Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Sustainable population leadership

E&OE transcript
Lateline with Leigh Sales
17 September 2010

LEIGH SALES: For more on federal politics we're joined tonight in our Sydney studio by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Community, Tony Burke, and by the Shadow Immigration, Productivity and Population Minister, Scott Morrison.

Gentlemen your titles are so long we're almost out of time.

Let's start with the announcement of the expansion of the immigration detention centres.

Scott Morrison isn't this a necessary short term decision for Labor to take while it figures out the longer term strategy?

SCOTT MORRISON: Well as long as the boats keep coming then we're going to be in this situation of needing more beds, it's that simple. I think that's what Tony just said.

But this won't be just a short term solution, this will be a far longer term solution because the Minister flagged himself today that he would be looking at more beds down the track when he has the opportunity to consider what other further options are available.

But what didn't happen today was the opening of third-country off-shore processing. Had the Coalition been in government today then that's what we would have been announcing with the reopening of beds in Nauru.

Timor is not open today, East Timor won't be open tomorrow, it won't be open this term.

Kevin Rudd needs to convince himself of the proposition, let alone the East Timorese.

So, I think that's what it showed today, that the Government's position is that more people are coming, more beds are needed and nothings that changed.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke?

TONY BURKE: The announcement today is because the numbers have been going up for a few reasons. One is that a whole lot of people have had failed claims.

Now, when people have successful claims they're straight into the community. When they have failed claims, then they remain in detention until their appeals have concluded or until they are put on a plane and repatriated home.

Now, there is a court case at the moment before the High Court where a lot of these issues are being tested. We have an unusual situation where we have a high number of people, who have been unsuccessful in their claims, waiting for legal processes to conclude.

I'm sure if Scott were in the job that Chris Bowen's in today, if it had turned out that way, Scott would have been faced with a very similar situation.

Surely in advance of the High Court, you're not going to actually start putting people on planes when you've got court orders to not do so.

LEIGH SALES: But what about what Scott Morrison says about you not addressing the root issue which is the increasing number of boat arrivals?

TONY BURKE: Well, Scott says that in terms of comparing Nauru with East Timor. Let's not forget what Nauru was last time, and that was a holding bay. Once the electoral cycle was at the right point people were put on planes and brought to Australia.

After the '04 election all but two of the people who were on Nauru were brought to Australia anyway.

The difference with what the Government's talking about with East Timor is to have a regional solution with more countries involved.

As long as Australia is the only country involved Nauru is nothing but a holding bay as a political solution.

LEIGH SALES: Scott Morrison that is what happened with Nauru.

SCOTT MORRISON: But what Labor always does is overlook the fact that when we implemented the solution we had last time, together with temporary protection visas, and the other measures that we he had, including turning boats back - the boats stopped coming.

The boats stopped coming and that was the goal of these policies and that's what needs to be done again, we need to stop those boats coming so we don't have this one-way asylum traffic into this, what has become a dead end of detention.

The other thing that Tony didn't mention is the reason there are so many people are caught up in detention at the moment is the discriminatory asylum freeze that was introduced on the 9th of April.

They've been there now for five months. That could have been lifted today. The Coalition said if we were elected we would have lifted that.

I think it should be lifted. I don't think it's right that people from one particular nationality should be denied an assessment.

That's what's been taking place and that's why the system is clogging up as much as it is. The approval rate from the figures for the 2009/10 for those who have come was still sitting in the 70 per cent range, in fact, I think it was a little bit higher than that and the appeals process the Government introduced was far more lengthy than the one that we had under our arrangement.

So it is clogged up it'll stay that way, and that's why we will be spending more on more beds.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke, is it possible that expanding facilities on the mainland sends a message overseas that Australia accepts the increasing number of arrivals?

TONY BURKE: I don't think anyone can argue that. The expansion of facilities is something that's required to make sure that people are being treated decently while we're waiting for these processes to be worked through. I don't really think there's an option there.

If I can just pick up quickly though on what Scott said about temporary protection visas.

When temporary protection visas were introduced the number of boats went up...

SCOTT MORRISON: That's not true, the number of people went up but the number of boats didn't go up Tony...

LEIGH SALES: Let's allow him....

SCOTT MORRISON: I've heard you say it before.

LEIGH SALES: ... to make his point.

TONY BURKE: The other thing is when did the boats slow down? Following the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That was the critical timing issue, not the introduction of temporary protection visas.

LEIGH SALES: The West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, says that his state is taking a disproportionate amount of asylum seekers and that it is a "powder-keg-type circumstance".

What's the Federal Government's response to that?

TONY BURKE: Detention environments always need to be carefully managed and there were some terrible situations before we came to office where some of the detention centre environments had some very significant cultural problems.

These need to be carefully managed, making sure that you've got the extra capacity is part of being able to do that.

LEIGH SALES: Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott said today that Labor's lost control of our borders and of course we've heard members of the Coalition say that before.

