TRANSCRIPT: Press Conference, Canberra








SUBJECTS: Two years of Tony Abbott; Syrian refugee crisis.

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon everyone. Two years ago Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister. Two years ago, Mr Abbott promised Australians that we will not let you down. But in the last two years, unemployment has now risen to 6.3 per cent, there are 800,000 Australians unemployed. There are over a million Australians who are underemployed, there is another 800,000 Australians stranded on the Disability Support Pension. Economic growth is wallowing in mediocrity and confidence is down. Mr Abbott, however, seems focused on infighting – he is more focused on keeping his day job than doing his day job. Australia deserves better after two years of Mr Abbott's Government. 

Today also Labor wants to talk about the global humanitarian crisis that is unfolding. I talk, of course, of the Syrian refugee crisis. Mr Abbott's announcement yesterday was simply not good enough. Today Labor is calling for an emergency bipartisan meeting, of not just the Government and the Opposition, but of State leaders, of community representatives, of religious organisations. Furthermore, Labor is calling today for a one-off increase in our humanitarian intake of refugees from 13,750, for an additional 10,000 refugees caught up in a conflict not of their making, and indeed they are part of the greatest peacetime refugee crisis that the world has seen since the conclusion of the Second World War. 

Labor believes it isn't good enough for the Government or Mr Abbott to simply say that they will take more refugees, but from within the existing level of refugees scheduled to be taken by this country. We are proposing a significant increase because this is a significant crisis. I would like now to invite my Deputy Leader, Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek to talk further about what Labor believes should be done, then I invite the Shadow Immigration spokesperson Richard Marles to supplement that.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Thanks very much, Bill. Richard will speak in a moment about the proposal that we will make on bringing more refugees to Australia from this conflict zone. I want to speak very briefly about the humanitarian assistance we should offer to the people who continue to be affected by this conflict in Syria and in neighbouring countries. At the beginning of last year, I visited both Lebanon and Jordan to see the conditions in the refugee camps in those countries. Of course, the situation in Syria is horrific. It was horrific then and it is horrific now. 

Of a population around the size of Australia – you can just picture – about half the population is either internally displaced or has fled to neighbouring countries. There are about 3.5 million people at last count in neighbouring countries, including, say, using Lebanon as an example – a country of just over 4 million people, has about a million refugees that they are looking after. Jordan is in a similar situation. Turkey has even a higher number again. So, we are saying today, given the immense humanitarian need in Syria and in neighbouring countries, that the Australian Government should do more. It should offer $100 million to help in Syria and in the region. 

$100 million would buy, for example, rehabilitated schools and classrooms for almost a million children, and food relief for around 100,000, and vaccinations for almost 1.5 million children, and 20,000 families provided with housing, and 50,000 women and girls provided with support for gender-based violence. The scale of need is absolutely enormous and sadly Australia has actually been doing less as the crisis has worsened. When Labor was in Government, we provided $100 million to the Syrian crisis. Since then, the Abbott Government has provided about $55 million. This contrasts, of course, with around $650 million which will be spent over two years on providing military support –military support that Labor has supported – to help protect civilians in Iraq from the threat of Daesh. I'm going to pass onto Richard now who will speak a little bit about the additional measures we are proposing for asylum seekers.

RICHARD MARLES, SHADOW MINSTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION:  Thank you, Tanya and thank you, Bill. As has been said, we are experiencing in the world today the largest humanitarian need since the Second World War. The UNHCR tells us 59 million people in the world are displaced and the single biggest cause of that is the conflict in Syria. All of us have been moved in recent days by the images of Aylan Kurdi and what has played out in Hungary and across Europe, but of course this issue now has been around for some time. As Tanya said, both she and I have visited Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and have seen first-hand the impact of the Syrian crisis. 10,000 additional places is a very significant offer. And it does have a real cost, we don't underestimate that, but in recent days we've seen the states come out and make offers of assistance in relation to meeting the needs of this. In recent days, we've seen members of the community, the Syrian community here in Australia, saying that they are willing to help. And through working with the states, through community sponsored visas which reduce cost, through family reunion, through providing people work rights who come here, we do believe that as a country we can work together and put 10,000 places on the table. But to do that, our Prime Minister needs to show some leadership and bring people around that table. On the conservative side of politics it shouldn't be left up to the New South Wales Premier to lead this debate. Our Prime Minister ought to be bringing people together now and putting that table together, so that we can, as a country, offer 10,000 places. That would make us commensurate with the kind of offers which are being expressed by the countries of Europe. That would be an amount which is suitable and fitting to a country of our size and our generosity, and befitting obviously the sentiment which is out there today from the Australian people for there to be action. Tony Abbott needs to seize this moment and demonstrate some leadership.

JOURNALIST: Mr Marles, do you have a costing on this policy?

MARLES: This is a real cost. And there is no getting around that issue, but we are talking about a one-off emergency increase in our humanitarian intake, and so in that sense the costs that we are describing is defrayed over a number of years, but I also make the point that we've got states right now costing contributions that they would make to this. If we did talk about this on the basis of cost-sharing with states, community-based sponsored visas, family reunion and work rights, all of that can defray the cost and we are a big enough country to put this proposition together. We don't underestimate the significance of it, but it can be done.

JOURNALIST: Can I just confirm, are you talking about 10,000 additional permanent refugee places right now?


JOURNALIST: And what are the community sponsored ones that you are talking about?

