LYNDAL CURTIS: One of the central planks of the Government’s latest policy on asylum seekers is what’s called the ‘no disadvantage’ test for the time it takes to process asylum claims but it’s still a test without a firm definition. The President of the Human Rights Commission has told a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra today it has no legal content yet. She is, however, happy with the Government’s decisions to allow reviews of adverse ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] security assessments for asylum seekers. The Government’s attacking the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, for failing to raise with the Indonesian President the Coalition’s policy of turning back asylum boats where safe to do so. Joining me to discuss the day are two Senators in town for the Estimates, Labor’s Louise Pratt and the Liberals’ Simon Birmingham. Welcome to the program.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon.
LOUISE PRATT: Good afternoon.
LYNDAL CURTIS: First to Mr Abbott’s visit to Jakarta. After telling an audience in Jakarta that a Federal Coalition Government would have a policy of no surprises, he went on to a meeting with Indonesia’s President and didn’t discuss the policy to turn back boats.
CHRIS BOWEN: He talks tough in Canberra, doesn’t talk at all in Jakarta. He’s a lion in Canberra and a mouse in Indonesia. He is simply not willing to try and talk to the President of Indonesia about this policy which he beats his chest about whenever he’s got TV cameras in front of him in Australia but won’t even raise with the people who are the key to making it work.
ERIC ABETZ: Do you honestly believe that the President of Indonesia does not know what Australian Liberal policy or what Australian Coalition policy is in relation to turning back the boats? Of course he knows what our policy is in that area along with a host of other areas. What you do with these delegations, as I’ve just said, is that you have your headline meeting with, in this case, the President of the country and then you break off into individual meetings with Shadow Ministers or Ministers relevant to the particular portfolio and discuss those issues in detail.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, Mr Abbott told the lunch yesterday that the Coalition would deal with Indonesia as a candid friend and never make decisions that impact on Indonesia without discussing them first. Why not begin the leader-to-leader discussions now on a policy that Indonesia has problems with?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Lyndal, I think it’s evident here that we are treating Indonesia with great respect and what is remarkable, and we are grateful for, is the respect that Indonesia has shown in return to the Coalition. It is remarkable to have a Leader of the Opposition meet with the Indonesian President. It is a meeting of status that is not normally afforded to Leaders of Oppositions around the world.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The two did meet, though, when the Indonesian President came to Darwin.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: However, it is unusual in the visit of a Leader of the Opposition to another country to have these types of engagements. It was a successful meeting. Of course, in a meeting at that head-of-government level, you’re going to expect to have general policy discussions and then, when you’ve had that general policy discussion, you go through, as occurred, with Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison and the senior Indonesian Ministers, detailed policy discussions. That is what occurred. That’s the normal order of things.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Why not have that detailed policy discussion at a leader level, given that, if Mr Abbott wins the next election, he’ll be the Prime Minister and this is something that will take some management with Indonesia, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And obviously without, of course, going through the detail of discussions, because Mr Abbott has said he want to respect the confidence of the Indonesian President or any world leader with whom he deals, but Mr Abbott has indicated it’s been a successful meeting with the Indonesian Prime Minister. We have that rapport now established and I have absolutely no doubt that if we win the next election the relationship between a Coalition Government and Indonesia will be far, far stronger than it has been under this Labor Government just as it was previously because we won’t have surprises like ending the live cattle trade or things like that that have fundamentally damaged aspects of our relationship with Indonesia and trust between the two countries.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, as Simon, says, the issue was discussed at a subsequent meeting between Julia Bishop, Scott Morrison and the Indonesian Foreign [Affairs] Minister, Marty Natalegawa. It’ll be fair to say, wouldn’t it, that Indonesia will be entirely unsurprised that the turnback of boats is part of the Coalition’s policy suite.
LOUISE PRATT: Well, Tony Abbott said that he would talk to the Indonesian President about this issue and he has failed to do so. He said he would have dialogue and he hasn’t and I think what that shows… that this policy of turning back the boats is actually about a domestic messaging issue for Australia. It’s not a serious policy, credible policy, and he knows that the Indonesian Government and, indeed, that Australian law enforcement and customs officials don’t think it’s a credible policy either.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But the process of managing the policy with the Indonesian Government… isn’t that something you do when the policy is actually implemented, when you win Government – that’s when you start the talks?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, I think the only reason he… if there was goodwill towards this policy already from Indonesia, why wouldn’t they have discussed it?
