TRANSCRIPT - Sky News The Nation - With David Speers, Nick Champion MP, Cassandra Wilkinson and Nick Cater > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

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Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield

TRANSCRIPT - Sky News The Nation - With David Speers, Nick Champion MP, Cassandra Wilkinson and Nick Cater

Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES

MANAGER OF GOVERNMENT BUSINESS IN THE SENATE

Senator for Victoria

 

Transcript

Sky News The Nation
With David Speers, Nick Champion MP, Cassandra Wilkinson and Nick Cater
3 July 2014

8:00pm

E & OE

Subject: The new Senate, electoral reform, carbon tax, Renewable Energy Target, Operation Sovereign Borders, counter-terrorism laws.

           
SPEERS:

 

This week of course marked the start of a new financial year and a new political landscape in the Senate. Many of these new faces in the Senate crossbench are there after winning just a teeny tiny percentage of the vote. Ricky Muir the motoring enthusiast won just half of one per cent of the vote. But thanks to cleverly arranged preference deals they’re all there for another six years and they do have to be taken seriously by both sides of politics. In the coming weeks they’ll decide the fate of the carbon tax. In the coming months they’ll decide the fate of the first Abbott Government Budget. And the years ahead, the entire Abbott Government agenda, including any changes to border protection laws, anti-terror laws, the list goes on and on and on. To look at the new landscape and the big issues of this week tonight we are joined by the Assistant Minister for Social Services Senator Mitch Fifield, Nick Cater the incoming head of the Menzies Research Centre, Cassandra Wilkinson from the Centre for Independent Studies and Labor’s Nick Champion, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health. Welcome to you all. Let’s start with your new colleagues in the Senate Mitch Fifield, do you think they all deserve to be there?

 

FIFIELD:

 

All Senators in the Australian Parliament have been duly elected according to our electoral processes and the electoral law. It's incumbent upon us to respect that fact. We are going to treat all our colleagues with courtesy and respect. But in return we expect that they will respect the mandate we have. 

 

SPEERS:

 

Does that electoral law need change? Given as I say, a small percentage of the vote, some of these new faces got there on. Your colleague Tony Smith only months ago chaired a parliamentary committee that suggested a number of changes including the idea of optional preferential voting in the Senate so that voters could just put one in the box, rather than having to number and exhaust all of their preferences. Now that would go a long way to preventing these micro-parties getting up. Do you like that idea?    

 

FIFIELD:

 

In the ordinary course of events after every election the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters conducts a review of the conduct of the election. That’s happening. Tony Smith has presented his interim report. There will be a final report and government will respond.

 

SPEERS:

 

So do you like what he’s suggested?

 

FIFIELD:

 

The Government will respond to the recommendations of the report. What we’re focused on, what I’m focused on as Manager of Government Business in the Senate, is the repeal of the carbon tax, the repeal of the mining tax. That’s what we’re focused on.

 

SPEERS:

 

I appreciate that but I’m just wondering  whether you do have a view on this?

 

FIFIELD:

 

I think it's good practice that there is always a review by the Joint Standing Committee after every election. And we’ll see what the final recommendations are.   

 

SPEERS:

 

Should there be reform to stop micro-parties gaming the system?

 

FIFIELD:

 

We’ll wait for the final report and then government will respond. As a Minister I don’t have an independent electoral policy. It’s a matter that government will consider as a whole.  

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick Champion let me ask you then. What do you think the best idea is? And the other one that came out of that report that to register a party you need 1,500 unique members, not just 500 who could also be the members of 10 other parties with different names that all sound catchy. Do you like these reforms? 

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well look I think they’re sensible and they’re well thought out and I think the committee has done a good job. Obviously both the Government and the Opposition have to consider them carefully and so will the rest of the country, the rest of the legislators. Look I’m personally concerned that the Senate often looks like a bit of a circus and I’m personally concerned that sometimes elections look a bit like people entering a lottery. So in that respect I’m concerned by that. The Labor Party I think, like the Government, is waiting to respond to this sensible recommendations of the committee.

 

SPEERS:

 

Let me ask you though then for a frank answer on this. Is there any chance these reforms will see the light of day while you need, I’m talking about both sides here, need the likes of Clive Palmer and these other minor party Senators? 

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well I think there’s always a prospect of sensible reforms passing both houses of parliament. Nick Xenophon I think is on the record as saying that some of these reforms are sensible. He’s an independent that’s been elected…

 

SPEERS:

 

With a very health percentage!

 

CHAMPION:

 

… and he proves that as Brian Harradine proved that independents can get elected when they’ve got the support of the public. That’s the critical thing there.    

 

SPEERS:

 

He did get a very small vote the first time around to now a very healthy one. Cassandra Wilkinson can I ask what do you think about these sort of reform ideas?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Well I think generally oligopolies are not good for consumers and that’s just as true in politics as in supermarkets or airlines. And I think you need to be a little bit concerned when the people who are the most recent winners get to make the rules about who competes with them next time. And I think that having worked with a lot of independents in New South Wales during my years as a political adviser, that quite often the independents turn out to be better people than everyone thinks they are at the beginning. And I guess the thing too is that, people use expressions like you just have like gaming the system. Preferences is only gaming for micro-parties to the same extent that, that last spot on every ticket of a major party is also being to the same extent gamed through preferences as well so. I mean rules are the rules, these guys won…  

 

SPEERS:

 

They won fair and square on the rules.

