Sunday, 17 February 2019

Interview with Justin Smith, Macquarie Weekly

Topics: Bill Shorten's weakening of border protection policy


JUSTIN SMITH: On the line I've got the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, David Coleman. Minister, good evening.

DAVID COLEMAN: Good evening Justin.

SMITH: It's now late on a Sunday. It's been a hell of a week for everyone. Is there anything that you regret or anything that you'd change?

COLEMAN: Well look, I certainly regret that Labor's law passed the Parliament, because it is a law that is designed to dismantle offshore processing. Offshore processing has been a fundamental part of Australia's border security. It's a fundamental part of why we've been able to get kids out of detention, to stop the boats and get our borders under control. And Labor's law that was voted for on Tuesday is a massive threat to our border security and it is upending a system of offshore processing that has been a key part of that border security for a number of years.

SMITH: You maintain, though, that this is a massive threat, but can you explain that? Because there's a lot in here that still gives you power. You know so- but where does that massive threat come from? It's important.

COLEMAN: Sure, very happy to address that, Justin. So, basically at the moment, the Government of Australia decides when people come to Australia. That is appropriate, that is what the Australian people would expect. In the future, under Labor's law, that will not be the case. The process works like this Justin: under Labor's law, any two doctors anywhere in Australia can say that they believe a person on Manus or Nauru - including refugees and people who have been found not to be refugees - that those two doctors can say: that person should come to Australia for a medical assessment. They don't have to say they're sick; they have to merely say that they should come for a medical assessment. Now, you're right in saying that the Minister can disagree with that, but if the Minister does it then goes to a volunteer medical panel and that medical panel can overrule the Minister.

SMITH: Do you not trust the doctors, though, to make the right call on those things?

COLEMAN: I don't think it's a matter of that Justin, I think it's just a matter of common sense that it's very likely that in those situations that those people will be transferred to Australia, and that's all the advice that we have from the Department of Home Affairs - that it is expected that in short order, many hundreds of people will get those transfers. I mean think about it logically, Justin, there are tens of thousands of doctors in Australia. There are no limitations on how many medical certificates an individual doctor could issue to people on Manus and Nauru. And there's also no limit to the number of people- the number of doctors that a person on Manus or Nauru could consult. So they could go and see, you know, 20 different doctors until they get those two certificates. So the practical reality of that is we are going to see a very, very large number of people coming to Australia for medical assessment. And that's against an environment Justin, where as you know, we have had medical transfers in place for a number of years. We've done those in a sensible and orderly fashion in a way that's run by the Government of Australia, not an outsourced panel. And right now on Nauru we've got 60 medical professionals and just over 400 people, so that's about one medical professional for every seven people. So this notion that the care that is provided is inappropriate is just wrong.

SMITH: So what? So what is the big change here? Because the fear is Minister, and this is not directly just pointed at you and the Government, but there's a lot of politics being played here. It seemed far too tempting for Bill Shorten to defeat you in the Parliament, but it also seems quite tempting for Scott Morrison and yourself to sort of whip this into a little bit of a frenzy. I mean, what is the big change here, what is the big drama?

COLEMAN: The big change Justin, is at the moment the Government of Australia decides when people come to Australia. Medical transfers are possible and do occur. Under this Labor system, the Government of Australia no longer controls that process. The bar for that process is set at a very, very low level and the consequence of that, Justin, is going to be a very, very large number of transfers. Now Bill Shorten says that that will happen and it will have no impact whatsoever on the international people smuggling market. That people won't notice that it's now very, very easy to transfer to Australia, and that's just fanciful.

SMITH: Yeah.

COLEMAN: So we're going to see large numbers of people come for Manus and Nauru for medical assessment. And also - and this is a really important point Justin - Labor has said that there are only two scenarios in which that could not occur. One would be if someone breaches the definition of security in the ASIO Act. The other is if they've got a criminal conviction of 12 months or more. Every other person who comes to Australia comes under the visa system, Justin, and all of those people have to pass what's known as the character test. And this character test applies to skilled workers, to students, to partners, everyone. But it will not apply to people coming from Manus and Nauru…

SMITH: Fair enough but...

