Peter Dutton: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here.
I am joined by the Secretary of the Department, Mike Pezzullo and I want to make a couple of remarks in relation to the Moss Review, but I first want to acknowledge the passing of Malcolm Fraser.
I want to express my deep sympathies to Tamie, his wife, and to his children and grandchildren. Malcolm Fraser was a giant of the Liberal Party and he had an incredibly important part in the Liberal Party's time in defeating the Whitlam Government and in particular, around the time of the '75 constitutional crisis.
He was a strong leader of our Party and he has contributed to public life for many, many years since his departure from politics. He was passionate about the future of this country. He was a fierce advocate in the fight against apartheid. And has helped establish the Australian Federal Police and is in and of itself as having been Prime Minister, a significant person who has contributed a lot to the development of this country.
So I acknowledge his passing with sadness. I learned about it this morning. And I offer my deep condolences to his family. I also wanted to provide an update in relation to events at Villawood overnight. There's significant media interest in this issue as I understand it, as I reported yesterday.
There was an incident at Villawood detention centre which resulted in three ringleaders being removed from the protests that they were conducting and police are now investigating some serious allegations of wilful damage, of the way in which those people have conducted themselves in the centres.
I want to repeat this very important message, that these people are hardened criminals. We are talking about people who have been convicted of sex offences, of manslaughter and of armed robbery. They are awaiting removal from our country back to their country of origin and we will expedite that as best we can given the legal processes that must be adopted and adhered to.
So it's very important for people to understand that as we work through the legacy caseload, a significant legacy caseload left to us by the Labor Party, as we move people out of detention, including the number of children of course, which peaked at almost 2000 in Labor's time, now down closer to 100.
The population within some of our detention centres becomes a much more hardened population, so I'm making regular decisions under section 501 of the Act in relation to people's character. If I deem that their character, for example, that person has involved themselves in serious criminal activity here, if I deem that their character is not suitable, I have provisions under the Act to meet a number of criteria and then to cancel the visa that that person is here on.
Those people will go into custody awaiting removal from our country. So it's very important to realise that we do have an increased threat within our detention centres and we'll respond accordingly because we will not tolerate any illegal behaviour or activity within those detention centres.
It does not twist my arm one bit if people believe that their activities might result in a better migration outcome for them. They are sadly mistaken. And frankly the opposite is the case. So I wanted to give you that update.
As you are aware, in September of last year, the then Minister, Scott Morrison was made aware of a number of serious allegations in relation to people within the Nauruan regional processing centre. Scott Morrison acted decisively and he asked the then secretary to act in relation to these matters.
And Phillip Moss, a person of very high standard and a former Integrity Commissioner, was asked to conduct a review of these very serious allegations. The review was commissioned by the then Acting Secretary of the Department, and the report came back in early February to the Secretary of the Department. There are 19 recommendations in total. And the Department has advised me that they've accept and responded to all of those recommendations.
We've issued the report for consideration and the other very important point that I want to make is that we have a very strong partner in the Nauruan Government. I've worked very closely with Minister Adeang and with the Justice Minister, with the President and with the officials in Nauru and I was on the island only a few weeks ago.
The Nauruan people are great people. They want to provide support to people who are seeking a new start to their life. They have in place a strong law and order system and they have to deal with difficult circumstances.
They have committed themselves to making sure that they can provide appropriate accommodation for people within the regional processing centres, and like the Australian Government, they don't have a tolerance for illegal behaviour, including in particular sexual assault.
I find the thought of anybody, in particular children, being sexually assaulted completely abhorrent. It's not something that we would accept in Australia and it's not something that the Nauruans accept in their community either. So I know that the Nauruan government takes this issue very seriously. I know that they will deal with matters in relation to this report.
And I'm happy to take any questions. I know the Secretary's happy to take any questions, if there are questions in relation to other matters, then the Secretary might step to one side and I'm happy to answer any of those questions that you might have.
Journalist: Minister, if the report was completed in early February, why are you releasing it today with less than an hour's notice in Brisbane on the day that a former Prime Minister has died and there's a cyclone up north?
