ABC Lateline










WEDNESDAY, 9 JULY 2014                 



TONY JONES, PRESENTER: To discuss the situation with those Sri Lankan asylum seekers and other developments in the region we were joined just a short time ago in the studio by the Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek.

Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us.


JONES: Do you agree with Senator Hanson-Young that the 153 asylum seekers held in limbo on the high seas is Tony Abbott's Tampa?

PLIBERSEK: Well look, obviously we have concerns for the welfare of these people. They have been at sea for some weeks now.

And what concerns us too is the culture of secrecy that's developing from this Government. We need to find out details about these people from the High Court, from the governments of other countries. It's completely unacceptable.

JONES: What about this analogy with the Tampa?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm not sure exactly what Sarah Hanson-Young means by that. I am concerned about the people, the fact that they're still at sea. And if she's alluding to the fact that India has said that they won't accept these asylum seekers and that perhaps they will be returned to Sri Lanka, then I think, you know, there are some very serious concerns about the type of processing that's been done.

The lack of detail about the type of processing, the lack of detail of the condition of the people onboard, who's onboard, whether they do have a claim for asylum or not: all of these are questions that, really, our Government should be sharing with the Australian people.

JONES: Is it clear to you, as a statement of principle, that if they have been in India - Sri Lankans living in India and they've gotten on a boat to try to reach Australia - that they cannot be sent back to Sri Lanka if they have sought refuge from there in the past?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I really don't want to get into a legal discussion about this. This is something that our courts are deciding at the moment.

JONES: But non-refoulement is a pretty basic international principle, isn't it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, non-refoulement is a pretty basic international principle. But if people don't have a valid claim to asylum then, of course, we have returned people who have been seeking asylum and be found not to have a valid claim - if they have been properly processed.

JONES: But that's only if they've come from the country that they're being returned to, like Sri Lanka, for example: you did return 1,000 Sri Lankans to Sri Lanka. But if they'd come from India, would you have returned them to Sri Lanka?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I can't answer questions that are now currently being decided by our courts, Tony. If I knew the answer to that, I don't think we'd need to have this issue being decided by the courts.

It is complex and one of the things that is most troubling about it is that we don't know any of the details. We don't know who these people are, whether they've made a claim for asylum, how that's being determined, what their claim is, whether they themselves say that they fear persecution if they're returned to Sri Lanka. We don't know any of these details.

JONES: What do you actually think should happen to them? Should they be sent for processing, as some are suggesting, immediately to Christmas Island?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think, given the slim reports we have suggest that the boat was near Christmas Island, it would have been a more sensible option to process them on Christmas Island.

I think, you know, there's probably a degree of Scott Morrison not wanting to land a boat on Christmas Island behind some of these extraordinary decisions that we've seen to take unprecedented steps of... I mean, processing en masse by videoconference is one rumour we've heard. Who knows what's actually happening here?

JONES: But what do you think should happen to them? Where should they go?

PLIBERSEK: I just said to you that, given the boat was near Christmas Island, it seems that that would have been a more sensible option.

JONES: Now would it be...

PLIBERSEK: It's reported it was near Christmas Island. Again, I can't say that definitively. None of us know.

JONES: Would it be logical for them to be sent to one of the two Pacific detention centres which the Labor government itself set up in Nauru or Manus Island?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think offshore processing has been part of our immigration system for some time now and given the boat was apparently near Christmas Island it would make sense to process them there.

JONES: What about the fact that there are apparently 30 or more children onboard?

PLIBERSEK: Of course, Tony, it troubles me or anyone that there are children whose lives are at risk making a very dangerous journey. If it is indeed true that they have made the journey from India, it's a very long and a very dangerous journey. And nobody wants to see parents risking the lives of their children like this.

JONES: But would it be appropriate, given that they're already at sea, for those children to end up in one of those two detention centres, Nauru or Manus Island, both of which have seen violent riots?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think you do have to ask some questions about how detention centres are being run at the moment.

I think it's very clear that the Government have been very focused on deterrence. And some of the conditions that we would expect people to be held in when they are in the care of Australians, or where Australia has some responsibility: the basic level of treating people with dignity, being able to ensure their safety; I think it's fair to say that not all of these conditions are being met at the moment.