COLEMAN: And Bill Shorten needs to answer the question why.

SMITH: But there is one term that you left out there, which is what we started this with. You are able to knock this on the head if you believe that it is not on medical grounds. If you believe it is a nuisance and just trying to- for them to get off the offshore processing, you're able to knock this on the head. There is a third one that you're not mentioning.

COLEMAN: No, but that's not correct Justin. The Minister is able to disagree with the initial two doctors, it then goes to the volunteer medical panel. They make the final decision, not the Minister. And that Justin is no trivial thing, because that is basically saying that the Government of Australia does not make the decision as to who transfers to Australia, and I think that that's a very fundamental point and I think that the Australian people as a whole would think that; of course the Government should be in charge of the process by which people come to Australia. And under Bill Shorten's law that's not the case.

SMITH: Yeah sure. It does also only - and this is the last one on the politics of it - it also does only apply to the people that are currently there. It doesn't push beyond that.

COLEMAN: Well that's correct under the law, but let's stay tethered to reality here Justin. So here's what's going to happen under Bill Shorten's law: you're going to have a large number of people transferring from Manus and Nauru in a short period of time. You're going to have international people smugglers seeing that and seeking to market that opportunity. And then you're going to have Bill Shorten saying well yes, we did have this system that enabled all of these people to come to Australia, but we're then going to turn around and apply a different system if we're in government. I mean, that's what he's saying right? So he's saying we're going to have this system now which is going to facilitate this very large number of transfers, but then if we're elected to government, if the Labor Party's elected to government, we're going to turn around and have a different system. Now, who's going to believe that?

SMITH: You've got every right to answer to those points, that's no problem. If we can move away from the politics of it though, do people on Manus and Nauru need better medical attention than what they're currently getting?

COLEMAN: Well look, there's very substantial care provided already and as I said, IHMS, a international provider of healthcare has the contract to provide healthcare on Nauru. Very important point Justin, as I said there's about 60 medical professionals there. And there's just over 400 people.

SMITH: That's not an answer to the question. The question is…

COLEMAN: Well no I think…

SMITH: No it's not. Minister, if you don't mind, with respect. The question is do they need better medical attention than what they're currently getting?

COLEMAN: The care that's provided is appropriate, and where there have been situations where we say people need to transfer overseas for medical care, that's happened, as you know. I mean, there's been just under 900 people Justin, who have been involved in medical transfers overseas.

SMITH: And who makes the decisions on those medical transfers?

COLEMAN: That's a decision that's made effectively by the Government. It's not a decision that's outsourced.

SMITH: Yeah but you'd consult with the doctors.

COLEMAN: Of course, absolutely. And that's as it should be, of course one should consult with a doctor.

SMITH: So Minister, you see what I'm saying though, you're currently trusting the doctors and then all of a sudden you're not going to trust the doctors there's-.

COLEMAN: Justin, I don't think that is a very logical point to be frank. At the moment the way that the process works is doctors will make recommendations where they think transfer is appropriate. It will go to the Home Affairs Committee that assesses the information, assesses all the matters, and makes a decision on behalf of the Government. The Government is in control of the process.

SMITH: Okay, so you're…

COLEMAN: Under this law…

SMITH: You are…

COLEMAN: No, no I'd like to- I would like to finish because…

SMITH: Okay, sure.

COLEMAN: Under this law, the Government will not control that process. The ultimate decision maker is the volunteer medical panel. And if the volunteer medical panel decides that someone should come to Australia, then except with those very narrow exceptions, then they're coming. And I think to assert that that's just the same as the current process is absurd. It is completely different and Justin, if you think about…

SMITH: It's still about trusting the doctors isn't it? I mean- alright so back to the original question, you think my point is absurd, but do you believe that the current medical treatment that is given to people on Nauru and Manus is up to par, is up to scratch, you're happy with it?

COLEMAN: Well I think it's appropriate and where the people need further medical attention that can't be provided on either Manus or Nauru they're transferred to other places. So we have Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby, and people are transferred there for medical care when required. We've obviously had a significant number of people transferred to Australia, as you know, with the exception of the last four who will shortly go to the United States. There are no children on Nauru, and there's been medical transfers over a number of years.

