Friday, 17 July 2020

Interview with Rebecca Levingston – ABC Radio Brisbane, Mornings

Subjects: Immigration detention

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Alan Tudge is the acting Minister for Immigration Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. Minister, good morning.

ALAN TUDGE: G'day, Rebecca.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: What's the plan for the men at Kangaroo Point?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, the men at Kangaroo Point, and there's about 100 and they all came in under, what we call the Medevac legislation. They each have options. So, they can return to Papua New Guinea or to Nauru. Some will be able to go the United States and of course, those who are found to be not refugees, of which there is about 45, can return safely home.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: So, when you say they have options, they can make that choice?

ALAN TUDGE: They can make that choice today.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: And the Australian Government, if they put their hand up and said: I want a ticket out of here today, to the US or to PNG. You would provide them with that flight?

ALAN TUDGE: That's right. So, we would organise for that to occur. Now, bear in mind that the people who came here came expressly for medical treatments, under legislation which the Government did not support. It was legislation which Labor and the Greens pushed through the Parliament and it was on the basis of they were here for medical treatment. The legislation itself, said that they would be temporarily here, for that medical treatment and then return. Now, Rebecca, 50 per cent of them have had their medical treatment, a full 50 per cent. I would point out that about a third of them have actually refused some of their medical treatment, even though that's what the doctors said that they needed to be out here for.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: That legislation, the Medevac laws, has now been repealed. You have the power to release them from Kangaroo Point, for example, to stay in community detention. Have you considered that?

ALAN TUDGE: The whole basis of this medevac proposal, and as I said, we never supported this because, we always said that this was a backdoor way of people getting into Australia, so we resisted it. And it also was on the basis of just any two doctors in Australia could sign a form, to say that an individual needed to come to Australia. They didn't even have to see the individual or speak to the individual to sign those forms. So, of course people come into Australia. Some of them have refused the medical treatment since they've been here, but the ones who have had their medical treatment and they should return. That was the whole basis of it. The legislation said that it would be temporary and they would be in detention facilities while they were here.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Talks over] Minister, do you-

ALAN TUDGE: The individuals themselves, Rebecca, signed consent forms, to that effect. That they would come out here for medical treatments and then return. And so we are keeping true to that precise consent form, which they signed and keeping true to the legislation, which Labor and the Greens put through, which required them to be in detention while they're here.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Do you not trust the doctors who are working with these individuals?

ALAN TUDGE: The legislation, which again, we did not support. Allowed any-

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Talks over] Okay. But the point is that legislation's been repealed and my question is about: do you trust the doctors, the medical professionals? Or are you suggesting they're lying about the condition of these individuals?

ALAN TUDGE: We had a system in place previously, whereby people needed to come to Australia for medical care, they were able to do so. And that was done with government authorisation, on the basis of people treating them in Papua New Guinea or Nauru, their advice and then professional advice back here. That Medevac legislation of the Greens and the Labor Party, allowed any two doctors anywhere in the country, without even speaking to anybody, to say that these individual had to come to Australia. We were always concerned that activist doctors would get involved with this. I'm not saying one way or the other. I'm just saying that was always our concerns.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Why won't you say one way or the other? You are the Immigration Minister of Australia. Are you suggesting that a doctor can undermine the legislation, that passes through Federal Parliament, in this country?

ALAN TUDGE: I'm saying that the legislation was set up to enable any two doctors to sign a form, which we, as the government, were then obliged to allow an individual into Australia. That's what the legislation enabled and we were concerned that there were insufficient protections under that. And it does bypass, what we believe, is a good practice; whereby, it has to come from the treating professionals, who are actually treating the individuals in PNG and Nauru. If they declare, that the individuals need to be transferred to better facilities in Australia, that's fine. We take that that into account, we transfer them across the medical treatments and then they can return. In this instance, Rebecca, I want to be really clear; it's any two individuals, who had not even seen the particular people, who they claim had to come to Australia. And a third of those individuals have actually refused medical treatment since they've been here.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Alan Tudge, the acting Minister for Immigration on ABC Radio Brisbane. My name's Rebecca Levingston.

Minister, we can talk about legislation and political arguments, but the end of the day, this is about human beings, isn't it? Clearly, the health of these individuals isn't good. Seven years of detention for anyone, as any Australian can attest to, who's had to stay in the house for, you know, a week, two weeks, whatever the lockdown quarantine has been for people, isn't helpful for human beings. Speaking to the men, individually, hearing from advocates over the last couple weeks, because this is a big issue here in our city of Brisbane. When was the last time you spoke to one of the men in detention?

ALAN TUDGE: Well let me first up make a couple of points. You said that people have been in detention for seven years. That's not right. And last time I spoke on this program, I corrected that. They've been living freely in Nauru and in PNG, since October 2015 and April 2016.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Talks over] That is challenged by the individuals, by advocates that I've spoken to. My question is have you spoken to individual people? Do they feel free?

ALAN TUDGE: The activists have constantly put out misinformation in relation to this. But the facilities - I just want to correct you, because you said this in the opening comments from that individual, as well, that it's seven years of people being in detention - that is incorrect. In the facilities in Nauru and in PNG, respectfully, there've been open accommodation facilities. People had jobs, people had started businesses, they can come and go from those facilities, as they please. That has been the situation. So that's the first point. The second point that you made was that the people, their health is not good, you claimed just then. 50 per cent of them have had health treatment and that health treatment has been concluded.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: [Talks over] So why are they still here being funded by Australian tax dollars, Minister? If you have the power-

ALAN TUDGE: … if their health is not good, a third of them have refused health treatments.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: Okay. So let's just deal with the 50 per cent you say that have had the treatment. Why is the Australian taxpayer still funding their accommodation at Kangaroo Point and still funding them to be on Manus Island, where you say life is free and they can go about their business?