 

 WILKINSON:

 

… and chances are that you’ll find that they’re not as stupid as they’re being painted as.

 

SPEERS:

 

I agree with you on that. I think if they have good advice and know what they’re doing that could be very refreshing in the Senate in some ways. But Nick Cater, is there something wrong with the system when you can get in on such a tiny vote?

 

CATER:

 

Well clearly you could have a better system. I think you’re not going to find the perfect system though, so whether you just want to throw it out and just come in with something fresh is a difficult thing to do, and this particular parliament is very very difficult because of course we see listening to these two gentlemen here, nobody really wants to take on a minor party at this time. But on the other hand I fully agree with Cass – I think what we’ve ended up with in a sense is a representative Senate in that there seems to be a large vote out there for none of the above.

 

SPEERS:

 

Well something like 25 per cent of Australians at last year’s election didn’t vote for the two major parties so there’s clearly an appetite out there for different faces and different voices.

 

CHAMPION:

 

I can tell you when you’re on the campaign trail it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re part of an oligopoly. It feels like a very competitive dynamic of a democracy to me.

 

FIFIELD:

 

We do have to give the new Senate a go. We do have to give the new Senators a chance. And I think Senators of good will, from differing perspectives, can make this a workable Senate.

SPEERS:

 

First cab off the rank really is the carbon tax and it does look like that will be repealed in the coming weeks. Then the budget, it looks like you’re facing a pretty tough battle even with this new Senate which is supposed to be more your way than the old one dominated by Labor and the Greens. They don’t like much of what you’ve put up. Do you think the Government will have to give more ground in trying to negotiate this through? 

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well you’re either a legislative optimist or you’re a legislative pessimist. And as Manager of Senate Business I’m a legislative optimist. But look it’s hard to predict how the Senate will function until it’s actually there and happening. Just think back to under the Howard Government when we were seeking to introduce the Goods and Services Tax and the New Tax System. No one gave us a chance but we got there, of all people, with the Australian Democrats. When we were partially privatising Telstra, who would have thought we would have got there. But we got there with the help of Brian Harradine. So you can’t really know what the outcome will be until the Senate is there. I think when you’ve got eight unique individuals, Senate magic can happen.

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick, do you think it is predictable where some of these crossbenchers are going to go on some of these, well particularly budget measures. I mean Palmer and his Senators really don’t like a lot of what’s been put up?

 

CATER:

 

No but I think the lesson from last week with the Palmer’s announcement on carbon policy is that it’s entirely unpredictable. I mean I think what’s it’s going to mean is that the Government is going to have to work very hard to make the common sense, clear case, why something is good policy and I would think that’s a very good thing anyway that they should have to do that. Not just talking political or bureaucratic speak, we’re going to have to actually explain very simply why it’s in people’s interest to vote for this. And so as painful as that is, it will mean some things won’t get through but overall it’s good for democracy.

 

FIFIELD:

 

In a sense this is business as usual in the Senate. I mean the House of Representatives very rudely took the attention away from the Senate in the last Parliament, so this is regular transmission being resumed to some extent. It’s not usually the case that the government of the day has a straight forward time in the Senate.

SPEERS:

 

Far from straight forward at the moment. Cass do you think there is much chance for most of their bunch of measures?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Absolutely, and it’s certainly not all of them, but the ones that matter most to the Government will get through because, there’s no point being an independent and there is definitely no point holding the balance of power if not to make a deal. I mean that is what Meg Lees showed. I’m used to working with independents myself, this is their time to shine. They want to make a deal, it’s just matter of which one.

 

SPEERS:

 

Speaking of Clive Palmer. I want to also ask about the allegations that surround his business dealings and The Australian newspaper in particular has been very doggedly pursuing this and yet both the major parties do seem somewhat reluctant to criticise him, to suggest that there needs to be answers given of all of this. We’re talking here specifically of the allegation that $12 million of Chinese money that was meant to be for looking after a port in Western Australia, was actually used for his election expenses. Now, he denies it. Nonetheless Nick, what do you think about this? And is there enough attention on this? Not just from the media but from the parties?

 

CATER:

 

I wouldn’t expect the parties to get into this at this stage. But Clive Palmer’s been very clever at trying to portray this as an agenda by The Australian. But what The Australian has picked on, what Hedley Thomas has found are court documents, that’s what he’s working from, from a court case. And on the face of it, it looks like Clive Palmer is in serious trouble if these allegations turn out to be true. And the documentary evidence is there, I mean you’ve seen the reports, there is chapter and verse, emails, documents, details of this. So it is a big problem for Clive Palmer. A big problem for his business and a big problem for him as a Parliamentarian.

 

SPEERS:

 

But you say it’s not yet time for the parties to get involved. But we did see in the previous Parliament when there were allegations against members like Peter Slipper and very different things obviously. But a lot of political pressure was brought to bear.

 

CATER:

 

I mean arguably and I think everybody would agree that very often it’s a mistake to jump in when a court process is going ahead and we can look back I guess with hindsight on the Peter Slipper affair. Perhaps there was too much of that going on. So for whatever reason both sides are holding back and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at this stage.

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick Champion, I see you’re nodding.

 

CHAMPION:

 

A few of the last years in public life we have seen sometimes hysteria around certain individuals, rather than giving them their day in court and I’m not saying that about any particular individual but just about this circumstance in public life. I know I do think it’s something new in Australian public life and I don’t think it’s actually very good for our body politic. We should be talking about the issues in front of us and policy choices of the nation. They’re the important things I think.