Peter Dutton: Well, Sean, the Secretary was on a plane earlier this morning to come up to Brisbane. I had wanted to make the announcement last week and I had to go to Cambodia. This afternoon I'm going to Darwin to represent the Prime Minister at the Operation Slipper commemoration services for our troops who served in Afghanistan, which is tomorrow and I won't return back from Darwin until about 6pm tomorrow night.
I get asked at every press conference when the Moss Review is going to be released. The Secretary has been very keen to release it because they have had some time to consider the recommendations.
The last thing we'd want to do is to come out today to say that they aren't been properly considered and that we didn't have a response as to how we were going to address the concerns raised by Mr Moss. So I think it's been prudently assessed.
I think any suggestions frankly from you or from anybody else that this relates to Malcolm Fraser's death, I just find quite an appalling question, to be honest.
Journalist: I have no doubt that you're very busy! Can you see how people can be cynical about the timing?
Peter Dutton: Well, I'm sorry if they are, and I'm sorry that you are, because nobody else has raised that issue with me. But we wanted to get the report out. I was asked at a press conference yesterday when it was coming out and there are lots of Journalists who have been pressuring us to release this report. As I say, the Secretary was on a plane from Canberra this morning, well before any of us knew of the sad passing of Mr Fraser. And I just think that is a question frankly that's completely out of line. Are there any other questions?
Journalist: Has the report found any evidence of wrongdoing against, say, the [indistinct].
Peter Dutton: Well, the report has made some recommendations. I will let the Secretary go to specific detail because the report has been commissioned by the Secretary of the Department and it's come back to him for his consideration. So I will let Mr Pezzullo make specific comment.
Michael Pezzullo: Thank you, Minister. The report does not find any conclusive evidence that the Save The Children employees in any way actively encouraged protest activity or the like.
It makes pretty clear though, and chapter four requires detailed reading, that there was a concern that had been building up over time between the centre operators, the company that provides the services, the Government of Nauru officials, but particularly my officials about some of the behaviours of the Save The Children staff. It's documented in terms of their evidence and their testimony to Mr Moss. If I can paraphrase it, it related to the fact that there was a perception starting to build not just at the point in time when the Save The Children staff were removed, but in the months leading to that - that there was a degree of advocacy and there was a degree of engaging on the, if ideological and policy questions of - related to detention rather than the strict delivery of services.
And, Mr Moss, I think finds pretty compellingly that the relationship had gotten to a point where there were issues that needed to be addressed. Now, he does say and, it's on the face of the report, that the contractual point in time decision to remove the staff or to seek to have them removed, because they had to be removed both contractually, but also, in terms of their visa stats, by the Government of Nauru, is something that should be reviewed, in the context of looking at all of the circumstances that led up to that point in time decision.
So I've already agreed with Save The Children. I met with their CEO last week. That was one of the preparatory matters that we were engaged in in preparing the action plan to respond to the Moss review which led to the release of the document today. And in response to the gentleman's question earlier, I found out about Mr Fraser's passing, sad passing, and can I add as a Commonwealth Secretary, not in terms of his service to the Liberal Party, but his service as a former Prime Minister, our condolences on behalf of my brother and sister Secretaries as well.
I found out about his passing when I arrived here. Any suggestion that we've jacked this up on the fly is just ridiculous. But as to the working with Save The Children, Mr Moss recommends and we will undertake a joint review of the breakdown in the trust relationship that clearly had transpired. And if there's anything further to be said, I will do so at a later point.
Journalist: [Indistinct] but were they wrongly accused of providing false information?
Michael Pezzullo: They weren't wrongly accused of anything in particular. The management of the centre and the Government officials who've stood behind the management had gotten to a point where they'd lost confidence in their ability to discharge their duties under the original contract. And we asked my officers - the then Acting Secretary asked that they be removed within the provisions of the contract.
Journalist: Why weren't Save The Children given the information against their staff?
Michael Pezzullo: It was a contract decision taken at the absolute discretion of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is entitled to ask that persons be removed. The consequences, though, that that decision creates, Mr Moss reflects on in his report. And again it's there for everyone to read. That obviously then does potentially have employment consequences for the staff. And that will be one of the factors that we work through with Save The Children. As I said, I met with the CEO last week and he and I've agreed to work on this collaboratively and collegiately.
Journalist: So reinstatement?
