Subjects: Operation Sovereign Borders; Labor's border failures.
I wanted to express on behalf of the Australian Government our thanks to the Malaysian Government and to the Malaysian authorities for the disruption of what has turned out to be a very sophisticated operation; obviously in the planning for some time.
We have been working with the Malaysian authorities and others obviously throughout the region because this people smuggling issue is a problem right across our region. We're working with other authorities, but on this occasion the Malaysians have done great work in disrupting a venture which would have sought to bring over a 130 people or so to either New Zealand or Australia. Some people it seems have been told different stories about their destination, but it underscores the fact that this is a significant issue for our country, for New Zealand and for other countries in the region.
We are cognisant of the fact that this vessel is of significant size. Probably larger than what we would expect to see otherwise. We have been able as you know to turn around 32 vessels and if we can disrupt vessels before they depart the port or before they get out into open sea, then that is obviously the desired outcome.
I'll ask Air Vice-Marshal Steve Osborne, who is the Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, to say a few words. He can give a bit more detail in a second, but I want to make the important point: just because Australians don't see on their television sets every night the vision of these boats coming – as they did under the Labor Party – it doesn't mean that the problem has gone away.
The Australian public understands that a government needs to assert its sovereign right in relation to border protection and border security matters. This Government has been able to clean up the mess that we inherited from the Labor Party when 1,200 people drowned at sea and 50,000 people arrived on 800 boats, but the problem has not gone away.
One of the most puzzling aspects to the Labor Party's approach at the moment is Bill Shorten speaking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to border protection policy. He says one thing to the press; that is that he has got a tough stance on border protection matters and yet when he's is in the Labor Party Conference, he is telling people there will be a softly, softly approach to border protection policy if the Labor Party is to win government. It is a complete outrage.
Frankly, Mr Shorten needs to come out today and explain the conflicting comments of Mr Neumann because the Labor Party, in their ALP National Platform, makes it very clear, they make it very clear that they will water down the successful elements of Operation Sovereign Borders.
If you aren't going to have regional processing, if you are going to allow people a permanent outcome if they make it to Christmas Island, I promise you, under Labor, the boats will restart.
So this problem hasn't gone away. This Government is dealing with it every day and the Australian public expect – in their leaders – a position which is beyond doubt and at the moment Mr Shorten has a policy for different audiences and the people smugglers understand that weakness within Labor. It hasn't gone away and we now know that over half the caucus, half the Labor caucus, are opposed to Operation Sovereign Borders and if they're opposed to Operation Sovereign Borders, you will see the boats restart if Mr Shorten was to be elected at the next election.
Thank you Minister.
I just pick up where the Minister was talking about the enduring threat posed by people smugglers. I have been on the record before saying that the people smugglers are not simply a stationery organisation. They continue to look at ways to test Australia's borders and indeed to find other avenues into our region.
So this latest venture that the Malaysians have disrupted is one good example, I think, to show just how things can change. This was a much larger vessel than we have seen for some time. It certainly was a larger number of people involved. It certainly seems to also have been a far more complex and sophisticated.
Just as we have success with Operation Sovereign Borders, we certainly don't want to rest on our laurels and we have to stay adaptive and changing to the threat as it changes.
The last point of course that I would also want to make – also as the Minister said – this is clearly a regional issue. It's not just Australia that is facing it. We work closely with a range of regional countries, including Malaysia, to make sure that we do everything that we can to undermine the people smuggling model and the people smugglers because they will frankly do anything to get people onto those dangerous boats.
So I just want to add my thanks and congratulations to the Malaysians for a truly professional effort in disrupting what was really a very significant people smuggling venture.
Commander, do you share the concerns that the boats will restart under Labor, as the Minister has stated?
I think the best that I would say there, the most appropriate for me to say, is Operation Sovereign Borders has been very successful now. It is almost four years without venture. It's built on a very particular structure. If we make any changes to that structure, I would have some concerns and I'll just leave it at that.
You both say that this is a particularly sophisticated undertaking, but you haven't given details as to how it is more sophisticated than you have seen in the past. What sophistication did this mission bring that surprises you both?
Well Tim, there are just a couple of points that we can make. Obviously there's a lot of information that is not being released publicly, but the vessel type for example, the size of the vessel, the people involved in the coordination efforts – so those people who have been involved or are alleged to have been involved in the organisation of this particular venture – are people that are well-known and I will leave it at that in terms of who they are and the experience they bring to the task. That's the first point.