Isn't that just nonsense? We're talking about a few thousand people and doesn't the use of that phrase 'we're losing control of our borders' unnecessarily create fear in the community?

SCOTT MORRISON: No, what it means is that the Labor have been unable to stem the unprecedented flow of boats.

There have been 95 boats this year. We've never had 95 boats in a calendar year before and it's not even the end of September.

We've got 5,000 people in detention. We've never had that many people in detention before.

That's led to a cost blowout in costs of $1.1 billion. These are significant costs and today we've had the announcement of further 1,000 beds and no announcement of costs and we do know that 600 beds at Curtin cost just under $100 million a year to run.

So these decisions have consequences and the Western Australian Premier has highlighted some of those consequences, consequences for our courts, consequences for how people are managed in prisons and various other things when they face people smuggling charges.

It's dominoing now all around the country. And when you get the policy wrong at the start, then this is what flows.

LEIGH SALES: Why haven't we heard the costings on this announcement today?

TONY BURKE: I'm not privy on those parts as to the staging of when different parts of the announcement are going to be brought forward.

LEIGH SALES: In April last year you started work on a population strategy that was due to report back in a year's time, say next April.

Firstly given all that's happened with the election is that still on track and then what sort of process are you engaged with and what should we be expecting to see come out of that report?

TONY BURKE: At the moment, we have lost some time. Election Day went for 17 days and Treasury took a decision during the caretaker period that because the method of devising a population strategy was politically contested that the population panels would not meet during the course of the caretaker period.

So we've lost quite a few weeks.

It's still our intention for those panels to get up and going again quickly now. They then put together the issues paper.

That gets released over summer for full public consultation and we're still intending to work towards the April deadline for the release of the strategy.

We have lost some time so we'll see with the new administrative arrangements whether we can keep to that, but it is our intention to do so.

LEIGH SALES: And Scott Morrison does the Coalition have any issues with that? That this now comes under your ballpark, obviously?

SCOTT MORRISON: Sure, well we'll see how Tony's process continues. Obviously we had a different view about how it should go with a productivity and sustainability commission process and we didn't form government, so Tony will implement his process and I'll look forward to being kept informed of that as we go forward.

I mean there are so many issues involved in this, as we've both said on many occasions.

From my end with the link with productivity, I mean one of the things I often said when it came to keeping our population growth under control, to ensure your economy continued to perform meant looking at productivity improvements.

Productivity improvements are the things that significantly impact on our prosperity going forward and have frankly for the last 50 years, so I'll be spending a lot of time focusing on that area as well.

LEIGH SALES: If we can turn to climate change which was another big issue around this week.

Scott Morrison, has Marius Kloppers' interjection into the debate, saying that Australia should impose a price on carbon ahead of the rest of the world, left the Coalition out on a limb?

SCOTT MORRISON: No, not at all, not at all. We're not in favour of a carbon tax. I know that the Prime Minister said she wasn't in favour of one before the election, but now is apparently open to the idea.

By the way, they also said they wouldn't expand Curtin before the last election, now they are.

But no, we are, I think, totally in sync with where the Australian community is on this issue and that is really that we don't want to see 25 per cent increases in electricity prices for families and households.

We don't want to ensure that we're imposing a cost on business that the rest of the world is not without trading partners and our position is crystal clear.

LEIGH SALES: But when you've got a very significant business figure like Marius Kloppers coming out and making the statements he did this week, does that not give you even pause to think about your policy and where it's headed and whether it is in step with what business is looking for?

SCOTT MORRISON: Well, even the National Farmers Federation or the Australian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, they've both distanced themselves from those comments.

I think Marius has made his contribution but I don't think he speaks for all business and particularly small business who would bear the brunt of a carbon tax and we're not about to put burdens on business and we're not about to put burdens on people's household budgets.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Bourke, Julia Gillard's commissioned this Climate Change Committee to have a look at the issue. We've had the Shergold Report, we've had the Garnaut Report, how much more talk and investigation do we require?

TONY BURKE: The missing part of being able to take action on climate change was to get the political consensus.

There was a period of about three days where we thought we had a political consensus at the end of last year and then, because of the change of leadership in the Opposition at the time, that fell apart.

We want to be able to get the political consensus on this. And that's one of the reasons why Julia Gillard is not playing a rule-in, rule-out game every time somebody comes forward with a suggestion.

LEIGH SALES: But how do you build political consensus around a non-existent policy? Don't you have to announce policy first and then bring people on board?

TONY BURKE: Well, the principle is to be able to reduce your greenhouse emissions. That's the principle.

The science, the consensus is elsewhere, that that's what needs to be done. The mechanism and how you do it is something where we had a political consensus, then we lost it and the result has been that we've ended up with inaction.

There are areas of action, that's true, there's areas where there is various pushes towards renewables and things that are being done, but in terms of an overall strategy on emissions we don't have it.