JONES: Scott Morrison makes the point, the Minister makes the point that they are the conditions inherited from the previous government, from the Labor government?

PLIBERSEK: Well, that's simply not true. Scott Morrison has been the Minister for many months now and he has responsibility for the day-to-day running of these centres.

JONES: You mentioned turning back the boats. And after stumbling around the question of what Labor's view of turning back boats is this morning, your Immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, was pressed again today on this issue.

He said, "We've got an open mind in relation to any step that will be taken in the future which helps save lives at sea." Is it now the case that Labor has an open mind about turning back boats?

PLIBERSEK: You know, Tony, the problem with turning back the boats to Indonesia is that it has fractured our relationship with Indonesia.

At the moment we don't have a fully operational relationship with Indonesia. We have suspended cooperation in people smuggling, in military areas, in a whole range of areas. Our businesses are reporting that they're finding it difficult to do business in Indonesia because we've made announcements about what we're going to do - Australia.

When I say "we", I mean Australia has made announcements about what it's going to do on Indonesian soil and in Indonesian waters without talking to the Indonesians. There have been incursions - accidental incursions, we hope - of the Australian Navy into Indonesian waters because of this.

So it is a very serious thing to say.

JONES: You've made that point but I will quickly go back to what Richard Marles says because he was pretty clear about it. "We've got an open mind about what we do, whether we do this sort of thing in the future." Is that a major shift of policy from the Labor Party?

PLIBERSEK: Tony, I think you're getting well ahead of yourself. We're two or three years away from an election. We're in the middle of a...

JONES: It's Richard Marles that said he had an open mind. He's the one who made this case.

PLIBERSEK: And what you're trying to do is dissect every word of a shadow minister and you're not even asking Scott Morrison why he voted against Malaysia.

JONES: Well, Scott Morrison has yet to do an interview on this program since he's been Minister. So we will come to those questions when we get a chance.

PLIBERSEK: So you're going to ask the Opposition...

JONES: Right now we're interrogating the Labor position so I've got to ask you: will Labor's position change?

For example, if the argument against turning back the boats is only that the government is against it in Indonesia, what about Sri Lanka where the government is in favour of it? Would Labor support boat turn-backs to Sri Lanka, where the government says "Yes, that's fine"?

PLIBERSEK: Tony, what we would support is people who aren't found to be refugees to be returned quickly. What we're seeing from the Government now is a culture of secrecy. We don't know whether we're turning back people who have made a claim for asylum. I think it's very important that we focus on what's happening today and what the Government's doing today rather than trying to get an answer from me about what Labor would do potentially in three years' time.

JONES: Well, obviously it looked like there was a shift to... It looked like a shift had been made, at least, in the language about which you talk about boat turn-backs. And so I'm wondering if that's reflected in any policy shift?

PLIBERSEK: I think it would be really important to hold the government of the day accountable for what the government of the day is doing on our seas and in our name.

JONES: Let's continue with questions to you, however, for the time being. Amnesty International claims that all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka continue to face risks of torture in police custody, especially sexual violence where it is pervasive. Do you take their assessment seriously?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think anybody who has been watching the more than three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka would be very glad that the civil war is over. But I think everybody who is watching Sri Lanka would continue to say that it is very important that we see more progress in the upholding of human rights of all of the people of Sri Lanka.

It was a very bloody and brutal conflict. There were allegations of human rights abuses and, indeed, war crimes on both sides.

JONES: Yes, but we're talking about now. Amnesty International is talking about what's going on now with returnees.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm getting to it now. I'm halfway through a sentence, Tony.

JONES: I'm sorry. Well, we're running out of time so I'm sorry to do that to you.

PLIBERSEK: All right. Well, Tony: 30 years of conflict. The UN human rights committee says, and Australia has supported in 2012, 2013, resolutions under Labor calling for an independent investigation into those allegations of abuse.

There are still claims at the moment that there are arrests, irregular arrests and so on. And so of course I think it is very important that we acknowledge that it's very good that the civil war is over but say that the international community continues to watch Sri Lanka for evidence of real progress on human rights.