ALAN TUDGE: Well with those people who have had their health treatments, we would like them to return to PNG or Nauru, or if they've already been found not be a refugee, to return to their home country, or indeed, some would have, if they are refugees, some would have the options to go to the United States. They're the options which are available to them.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: If they came here as asylum seekers and they've been granted refugee status, it's because their home country's not safe to go to. Is it realistic to say they can go back?

ALAN TUDGE: I'm saying that for the ones who have been found not to be refugees, so they've had their findings, they could not make a claim that they were persecuted. For those people, they should rightfully return home.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: Minister, I appreciate your generosity with time this morning. Just a few quick questions to wrap up. I've been contacted by another man who's at Kangaroo Point, who says there's about 40 men there who aren't in the process of having their status established. They don't know what the future holds. They haven't been given refugee status. They don't know what's going on. Who is talking to the individuals to say this is the next step for you?

ALAN TUDGE: I mean, they could listen to this radio interview if they liked, I mean to understand what is available to them...

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: [Interrupts] Really? As Immigration Minister of Australia, you want people held in detention at Kangaroo Point to tune in to local radio to find out what their future holds?

ALAN TUDGE: I'm not - just let me finish what I'm saying, Rebecca. But they are in detention facilities and they're having their refugee claims processed…

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: [Interrupts] Let me ask the question again. Who is communicating that to the individuals?

ALAN TUDGE: About half of them actually have their claims already completed and have been found to not be refugees. And so they have the option of returning to their home country now.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: Okay. Minister, I want to be really clear here because this is a significant component of the federal budget. The money that is spent on this kind of processing and security. You didn't have the figure last time I spoke to you; do you have that figure now?

ALAN TUDGE: We've got about 12 detention facilities open at the moment across Australia and that costs about $500 million per year.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: $500 million per year.

ALAN TUDGE: That's correct.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: Who is working with individuals in detention, in Australia, to tell them what is happening next for them?

ALAN TUDGE: Well I mean Border Force operates the detention facilities and…

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: [Talks over] They operate the security aspect of the facilities.

ALAN TUDGE: …The Department of Home Affairs, more generally, has responsibility for these individuals as well as for their processing of claims as well as for outlining what their options are. And they..

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: [Interrupts] Okay. So is-

ALAN TUDGE: The Department of Home Affairs is a professional organisation - Border Force sits within that in terms of the operations of it - and so, they do so professionally. Claims are done properly. I mean we actually do - you'd never believe it from interviews like this - but Australia has the second most generous refugee program in the world. So we know how to go about this. But we've always been determined to ensure that people come in the right way and that you can't just rock up on boats and think that you can come into Australia. It's a very firm policy of ours because I tell you what: you open your borders again, and this isn't the seven-year anniversary of people being in detention, this is the seven-year anniversary of one of the greatest policy public policy disasters in Australia's history, with 1300 people dead that we know of, coming by boats. And that included children and women and others. That's what the anniversary is that we're coming up to.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: Minister, you describe it as a professional and properly run outfit by the Department of Home Affairs. Australian Border Force officers can't tell these individuals what's happening next. You can't tell me who's individually informing them. You've suggested maybe they should listen to the radio. Whether or not the definition of detention or freedom, that can be argued, this is still a process that has played out over seven- some would argued eight years. You still stand by the description of that as a professionally run operation? It costs taxpayers $500 million a year.

ALAN TUDGE: The total expense of the disaster of having 50,000 arrivals because Labor weakened our borders, is enormous. The human tragedy is catastrophic in terms of at least 1300 people who drowned at sea during that process. And we've been determined, since that point, Rebecca, to stop the boats arriving, to close down detention centres and we have closed down 19 of them in total. We've got every child out of the detention facility and we'd like to have nobody in detention facilities at all.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: [Interrupts] Except for the Tamil family who's in there at the moment with two children. Minister-

ALAN TUDGE: [Indistinct]… let me just make this final point. Over half of the people who are in detention facilities today are those that we - who were here on visas that we are kicking out of the country because they were found to be criminals. They're in detention facilities now waiting to be deported and we make no apology for kicking those criminals out of the country and I think Australians support us for doing that.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: I don't think anyone would query that. I guess what we've been talking about, specifically, is the 100 or so people at Kangaroo Point. Just finally, Minister. How much longer will that hotel at Kangaroo Point be a detention centre in Brisbane?

ALAN TUDGE: I can't give you the answer to that, Rebecca. Some people are still getting medical treatments, but as I outlined, many have already had their medical treatment and should return.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: And you don't have the power to compel them to return to the options you laid out as Immigration Minister?

ALAN TUDGE: We're looking into that.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: Minister, I appreciate your time this morning. It's very valuable to hear straight from you exactly the state of play. Thank you so much.

ALAN TUDGE: And in relation to that point, I know you sort of said that - my point previously about the information which they have available to you, I know you'll try to say and the activists will grab onto that line that – oh, the Minister just said listen to the radio. I said that in the context of, of course, that is one avenue that they can find information out. But there are people speaking to them all the time. So I just wanted to be clear on that point.

REBECCA LIVINGSTON: You may be clear on that point but what detainees are telling me very clearly is no one's speaking to them. And in fact, they don't - they speak to the ABF,  the Australian Border Force officers - and say we don't have a problem with them. We understand they're just doing what they're being told. They're saying they're not being informed as to what's the next step in the process. And in the meantime, I guess, the Australian public doesn't know exactly who to believe. Minister, thank you for your time though, I appreciate it.

ALAN TUDGE: Thanks very much, Rebecca.