JOHN MCGLUE: Well, high hopes today of a breakthrough on asylum seekers. As you'll know, the Prime Minister's expert panel delivered its recommendations yesterday, and the Government has indicated it will introduce legislation into Federal Parliament today to give voice to those recommendations. The Government said in principle that they will accept the Houston recommendations as a whole. And, in doing so, the Government is back-flipping on positions which it was holding firm just a couple of weeks ago, including the idea of offshore processing in Nauru.
Now, not surprisingly, some of the Liberals are claiming a political victory. But Prime Minister Julia Gillard is stressing that this is all about people rather than domestic politics.
Well, we'll have a definitive picture of where everyone stands on this later today when the debate starts up in Federal Parliament.
But I'm now joined by Richard Marles who is the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs to give the Government perspective on what's going to happen today.
Richard, good morning.
RICHARD MARLES: Good morning John. How are you?
JOHN MCGLUE: I'm well, thank you. Now, can you explain, first of all, what was the thinking behind Labor accepting all of the recommendations, in principle, of the expert panel?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I suppose it's a simple proposition. We have a political deadlock in this country which I think the people of Australia found very distressing, particularly in the last week of Parliament before we broke in June. At that point we put in place this expert panel to try and break the impasse, and that's what they've done.
They've come up with a set of recommendations which they say upfront need to be taken as a package. It's not just about going to Nauru or Manus. In fact, they argue that is a small part of it. It is a total package which includes increasing our refugee intake and looking at ways in which we can pursue the Malaysian arrangement. What they stress is that all this has to be taken as a package and you can't cherry-pick.
Now, in good faith, there's much in this which requires compromise on the Government's part. But we know that what we're seeing in the journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island is one of the most dangerous journeys in pursuit of refuge anywhere in the world. People are dying in their hundreds; 600 people have perished in the last two years. There is a moral obligation to do something about it and today that's what's going to happen.
I think today is not a day about proclaiming political wins or political victories. Today is a day where all sides of politics need to rise above the arguments which have beset us for almost a decade, or more than a decade, and actually do something about this in a bipartisan way and start saving those lives at sea.
JOHN MCGLUE: How difficult is it for you though, I wonder, to now have to support offshore processing? This is a policy that you vehemently opposed and fought again, and it's been said so many times by the Labor side of politics that it goes against Labor principles.
RICHARD MARLES: I don't think the question was ever about offshore processing. The significant Vietnamese communities we have in this country, which came after the Vietnam War, came via offshore processing. Much of the current refugee intake that we have at the moment is done through processing people in refugee camps around the world, in Asia and Africa. That is offshore processing. There's nothing particularly sacred about that idea.
But, sure, there are issues involved in this report which require the Government to compromise, and that's what we're doing.
Now, is that hard? Yeah, it is; it's really hard. But when faced with the prospect of being unable to do something about this terrible loss of life at sea unless both sides of politics in a sense, lay down their arms, get together and compromise, so we can come up with something which makes a difference, well we're going to see this loss continue.
So, as difficult as it might be, we're doing it because it's the right thing to do. We said from the outset when we appointed this expert panel we would accept what they handed down, whatever that meant. They've now done this and we're going to run with it.
JOHN MCGLUE: It's 22 to nine. You're with John McGlue on 720 ABC Perth and Local Radio right throughout Western Australia. My guest is Richard Marles, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, and we're talking about how the Government is responding to the expert panel's recommendations - 22 recommendations - that came down yesterday on asylum seekers.
Richard Marles, can you take us through what's going to happen in Parliament today? Is the Government proceeding with introducing the new legislation?
RICHARD MARLES: Yes, that's right John. As your listeners will be aware, we have a piece of legislation which is already in the Parliament, which was the subject of much debate back in June.
This afternoon as soon as Question Time is finished - and the Parliament doesn't actually open today until this afternoon, til two o'clock eastern Australian time - we'll go into Question Time and then immediately after that we will introduce amendments to the legislation which is currently before the House, to basically implement the Houston report.
That will make it possible for there to be offshore processing and it will say that the place in which this processing is to occur should be set by regulation. That's the way in which the Houston report recommends that the legislation be implemented. By regulation, we will nominate both Papua New Guinea in terms of Manus Island, and Nauru, and we'll do that upfront.
Now, further down the…
JOHN MCGLUE: Have you spoken to the government there, by the way? Have you spo…
RICHARD MARLES: Contact was made with both the governments of PNG and Nauru yesterday. Again, the report came out at about 7.00am eastern Australian time yesterday morning. Immediately after that our officials in both Nauru and PNG and Malaysia briefed those governments about the contents of the report. So those governments are well aware of what's going - what's occurring here in Australia.
So we'll walk down that legislative path, as it's been laid out by the Houston report. We are hopeful that the Opposition will support that. That's of course what we will see when we are in the Parliament this afternoon.
JOHN MCGLUE: Can I ask you have you spoken with the Opposition? Have you sought to gain their support either late last night or early today?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I haven't personally but I think there has been a lot of interaction between the Government and the Opposition. But, to be frank, it's hard to imagine an issue which could have been more publicly examined. So there's no doubt from the Opposition about what our position is, and vice versa. There's not much doubt - from our point of view - about what theirs is. We'll hope that common-sense prevails. It needs to, John, because this is a very important issue and we simply have to see that loss of life at sea stops. And this is the way to do it.
JOHN MCGLUE: Well, we know the Greens have said they're not going to support this. It all comes down to the Coalition. What's your guess on whether they will support this legislation or not?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I very much hope they do, John. I think it is very important that we move beyond the old arguments and the old lines which have beset us for more than a decade but which were particularly loud at the last sitting of Parliament back in June. I think we've got to move beyond all of that and actually solve this issue. There have been some encouraging noises from the Opposition this morning so I'm hopeful that that's what we will see.
But, really, the Australian people are expecting that of us. What was completely clear when Parliament broke back in June, as I spoke to my constituents and as I know all the other parliamentarians spoke to theirs, there was a sense in which politics had failed the people of Australia and that what people wanted to see was a resolution to this.
Well, the Angus Houston report gives us that. Now, it gives us that as a package. It's not about cherry-picking it. It's very important that people don't do that. It's laid out a package which breaks the impasse. We are going to support that package and now we're calling to the Opposition to do the same.
JOHN MCGLUE: Good to talk with you today.
RICHARD MARLES: Thanks John.
JOHN MCGLUE: That's Richard Marles, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs.
- Parliamentary Secretary's Office: (02) 6277 4330
- Departmental Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555