 

SPEERS:

 

But surely it matters how someone got there and whether they have been honourable in their profession prior to entering Parliament?

 

CHAMPION:

 

That’s true to an extent but my view is the issues. If you go into a shop in the centre store in Elizabeth or in Victoria or WA, you won’t get too many questions about personalities. You’ll get an awful lot of discussion about issues and I think there is a real thirst out there in the public for talking about issues, rather than personalities, rather than, you know, some of these extraneous issues.

SPEERS:

Cass do you agree? That it should just be issues? Personalities and personal allegations against someone like Clive Palmer should be left to one side?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Well I think there is enough rich material in his policy platform to get stuck into while the courts do their job. I mean there has been far too much of getting out the rope and wagons before the courts have made the decision in recent years. It would be really nice if people calm down and waited until there was a conviction before they decided to hang people these days.

 

SPEERS:

 

I’m sure that’s true but on the other hand it is the media’s job as well isn’t it? To investigate this stuff?

 

WILKINSON:

 

I think the job of investigative journalists to go after those stories. I mean we’ve seen in New South Wales, New South Wales owes a debt to Kate McClymont and the team at the Herald absolutely and I think that the journalists going after these jobs should do their job and case those stories for sure. I just think that the rest of us who watch with interest, should shut up until there is a decision in a court.

 

SPEERS:

 

Mitch Fifield?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Look, journalists should do their job. The Australian Electoral Commission should do their job. And the rest of us in public life should get on and focus on the people’s business which we’ll be trying to do next week.

SPEERS:

 

So you don’t have any particular concerns about what Clive Palmer has done in business?

FIFIELD:

 

We have appropriate authorities whose job it is, in the case of electoral law, to examine accusations and to make sure that electoral law has been followed. So we should leave that to them.

 

SPEERS:

 

And before we leave this whole issue of the new Senate. Are you 100 per cent confident the carbon tax will be done in the next couple of weeks?

 

FIFIELD:

 

In the Senate you’re only 100 per cent confident once the division bells have rung, the votes have been tallied and it’s been called in your favour. But we’re optimistic because the overwhelming majority of crossbench Senators ran on platforms to abolish the carbon tax. So I fully expect that they would be consistent with the policies that they took to the people.

 

SPEERS:

 

But you need the Palmer United Party Senators to do this, they’re demanding that guarantee that price reductions be passed on. Is that going to happen?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well we already have in the legislation the capacity for the ACCC to make sure that price savings are passed on. We’ve given additional money to the ACCC for that and, look, if there is more that can be done to reinforce that then, sure, we’ll take a look at that.

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick Champion are you going to shed too many tears seeing the carbon tax go?

CHAMPION:

 

Look I think what the Government is doing is – and you can see this on the Renewable Energy Target now – is running headlong from all the efficient measures to deal with climate change and running to direct action, which we know is just a boondoggle. So you’ve really got to question the Government’s common sense in their determination to go down this route and they’ll leave us slowly but surely as an international pariah in this area.  

 

SPEERS:

 

You mentioned the Renewable Energy Target. There has been a few suggestions on this and one coming from the Coalition backbench in particular that aluminium smelters be exempt from this target because it’s costing them millions. Are you sympathetic to that position?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well look this is a Howard Government scheme and it’s one that the Liberal party voted for in 2008-2009 when it came up the last time. I’m just surprised that we now have this ginger group in the Liberal party basically again, pushing away from efficient measures to deal with climate change and really adopting what is a very old fashion approach.

 

SPEERS:

 

Just to be clear you’re happy for smelters to keep paying more?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Yeah that’s right I think it’s a good scheme, it’s a good program, it’s working very well. And while people talk about jobs in certain sectors, they don’t talk about the guy in the Clare Hotel who I met who works on a wind farm doing maintenance. In South Australia there’s a chart up on Twitter which showed that the majority of power coming out of South Australia was actually wind power and coal had sort of sunk away. So you know, there are jobs in renewable energy as well. It’s just the Government is not choosing to focus on them.

 

SPEERS:

 

The issue here, and it is a slightly complicated one because the Renewable Energy Target is 20 per cent renewables by 2020, sounds good. But certainty reasons that would then change to an estimations that it’s going to meet 25,000 gigawatts of renewables by 2020 and that was set in stone in the legislation. Since then energy has actually dropped, that 45,000 is actually going to be 27 per cent by 2020. So there’s a few ideas here, you either go back to a 20 per cent target. You exempt some things like aluminium smelters, or you stick with what we got?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Well I guess the thing is, it’s kind of ironic, the sides that people are taking given that it took Labor a long time to get from solar feeding tariffs, cash for clunkers which what were essentially direct action measures to a proper market mechanism which was a carbon tax. And now we have the pro-market side of politics taking us back to essentially an industry policy approach again which treasury has said essentially is a much more expensive way of solving the same problem, and market distorting way of solving the same problem. I think Howard, back when the ETS still was available probably had it right, that you want to do a low touch market based approach of some kind. Carbon tax was pretty much the same thing, I don’t understand why we spend more doing something less efficient.

 

SPEERS:

 

Because this Renewable Energy Target Nick Cater isn’t the most efficient way of cutting emissions?