Michael Pezzullo: I don't want to speculate about any future hypothetical outcome. We'll work through all the issues, including the issues on both sides of the discussion. If you read - it's chapter four from memory, there were instances, credible allegation of Save The Children staff behaving in a way that really was about advocacy and if you like, ideologically debating of the policy rather than actual delivery of service. And that led to a breakdown in the relationship in part.
Journalist: That's not false allegations though. Do they deserve an apology?
Michael Pezzullo: I'm not going to predict or pre-determine the outcome of any review that's undertaken of the whole relationship, not just the point in time decision taken under the contract.
Journalist: Minister, are you confident that all complaints of abuse or allegations of abuse have now been brought to light and have now been dealt with?
Peter Dutton: Well, Sean, I know the Secretary's spoken with a number of stakeholders to make sure that if people have information they should bring it forward. And as I say, I have a zero tolerance for any form of sexual abuse. I was a detective a long time ago in the Sex Offenders Squad here in Queensland and investigated and prosecuted many people. And I just find any suggestion of sexual abuse of women or children completely abhorrent.
If people have information to bring it forward to either the Nauruan authorities or to the Australian authorities if there's an allegation of an offence that's taken place on our shores, and I have also asked the Secretary to undertake a separate processing, which is being worked through at the moment, to have oversight of the way in which we can make sure the investigations are being properly conducted that the appropriate authorities are being alerted, that we can have a review to make sure that all of that is absolutely to the best possible standard it can be and the Secretary's working through that detail now and as I said today, in relation to the Villawood situation or in relation to other matters, we will just not tolerate illegal behaviour of any nature within detention centres in relation to Nauru.
Obviously the Nauruan police will have their investigations to undertake or will continue to be ongoing and that's an issue for the Nauruan government.
Journalist: The review does make clear though that the - some of the reporting protocols within the centre need updating or refreshing and even with regard to the Nauruan Criminal Code that certain matters in relation to abuse of children aren't reflective enough.
Peter Dutton: Well, the Government's been a very strong part and with the Nauruan Government, we've provided support to Nauru to help them build their capacity. That's been ongoing for a long period of time. We obviously have Australian Federal Police working with the Nauruan police on Nauru. And we're happy to continue our work and support with the Nauruan Government to continue to build that capacity.
Journalist: Does the Australian Government hold any responsibility for what's happened here?
Peter Dutton: Well, as I say, we inherited a very difficult situation, 50,000 people having come on 800 boats during Labor's period in government. We have a very difficult - a very, very difficult situation to deal with. And Minister Morrison dealt with it in a very efficient way, but there were lots of pressures within the system. And we were able to work through those pressures. We've been able to reduce the number in held detention. As I say, the fact that we brought the number of children from 2,000 down to almost 100 on the mainland is a very significant outcome and there's work that we're doing right now to reduce that number even further.
The last thing that we want to see is the boats start up again, because those numbers will then be back filled within the detention centres. It was a very difficult environment. I think people need to understand the pressures on the staff, on the Nauruan government, on people within my own department at that time and in the preceding months and years before that, because the boats had come freely and we had many, many people in held detention.
Journalist: The report itself - and it does acknowledge the Department has agreed to the recommendations and work is being done there. It does paint a pretty sad picture of life in immigration detention. What, I guess, perception do you want the world to have in terms of how Australia treats detainees?
Peter Dutton: Well, I want them to know that, for example, we have on a per capita basis probably the highest intake of refugees and people on the humanitarian program compared to any other country. I mean, we have a great story to tell and we have settled people in our country since our country was settled. We've had, in recent, years the opportunity to celebrate incredible successes from people who have come to our country, but we want people to come in the right way.
And the difficulty of course was that when John Howard left office in 2007, there were a total of four people in detention, including no children. Over the course of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, 50,000 people and 800 boats came and they filled detention centres and that's why we've taken a tough policy in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders. And it's worked. And it's worked.
And if we see a return of the boats, if we had Ms Plibersek in a position to rip out the heart of Operation Sovereign Borders, which is a turn back where it's safe to do so, we'd see those boats restart.
So, I want the world to know that we are a strong and compassionate community that welcomes, by 2018-19, 18,750 people a year through the humanitarian and refugee program. We settle people, but we provide support to people through the right means and where we see failings in the system, where we see wrongs, we right them.