The other important point to remember is that New Zealand is now being marketed as a definite destination. Don't forget that – and I think this has escaped Mr Neumann – but New Zealand is the only country in the world – not the United States, not the United Kingdom, nowhere else – the only country in the world where you can have a visa into Australia on arrival. So you can't hop on a plane out of Chicago or out of Los Angeles or Dallas, wherever it might be to come into Australia without a valid visa. In New Zealand, it's the case with the 444 electronic visa, that people can land straight into our country. The people smugglers understand that. I don't understand why Labor can't get it.
So at the moment they are marketing New Zealand as a destination. Whether they intend to go to New Zealand doesn't matter. People are hearing the message that New Zealand is a prospect for them. Whether they just intend to get to Christmas Island or to the mainland on the West Coast or go across the Torres Strait, we don't know, but it's clear that you need to be very careful when you have got New Zealand in the policy mix, as Labor has put on the table, because that is the sugar that Philip Ruddock and others spoke about a long time ago.
Just on that, you obviously put forward the idea in 2016; legislation to stop anyone who arrived by boat ever settling in Australia. Now that has obviously been held up by Parliament. Where do you see that going and also, I mean if people are marketing New Zealand as the destination, does that legislation really cover that?
You do have the issue, as you say, is there anything else you could do legislatively to actually address that and in that way potentially, you know, there had always been speculation you could leave the door open to some sort of agreement with New Zealand if you had those barriers in place?
It's the case that we can't get legislation, as you described, through the Senate. It doesn't mean to say that we have abandoned that policy or that approach. So we will continue to look at our options and if we feel that there is a requirement for additional legislative change then we will put that to the Parliament again.
It is easy to get legislation through the Senate if you have got the support of the Labor Party and if the Labor Party really believed in the elements of Operation Sovereign Borders, they would support it through the Parliament. Of course they don't.
We will continue to have look at each of those options. But again, it is hard to get this message across to Labor at the moment, but they don't want to understand the difference between New Zealand and every other country in the world.
This is what sets apart, at least in part, the deal that we struck with the United States. We have now got around about 249 people off Manus and Nauru into the United States and all of the screening continues – and we will see an uplift again shortly of more people – so that is going very well, but those people cannot come to our country unless they're issued with a visa. It's a very different story if you're coming out of Auckland or Wellington, you can jump on a plane into Sydney, Brisbane, wherever it might be, and then you can claim protection or whatever the case might be. So that element we're happy to look at.
Has there been any consideration of changing the visa rules for New Zealand to prevent some or all?
Some of the legislation that we have considered would stop some people coming into Australia from New Zealand or any other country.
So again, we're realists about what we can get through the Senate, but I can get a lot through the Senate if I've got the support of the Labor Party. At the moment the Labor Party does not support the Government on Operation Sovereign Borders, on elements of the legislation which would strengthen our position against people smugglers. Why? Because over half of their caucus now believes that Operation Sovereign Borders should be trashed. Bill Shorten can talk out of both sides of his mouth, but the same message that everybody should hear is that Labor is weak on border protection.
Can I just clarify Air Vice-Marshal, you've said you have concerns, do you believe boats would restart?
Can I just answer that question. The Air Vice-Marshal is not answering questions in relation to political matters. I'll take those questions. If you've got issues of a technical nature, please feel free to put those.
Just in terms of a technical issue. You talked about the fact that you said that Operation Sovereign Borders had been very successful and it was built on a very particular structure and if you make any changes to that structure, you would have concerns. Now the Labor Party of course doesn't like Temporary Protection Visas. Do you see TPVs as part of that structure, or does that sit separately?
That is not a technical question if I might say Sam. It is a cute way of trying to frame a question in a technical way.
The Government's position in relation to Temporary Protection Visas is very clear. Part of the reason that the people smugglers had such success was if you landed into Christmas Island or you came within the zone, you had automatic right to a Permanent visa and your pathway to citizenship was basically guaranteed under the Labor Party – that's why 50,000 people came on 800 boats.
One of the true successes of Operation Sovereign Borders has been the abolition of that visa type and the introduction of a Temporary Protection Visa which says to people we will offer you protection, but only for the time that it takes for stability to return or for the opportunity for you to return back to your country of origin. So that element clearly has been a success.