 

CATER:

 

No and I disagree with Nick here. Nick said it was an efficient way, certainly not. It’s a way that picks winners; it’s a way that gives massive subsidies to various technologies and various producers, a lot of people making a lot of money. I know what Nick’s saying about South Australia. These windmills, we all know that they’re very expensive, they only work when the wind is going, they’re not the silver bullet on all this. It’s perhaps more arguments in favour of solar power but even there you’re having to have massive cross subsidies and things to make them work. So it’s not efficient, it is problematic and I do feel, I don’t feel you can really exempt the aluminium industry, but I see what Jacqui Lambie is saying. I mean Tasmania already has 80 per cent renewable energy, thanks to the far sighted policies of putting hydro-electrics dams in, in the seventies. They’re not allowed to reap the benefit of that, so I think the whole thing is difficult and the Government has got a review coming up for this and let’s hope they’ll come up with some sensible proposals for moderating it.

 

SPEERS:

 

Mitch Fifield, do you have sympathy with many of your colleagues? Do you want change on this?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well I think ginger groups are actually a sign of a healthy Party Room. I know Nick was saying that a ginger group is an indication that things are out of control, but I think ginger groups are good. It means that discussion and debate in the Party Room is alive and well.

 

SPEERS:

You’ve seen this issue this week. Very deliberate, coordinated, almost as if those at the top don’t actually mind this message getting out there that we need to change the Renewable Energy Target.

 

FIFIELD:

 

Dan Tehan is a very thoughtful contributor, so I’m not surprised that it was a very measured contribution that he made to the public debate. We have a legislated review. What is the point of having a review if government isn’t going to have an open mind, if government isn’t going to ask itself the question: Is the Renewable Energy Target being applied in the most sensible way possible? I mean, we don’t want to unnecessarily penalise…

 

SPEERS:

 

You won’t change it this term will you?

FIFIELD:

 

There will be a Renewable Energy Target. We’ve got the 20 per cent target. But whether there are any adjustments, well, that’s a matter that’ll be considered in the review.

 

SPEERS:

 

What about certainty for industry though, that’s important too isn’t it?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Yes, and one of the terms of reference for the review is that they take into account sovereign risk. So, we’re not going to do anything that's precipitous. We’re not going to do anything to scare the horses. But, it’s appropriate to take a careful look and I welcome the fact that we have colleagues in our Party Room who are making thoughtful contributions.

 

SPEERS:

 

We’ll take a break, I want to turn then to asylum seekers. A lot of mystery still about what’s going on, on the high seas of the Indian Ocean, we’ll discuss that.

 

SPEERS:

 

Good to have you with us tonight, we’re talking to Senator Mitch Fifield, the Assistant Social Services Minister, Nick Cater from the Menzies Research Centre, Cassandra Wilkinson from the Centre for Independent Studies and Labor’s Nick Champion, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health.  I want to turn to asylum seekers and a lot of reports this week about two boats from Sri Lanka carrying between them some 200 asylum seekers came very close to, about 300 kilometres from Christmas Island, ran into trouble, an Australian Customs vessel has now had them transferred on board. From there it’s a little unclear what’s actually happened, none of this is being confirmed by the Government, it’s an on water operation and for that reason, secrecy prevails. There have been suggestions the Sri Lankan Navy would then collect them at sea and take them back home.  The Sri Lankan High Commissioner told me this afternoon, no, there’s no Sri Lankan Navy vessel involved here. Mitch Fifield, do you know any more than we do about this, as a Minister, is there any private briefing for you?

 

FIFIELD:        

 

Well, it’s not in my portfolio area, but our policy is, as you know, that we don’t comment on on-water operations. And there is good reason for that. We as a government don’t want to provide any information that could in any way, shape or form, assist people smugglers to change their business in some way.  We don’t want to do anything that could possibly give people smugglers an edge…

 

SPEERS:       

 

But just talk me through, even if you didn’t give all the details and you just said, we are, Australia is, in custody of asylum seekers and we’re taking them back to Sri Lanka. How is that going to help people smugglers?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well, let’s look at the scoreboard.  No successful people smuggling operations in the last six months.  We all know that 50,000 people came under the previous Government, courtesy of people smugglers.  We’ve got a formula, we’ve got a range of policies that together are working. So we don’t want to put that at risk.  We think an important part is the fact that we do keep information tight, that we don’t comment on on-water operational matters. What frustrates the Labor Party is the fact that our policies are actually working.  The only criticism they can seek to make is why doesn’t Scott Morrison provide a shipping news every day.  That’s their big killer point.

 

SPEERS:

 

But a lot of people do have questions about whether Australia is breaching international conventions and exactly what is happening with the lives of these people at sea, and this is all being done by the Government in our name. Do they deserve, do Australians deserve a bit more information on this?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well, we are honouring our international obligations and we won’t do anything that puts people in harm’s way.  Scott Morrison has made very clear that if there is a significant event on water, such as a medical evacuation, or there have been issues of safety or life at sea, that he will immediately comment on those. So you put that to one side and you’re left with operational activities which, I think for good reason, we have a policy that we won’t comment on. Also the operational commander, that’s also his policy.