Journalist: Are you confident that the people that Australia sends to Nauru are safe, can you guarantee it?
Peter Dutton: I'm confident that people are safe. We have a detention network here in Australia, in fact we've been able to close down 11 of those centres over the course of the last 18 months, which in and of itself is a significant achievement. We have a level of training within our detention centres here in Australia, the Nauruan Government has a process in place.
I was, as I say, in Nauru only a few weeks ago. I said publicly at the time, that the hospital that I visited within the regional processing centre, is to me of a similar standard that I've seen travelling around regional Australia visiting regional hospitals. In fact, it was in my mind very similar by way of offering in relation to the complexity of services and the acuity needs of patients, very similar to what I saw being provided to our troops in Afghanistan.
So, I was very impressed also with the way in which the classrooms were set up and we were able to provide English classes and education to children on the island.
In Nauru at the moment, there is an open arrangement where people are able to leave the regional processing centre, travel down to other parts of the island, and return in the afternoon. So I think we've come a very long way since Labor's days. And I think we've been able to provide a lot of change, but make no mistake: if the detention centres fill back up, naturally enough, pressures come from that. When you've got thousands of people across a detention network, it is very difficult to manage.
And I think we've been able to tidy up Labor's mess, they made it over a long period of time, and we're not going to fix it just in 18 months, but I think we've made a pretty good start.
Journalist: The report says abuse is underreported. Why do you think that is?
Peter Dutton: There would be a number of reasons for that, including cultural reasons. There may be a decision by a woman who has been sexually assaulted not to make a complaint to the police or not to pursue that complaint. Now, that's the case in many cultures. It's the case in our own culture. And my strong pleading to people is: if at all possible, please make the approach to the appropriate authority.
Sexual assault of any nature is not to be tolerated and never will be. And if they are able to make a complaint to the police, it's able to be properly investigated, then we're in best position to prosecute those people for that heinous crime. And that's what I would encourage all victims of sexual assault to do, but as I say, the arrangement that we have in place to provide support is significant. And it's grown considerably and these 19 recommendations accepted and acted upon by the Department will give us the best possible position into the future.
Journalist: Some of those recommendations, as I said earlier, refer to the reporting arrangements within the centre. But there are also recommendations to bolster the Nauruan police capacity to report and investigate, and boost their criminal code. When do you expect the law enforcement side of things - you're obviously a big supporter of the law enforcement on Nauru, but when do we expect that to be up to a standard that [indistinct]?
Peter Dutton: Well Sean, that activity has already started, already taking place. For a period of time we've been able to provide support to Nauru to build cast both within their law enforcement arm of government, but more importantly within their legal system as well, we provide considerable support to Nauru. They are a strong partner with our country and as I say, we already have the Australian Federal Police on island and they work with the Nauruan Police. And if the Nauruan Government is of a mind to ask for more assistance, the Department will work with the Nauruans to make sure we can provide whatever is possible.
So that, in a way, is already underway and as I say, we already have a presence and a mentoring presence, capacity-building presence with the Australian Federal Police and indeed people with expert skills from my own Department on Nauru.
Journalist: On matters relating to the detention centre [indistinct]. The transparency is recognised to be a key factor in ensuring open and safe practices. Is that something to be considered [indistinct]?
Peter Dutton: I will let the Secretary go to the specific recommendation. But we have been open, transparent. The former Minister commissioned this review. It was commissioner - sorry, asked the department to commission this review. The review was commissioned and it was undertaken by somebody beyond reproach. Philip Moss is a first-class Australian and he's been able to put together I think a very impressive report. But there will be times when information is not able to be released in relation to some of the security arrangements in relation to any processing centre. And ultimately the Nauruan Government is cognisant of the fact that they need to balance all of these considerations - as we do when we manage our centres here on the mainland. That's the response that I'd make, but the Secretary may have something to add to that.
Michael Pezzullo: Thank you, Minister. It's certainly the case through that period that the minister described, which I observed from afar prior to my appointment in October as either the Deputy Chief Executive of Customs or then the Chief Executive, it's certainly I can easily recall to mind many times when my predecessor, particularly Mr Bowles, but even going back further, made quite lengthy interventions and statements at the Senate Estimates Committee, tabled many documents through questions on notice a the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, for instance. That's certainly a practice that I intend to pursue including by way of making extensive public statements at the appropriate time.