A political consensus will give us a way of getting there.

LEIGH SALES: What were you going to say?

SCOTT MORRISON: Well I was going to say is that the Government's problem here is that they want to be all things to all people on this issue.

They want to say that they're sort of in favour of price of carbon but then be opposed to a carbon tax before an election. I mean the Government has to make up its mind what direction it wants to go here.

I mean if the you stick your head out the car window every five minutes and ask people for directions, people are going to think you don't know where you're going and I think that's where the Government is on this issued.

I mean if, Tony Abbott is not asking people for directions on this. He knows exactly where he is heading on this and the Coalition's very united on it. I think the....

LEIGH SALES: Well really?

SCOTT MORRISON: ... Government needs to show some leadership.

LEIGH SALES: You've got Malcolm Turnbull in your ranks. We've had Tony Abbott previously say climate change is crap and now embraced direction action?

SCOTT MORRISON: Just as on the issue, other issue I'm responsible for in the area of asylum seekers, there will be individuals within our ranks that may have a different view and Malcolm does have a different view on that issue.

But our policy is very clear and the Australian people know it. On the Government side, we're not getting that clarity and I think that's one of the reasons why so many people walked way from the Labor Party at the last election, because they just don't know what they stand for anymore.

LEIGH SALES: And is the Coalition committed to not being involved in this committee and having a voice in that?

SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I will leave that to Greg Hunt and for Tony to comment upon, but our view on this matter I think is very clear and obviously if those sorts of options are on the table, then we're clearly opposed to them.

LEIGH SALES: Because I'm just wondering if your voters would feel that if there is some sort of policy that goes through the Parliament with the support of the independents and the Greens, that they may want your side to have a voice in that process.

SCOTT MORRISON: Well, we have a voice in the Parliament. Let's not set aside the Parliament here.

I mean the phone book focus group that the Government proposed and all of these other processes there, that at the end of the day the Parliament is the body that will make decisions on that matter and we'll engage in that debate strongly and ferociously and make our case very clearly.

TONY BURKE: Can I just cut in there? In a hung parliament, to be able to get legislation through in the national interest, we're going to have to be able to be willing to act in a consensus way, and you know a week ago we had group hug moments, we had all the talk about consensus.

If the Coalition takes the view that we just want everything to run as it has in previous parliaments and ignore the fact that we have a hung parliament, we're not going to end up with a situation in the national interest.

There will be the odd political gain here and there, but I think at the end the public will be pretty much unimpressed.

LEIGH SALES: But that's easy for you to say when you're sitting in the Government seat because you have everything to gain if there's consensus and presumably Scott Morrison's side doesn't.

SCOTT MORRISON: And we're not interesting in a carbon tax. We're not supporting an ETS and if this process clearly wants to pursue those as their favoured options then obviously our view is clear.

I mean the Coalition is not going to be bullied into these processes by the Government or others.

We had a strong vote at the last election. In fact, we had members elected than the Coalition, than the Government, and we are going to represent those who voted so strongly for us.

It was the Government that lost 16 seats, it was the Government that lost their majority in the Parliament and so we feel very buoyed and encouraged by the strong support we've had for these very views that we took to the electorate and we'll be faithful to them.

We're not going to sell those people out.

LEIGH SALES: I wanted to touch on a couple of other issues quickly before we run out of time. Tony Abbott made it clear this week that he sees broadband as a key battle area.

I mentioned the 'ferocious assault' line earlier and he said that he hoped the coalitions might change their minds on that.

Scott Morrison is the Coalition's hope that sometime within the next couple of years the independents going to realise, 'oh, we made the wrong decision', and then switch over to your side? Is that what you're hoping will happen?

SCOTT MORRISON: Well I can't begin to imagine or forecast what the independents will do. What we will do is continue to outline our position on the issue, whether it's broadband or the myriad of other policies and we will be consistent about that.

Malcolm, in particular, I think will be well placed to highlight the very real weaknesses and impracticalities of what the Government has put forward on broadband, as Tony Abbott has said, 'the School Halls on steroids'.

Now it's for the Government now to deliver, and this is the challenge for the Government in this term. They made commitments to the electorate and the electorate will expect them to deliver them and the idea of hung parliaments and couldn't convince the independents and all these sorts of things, they will not be excuses in the electorate's eyes.

They will be held to account for what they went to the people on.

LEIGH SALES: On the independents, Tony Burke, what if Labor doesn't back Rob Oakeshott in his bid to be Speaker? Does it worry your side that he has to be kept happy all the time?

TONY BURKE: There's issues to be worked through on the Speaker issue. Rob Oakeshott as a candidate has merit. There's an agreement that was made with the Coalition that, depending on the time of day they're either agreeing to or they've walked away from now, but this is only going to work with a level of goodwill.

LEIGH SALES: We're out of time. Tony Burke and Scott Morrison, thank you very much.


TONY BURKE: Thanks Leigh.