SPEERS:

 

Sure, but those assurances, you’re essentially asking everyone to take you on trust.  Nick Champion, do you trust those assurances?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Look, I think the concern is here, and every other, most other areas of public life we have a basic level of transparency, not for the Labor Party but for journalists, for the Australian public and that is the bedrock of our democracy and trust in Government. And the real concern is here, is not some political point but just the basic bedrock of our democracy that transparency is good for Government and when you don’t have transparency, then you inevitably have issues, I think. So that’s the first point I make and I make it in a, not in a partisan sense, but I think it’s just better that we do it that way. And there are many Defence issues where we have more information than we do in the area of Border Protection, so I just think that that is a legitimate concern, it shouldn’t be dismissed by the Government.

 

SPEERS:

 

Just on the Defence thing, when it’s an operation matter though, it’s not disclosed until after.

CHAMPION:

 

That’s right, until after, but you do get the information and the point here is that because the Government wants to make this pretty cheap political point, and it’s a cheap political point, considering they opposed the Malaysian Transfer Agreement, they opposed just about every measure…

 

SPEERS:

 

What’s the political point?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well, they keep on making this point, oh 50,000 people came…

 

FIFIELD:

 

Don’t lead with chin, Nick.

 

CHAMPION:

 

…all of this sort of stuff, when they frustrated the previous government’s attempts to deal with this issue and when we...

 

FIFIELD:

 

...You demolished offshore processing, that’s why you had to put it back...

 

CHAMPION:

 

...and when the Rudd Government put it back in place...

 

FIFIELD:

 

...Yes, after you demolished it.

 

CHAMPION:

 

You came along, got into Government shortly afterwards and claimed success. But the point is, the fundamental was, the fundamental thing was offshore processing wasn’t it, which was done by the Rudd Government…

 

SPEERS:

 

Look, let me ask you specifically…

 

CHAMPION:

 

And that’s what’s underpinned…

 

FIFIELD:

 

But you opposed that the last time you were in Opposition and the very first thing you did was to dismantle offshore processing.

 

CHAMPION:

 

You opposed the Malaysian Transfer agreement and voted with the Greens in Parliament, don’t lecture me about hypocrisy.

 

SPEERS:

 

Let me ask you now though…

 

CHAMPION:

 

[inaudible] Human rights in Malaysia and at the same time, you…

 

SPEERS:

 

What would Labor do if it was in Government today if some 200 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka came very close to Christmas Island, what would you do?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well, what we’ve set out is we would have a basic level of transparency, we would have offshore processing and that was working.

 

SPEERS:

 

Ok, well what would you do with these boats? What would you do with them?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well, clearly, that’s a matter for offshore processing isn’t it?

 

SPEERS:

 

But I don’t understand the policy position now…

 

FIFIELD:

 

I know what Labor would do in government…

 

SPEERS:

 

Is Labor’s policy position now, that they would be brought to Christmas Island and then transferred to Manus Island?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well that’s my understanding of things, because, the issue…

 

SPEERS:

 

So they would not be turned back in any way?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well, I think the issue in terms of Sri Lanka is, if these boats have got Tamils on them, there are human rights issues, with returning them to those circumstances.

 

SPEERS:

 

Ok, so they would be brought to Christmas Island?

 

CHAMPION:

 

And let’s not forget, they’ve come from India, so…

SPEERS:

 

I want to talk about that, but I just want to clear this up first, they would be brought to Christmas Island?

 

CHAMPION:

 

They would be dealt with through the offshore processing situation.

 

SPEERS:

 

That would mean bringing them to Christmas Island and then processing their claims.

 

CHAMPION:

 

Presumably, yeah.

 

FIFIELD:

 

I can see what would happen if Labor got back in government.  They’ll get back in government. There won’t be any boats that have arrived.  Labor will say ‘look, we were always very uncomfortable with offshore processing’. They’ll dismantle offshore processing. They’ll say ‘we’re not going to do that anymore’. The boats will come. We’ll be back where we were in 2007. The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

 

SPEERS:

 

What do you think should happen to these, in this situation, what would be the ideal approach?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Well, I think that we lose sight of the real problem which is that 100 million people are sitting around the world in camps, that many more people live in countries that are not worth living in and that the big problem that wealthy free countries have is how to embrace population growth in a way that eases those pressures globally. At the moment, we have both major political parties attempting to claim success for doing the best job of doing absolutely nothing, I mean, they’re doing the best job of keeping people out.  I think that the brave and interesting thing to do is to address how to let people in.

 

SPEERS:

 

So these 200, you’d process at Christmas Island and then bring into the country?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Because we’re working on the premise at the moment that people coming is a bad thing, that there should be an agreed limit. And I stress at this point, this is my private view, I’m not speaking for my employer or anybody else in this circumstance. But I think that we have a problem, the scale of which has not been grasped by either side of politics and that is that there are too many countries in the world that are dictatorships that are in conflict, that are just places where a human being cannot pursue a life.

 

SPEERS:

 

There’s no doubt about that but when of course this policy that you’re articulating was essentially in place in the Rudd Government Mark 1.

 

WILKINSON:

 

Oh, no no no, not at all, I’m not supporting a Rudd Government policy, I’m supporting the kind of policy that involves erecting a Statue of Liberty on Christmas Island and saying bring us your huddled masses.  I mean I would love to see Australia be the new America.

 

SPEERS:

 

Does that become the magnet for everyone in this region who is in the situation you describe heading for that Statue of Liberty?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Speaking only for myself, I would love to see that day.  I would like to see Australia grow into a grand superpower on the American scale, based on accepting people who want to make a great life here because they’ve fled a terrible life somewhere else.  America became the greatest country in the world off the back of accepting people who needed help instead of turning them away.  Now you can call that naïve but I look at America and that looks like success to me.

