Discussing Asylum Seeker Policy on ABC666

I spoke this morning on ABC 666 about asylum-seeker policy, and the new Regional Settlement Arrangement. Here's a podcast.

Andrew Leigh
Member for Fraser

TUESDAY 23rd JULY 2013

Topics:                        Asylum Seekers, Foreign Aid

Note:                           Due to time constraints, Gary Humphries’ contributions have not been transcribed.

Ross Solly:                  Gary Humphries will be joining us very soon, but Andrew Leigh, the member for Fraser is here with me in the 666 Breakfast studio. Andrew Leigh, good morning to you.

Andrew Leigh: Good morning Ross.

Ross Solly:                   Just on that photograph and the film footage, are you comfortable with it being used the way it is?

Andrew Leigh: Look, this is a desperately hard area of policy, Ross. The purpose that the Immigration Department has used the photograph for, is to make sure that people don’t make a risky boat journey and that we don’t see more drownings at sea. So it’s part of a policy that I believe is aimed at being as compassionate as we can.

Ross Solly:                   Does it look compassionate though, that picture?

Andrew Leigh: This is a picture which is aimed to serve a purpose, serve a compassionate purpose, which is to stop people getting on boats. Let me tell you in general why I believe that this is ultimately the most compassionate policy, although I understand it is extremely difficult for many of us. First of all…

Ross Solly:                   Can I ask you straight up, do you agree with where your party’s gone on this? Are you comfortable with it?

Andrew Leigh: I’m not comfortable with any response in this area Ross, I think it is… I’ve reached the point where my view is that there is going to be no policy with which I am going to feel perfectly comfortable. But that in the circumstances, this is probably the most compassionate response.

Ross Solly:                   OK, tell me why.

Andrew Leigh:           First of all, I think it has the potential to reduce drownings at sea. Now those drownings at sea were tens a year, now hundreds a year. They could soon go to thousands a year. We’ve seen a little one-year-old baby drowning recently. We’ve seen blokes in their 20s and 30s, with their whole lives ahead of them, drowning on the way to Australia. And this policy, I think, will reduce those drownings. Secondly, I think it’s more compassionate because we will be drawing refugees from UNHCR camps, rather than drawing people that can afford to pay $10,000 or more, to pay a people smuggler. We’re among the top three countries in the world in UNHCR resettlement, but that process will effectively grind to a halt if the number of people arriving by boat goes from the current annualized figure of 20-30,000 a year to maybe 50,000 a year. And thirdly, I think it’s compassionate because we’ve said under this policy that if we’re able to stop boat arrivals, then we’ll increase the number of humanitarian places to 27,000, so we’ll be able to help more people over all. But, I share the discomfort that I’m sure many of your listeners do. This is an extremely difficult area of policy, and my hope is that we are able to stop drownings at sea as a result of this policy.


Ross Solly:                   Well I think, Andrew Leigh, as someone [inaudible] says via Twitter this morning, the key point is that if the boats stop coming, which [inaudible] believes is likely, few asylum seekers will ever need to go to Papua New Guinea, and we’ll get more from the UNHCR.

Andrew Leigh: That’s exactly right, Ross. Gary can have the tough on refugees argument. I don’t want it. What I want out of a refugee policy is to stop drownings at sea and to create the potential for us to take more asylum seekers. And I think that’s, frankly, very difficult in an environment in which more and more boats are arriving. I think it’s hard to raise the refugee intake when you see support for, political support for, asylum seekers declining in Australia. The way in which you turn that around, is you don’t have people arriving by boat. Instead, we take the neediest people from the UNHCR camps and, let’s be honest Ross, if we…

Ross Solly:                           So you think that would change the Australian peoples’ attitudes to asylum seekers if in fact, they weren’t coming by boats, but were taking the needy ones from the refugee camps?

Andrew Leigh: Absolutely, and I would give the example of the Vietnam War refugees as the best example of this. That had pretty strong support across the Australian community, in part because we did refugee resettlement not based on who could get a boat to the shores of Australia, but by working with the UNHCR in places like Hong Kong. There are camps in Africa, in South-East Asia which have 100,000 or more people. And we need to work with the UNHCR to take more people out of those camps. Not just the people who can afford the $10,000 or more to pay a people smuggler. Now, there’s also a bit of this too, which is about dealing with organised crime. So people smugglers aren’t simply operating trafficking businesses, they’re also looping that in with a range of other organised crime networks in South-East Asia. So that’s a side benefit, if you can reduce the number of people coming by boat, you reduce the potential for that money to fly into organised crime. But fundamentally Ross, I want to stop people drowning at sea, and I want to take more asylum seekers.


