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Australia: Transcript of the Prime Minister interview with Radio 2UE: Illegal immigrants

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH ALAN JONES, RADIO 2UE

Subjects: Illegal immigrants

E&OE

JONES:

Prime Minister John Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Alan.

JONES:

Well, what are you going to do? Stick to your guns?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course. We do not believe that we have an international legal obligation to take these people. The vessel should not be in Australian territorial waters without our permission. We understand the pressures on the captain. We do understand that, although we don't accept that he apparently misrepresented the medical condition of the people on board. According to the Australian Defence Force doctor there weren't ten unconscious people, there were four people suffering dehydration, eight or ten with sprains and one with what he calls a soft fracture. There are enough medical supplies to look after them. He does not assess that any of them are in need of medical evacuation. Now I think it's important to emphasise that because the whole basis for most of yesterday for the captain's action in crossing our territorial sea-line was the medical emergency. So that has been on the evidence available to us, which I accept, has being proven to be wrong.

JONES:

Can I just ask you one question on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Mmm.

JONES:

Wasn't the crossing of international territorial sea-line in defiance of the sovereign government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes. We issued a clear instruction that he should not cross the territorial sea-line. He initially said he would accept it on certain conditions. He then within a matter of minutes said no I'm coming in because the emergency is so great. Now that was the sequence of events and it was when we got word that he was coming in, in defiance of his earlier undertaking and in defiance of our clear communication that I authorised the use of the SAS. I didn't like doing that and I understand it's a very difficult and tense situation. I feel sorry for his predicament.

JONES:

What powers do they have the SAS?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they effectively control the vessel. And we are obviously taking advice on and considering the situation and you will understand that I'm not going to further speculate at the moment because that wouldn't be helpful. The Government's view remains very firm that these people will not be allowed to land in Australia. This vessel has no right to be in Australian territorial waters. We have offered all the food and the water and the medical assistance that's necessary. It was the original intention of the captain to sail to Indonesia and under duress he turned to Australia. Now..

JONES:

Can I ask you something there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes sure.

JONES:

If therefore as many of my listeners are saying, and I see some letters to the paper asking, if as you just rightly said this container ship was on the way to Indonesia, and then your words under duress turned around and headed for Australia, do we have a case of piracy?

PRIME MINISTER:

I've not been advised that we do. I think we have clearly a legal right to defend the integrity of our own border. The other thing that should be remembered is that these people were picked up in the Indonesian search and rescue area of responsibility. The Norwegian vessel was directed to the sinking Indonesian vessel by an Australian aircraft and somehow or other some of the Norwegians are saying well that means its our responsibility. I mean that is a bit ridiculous.

JONES:

Did the request come to you originally from Indonesian authorities?

PRIME MINISTER:

My understanding, and mind you this is our search and rescue, is that the distress was picked up by an Australian facility, or an Australian aircraft, and then it was relayed to the Norwegian vessel. But you know, there's an arrangement between respective littoral states, between respective countries about search and rescue and if somebody's aircraft spots something well they transmit that to the nearest available ship and if that's in the Indonesian search and rescue area well obviously the Indonesians are involved. I mean the exact sequence of the contact between the Indonesians and the Australians is not strictly relevant. What is strictly relevant is that the people were picked up in the Indonesian search and rescue area.

JONES:

Now have you spoken to Mrs Sukarnoputri?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, but, not on this, but I will be in the next couple of days. But the right way of approaching this is for the Foreign Minister to engage the Indonesian Foreign Minister and he had a very lengthy discussion with him last night and I will be talking to the Indonesian President in the next day or two.

JONES:

They simply say [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

But I mean, I should say that I had a discussion about this issue with a number of people when I was in Indonesia. A couple of weeks ago. I mean I raised the whole issue of illegal immigration through Indonesia when I was in Jakarta and I put a proposition to the Indonesian government and that proposition was that we would pay for the construction of a very large detention centre in Indonesia. So that the Indonesian government would hold people there rather than allowing them to leave and come to Australia on boats. Now I put that, I mean any suggestion that that proposition has not already been put to the Indonesian government is quite wrong. Now the reaction of the Indonesian Government was reserved. They said that they would be happy to talk about it. They are not anxious clearly, to put their hand up. But we will continue to press them.

JONES:

Can I ask you a dumb question?

PRIME MINISTER:

You have to understand Alan that it's a new Government. We've been trying for months to engage the Indonesians on this and we haven't had much success.

JONES:

A dumb question that most of your listeners are asking you. How could allegedly Muslim refugees or people fleeing Muslim regimes be at any kind of risk in Muslim Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they wouldn't be. I wouldn't imagine so.

JONES:

So then why is it heartless and callous and inhumane to be asking Indonesia to take these people back?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't think it is. I mean.

JONES:

Isn't that central to this issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course it's central to this issue. I think it is monstrously unfair to describe Australia as heartless and inhumane. I mean we have the second best refugee record in the world. We take more refugees per capita than any country except Canada. Let me say that again, any country except Canada on a per capita basis. We took more Indo-Chinese refugees on a per capita basis than any country in the world including the United States. This country has had a magnificent refugee record and what we are arguing for in this case is the right to decide in an orderly fair way who will be accepted as a refugee into this country. We are not closing our doors to genuine refugees but we are saying we are unwilling to take people who are queue jumping. We are unwilling to have the integrity of our border controls compromised. That's what we're arguing for. We're arguing for the right that any country has to decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they will come. But that approach will always include a willingness to take refugees.

