High Court was making was that detention is ok for the period that people are being processed – and there are other elements to the decision – but that’s the point to which you refer. So look, we’ll look at …
JOURNALIST: ….sorry to interrupt, but processing is, and has blown out to, I think, 445 days on average at the moment. So is that a legal vulnerability then, if nothing else?
PETER DUTTON: No, because the processing obviously is ongoing and it can include reviews – and people have legal rights to review and in some cases they will review a number of processes – it may be that they’ve disposed of their documentation – so we’re not sure of identity – it may be that there is even a dispute about the country of origin – and you’re seeing this in Europe at the moment where people are saying that they come from Syria when indeed they don’t.
So there’s obviously a protracted circumstance in some cases but others we can deal with pretty quickly.
JOURNALIST: But you’d agree that Nauru and Manus Island perhaps aren’t the best long term solutions. Of course the Government has put $40 million towards resettlement in Cambodia – I think only three people have been settled there so far. So where are you at with third country resettlement?
PETER DUTTON: I’ve made public statements about this before, and that is to confirm that we are in discussions with third parties. I don’t want to comment in relation to the detail of those discussions because I just don’t think that helps anyone.
The other thing that doesn’t help the people on Nauru – is probably good intentioned but nonetheless – misplaced advice that’s flying to them from some of the advocates saying stay there, don’t accept a settlement package, don’t return home, the Australian Government will change its mind, all of that – and I’ve gone through that before on many occasions – but it is a frustration because it’s providing or holding out a false hope to people when we want to get people back to their country of origin and provide that support to make that happen.
JOURNALIST: So obviously that’s the intention of the Government, to get people back to their country of origin. You say you’re in the process at looking at other third countries when that is in fact not possible. I’m not asking you to tell me what those countries you might have in mind are, but how quickly can this happen? And as a second part to my question, do we need to look at third countries being more established countries like perhaps Canada and New Zealand?
PETER DUTTON: One of the things that we need to be mindful of is that we’re not creating a situation where there’s a pull factor for people to come here because they know that they’re going to a particular country that might be seen in similar terms to Australia, in terms of welfare support or in terms of employment opportunities, whatever the motivation might be.
So it needs to be crafted carefully. For example, the way in which the Labor Party put together a proposal with New Zealand would mean that people could go to New Zealand, get New Zealand citizenship and then turn up in Australia…
JOURNALIST:…..it’s still a massive pull factor?
PETER DUTTON: …well this is the issue, there needs to be a balance struck. But the first opportunity is to sit down with people, look at settlement packages to return to Iran, for example – circumstances are changing in that country and many people have been found not to be owed refuge but are essentially economic refugees.
So it is a difficult balance and we want to do it in a compassionate way but what I don’t want is the fact that if we have more boat arrivals, the vacancies in the detention centres will refill.
We’re down to 80 children. I’m going to get that number much closer to zero – to zero I hope eventually – and we’ve removed thousands of people from detention, closed 13 of 17 detention centres and I just don’t want to see them reopened.
JOURNALIST: What about Malaysia? Have you changed your thinking on that?
PETER DUTTON: We’ve had discussions with a number of countries – I just don’t want to go into the individual negotiations and what might be some blockages in some negotiations and where we think we might be able to get across the line – but I think the general point that I can make is that we’ve got good relations with Malaysia and other countries across Asia and other parts of the world and those discussions will continue.
JOURNALIST: But obviously there’s some history and politics here. Labor’s position on this and its package, the Coalition saw as untenable, could that perhaps change?
PETER DUTTON: Well a very different situation that was presided over by Julia Gillard where there was a people swap – and it wasn’t one for one, not even two for two or two for one or three for one, I mean it was a crazy situation for the then government to enter into and in the end it was struck down, that arrangement, by the High Court.
So look, I think anything that we do in this area needs to withstand a legal challenge. It needs to strike the balance between being compassionate but not providing a pull factor and they’re nuanced discussions that need to take place – I think they’re better taken in private – but the first priority is to make sure that we give medical assistance to those people that require it. When the need for that medical assistance has exhausted, then those people can return.
JOURNALIST: And just finally, the Save the Children issue. We’ve seen two reports now that have exonerated these Save the Children workers that were ejected from Nauru last year. They’ve asked for an apology, do you think they deserve one? You weren’t the Immigration Minister at the time, I should point out.
PETER DUTTON: No, look I think there was obviously a volatile situation on the ground at the moment. Minister Morrison – as is the case for me, we receive information and reports all the time – and I believe that Mr Morrison acted in good faith at the time and obviously Save the Children were a contractor providing services to the Commonwealth, at the time and the report’s come back and I think it finishes…
JOURNALIST:…but in retrospect it was wrong?
PETER DUTTON: Well I think again you could look at all of the circumstances, and what Scott Morrison inherited was a complete basket case from Labor where we had a thousand people a week arriving on Christmas Island, being processed, sent to regional processing centres, and it is a vastly, vastly different situation on the ground given the investment that we’ve put in.
The hospital and medical services that are provided, the educational services and support that is there on the ground. I mean it was a dysfunctional system that Labor presided over and it was very difficult to manage it on the ground.
So I think there was a lot of information coming up to the Minister at the time.
JOURNALIST: So should Labor apologise?
PETER DUTTON: Well I think Labor should apologise each day.
I mean they’ve done that because they admit, in Mr Marles’ speech to the conference, that 1,200 lives were lost at sea because of the failings of this policy and I just don’t and will never accept that sort of arrangement again. I don’t think our country should because we want to provide refuge to people, we’re doing it in record numbers, but we need to do it in a managed way.
JOURNALIST: Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, thanks so much for your time.
PETER DUTTON: Thanks Laura, thank you.