JONES: Your former foreign minister, as you know, Bob Carr, says such claims from the "refugee lobby", as he puts it, are unsustainable. They're urban mythology. The previous government couldn't find a single case of a returned asylum seeker being abused by authorities. Is he more credible? Is his view more credible than Amnesty International?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm certainly not going to sit here and defend what Bob Carr has said. He can come on the show and defend himself if he wants to do that.

I think it's clear that Sri Lankans have been found to have credible claims for asylum in Australia. We have Sri Lankan asylum seekers today in Australia who have been found to be refugees. So for anyone to say that there have not been human rights abuses there is... it's just not credible.

JONES: So it's not a mythology?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Bob was saying, I think if you listened to him on the radio this morning, that asylum seekers that Australia had returned had not told Australian authorities that they had then suffered ongoing abuse. I can't answer for that. That's a matter of fact whether that has happened or not.

But if you're asking me, in a more general sense, have there been human rights violations in Sri Lanka? Yes, of course there have. There was a very brutal three-decade civil war that saw very serious human rights abuses on both sides.

JONES: All right. Okay. We've got a little time left and we'll move subjects. Given China's deep suspicions of Japan and its motives, is Japan's move to abandon its key commitments in its constitution likely to heighten tensions between Japan and China?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think it's impossible to suggest that tensions haven't been higher in the last few years than they were 10 years ago.

I think that it is important, when the Japanese Government say that they're reinterpreting their constitution so that they can play a stronger role in peacekeeping missions and so on: I think it's important to take those statements at face value.

JONES: Except China is not. I mean, China was invaded by Japan in World War II. Much of its territory was occupied by the Japanese. Japanese troops routinely committed massacres and other war crimes in China. Why shouldn't China be suspicious of Japan's motives?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it's fair to say that many Australians also suffered during the Second World War and we don't whitewash that history. We don't paper over it, we don't ignore it. But we have moved to a focus on today and a focus on the future.

Our relationship with Japan has been a very good one for many decades now. We've cooperated on international nuclear disarmament movement....

JONES: I'm sorry to interrupt you but you're talking about Australia and I'm talking about China.

PLIBERSEK: And I'm making the point that Australia has also had difficulties in its history with Japan and we have formed a very good friendship, a very good trading partnership, a good partnership in nuclear disarmament, a good partnership in aid.

JONES: But are you saying, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to be saying, that China effectively should get over it because it's a long time, 70 years ago? Because the Chinese media have reacted, the official media have reacted very strongly to those statements this evening. They've accused him of crossing the moral bottom line, whatever that means?

PLIBERSEK: Yes. I read those reports in the Chinese media as well and I think what they were taking particular offence at was the suggestion that the Japanese, we admired the efficiency of the Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, or words to that effect. I don't think they were well chosen words.

But I think it is very important from Australia's perspective that we look at what's in Australia's foreign policy best interests. And what's in our best interests is for us to have a good relationship with Japan and a good relationship with China and for us to play whatever role we can in improving the relationship between those two friends of ours as well.

We have some good fora in the Asia Pacific region and Australia has played a role in the past in making sure that our friends are talking cooperatively with one another as well.

JONES: So finally, because we virtually are out of time, what did you make of Hillary Clinton's claim that Australia's economy is too reliant on China and that Australia is two-timing the United States over its relations with China?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's a very interesting thing to say that our economy is too involved in China. Obviously we have a terrific trading relationship with China and it's something that I welcome and celebrate. We've got a very good trading relationship with Japan, too. We've got a very good trading relationship with the United States.

JONES: This is the woman who might well be the next president of the US accusing Australia of two-timing the US over its relationship with China.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I will be delighted if Hillary Clinton as president of the US opens American markets to even more Australian goods and that we can, you know, spread our trading relationship more evenly.

JONES: No, seriously: what did you make of her comments, though? We can address exactly what she said. I mean, what did you make of her comments?

PLIBERSEK: I think what's in Australia's best interests is to have a good relationship with the US and a good relationship with China and I don't think we should be forced to pick. I don't think any of our friends should be asking us to choose.

JONES: Tanya Plibersek, learning diplomacy by the day, evidently. Thank you very much for coming in to join us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Tony.

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