The Labor Party already at the last election proposed to trash that. They're now proposing to trash offshore processing. They're now proposing to introduce these 90 day limits which basically is a ticket for somebody to come out of detention, onto the mainland, claim protection and stay here.
I can't comprehend for the life of me why Labor would want to go back to the deaths at sea, the kids in detention. We got 8,000 children out of detention and closed 17 detention centres that they opened and yet they want to revert back to that failed Rudd and Gillard policy.
Has Bill Shorten learned nothing over the course of the last decade?
In Villawood there is an Iranian asylum seeker who is on a hunger strike. His relatives have been allowed out. Advocates suggest there is a precedent for allowing him to do so. Will you consider doing so?
I don't have any comment to make in relation to the particular case. What I would say is that we look at each case on its individual merit and again, without commenting in relation to that case, there may be all sorts of complications in the background that are not publicly released that would prevent us making a decision to release a particular person. So I don't have any comment to make in relation to that matter specifically.
Is there any progress in relation to the men on Manus? Obviously not all of them you will be able to find a place for in the US? Are you continuing to talk to other countries or other solutions in terms of what you'd do with those individuals beyond just dumping them in Port Moresby?
Well under the agreement that Kevin Rudd struck, if somebody was found to be owed protection they would settle in PNG. That was the Labor Party policy; the agreement that Prime Minister's O'Neill and Rudd struck, so that is the framework under which we operate at the moment.
We struck the deal with the United States. We continue to talk to third countries otherwise, but let me tell you, there are very few prospects, if any, on the horizon. Under the Malaysia deal that Labor struck, we took all of the people, but nobody went to Malaysia.
So let's be realistic when Labor talks about some mythical third country; it doesn't exist.
In relation to the Iranians for example that are on Manus or on Nauru. Tehran will not issue travel documents for those people unless they come back willingly. So therefore if they're not coming to Australia – and we have been very clear about that because that will result in boats restarting – their country of origin refuses to take them and let's say that the United States for security or other reasons decides not to take those individuals, what is happening with those people? Under the deal, as I say that Mr Rudd struck, people who have been found to be owed protection, they will be staying in PNG – we've been clear about that and we will continue to work with the PNG authorities in relation to those that might remain otherwise.
Let's be clear about it; there is no option under the Labor Party's proposal other than to bring those people to Australia. If you bring them to Australia, the boats will restart. It is as clear as night follows day.
We will continue to look at third country arrangements. Believe me; DFAT, our Department have been working on this for a number of years. People aren't jumping out of their skin to provide places and that's the reality. We can work with the United States. That policy, as you know, is that the United States will take 1,200 people and not beyond that and they won't take new arrivals.
So the fantasy that somehow you could shuffle people to New Zealand under Labor's model – that the 150 people a year – that is one vessel; 800 vessels came under Labor.
Let's be realistic about what the Labor Party's proposing and it is about time that Mr Shorten fronted the Press Gallery here and said what his position is. He has got this merely mouthed set of words going to Conference and Shayne Neumann's out there trying to talk tough I see in the press today, but what is their position? Their position is to reintroduce Rudd's model which allowed kids into detention, which delivered 1,200 deaths at sea and they have that policy back on the table. It's insane.
Was it able to reach New Zealand?
How big a ship was it?
I haven't got the technical detail in front of me as to the dimensions.
Can you confirm that you would like to introduce bull body scanners at Australian airports? Can you provide any detail and how will you avoid long queues at say Sydney and Melbourne during busy periods?
There has been some reporting in the press about it. I don't have any comment to make in relation to those matters, but we will have something on aviation security within the Budget.
Operation Silves last year demonstrated to us that people came very close to getting an IED – I see it referred to as a IUD on Channel Ten last, it is definitely an IED – an explosives device onto that flight to the Middle East.
We are worried about the settings at our domestic airports. Obviously there is a different security setting at our international airports where we do have full body scanners, but we will have…we've been working very closely I might say with the aviation sector, both in terms of the airport operators, as well as Alan Joyce – I have had a number of conversations with him – and we have been working with the other airlines as well because we do want to make sure that people are safe.
