Subjects: Refugee Programme, ANAO Report, Backpacker’s Tax.
Peter Dutton, welcome to the programme.
Good morning, Barrie.
You've said that Australia has a good story to tell on refugees; in fact the Prime Minister has just described Australia's policy as the best in the world. In a nutshell, what is that story that you will be telling the world?
Well the story is a contrast to what's happening in Europe at the moment. The story is a contrast to what happened under the six years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period where 1200 people drowned at sea and 50,000 people came on 800 boats.
The Australian public will support an increase in the number of people we take under the humanitarian and refugee programmes if we have an orderly process around migration and this Government has been able to restore integrity to our borders.
We've been able to bring record numbers of people in under the refugee and humanitarian programme. In fact, last year the biggest programme in 30 years in terms of our offshore programme and I think that's the good story to tell.
It's about keeping borders secure, but bringing in people the right way and providing them with the settlement services they need to start their new life.
But when you draw the contrast with Europe, do you really think that's what other countries want to hear? Countries in Europe that face a problem on a much greater scale than Australia, is that what they want to hear from us?
Obviously the situation is different for Australia because we're not landlocked and we don't have porous borders. We have a natural defence in terms of our waters, but we do have close proximity to some of our near neighbours and we do have irregular movements of people as they do in Europe and people have seen the scenes, horrific scenes of drownings on the Mediterranean. As people have seen in Australia, the 1200 people drowned at sea.
So we do need an orderly migration programme and many of the European countries and other partners that we've spoken with over recent times are interested in what Australia has done and at this occasion, in New York, we will be able to speak about the very successful restoration of secure borders and as I say, an increase in the number of refugees that we've brought to our country and I think Australians should be proud of that.
But also surely they've noticed there are consequences to Australia's policy, consequences that wouldn't be tolerated in a lot of other countries and that is that the lives of up to 1000 people are being ruined in these offshore detention centres?
Well, Barrie, I've been to Zaatari in Jordan and I've seen the devastation coming out of Syria and I've been to Lebanon seeing the situation there, with many people who are living in desperate, desperate situations, having been displaced. There are 6.5 million people from Syria alone.
The UN predicts 65 million people are forcibly displaced and looking for a new home.
The conditions that we support the Nauruan Government to provide and the PNG Government to provide, are very different to that which I've seen in other camps.
That's not much of a…….
PETER DUTTON: …..
We need to do all we can to help people…..(inaudible)…..
BARRIE CASSIDY: ……
Is that a fair comparison to make though, to compare Nauru with the conditions in Syria?
Well, that was the point you were trying to make, was not about Syria, which I make no comparison to. I'm talking about people coming out of Syria into camps run by the UN in places like Jordan and Lebanon.
The situation on Nauru is very, very different. We provide $26 million for the hospital on Nauru, $11 million for the medical centre, kids are picked up by bus and go to school each day, people are given financial support. There are 300 people working in Nauru, 35 have started businesses and many people we will help to return back to their country of origin because they've been found not to be refugees.
So you have to have an orderly migration programme and if you do that, then you can increase the number of refugees you bring in the regular way which is what we do with the assistance of the UN and through referrals to the humanitarian programme otherwise.
But most of them have been found to be genuine refugees and while they languish on Nauru and Manus Island and you can't find a place for them, then surely people are entitled to judge that your policy fails at the final hurdle?
No, I think people need to look at the situation we inherited, which started with a terrible situation where people were drowning at sea.
We've now not had one death at sea in over two years, we've not had a successful people smuggling venture in over two years. We have presided over the biggest offshore humanitarian programme in 30 years and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees only last year told me that Australia, along with Canada, are the two best countries in the world at providing settlement to people to start a new life.
So we will work with people both on Nauru, in PNG and domestically as well.
But that's different, that comment that you just referred to is different to finding places for the people who are now on Nauru and Manus Island and you haven't been able to solve that.
Well Barrie, as I've said, we're in discussions with a number of third countries, but we have to provide an arrangement that is not going to provide a pull factor.
The people smugglers are still there, there are at least 14,000 people in Indonesia alone waiting to get onto boats and we have to do it in such a way that the vacancies that we create aren't filled by new arrivals and new deaths at sea. We're not going to tolerate that.
But the agreement that Mr Rudd and Labor entered into in relation to Manus, for example, meant that people who were found to be refugees could stay in PNG, which is a signatory to the convention and that's the situation that we inherited from Labor.
Now we've cleaned up a lot of the mess, there is a long way to go, there was an $11 billion blowout and we're returning money back to the budget now because we've closed 17 detention centres onshore and one of the proudest achievements of this Government is having got children out of detention. There were 2,000 children at the peak under Labor's time in Government in detention and it was unacceptable.