As to the question of transparency - Mr Moss had to do his review before it could be, if you like, brought together as a written report and then released. In other words he has drawn threads together that were not known prior to him undertaking his review. It's not as though these matters were being sat upon and a number of persons have come forward providing allegations to the former Minister, the former secretary. They've all been worked through by Mr Moss, as well as matters that have come to his attention.
So, going back to almost the very first question, we've now - having worked through with all the relevant stakeholders, the Federal Police have been mentioned, our on Attorney-General's Department, who will work with the Nauruans with their agreement on their Criminal Code matters. The Government of Nauru itself. I've already mentioned the Save The Children matter that will be subject of review. It's taken us the better part of a month and a bit, a month and a half or so. I regret in fact it's taken that long, but when you have so many take holders in a multidimensional challenge like this it just simply takes time. The minister has had other matters he has to deal with, including the trip to Cambodia he has talked about.
This was the earliest opportunity that we could lay all of this information out. I have already indicated, having accepted the recommendations with approximately a two-month deadline on each of the milestones which I intend to - through the Minister - to then report to the Senate. You will see another dose of transparency at that point when we acquit our actions against the recommendations, noting that a number of stakeholders other than my Department all have to pull together on this.
Journalist: Given the severity of the outcome of this report, are you looking at other detention centres as well?
Michael Pezzullo: As the minister alluded to, we're also quite separately, with the changing nature of how we're using the Migration Act, the different - and shifting changing profile if you like of the population of these detention centres, working through the release of detainees under temporary protection. The very nature of our centres are going to change in any event, so we're taking the opportunity along with the advent of the Australian Border Force on 1 July, subject to legislation passing, and these centres coming under the operational management of the Border Force, we are taking the opportunity, as the Minister alluded to before, to look at all of our practices around the protection of children, vulnerable people and the management of people in our care, yes.
Journalist: Apart from the criminal allegations, which will obviously be dealt with, the report also alludes to issues of misconduct and that Transfield had to dismiss a lot of staff as have Wilson Security had to dismiss a lot of staff; but the details have been redacted from the report. What are those types of misconduct? What are we looking at there?
Michael Pezzullo: Well, I'm not proposing to add matters that have otherwise been redacted because that would defeat the purpose of the redaction. Suffice to say we've worked through…
Michael Pezzullo: Well, indeed. But look, obviously we've had to work through with a number of stakeholders. As I said in relation to the previous question, that includes those companies. So they are of the view that they have got matters that they've had to deal with in confidence. It is a relatively small workforce where public disclosure would allow persons who have not been the subject of criminal proceedings, as you make clear in your question, but have been the subject of employment proceedings to be otherwise identified. And that also could potentially identify not only those persons of interest who have been dealt with, but the nature of the misconduct and the persons who were, if you like, the victims of the misconduct. So the redactions don't go to any matters other than the protection of the identity either of victims or persons of interest.
Journalist: Is the Department still happy with those contractors - service providers?
Michael Pezzullo: Yes. Yes, because obviously whilst you have to work with the redacted version of the report, the fully classified version of the report as well as all the underlying records, the transcripts, and the rest of it have been now lodged with the Department. We're able to work through those issues at a level of confidentiality with the companies.
And I must say that I've dealt with the Save The Children matter and the reset of our relationship there in answer to a previous question, but in relation to Wilsons and Transfield, we're satisfied. Obviously, we want to hold them to future accountability as well, but in terms of accountability thus far, they have been very responsive, yes.
Journalist: How many substantiated cases of abuse did you find?
Michael Pezzullo: If you read your way through it and you catalogue them, there are several dozen matters, if you count them. We've had to work obviously with the classified reports to make sure that there's no double counting, but we've worked through a table that we've released to Nauruan and other authorities. And I'd rather leave it at that, because some of the matters which are described in detail are in the redactions. But there certainly are - you would have to say when you count it yourself just off the public report a couple of dozen cases that warrant further attention.
Journalist: How does that compare to other detention centres?