LYNDAL CURTIS: So you think that… sorry, Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Equally, if the President of Indonesia had such serious misgivings about it, why didn’t he ask Mr Abbott about it?
LYNDAL CURTIS: Well, it is Mr Abbott’s policy, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And surely that’s just it – if the President had such serious misgivings, as some want to try to pretend is the case, why would he not have raised it with Mr Abbott? Obviously it was a ‘two-way street’ conversation between President Yudhoyono and Mr Abbott. Each had the opportunity, I’ve got no doubt, to discuss a range of factors. In the end, it was, as we’ve been told, a cordial, successful general policy discussion over a range of issues, not just, of course, this important issue of dealing with people smugglers.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Do you know if the Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, raised concerns about it in his subsequent meeting with Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No. I’ve seen comments by Julie and Scott that make clear that the detail of the policy measures, along with other detailed issues, were more broadly canvassed in that meeting but, at all of these levels, we’ve sought to respect the confidence of meeting with these senior Indonesian Ministers and not repeat what it is they’ve said or the issues they’ve raised.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on now to the Government’s policy. The President of the [Australian] Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, has welcomed the decision to review ASIO’s security assessments of asylum seekers but she says the definition of ‘no advantage’ test which means asylum seekers get no advantage in processing their claims by coming to Australia than they would if they stayed in Indonesia is far from clear.
GILLIAN TRIGGS: At the moment, the concept of ‘no advantage’ appears to have no legal content. We don’t know what it means. It may acquire a meaning but at the moment there is no benchmark or average against which one can measure an advantage or disadvantage.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, do you think the lack of certainty about the processing times could, in the end, be a deterrent in itself?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Lyndal, I think what we want to make clear is that asylum seekers and more particularly, though, people smugglers actually see very clearly that Australia has a clear policy and a well understood policy. The idea of having a policy that we either don’t know what it is or won’t say what it is doesn’t exactly sound like something that’s going to turn people smugglers away. They’ve taken every chance along the way to ‘gain’ the system, to exercise legal challenges, to make sure they take every advantage possible in this cruel trade of people across the seas and a dangerous voyage that people have to take. I think we should be making sure that our policies are clearly known, clearly understood and clearly spelt out to dissuade them of this. I don’t think the idea that, because the Government doesn’t know what its policies are, it will create a situation where people smugglers are somehow turned away… just doesn’t gel.
LYNDAL CURTIS: I’ll ask you both – you first, Simon – are you happy with the decision of the Federal Government to allow a review by a former Federal Court judge of adverse ASIO assessments of asylum seekers?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think a balance obviously always needs to be struck in these matters, Lyndal, and it is important that security factors remain a paramount consideration in determining whether people are able to stay in Australia or not and that should always be at the top of considerations, so I want to see the detail of the review mechanism that’s been proposed to ensure it keeps security at the forefront but allows an appropriate mechanism for review of such determinations.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on, finally, to the Prime Minister’s trip to India. She’s hoping to build relations in the country where it’s arguable that Australia has not put in enough effort. She’s announced cricketer Sachin Tendulkar will be made a Member of the Order of Australia.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Maybe more importantly, is Australia’s decision – the Labor Party’s decision – last year to allow uranium sales to India…
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, do you think it’s wise to take the time to put in place the safeguards that are needed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Of course you need to put in place the safeguards that are needed. Australia has a very strong tradition of successfully doing so, in exporting uranium to many countries around the world including states with nuclear weapons. What, of course, is disappointing is: we should have been taking these steps five years ago when we, under the Howard Government, started a process of indicating we’d make sales to India and negotiate this. This, of course, is now a repair job of the relationship with India to try to get things back on track after decisions like this to cut it and then change the mind and reopen those negotiations.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that’s where we’ll have to leave it. Louise Pratt and Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time.
LOUISE PRATT: Thank you, Lyndal.