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick Cater, what do you think should happen?

 

CATER:

 

Look, I understand Cass’ arguments, I can. But to go that route would be to overturn basically a hundred years of policy.  I mean Australia has never had that sort of approach to immigration, it’s always been a selective system and I take exception to Nick’s point that this is a cheap political point. I mean it’s actually important to make it very clear that there have been no arrivals on shore and that nobody has got any advantage by coming by boat. That’s the message that has to get out to try and limit this trade or put a stop to it.  And of course, there’s always going to be ­­– these are entrepreneurs, let’s face it – driving this trade in people and they’re always going to try and find a new way of doing it, and playing, it looks like they’ve had a go here…

 

SPEERS:

 

But isn’t it a blow to their trade to have the Government saying ‘we identified a couple of boats, now they’re going back’?

 

CATER:

 

Well it is a blow to their trade. But you have to keep that tough stance and I think Nick’s sort of equivocation on this, the idea that, oh, maybe they’ve got a case, maybe we should process them, that’s when you start getting problems.  I do agree with Cass, I mean we do have an international obligation to look after refugees.  We have a quota which is a fairly generous one.  Some people think it should be larger, but if you look around the world, I mean, I think the sort of places you’d be looking for real hardship and real suffering is probably the Middle East at the moment, perhaps even Crimea, I don’t know, but I think we have to take a hard-headed look at this because we can’t take…

 

SPEERS:

 

Well let’s talk about Sri Lanka because there are plenty of places in the world that are simply awful right now, but should we be sending people back to Sri Lanka? The Prime Minister today said it’s a country at peace.  Now after what was a very long running and bloody civil war.  Nick Champion, do you think it is a country at peace? Do you think Tamils are safe there?

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well, look, a core part of the Refugee Convention is not returning people to…

 

SPEERS:

 

Persecution.

 

CHAMPION:

 

…persecution, danger. And you can’t make a blanket decision about that because everybody’s claim is individual and separate so, it would seem to me that we have to be very careful about those issues, very careful, as a nation, and I don’t think that you can make blanket assumptions about these situations.

 

SPEERS:

 

Well, Mitch Fifield, what’s your sense of it, I mean, how much confidence do you have that Sri Lanka has moved on, that Tamils aren’t facing persecution?

 

FIFIELD:

 

In what I say, I’m not speculating at all as to what may or may not be happening with operational matters. But there is no doubt that Sri Lanka, the situation has improved dramatically.  There is a reconciliation process happening there. The situation in Sri Lanka isn’t perfect, but things have improved greatly. And it is important to acknowledge that, as the Prime Minister has today.

 

SPEERS:

 

But the Sri Lankan Government has resisted efforts to have a proper international inquiry into war crimes that took place there during that civil war. They flat out deny any persecution is going on, any Tamils being displaced, beaten, and intimidated. Do you believe that it’s absolutely fine?

 

FIFIELD:

 

I haven’t said that. Perfection hasn’t been reached in Sri Lanka. But the Australian Government has taken the position that we want to work with Sri Lanka. We want to encourage Sri Lanka to be their best selves.


SPEERS:

 

Nick Cater?

 

CATER:

 

Look, this is difficult. I think the way that it’s being portrayed that the Tamils are an oppressed minority, it’s very difficult to make that case. And let’s not forget that the Tamils were the ones who really pioneered suicide bombing.  It was a very brutal and nasty civil war, with atrocities on both sides. It’s going to take a long while, I think, for that society to mend. But I think the best thing that we can do is encourage and help that through the Commonwealth, through other organisations, through our direct connections, rather than sort of condemn them and say, ‘look you know you’re..’ I think we really have to encourage the growth of a proper civil society in that country and I think they have come and enormously long way on that and our job I think should surely be to encourage them in that right direction.

 

SPEERS:

Yeah, but Cass, any civil war is going to take a long time for forgiveness and healing to happen.

 

WILKINSON:

 

Yeah, I do think, I mean, Nick is correct that once you start deciding who you do take in a refugee program, you have to make some terrible choices between bad places, worse places and intolerable places and probably the most intolerable places at the moment are in Africa and in the Middle East and the, one of the things that frustrates me is that now that the flow of people through the people smuggling trade in the oceans which was apparently what everybody wanted to stop, has been ostensibly stopped.  If we were supposedly stopping the boats so that we could have an orderly arrival and take more refugees through proper channels, it would be really great if we could start taking more through proper channels. And if we increase the number of people coming from UN camps, I think that would be the kind of gesture that would make a lot of people in the community like me, who think that this seems like keeping people out, rather than improving the system, would give us some faith that it’s humane and not just nasty.

 

SPEERS:

 

Before I leave this issue, I just want to touch on a report that’s come out tonight on the Guardian.  This is in relation to 20 or 30 thousand asylum seekers in the Australian community that the Government doesn’t want to give permanent visas to, permanent refugee visas, and has been trying to find a way to bring back Temporary Protection Visas.  The High Court keeps knocking back its various efforts.  The latest attempt is apparently allowing the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, to cancel a permanent visa on the grounds of national security.  Giving a permanent visa is not good for Australia’s national security because it encourages more to try and come here.  Is that going to be a successful way to….