We know that airports, forecourts within the airports are targets for terrorist organisations around the world. We have seen that in Europe. We have seen it elsewhere in the world and we have obviously, I think, had a real shock to the system last year when there was an explosive device that almost made its way onto an A380. The Government had the review. We've looked at different ways in which we can provide support, particularly to regional airports, but the detail will be held for the Budget.
On the subject of Qantas; China has again asked Qantas to water down its references to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries. The United States have referred to this as Orwellian. Is it appropriate for a foreign government to pressure an Australian company in that way? Should Qantas agree to it?
I will let Qantas respond to the suggestions that have been made, but I'm pretty sure I know what Qantas' position will be.
There are reports of a young woman named Bernadette Romulo who is facing deportation to the Philippines within a number of days. I understand your office has been asked to intervene in that case in the past. Is it a case you're still monitoring and is there any prospect that you will intervene again?
Well again, without commenting on an individual case, there are cases that are brought to us on a regular basis in terms of possible exercise of Ministerial Intervention and there are a number of cases where I deal with them. Where children are involved, where elderly parents are involved, people with terminal illness, whatever the case might be and we act in a number of those matters as I say.
There are other matters where they have been to the court. They have been to a tribunal. It's upheld the decision for the visa to be cancelled. It has gone to the Federal Court, to the full Federal Court, to the High Court and in each of those stages, protection has not been found to be owed in those particular cases.
In some cases, there is also a picture around criminal activity or advice otherwise that we can gather in relation to individual cases which means that we don't make a decision to intervene and we do allow deportation. As I say I'm not making any comment on particular cases, but all of that is taken into consideration and we do act compassionately in relation to a number of cases.
We don't seek publicity, we don't publicise them. Members of Parliament bring those to our attention. Members of the public, the press, wherever it might be and we look at the individual merit of those cases, but in some cases we take a decision for good reason not to act and I just ask people – I know there is a lot of emotion around many of these cases, sometimes it makes cheap TV – but have a look at the facts, particularly if there is a long court battle that's gone on, people have been given ample notice over a long period of time to prepare themselves to depart, they refuse to depart, they try and string it out through a pointless exercise through court, but nonetheless it delays their departure and then they try and make it look more acute at the last end stages.
So we have those tough decisions to make, but as I say we act compassionately in many, many cases that I sign off on each week.
Minister, do you think that New Zealand has to take any of the responsibility or blame for this last intercepted vessel based on its own border security policies and its consistent offer to be a country of third party resettlement for those on Manus and Nauru?
No, I don't think they should accept any blame and I think New Zealand now understands the gravity of this situation. What I would say is that anybody, when they're talking about these matters, needs to be careful and circumspect about what it is that they're saying because it will be interpreted a particular way by people smugglers who are pumping out messages through social media, sending text messages out to prospective customers to pay their money to get onto the boat that somebody from New Zealand has said this, or somebody from the Labor Party in Australia has said that, wait for the election, there will be a change of government and then there will be plenty of positions available to get to Australia. People need to be mindful of what they are saying publicly.
The people smugglers have not gone away. People are still drowning on the Mediterranean. People are still desperate to get to a country like ours. There are at least 14,000 people in Indonesia ready to get onto boats today. We have other people trying to get out of Sri Lanka or transiting through Malaysia, whatever it might be, this problem has not gone away and by Bill Shorten being out there saying that New Zealand is on the table, people realise that New Zealand is a back doorway into Australia. They realise that New Zealand is a comparable society to Australia. It has a similar welfare system, similar health, education offerings, housing, etc. It is marketed in the same way that Australia is as a positive destination and if Labor thinks that this problem has gone away, that they can now water Operation Sovereign Borders down; Bill Shorten is making the same mistake that Kevin Rudd made when he undid John Howard's policies.
If Bill Shorten thinks he can give a nudge and a wink to the left of the Labor Party before an election and he believes that he is going to win that election and then water these policies down, that is exactly what Kevin Rudd did and it resulted in 1,200 people drowning, it resulted in 8,000 kids in detention, it resulted in 17 detention centres being opened and the Australian public rightly was angry because there were billions of dollars wasted and we are still cleaning up that mess today. And that we would allow the Labor Party to get away with this talking out of both sides of his mouth, which is what Mr Shorten is famous for, it is not acceptable. He needs to state his policy. Shayne Neumann could even ask a question in Question Time on boats this week which would be his first.
So please feel free at next gathering with Mr Shorten to ask him these questions because he needs to provide a straight answer.