PAUL HENRY: It is Tuesday morning, this is Breakfast. Of course the big story today — it's been the big story for so long — asylum-seekers: how do we stop them getting on boats? Well, of course, yesterday Angus Houston handed down his report. It saw the Government immediately not so much fall on its sword, but leap head-first onto its sword and say 'that's it; we need a solution to this. We will accept this report in its entirety'. Craig Emerson, the Federal Trade Minister, joins me now. Craig, good morning to you. Thank you very much for your time.
CRAIG EMERSON: Good morning Paul.
HENRY: This is pretty much … this report is pretty much exactly the Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's plan that he presented to the Caucus, presented to the Prime Minister, 10 months ago. Do you regret that you didn't say yes then?
EMERSON: What we had 10 months ago was a desire to get a change in policy. At that time, the Opposition Leader was saying that he would not support any legislation unless we also agreed to temporary protection visas and to tow boats back out to sea. The Houston Report has said you cannot tow boats back out to sea without an agreement with Indonesia. There is no such agreement. We won't be doing that, but we will be embracing the Houston Report, which actually rules that out, at least for the foreseeable future. It does not support temporary protection visas.
HENRY: It doesn't entirely rule out, just as it doesn't entirely rule out …
EMERSON: I said 'for the foreseeable future'. It says that you can't do this in the absence of an agreement with Indonesia. And, Paul, Indonesia's made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions that there would be no such agreement. And on temporary protection visas, which Mr Abbott had sought, the Houston report does not — does not — support the restoration of temporary protection visas.
But that's happened. What we want to do, and I think the indications from the Coalition are good, is that we want to save lives at sea, and no one, no one gets any kind of … other than a very great sense of disappointment that so many people have lost their lives at sea. The indications from the Coalition this morning are positive. Let's now move forward in a spirit of bipartisanship.
HENRY: All right. That's good. And as I said at the beginning, effectively the Government has fallen on its sword. I congratulate you for it. You've been pragmatic; you're going to take potentially what is a small loss now for a much bigger victory for the country and, I think, for yourselves heading towards the federal election. Just very quickly…
EMERSON: The biggest stakes are not the political ones, to be honest with you; it is about people dying at sea.
HENRY: You're right.
EMERSON: And all decent people in Australia just say 'enough's enough — let's get a solution'. It looks, based on indications this morning that way may have one — which would be fantastic.
HENRY: And I know that is the important thing. It's a shame it wasn't the important thing last month, and the month before, and the month before.
EMERSON: It was important last month. We were trying to get it through.
HENRY: It's all about politics.
EMERSON: No. We were trying to get it through, Paul — that's not right. It was trying to get the legislation through and …
HENRY: Exactly, and what was stopping you …
EMERSON: And if you can't get the legislation …
HENRY: What was stopping you getting it through?
EMERSON: What was stopping it going through was, at that time, Mr Abbott's insistence that we also agree to tow boats back to sea. We did not agree, and the Houston Report does not endorse towing boats back to sea in the absence of an agreement with Indonesia, and there is no such agreement.
HENRY: All right. Very quickly: temporary protection visas. We don't actually need to worry about them with this plan because that's pretty much taken care of by removing the family reunion concessions, hasn't it?
EMERSON: Yeah. What the Houston Report does, which is a very good piece of policy, is, it's called a 'no advantage test'. That is, that there is no advantage to asylum-seekers getting on a boat compared with those who are stuck in refugee camps. That's both fair, fundamentally fair, and removes the incentive for people to get on those boats. I think the Australian people do accept immigration, they do accept the resettlement of refugees. They just want it orderly, and that's what the Houston Report has come up with: policies to make it orderly and fair, and that's why we're embracing it.
HENRY: Yep. Absolutely. Craig, you've said that it looks like the Opposition are going to support this. Let's talk about a timeline now. Say I'm an asylum-seeker, and I'm on a boat right now. What would you say to me? Does this mean that definitely I will be processed offshore? Does it mean that definitely there will be no family reunion concessions or anything like that?
EMERSON: Yeah. What we said is that as of yesterday, anyone getting on a boat at that time would be subject to the new regime. That is, that Parliament, Parliament today, will see the introduction of this new legislation. I think, based on what the Opposition's saying, is that they'll seek to expedite that. But as of yesterday, people getting on a boat will be treated under the new regime, and that is fundamentally what we just discussed, Paul: that there is no advantage to getting on a boat.
HENRY: Yeah. That is vitally important because you don't want the last-minute rush. Goodness only knows there are enough coming as it is.
EMERSON: Well I think we're seeing that actually. I think we've seen the last-minute rush because …
HENRY: I think you're right.
EMERSON: … they've seen that the Government looks like it's going to move on the basis of the Houston Report, and so the people-smugglers have said to asylum-seekers 'get in quick before it closes down'. That's what we want to do: close it down.
HENRY: I'm sure you're right. All right. Money spent in Nauru and PNG: when will those facilities — best-case scenario — when will they be up and running?
EMERSON: Well, we will involve Defence in this, which does mean that it's quicker than it otherwise would be. So all I can say, Paul, is that obviously it's in the interests of everyone for those facilities to be up and running as quickly as possible. But asylum-seekers who arrive in the meantime would be accommodated in Australia but then sent to Nauru.
HENRY: There was one item that didn't seem to be covered in the coverage of the release of the report, and maybe it wasn't in the report: the suggestion is that increasing the numbers to 20,000 from where they are now, just under 14,000, that the cost of this package will be about a billion dollars. Does that take into account the, I think, considerable amount of money that could well be saved with what will be hopefully a huge reduction in the number of boats coming in.
EMERSON: It's a good point, and they are estimates from Angus Houston and his team. They'll need to be subject to Finance costings. But your point is right in principle, and that is there are also savings here. We think it's more costly than the Coalition has asserted, but let's put that behind us. The important thing is to save lives at sea and, incidentally, as you say Paul, you're also saving money from lots of people arriving unauthorised, by boat. It's no good for them. It's no good for Australia. And it's no good for the people who are stuck in refugee camps, and it's certainly no good for people who drown at sea.
HENRY: Yep. Well, Craig, based on the fact that the majority of this interview is about what happens now, moving forward, I would congratulate you and the Government, because you have, I think, managed to snatch as much victory as possible as you can from what was a defeat. So congratulations on moving so quickly yesterday. Thanks for your time.
EMERSON: All right. Thanks Paul.
HENRY: Thanks a lot.
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