 

FIFIELD:

 

I haven’t caught up with The Guardian’s latest piece of work. But one of the things that we were trying to do in bringing back temporary protection visas was to allow individuals the opportunity to do work. The previous government put people in the situation where they were here but unable to work.

 

SPEERS:

 

Yeah, but a permanent visa though could still work.

 

FIFIELD:

 

That’s not good for anyone. So, we are still of the view that temporary protection visas are an important element of our overall policy. We’d like to have them back. Really the way to look at them is as safe haven visas. It’s a visa to provide a safe haven for someone until such time as they can return to where they are from when circumstances have improved. It think the concept of a safe haven visa is a good thing.

 

CHAMPION:

 

How many people returned under the Howard Government? How many TPVs returned?

 

FIFIELD:

 

You tell me.

 

CHAMPION:

 

Well it was hardly any, it was hardly any. It was about 10% I reckon…don’t quote me on that but it was nowhere near…

 

FIFIELD:

 

But the fact is that people did. And it’s a good concept to have a safe haven visa.

 

CHAMPION:

 

But you would admit that when you say safe haven you’re giving the public an impression that these people will be here for a while and then they’ll return, but whereas that’s not the practical outcome of that policy is it? The majority of them will stay in Australia.

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well some will. Some won’t.

 

CHAMPION:

 

They’ll have families, they’ll have home.

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick Cater do you think the temporary visas are that important?

 

CATER:

 

I must admit one of the things I was most troubled about from the Labor period was the idea of allowing people to settle in the community but not allow them to work. It seemed to me that was the first cohort of immigrants in this nation’s history that we’ve said we don’t want you to work. That to me went against the grain, so in that sense temporary protection visas have an advantage over that, and as to Nick’s point about people returning, well if they come and they work hard and they become decent members of the community then we want those people, but what we want to stop of course is irregular arrivals or people electing to come here and that’s a separate thing altogether.

 

SPEERS:

 

They have been…for the last 6 months. The problem with the temporary visa was always that it created such uncertainty, stress and you know social dysfunction for those who were stuck on them, when as Nick Champion points out they’d end up staying here anyway.

 

FIFIELD:

 

Not all, and the point is that you’ve never ever really completely won the battle against the people smugglers. You need a range of tools to destroy their business model. And I always found that the ironic thing about Labor talking about, you know, we want to bust the people smuggler’s business model, given the fact that they actually designed it for them when they abolished offshore processing and abolished temporary protection visas. So you need a number of elements because you want to make sure that the people smuggler business doesn’t come back.

 

SPEERS:

 

How do you view these?

 

WILKINSON:

 

I think that everyone at the table should look at Robin De Crespigny’s book The People Smuggler which is told first person from the perspective of someone who is currently in an Australian jail who organised people smuggling and there are places in the world where the only hope you have of getting away from Saddam Hussein or whoever your local dictator is, is through unofficial channels and some people smugglers falls into that business because the official cue is not available, it’s not accessible, it’s not moving. You know these channels exist because of market failure, because the free movement of people is so restricted on this planet that the unofficial channels have become quite lucrative. Now you can talk about smashing their model because you don’t like criminals sure but please don’t do it at the same time as you not doing anything to help the official cue move a little faster.

 

SPEERS:

 

Well we’re going to take a break. The more pressing issue and concern for the Government it seems at the moment is trying to stop not so much asylum seekers but potential terrorists coming back into the country. We’ll look at that.

 

SPEERS:

 

I want to turn to the issue that’s been gripping the Government’s attention and everyone’s attention really in the last few weeks. The very disturbing events in Iraq and the number of Australians involved in the fight there with what they’re now calling themselves ‘Islamic State’. Around 60 Australians involved in fighting with them in a total of 150 involved in supporting them. The Attorney General George Brandis this week met with about half a dozen Islamic leaders in Canberra. They all united to condemn radicals heading off to Iraq and joining this terror group. It’s clearly or arguably not going to be enough to stop others doing it but Nick Cater nonetheless, it was a fairly welcome sign wasn’t it that at least these Islamic leaders were prepared to very publicly state their position on this and show support for the Government working together to try and send a message?

 

CATER:

 

Yeah I thought it was very encouraging and the sort of clear signals we were getting are the sort of signals we probably would of needed before and there is a real problem here because we saw with Bosnia how that became a hot bed for sort of recruiting Islamist activists, not just here but more so in the United Kingdom. So we do have to nip this in the bud and I think the Government seems to be taking this pretty seriously as it should and seems to be doing all it can within the bounds of the law to try and prevent people coming back.

 

SPEERS:

 

The people, the young men who are from the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, most likely to be heading over there and joining up, they may not be the ones who are going to the Friday prayers in the big Mosques that these Imams represent. It may be the prayer hall, smaller gatherings that should be targeted. But it’s very hard to stop people becoming radicalised like that.

 

CATER:

 

And this is the problem. Increasing attention on the internet and the radicalisation that goes on there I mean in a way you’re right, the people who are going overseas are not likely to be the people that are going along with the mum and dad to the Mosque. And we’ve seen this with the group Hisbit Tarrea which was in the news for other reasons. They’re all in favour of people going and they work outside the traditional system of Mosques.

 

SPEERS:

 

Is there any way of reaching them and dissuading them?