Michael Pezzullo: We certainly haven't had a circumstance in either any other regional processing arrangement or Christmas Island or any of the mainland centres where they have that number of matters that have either been referred to a service provider for disciplinary proceedings or to state and federal or territory police for criminal proceedings. But recalling that, this is a defined period of time which was, if you like, to use a term, in the start-up phase of the centre. And it may not be apples and oranges if you just simply compare it, unless you take the same snapshot of time in relation to other centres.
Journalist: [Inaudible question].
Michael Pezzullo: Personally?
Michael Pezzullo: Well, as the Minister said, I mean anyone who's in a position of authority who's got people under their direct care or through contractual arrangements indirect care, you take these matters very seriously. Some of the matters are very disturbing. I have children myself. You don't want to place anyone in a position irrespective of how they've come to be in that circumstance or which laws they've potentially breached or whatever. You don't want to place anyone in a position where, for instance, a child is the subject of unwarranted and indeed completely depraved sexual attention in response - in relation either to someone's gratification or, in some cases, getting preferred access to things like showers or the ability to have a longer bath so that you can shampoo someone's hair. I mean, I find that abhorrent and we're going to crack down on the behaviour in partnership with all of the stakeholders I mentioned earlier.
Journalist: Could I just clarify one thing, Mr Pezzullo. You said earlier about the two-month milestones that you will report back on the progress of the recommendation. Is that the two-month milestone you set yourself?
Michael Pezzullo: Yes, since 9 February when I received the report, we've been working through with the Government of Nauru and the various agencies there principally the Nauruan Police Force, but the Department of Justice and Border Security there. The Australian Federal Police, who, as the Minister has said, have got the technical capacity-building role in Nauru. They actually have officers on island who provide training and capacity-building support. Our own Attorney-General's Department I mentioned earlier because they're going to do some work around the criminal code and issues around, say, mandatory reporting of child molestation, for instance. So it's taken us a while to work through.
What's a reasonable milestone to deliver, if you like, an early, middle-term, and then long-term outcome? I would like to be able to report back to the Minister, either substantially completed or completely actioned resolution of each of the recommendations, certainly before the Senate Committee next considers the detention network. They normally do it quite in some depth at the Legal and Constitutional Committee Affairs Hearings which are set for the latter part of May. So I was very keen, if possible, to acquit all of these matters.
I must put one caveat down. Obviously, it will be a matter for the Nauruan Police force to take forward individual investigations in relation to particular suspects or perpetrators or potential perpetrators and that may play out depending on the judicial process for months that go beyond that two-month horizon. But in terms of capacity-building, improving screening, improving lighting, all the other issues that are contained in the action plan that responds to the 19 recommendations, so at a systemic level I'd like to have everything completed within that two-month period, yes.
Journalist: Minister, does the findings of this report increase the commitment to [indistinct]?
Peter Dutton: Yeah, of course… look, of course it does. And that's why, frankly, we're so passionate about making sure these boats don't start up again, because 1200 people did die at sea when these boats were coming and do I want to see anyone in detention? Of course I don't. But I also can't allow a situation again where we see a flotilla of boats coming and we end up with the sorts of things that we're talking about today. That's what I don't want to return to. And we've been able to reduce the number significantly.
By definition, as I say, we are getting to much harder cases. So for example I've got some families I'm looking at the moment that I would want to release the kids into community, but I have an adverse security assessment against the father or there is an allegation of a serious nature against the father, maybe sexual assault. And I have offered for mum to take the children out of detention and go into the community and we would provide support there and allow visitation back to the father. In some of those cases that's been rejected and that's fine. Family units want to stay together or they believe that there might be greater leverage for dad to get out into the community if the family is still with them. That's an issue for individual families.
But I am working through now the toughest of cases, having got from that 2000 in detention of children now down to about 120, and I do want to reduce it further, but I have the toughest cases left and we're going through those on a daily basis. And what I don't want - sincerely, what I don't want - is for those vacant rooms where the kids were that we've now moved out into the community to be backfilled by new boat arrivals. And that's why we're absolutely determined to make sure that Operation Sovereign Borders continues its success, and there are pressures on the Government every day.
People smugglers in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and across South East Asia are trying to fill boats every day. And we are staring down that threat every day, but it continues. And that's the strong stance that this Government has taken and it will not change.
Thank you very much.
Michael Pezzullo: Thank you.