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Broadcast: 23/10/01
Ruddock defends Government’s policy

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock speaks to Lateline. Mr Ruddock says in order to prevent such a tragedy reoccurring, the factors encouraging asylum seekers onto the often unseaworthy boats, need to be assessed. He says a solution cannot be reached immediately.

Compere: Tony Jones
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Now we can return you to the interview we promised with Philip Ruddock earlier, the Immigration Minister.

Philip Ruddock, both parties have played politics today after the tragic deaths of 360 people.

Now my question to you is what can be done in an immediate sense to make sure that this doesn't happen again?

PHILIP RUDDOCK, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Well, I think you've got to look at what are the pull factors that encourage people to get into boats.

And those pull factors relate very much to the perception that Australia has been an easy mark.

And it was related very clearly to the changes in the law that we were able to achieve just before the Parliament arose that I think those perceptions will be addressed in the future.

But it's not going to happen immediately and it's naive, Tony, to believe it can happen immediately.

TONY JONES: Alright.

You've been quoted today as saying that, if the Senate hadn't blocked tougher laws that you wanted to bring in, all of these people would have been safe and secure in Indonesia, their claims would have been examined by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], their lives would not have been at risk.

Did you say that?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, not in the terms that you're putting it.

TONY JONES: Well, that was a direct quote from you.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Yeah, well, let me just say, when Mr Beazley said, as he did, in relation to these particular tragic events, that it was a failure of Government policy, I made the point that the Government was dealing with these issues well in advance of the present time.

We sought changes as long ago as four years to deal with the pull factors and those measures were denied.

Now, I'm not suggesting that that was the responsibility of the Labor Party to pass and this particular dreadful accident might not have happened.

I'm not trying to say the Labor Party is culpable because they failed to pass those legislative changes we sought.

But what I am saying is there was an opportunity to reduce the pull factors.

This was a crisis in the making.

It was a crisis that the Labor Party was not prepared to acknowledge.

And to suggest that there was, in some way, a lack of, a lack of policy approach by the Government flies in the face of the reality.

That's all I've been saying.

TONY JONES: Doesn't the solution, though, now clearly lie with Indonesia stopping these boats before they leave port?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I notice that that's the only policy weapon the Opposition has in its armoury and it needs to be seen in the context of what happened when the Fraser government put in place arrangements with Indonesia to intercept Vietnamese boats back in the 1970s, and which operated through till the end of the 1980s.

Indonesia was burned because they had a very large number of people on an island, they were accused of human rights abuse, and they are not prepared and have made this very clear, not prepared to reopen a major processing centre at the request of any other government.

And that would happen under Labor as it's happened under us and to simply assert that Indonesia is going to change its policy because somebody thinks they might be able to sweet talk them into it is, I think, quite naive in foreign policy terms.

And the point I would make is that we need to look at what steps we take to deal with these issues.

We need to address those matters that are in our hands to handle and that's what the Government's been doing and the Opposition, unfortunately, puts it only in terms of having only a coast watch or a coastguard and being able to talk Indonesia into holding people, which is something that they don't wish to do.

TONY JONES: Last Friday, on this program, the chairman of Indonesia's powerful parliamentary commission on migration, defence and security, said Indonesia could make a deal to stop asylum seekers, but not with this Government.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I'd simply make the point in relation to the way in which Indonesia works and I've spent time with Indonesian ministers and I've met with them and talked these issues through and there's been a high level of cooperation in a range of issues that we can address.

But they have balked at establishing a large processing centre in the same way, in the same way that they did at the time when the Fraser government was in office.

And the reason is very clear. It left them vulnerable to human rights abuse, them vulnerable to a very large centre with all of the difficulties we've seen in handling those sorts of people in Australia.

TONY JONES: Nonetheless, the comments of this powerful committee chairman, are they indicative of the fact that we have a serious problem in our relations with Indonesia?

After all, [Indonesian] President Megawati [Sukarnoputri] refused to have a bilateral meeting with Mr Howard on the weekend.

He is saying, if it weren't, if the leaders could get together of our two countries, this problem could be solved.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I simply make the point Prime Minister Howard was the first world leader to visit Prime Minister Megawati when she was first elected President.

And the Prime Minister has indicated that he will continue with meetings planned, after the election, if he is back in office.

And he, of course, arranged for [Defence] Minister [Peter] Reith, and [Foreign Affairs] Minister [Alexander] Downer and myself to visit Indonesia, to have discussions on these issues.

So you have to ask the next question and the next question clearly is, if that policy doesn't work, what more can you do?

And Mr Beazley has no idea about what should be done.

TONY JONES: Philip Ruddock, we'll have to leave it there.

Thanks very much for your time and thanks for joining us tonight.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: That's a pleasure. Thanks, Tony.


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