MARLES: Well, within the humanitarian program now, which was introduced under the Labor Government, there are community sponsored based visas, that is to say members of the community provide money in relation to that particular visa, which enables communities to bring people out under the humanitarian program. That was a reform that we put in place when we were in government. Obviously visas of that kind are much cheaper in terms of the public purse. It’s the community then playing its part in bringing people to Australia. So with the community playing its part, with the states playing its part, with families playing their part, we can all do this together, and of course if work rights were provided to these people and that was not the case with the Kosovars under John Howard, but if work rights were provided to this cohort, then they play their part as well in being here in Australia. We think if you do all of that together, if the Prime Minister was to show some leadership and get that discussion going, then as a country, we can put 10,000 places out there and that would be a very good thing for this country to do.

JOURNALIST: The 10,000 would that be this financial year or spread over three? And secondly, for those of us who remember, with the Kosovars there was an expectation that some of them go home, I think it’s going to be much more difficult in this instance, are you, this would be permanent settlement would it, just to confirm?

MARLES: Yes, correct. So let me deal with that question first, Andrew. We’re not talking about safe haven visas which was the visa class that was used for the Kosovars. The reality in relation to the Kosovars was that most of those people ultimately did stay in Australia, and so offering permanent places better reflects the reality of the situation that we’re talking about and indeed were you to do this through the permanent humanitarian program, it could be done far more efficiently so ultimately that helps defray costs as well. We would be trying to do this within the course of the financial year. But in saying that, there is a practicality limit here and that is the ability of the settlement community to be able to absorb those people within our program. Now we've had some conversations initially with the settlement community today. What we understand is that there is the capacity to be able to do that at relatively short notice and the reality here is that the journey from Java to Christmas Island, having been ended, we hope, does free up capacity within the system to take people. So, we do believe that it can be done within a year, but with that practicality limit, that is the intention of this proposition.

JOURNALIST: Is there any room within Labor policy, to accept those safe heaven visas, with the reintroduction of those Kosovo style [inaudible]? 

MARLES: That visa class as I understand it is still on the books, and there may well be a situation in the future where you might use a visa class of that kind, but in relation to this circumstance the proposition that we are putting forward are permanent places. That is going to reflect the reality of what we're actually talking about and the sooner that you get people in Australia settled, the sooner people are out there working, the sooner people are off the public purse tab, the cheaper the whole proposition is. It’s actually going to be much more cost effective to do it this way and to have people here under the permanent program than to use the safe haven visa category for this circumstance.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] have skills and qualifications and [inaudible] there’s any scope to increase the number of migrants coming through the skilled migration program which is obviously a lot larger from some of these people?

MARLES: Well, look, the observation that many refugees who come to this country have skills is absolutely right. And often the skills that people have, coming through the humanitarian program, are used to the great benefit of our country. What we're talking about now, though, is a humanitarian response. The humanitarian visa program is the way in which we should be responding. We don't want to do this on the basis of what skills people have in terms of their accessing this, because at the end of the day this is meeting a humanitarian need, and that's the way in which we ought to be going about this.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has raised repeatedly the question of bringing minority groups – he specified minority groups – is there a particular reason why you should or shouldn't do that? And second if I could also just ask about this idea of safe heavens within Syria, whether Labor has thought about that and what the implications of that are?

MARLES: Well, in terms of, Laura, which minorities come or who comes, that's ultimately a question that we think should be worked through with the UNHCR. They are the people on the ground who have the best sense of where the greatest need is and what would make sense here is for the Government to, if we were in a position to offer 10,000 places, to provide them to the UNHCR in order for those places to be deployed by the UNHCR to the greatest possible effect. Now the one caveat on that is that if we’re talking about community-sponsored visas in Australia, if we’re talking about family re-unification, and both of those visa categories we mention in this context because they are cheaper, to be frank, then obviously that has a relationship with what communities exist here in Australia, but with that caveat, principally you would be asking the UNHCR to deploy these to the best possible effect.

PLIBERSEK: Can I just answer the question about safe havens? It’s obvious that with more than 11 million people displaced within and outside Syria that there will be no final resolution to this Syrian exodus until there is a political solution in Syria itself. There have been some minor good signs in recent times that the countries that are most involved in this conflict are talking about what a political resolution of the conflict might look like. Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, all of these countries seem to be inching very slowly towards talking about a post-Assad Syria. That gives us, I think, greater capacity to talk about safe havens. Safe havens, of course, will not just be safe havens from Daesh or IS, and the many other groups on the ground – over 1,000 by one estimate – that are fighting their way through Syria, but they will also have to be safe havens from the Assad regime. There have been continual reports of the Assad regime bombing civilians – very large civilian casualties – and using weapons like barrel bombs that are doing very significant damage. So, yes, it would be good to see safe havens established. That will have to be part of a broader political solution and they will have to be safe not just from one terrorist group, but from the range of non-state actors and indeed from the Assad regime as well.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] airstrikes in Syria [inaudible]

SHORTEN: Labor’s considering its position on that. We recognise the argument which has been put which is Australian aeroplanes bombing Daesh who cross into the border from Syria into Iraq and then pursuing them back into Syria is allowed under international law in terms of the principle of collective self-defence. Labor hasn't finalised its position on that today. 

But today what Labor has said is that we've decided that Australia should play its role in the international effort to relieve the pressure on the neighbouring countries around Syria for the massive refugee crisis. That Europe is proposing to take 120,000 refugees shows, I think, it's important that Australia does its bit. Back in 1976 and '77, Malcolm Fraser stood up in terms of the tragedy of the exodus from Vietnam. Bob Hawke of course did the right thing by Chinese students studying here following the Tiananmen Square massacre, John Howard, too, when dealing with the plight of Kosovars made a decision to go above and beyond. It is now time for this Parliament and for Mr Abbott to step up and what we've said today, Labor believes that it is time for Australia to dig a little deeper, to be a decent and compassionate nation that we know we are, and to provide an extra 10,000 refugees with a better prospect of life than they are currently experiencing.

See you all in Question Time, thank you.