You said in a speech this week that Australia's relationship with Nauru, in terms of the processing centres will continue for decades. What do you mean by that? For decades?
Well, I believe that there will be irregular movements of people across the globe for as long as we don't have world peace and for as long as people will seek a better economic outcome for their families.
I think we will always be tested in terms of people trying to come from Sri Lanka or from Vietnam or from Indonesia and therefore we will need a regional processing centre arrangement. I hope it's empty. I hope we never have to use it, but we have to be very strong in our determination to stare down people smugglers because these are organised criminals that are going nowhere.
They will take money from people and they couldn't care less whether those people go to the bottom of the ocean or whether they make land in our country and that's why we do need regional processing centres to remain, at least Nauru.We certainly need Temporary Protection Visas and we need to be able to turn back boats where it's safe to do so.
That's a trifecta of success in securing our borders. The dividend is we've got children out of detention, we've had no drownings at sea and we're able to bring in record numbers of people through the refugee programme.
I want to ask you about the audit office that criticised your department for what they said was breaking public service guidelines and not conducting proper tenders.
Do you accept that this happened? It may have been in the rush to get things done, but it happened?
But Barrie, look back at the time. When I speak to the Border Force staff and the sailors who were at sea, they were pulling 1000 people a week off boats. They were pulling bodies out of the water of children that had been eaten by sharks and the rest. It was a horrific, horrific scene. They are the circumstances under which my Department was operating.
Ms Gillard at the time made an announcement people would go to Nauru and things had to be set up within a couple of weeks. So let's put it in context. So yes, I'm sure mistakes were made and decisions were rushed. The decisions were taken because they wanted to fulfil the aims of the Government of the day.
Now, Mr Marles, the former Shadow Minister in this area, made a heartfelt apology to the Labor conference last year to say that Labor made a mistake and they apologise for the 1200 deaths at sea.
We've been able to restore that integrity of our border process; we have been able to put in place proper contestability around tendering and contracts.
So yes, mistakes were made and I think the lessons have been learnt, but put it into context what the Department was operating under at the time and I've had no criticism to make of the Department at all. But they will learn the lessons and I hope that we never ever have to return to those days of dysfunction.
I suppose people wonder why you are so defensive of the department. The Audit Office is not criticising Scott Morrison or any previous minister and they do say the records do not indicate that urgent or unforeseen circumstances existed. They don't accept that line that there were urgent circumstances.
Well, Barrie, I mean you saw the scenes, you saw that Mr Rudd essentially lost faith with the Australian people because he wasn't able to deliver on his promise to keep borders safe and secure.
Ms Gillard promised it as one of her key outcomes of her leadership that she would stop boats and deal with the drownings at sea and the numbers of arrivals. It never happened and the Department acts at the urging and the direction of the government or the Minister of the day, the Prime Minister of the day, all I can say is that in relation to my experience with the Department, they are professional operators.
They have an absolute determination to preside over a programme which is well run. They do want to see the opportunity for people to start a new life. They don't want to see drownings at sea and all of those sailors and Border Force officers that I've spoken to plead with me that we don't change the policy settings because they don't want to return to those days where boats were going to the bottom of the ocean.
That was a shameful period in our nation's history and we should recognise that and we should hope and pray that we never return to it.
I just want to refer you to one issue here back home, the backpacker's tax and George Christensen has had something to say about that.
Can we assume you won't be going ahead with that tax, certainly not in its present form as proposed?
Scott Morrison has indicated he's working through the issue at the moment talking to people like George and other backbenchers, particularly in regional areas where agriculture is a big problem in terms of wanting to pick fruit and get food to markets that's rotting on vines and on trees and they can't get young Australians to work in those jobs.
So there is a great demand for the labour and Scott Morrison has indicated that he's working through that issue and if there's an announcement to make it will be made in due course.
And you're a Queenslander, a fellow Queenslander like George Christensen, do you think he's the kind of person when he says he will put it on the line that he will, that if there wasn't a breakthrough here that he would perhaps go off and join Pauline Hanson?
Look, I think George and others, as they’ve indicated through the superannuation debate, want a better outcome for their community, the best outcome possible for their community and for their country. They should be admired for that.
But I think George is a team player, our team is working well. I think we had a great week in Parliament last week. I think the resignation of Sam Dastyari demonstrated that Bill Shorten has real problems within his own ranks and I think our team will pull together and demonstrate to the Australian people, as we've done over the last couple of weeks, that we can make decisions that are in the best interests of our nation.
If we do that then I think we will be on a good path over the course of this term of Government.
Peter Dutton, we know you've only just arrived in New York, we appreciate that you've given us the time, thank you.