SMITH: Just a-. My concern with this though, Minister, if you don't mind, is a lot of this does seem to hinge on not believing the doc- whether you think the bill is good bad or indifferent - what you and I are talking about, a lot of this hinges on the fact that there is a belief that the doctors are going to lead you astray. For- whether it be political reasons or whatever, that they're going to lead you astray.

COLEMAN: Well Justin, I don't think it's a novel concept to say that the Government of Australia should decide who comes to Australia. That's what happens now. It doesn't happen under Bill Shorten's law.

SMITH: With respect to you Minister, I didn't say that or really anything like that.

COLEMAN: Well no, no. I think it's important that…

SMITH: But I didn't say that.

COLEMAN: I'm sorry, I'm not- no, no. But the construction of the law is such that the Government does not decide who comes to Australia. Now that is inappropriate, it is completely inconsistent with the way governments should be run. And ultimately, the Government which is accountable for what occurs in the administration of government should be the entity that makes the decisions. And that is not the case under this law.

SMITH: Alright. I know it's been a long week and it's probably been a long day for you, and I appreciate your time. One last question: is Nauru, particularly, is Nauru good enough for human beings to be there?

COLEMAN: Well, of course. I mean Nauru has a population of 11,000 people, Justin, who live there. And we have had offshore processing arrangements with Nauru for a number of years, which the Opposition said it supports as well. But I mean, the key point here Justin, is it was the failure of the policies of the previous Labor Government that put people into detention. There were 50,000 people arrived, 8,000 kids were placed in detention. We're the ones that have got the kids out of detention, Justin. We're the ones who have run an orderly system and we're the ones who have provided for medical transfers in appropriate cases. So for Labor to sort of come along and say they're going to change everything is absurd.

SMITH: I agree with you on Labor, however you tell me that Nauru is good enough for humans, why do you make such a point that you're removing the children? Why do you need to remove the children if it's good enough?

COLEMAN: Well look we've removed those kids over a number of years. As I say, there's just four who will shortly go to the United States and that's a positive thing.

SMITH: Yeah, but why do you need to remove them if it's good enough?

COLEMAN: Well we've elected to remove them through the regular process, and as I said we make medical transfers…

SMITH: No. Minister, I'll try one more time. Why do you need to remove them if it is good enough?

COLEMAN: Well we make medical transfers, Justin, when it's appropriate to do that.

SMITH: No, no. Why do you need to remove the children if Nauru is good enough?

COLEMAN: Well we've removed both children and adults Justin, it's not just children who have been removed for medical transfers.

SMITH: And why do you need to remove them if it is good enough?

COLEMAN: Well again Justin, as I've made clear, there are situations where people need to moved overseas for medical transfers, and that's happened over a number of years. So it's just not the case to say that people haven't been given the attention they need, and when they need to be transferred for medical attention, they are. We've done that over a number of years. But we've done it in a way where the government is in control of the process, and Bill Shorten's law will lead to a very large number of transfers which will send a very clear message to people smugglers. And then he turns around and says: oh but don't worry because I'll change the law back to the previous law when I'm elected.

SMITH: Yeah I know, I agree with you.

COLEMAN: That's silly.

SMITH: I know, I absolutely agree with you it is silly. My point on the children on Nauru though was not a medical one, as you are removing the children there for good, however you say that it is good enough and I just see that there is– that is ah odd, and possibly political.

COLEMAN: No, no, we've removed kids from Nauru over a number of years and quite a few have gone to the United States as a permanent resettlement, and the very last group will go shortly to the United States for resettlement, and that's a good outcome.

SMITH: It's good to talk to you. It has been one hell of a week. Is this what the election will most likely be fought on?

COLEMAN: Well look Justin, I'm just focused on the substance of the issue. Our Government's got a very strong record in this area, Labor has a terrible record. Labor has now passed a law through the Parliament which will threaten our border security and means that the Government of Australia no longer determines who comes to Australia. And of course we're going to prosecute that argument against Labor, because the law that they've put through is completely inappropriate.

SMITH: Minister thanks for your time.

COLEMAN: Thank you Justin.