Ross Solly:                   Have either of you been to Papua New Guinea? I’m assuming you’ve been for… You’ve not been Gary Humphries? And [inaudible]

Andrew Leigh:           I’ve visited as a child. My uncle worked there for all of his career, but I haven’t been there as a parliamentarian. It’s certainly a developing country with a range of challenges. I mean, that’s why we’re working particularly on the issue of health care and law and order, big priorities for Papua New Guinea.

Ross Solly:                   So I understand one of the things though, Andrew Leigh, is that we are according to the Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, he is now going to have control over the foreign aid budget that comes his way.

Andrew Leigh:           We’ll work co-operatively with Papua New Guinea, as we do with every other country to which we give foreign aid. Papua New Guinea has identified these priorities, law and order, health care and education. We’ll work with them to identify the projects that they believe are most important. I think we take a special responsibility for PNG, being a country for which we had effective colonial responsibility in the past. We’ve given a range of foreign aid support. But I do want to sort of also say in response to some of the comments that Gary Humphries has made suggesting that this is simply back to the Howard government, there are clear party differences in refugees. We’re aspiring to move the humanitarian intake to 27,000. The Coalition would take it back to about 13,000. We also believe that this is a policy area which has evolved, and that simply going back to the policies of the Howard government wouldn’t work for the current era. You have to keep trying to update policies.


Ross Solly:                   I’ve actually been, I’ve been there in more recent times, and the poverty is terrible. The health system is terrible, the infrastructure is terrible, the crime rate’s terrible. And, I don’t know, Andrew Leigh that this… I mean, I’m sure that’s part of the reason why we’re saying we’re going to send people there ‘cause they’re not going to come here, and this is going to be a tough life.

Andrew Leigh: Well Ross, to answer the question that both you and Gary have raised, I can assure you that aid projects, aid to PNG will continue to go through the AusAID  merit process that aid to other countries goes through.

Ross Solly:                   But will we have any control over how it’s spent?

Andrew Leigh: Absolutely, we will give aid to PNG as we do with every other country to which we give aid, co-operating with that government, talking with them about their priorities and reviewing each independent aid project on its merits. That’s how the Australian aid system works, and I think that’s what’s made it an effective aid system. Ross, I’m pretty proud of the fact that we’re a country that is in the top three for UNHCR refugee resettlement. We’re now a top ten foreign aid giver around the world. These two things have happened under a Labor government. We’ve substantially increased foreign aid as a share of national income, now at a quarter of a century high. And we’ve also increased the number of refugees we take. Both these things, I think, would go backwards under the Coalition, which is why I do want to say that there’s clear differences.


Ross Solly:                   I was going to ask a question about family reunions etc., but Don has called in with the same question. You might just need your headphones there Andrew and Gary. Hello Don.

Caller:                                   Yes, good morning. How are you?

Ross Solly:                           Good thank you. Your question?

Caller:                                   I just want to know, in amongst all this, what do you think about the fact that the Department is saying it’s between 9 and 20 years before some family reunions can take place? Surely in having given a protection visa to people, we wouldn’t expect them to be without their families for that period of time?

Ross Solly:                           Yeah I did see the Minister making these sorts of comments last night. Andrew Leigh? Thank you Don.

Andrew Leigh: Well certainly, people who have received a humanitarian visa to Australia have the right to then bring family members to Australia, as is true of people in other…

Ross Solly:                   But didn’t Tony Burke say last night that that wouldn’t be happening?

Andrew Leigh: My understanding was that the Minister was talking about people who went to PNG rather than people who came to Australia, but if there’s a new development that the Minister has announced in the last 24 hours, I’ll obviously defer to him.


Ross Solly:                   This is in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning. “Refugees and those in the community on bridging visas in Australia would have no right to bring family members who end up in PNG to join them.” Tony Burke said, “we’re not going to give someone an incentive that they get a higher level of family reunion because they got on a boat.”

Andrew Leigh: Oh, well that’s certainly consistent with Australian policy Ross, that you wouldn’t advantage your claim by coming by boat to Australia. But the fact remains, the people who’ve received humanitarian visas in Australia then have the opportunity to bring family members down the track. That doesn’t happen immediately, as your caller noted.


Ross Solly:                   Thanks chaps for coming in. There’s obviously a lot more discussion to have about this, but thank you very much for coming in. Andrew Leigh, Gary Humphries.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.