JONES:

I just want to ask you a question. I just want to give a time call here it is 7:30 and I will just take this, this is so important, I will just take this through the news. Prime Minister what many people are asking is, I know you've said I don't want to hypothesise, but what they are asking in the most fair dinkum way is, will you solve this next week? You've already said there's a prospect of 900 or 1000, I think you made the observation in the Parliament. There could be another 900 on their way. Will your attitude towards them be the same as your attitude towards these people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I'll answer that by saying this Allan. There are particular circumstances relating to the Tampa which wouldn't necessarily apply to other cases. But there is no doubt that the Tampa is only a small but significant part of a bigger problem and the bigger problem is the continued flow of people. I do think the way that we've responded in relation to the Tampa is sending a very strong signal. Let me answer it this way, we will do everything we can to defend the integrity of our borders consistent with our international obligations and the behaviour of a humane, decent country. This is an awful problem for Australia. On the one hand we want to defend our borders, rightly so, on the other hand, we are a decent people, we don't behave in a way that causes people to drown and to die, we don't shoot people, we don't carry on in that fashion and it's probably because of that that we are seen by many around the world as a soft touch.

JONES:

To that end, you introduced a Border Protection Bill last night and you've been done over.

PRIME MINISTER:

We've been done over by the Labor Party and the Democrats. They blocked it in the Senate. What this bill would have done would have been to reinforce our legal position and make it, beyond doubt, that if a government ordered a ship out of territorial waters, Australia's territorial waters, then that order could not be overturned by a court. That, in essence, is what that bill did.

JONES:

Yeah, Mr Beazley says that what you're doing is seeking power so that any Australian official can take a boat, which is sinking, in which there are life threatening situations involving the people on board, and order it out, drag it out, sink it and people die.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is just monstrous. I mean, there's no way an Australian Minister, be it a Liberal Minister or a Labor Minister, would behave in that inhumane fashion and I think it is a great pity that the alternative Prime Minister saw fit to say that.

JONES:

Are you confident that everything you're doing is legal, both within Australian law and international law?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I am. That is our advice and we will not behave in an illegal fashion. What the bill would have done would have been to reinforce our legal position, not only in relation to the Tampa but it would also have provided additional legal authority in relation to other circumstances. I even offered the Labor Party an amendment so that the bill would have only operated for six months and then whichever government is elected at the next election would then have looked at it anew and decided whether they were going to try and continue it. Now I thought that was a reasonable compromise. He had reservations and didn't like aspects of it so I said to him, okay, a compromise is to run it for six months and that would have taken it through to February of next year. Now, there'll be an election before then and if the Labor Party wins, well they can decide what they're going to do with it, if we win we can decide what we're going to do with it. Now, I couldn't, for the life of me, understand why he didn't accept that. I mean, all you'd have been doing is giving us this legal reinforcement for a period of six months but he said no. So I don't have the numbers in the Senate and the combination of the Labor Party and the Democrats sent that bill crashing down.

JONES:

One final question, Prime Minister, you have said that this raises - and I think many Australians agree - the legitimate question about, do we have sovereign rights to control who comes in and under what circumstances they come in and that is one of the big issues. Isn't there a bigger issue here now which has been internationally highlighted, that there are problems with refugees right around the world? We have the United Nations [inaudible] we pour heaps of money in, governments stick fortunes into the United Nations. They aren't functioning adequately to solve either the brutality that exists within certain regimes around the world. We say Afghanistan is one but Mugabe in Zimbabwe is murdering people hand over fist and getting away with it, indeed, potentially coming to a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and there are people, millions of them across Europe who are homeless as a result of their fleeing from these repressive regimes. Is this an opportunity for Australia to initiate some debate in the United Nations as to how, in a most contemporary way, these sorts of people can be humanely dealt with?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it certainly is. I mean, we have been a country that's always worked very closely with the High Commission for Refugees. I mean, I've been critical of some aspects of the UN's operation. I'm not critical of the operations of the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees. I think they do an excellent job. The tragedy is that we spend too much money in dealing with illegal immigration and if we didn't have to spend it on that we could spend more money on the orderly resettlement of genuine refugees. I mean, we're spending an enormous amount of money on this. I'd far rather it, you know, go into things, certainly a number of things in Australia first and foremost but I'd also, you know, see some of it going towards helping the people who are living in pitiful conditions in refugee camps around the world.

JONES:

One final - I did say that was the final question, I'll let you go now, but I mean, there are some headlines today which say you will be forced to some sort of backdown. Are there any circumstances in which John Howard as Prime Minister of Australia would be backing down on this issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am determined to see this through. I mean, nobody...you can never completely foresee all of the future but any suggestion that I'm sort of looking for a way out in terms of changing our position on the people being allowed to come, no. We'll obviously continue to talk to the United Nations, we'll talk to Indonesia, we'll talk to Norway. It's always sensible, no matter how strong your position is, it's always sensible to go on talking. We don't want this to go on. We want it resolved. But it can't be resolved on the basis that Australia will simply say, okay, you can come. Now, if that happens the rest of those who want to come will say, okay, this is good, they will always in the end take us. And that will only increase the number of people who will try to get to this country. I mean, this is the dilemma we have. We have tried for several years now an approach of uninterrupted access to Australia. We've now reached a situation where because of particular circumstances we're able quite legitimately and legally, without any legal argument, to say no you can't come and that is not only important in itself but it raises the broader issue of what we do about all of the others and I don't have an easy answer to that. We'll behave lawfully and we'll behave humanely but to the best of our ability...

JONES:

So not open season.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it's not and it shouldn't be and it isn't.

JONES:

And you are there also to represent the views of the Australian electorate. You've got to reflect public concern, don't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I've got to reflect public opinion but I've also got to defend the national interest and it is clearly not in Australia's national interest to continue to be saying to the world, we are an easy target.

JONES:

Good to talk to you, thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[Ends]