 

CATER:

 

It seems to me that the best thing that you can do at this stage is to look at using all the instruments in your power to identify who the individuals are and then try and stop them coming back, to take the passports off  it’s possible to do that. It seems to me that’s the most you can do because it’s like any sort of sub movement, once you sort of send out signals through official channels in the way it can just make people more determined to go and do the radical thing.

 

SPEERS:

 

Well this is the difficult thing isn’t it? Stopping those radicals getting back into the country and you mentioned they’re cancelling the passport, well yes that can happen but if they’re an Australian citizen they’ll still be able to get back into the country eventually. So what can you do here to I guess stop them at the border when they get back in and lock them up?

 

FIFIELD:

 

Well if they’re a dual passport holder, two nations, you can cancel a passport. If they’re an Australian citizen and not a citizen of another country you can still cancel their passport. That’s not taking away their citizenship.

 

SPEERS:

 

But if they’re only an Australian citizen they can still get back in.

 

FIFIELD:

Well you can still cancel their passport. That’s still an option.

 

SPEERS:

 

Sure. But that’s not going to stop them getting back to Australia.

 

FIFIELD:

 

But if they do get back to Australia it’s important that our intelligence agencies have the capacity to determine if they have broken the law overseas. And if they have, that they then have the ability to prosecute them in Australia.

 

SPEERS:

 

And this is the hard part isn’t it? Because Cass while those who post YouTube videos of themselves boasting about the horrendous things they’ve been doing there, sure that may well be admissible evidence but for those who don’t post stupid videos online, how do intelligence agencies possibly get evidence that they’ve been up to no good?

 

WILKINSON:                                                          

 

Well I think that’s a very pertinent question at the moment with the Parliamentary review of ASIO and anti-terrorism powers coming up and while on the one hand I think I’d agree with everyone here that young people in Australia need to be raised to cherish our freedoms and democratic institutions and there’s definitely a role for stronger civics education and stronger role for supporting Australian values, we’ve got to keep in mind 150 people is about 1 bus bull so 1 Bondi bus full of people is not what I would consider changing some fundamental democratic protections in Australian law for. So for instance…

SPEERS:

 

It still sounds like a lot to me though. If you had even 100 of these young men return to Australia at some point though…


WILKINSON:

 

Keep in mind though at the moment, ASIO under the laws that were passed after 9/11, ASIO already have powers for detention without charge…

 

SPEERS:

 

For questioning, but that’s only for a set period. And you’ve got to have some evidence that’s the problem. I see The Australian Newspaper today reported that you could have the Australian Police actually sent over to try and gather evidence…

 

WILKINSON:

 

Why though? Why?

 

SPEERS:

 

How are Australian Police going to wander around a battlefield in Iraq gathering evidence on Australians up to no good?

 

WILKINSON:

 

Again, there’s 40,000 assaults in New South Wales alone every year, you’re really going to put the life of police officers at risk sending them overseas to chase their tales trying to track down terrorists in the middle of a civil war. I think we need to keep things in perspective, is a bus load of people who god willing will not come back from those places and if they do will have seen the error of their ways, but overstating the size of this problem in order to push through additional powers for ASIO. Senior legal Professor George Williams and others in this field have been arguing for years that those ASIO powers should sunset in 2016 as they were intended to. We now have proposals for metadata, for increased powers. I’m not saying there’s no problem but we need to be careful overstating the problem because there are civil rights at stake.

SPEERS:

 

Well Nick Champion, do you think it’s a significant number of Australians who are apparently involved in this? And how do you think it should be tackled?

 

CHAMPION:

Well first of all we’ll cooperate sensibly with the Government to have sensible laws that protect Australians from acts of terror and it doesn’t really matter what inspires that act of terror, there are potentially catastrophic outcomes so you need to be cautious and careful and give appropriate powers with appropriate safeguards to our national security institutions to make sure that the worst doesn’t happen and it just seems to me that that’s a prudent way of going about things. For a long time now we’ve had people radicalising based around utopian visions of how a society might be and we see the latest is ISIS declaring…

 

SPEERS:

 

It’s this situation in Iraq that seems to have given a lot of momentum to that.

 

CHAMPION:                                                                                         

And I think we have to be careful because in Syria and Iraq we now I think are seeing a very serious sectarian divide in those countries which is fuelling some of this radicalism. So we have to be very very cautious and a lot of these individuals are just self-radicalising via the internet or garage mosque or charismatics, individuals leading small groups or just sometimes young men and women making their way from the suburbs not always from traditional Islamic families, sometimes they’re white and Anglo-Saxon, Catholic whatever. So we just have to be very very careful of that phenomenon. We have to have sensible laws which guard against them returning after they’ve committed crimes in other countries, crimes in Australian laws, that’s a criminal matter that needs to be dealt with by the police. I don’t think we should second guess them.

 

SPEERS:

 

Nick Cater finally, do you think the sort of ideas that are being discussed at the moment are sensible approaches to dealing with this when it comes to strengthening our laws?

 

CATER:

 

I’m in full agreement with Cass on this, I do think that you do need to be very careful about giving extra powers forever and the sunset clause is something that should be considered. I’d be very surprised if they don’t have already enough powers to do the kind of surveillance they want to do and I would have thought at this stage that is the crucial thing.

 

SPEERS:

 

We’re going to have to wrap it up there but Mitch Fifield, Nick Cater, Cass Wilkinson and Nick Champion thank you all very much for joining us.

 

ENDS

Media contact: Lydia Bevege | 0409 792 081 | Lydia.bevege@dss.gov.au