Government plays down Melville mistake

PM - Friday, 14 November, 2003 18:14:00
Reporter: Alexandra Kirk

MARK COLVIN: The Federal Government is going all out to play down the importance of its wrong assertion that the Turkish Kurds who sailed to Melville Island last week did not ask for asylum when they got here.

Labor, harking back to the children overboard case before the last election, says it's another case of "truth overboard". The Government says it didn't intentionally mislead, but relied on information which proved wrong.

In any case, it says the whole question of whether the Kurds asked for asylum is irrelevant, because the island had been excised from Australia's migration zone. And as I alluded to there, in a bid to deflect criticism of the Government, the Immigration Minister has thrown back at Indonesia its declaration that it wouldn't become an immigration trash bin for Canberra.

Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The two federal ministers who asserted the passengers on the Minasa Bone did not claim asylum in Australia are unrepentant in the wake of the revelation that the Kurds did in fact make asylum claims.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer puts it like this - he can only pass on what he was told, he can't tell people what he doesn't know.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I feel that I've been entirely honest and appropriate in what I've done, I've passed on information that's been made available to me.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: As for the Government's high powered bureaucracy, the People Smuggling Task Force, which now accepts the statement that the Kurds didn't make asylum claims should not have been included in ministerial statements:

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think overall they've done a simply fantastic job.

ALEXANDER KIRK: And Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone isn't expressing any regret either.

AMANDA VANSTONE: My advice is that the people who advise the ministers advised us to the best of their knowledge and ability at the time, and frankly, I don't think you can ask for more.

The Government's been honest with people and the media to the best of our knowledge at the time, and when allegations were made that people might have made remarks to the effect that they might want to stay in Australia and seek asylum, I asked for an investigation to be made into that matter and as soon as I got the advice on that I made that public. That's, really, frankly, nothing to get incredibly excited about.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But that's not good enough for Andrew Bartlett, the leader of the Australian Democrats.

ANDREW BARTLETT: It's hard to know if the Government lies deliberately or they've just done it so much it becomes a habit, rather than a calculated, deliberate attempt, I don't know. But the consequence is the same - the Australian people are blatantly misled.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And Greens leader Bob Brown is demanding a Senate inquiry.

BOB BROWN: You can't expect Prime Minister Howard to suddenly discover humanity, but you can expect Prime Minister Howard to understand that the law is there to be kept and it's not his to break.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: According to Labor's shadow attorney general Robert McClelland, the Government is yet to explain how it got the information so wrong, warning his coalition colleagues to expect a going over in Parliamentary Question Time in 10 days time.

He says that will be their big chance to set the record straight, ahead of Labor deciding whether to join forces with the minor parties and set up a special Senate inquiry.

ROBERT MCCLELLAND: The Government didn't tell the truth to the Australian people and irrespective of people's views on asylum seeking, they expect the Government to tell them the truth.

Clearly, the officers on the ground had the facts, they had the facts that people had indicated they were refugees, indeed there's reports of one fellow pointing to the word in the dictionary. Officers on the ground on Melville Island had that information. You've got to ask yourself why the questions weren't asked to find out that information.

Did the Government deliberately try and obstruct the information train because there was a court case on? Did the Government try and obstruct the information train because it didn't want the embarrassment of breaching the international treaty obligations in circumstances where it had made its mind up to remove them from our jurisdiction.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: From the Prime Minister down, the Government's senior ranks are singing the same tune - that whether or not the Kurds identified themselves as refugees in Australian waters doesn't matter, because by then all the islands had been excised.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it's very relevant and Robert McClelland thinks so too.

ROBERT MCLELLAND: It doesn't mean we have to accept that they are asylum seekers, it may well be the case that they are not genuine asylum seekers, but we have an obligation to let them put the case and to consider that in accordance with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Standards, that is the standard that applies on Nauru and Christmas Island currently.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: So you think the Government should have taken them there, rather than sending them back to Indonesia?

ROBERT MCCLELLAND: Well, certainly they could have been sent to Christmas Island to enable them to present a claim in accordance with the UN and HCR standards and that would have been in accordance with our international treaty obligations. It's one of the reasons, or if you like, a motive, I believe, for the Government not ascertaining whether these people made a request for asylum.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Yesterday an Immigration official in Jakarta said Australia shouldn't treat Indonesia as a dumping ground or trash bin, because Australia, he said, as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, should receive asylum seekers.

Today Amanda Vanstone's decided to hit back with a rebuke of her own.

AMANDA VANSTONE: I must say I was a bit surprised to hear that, since, I just remind the Australian public that these people came from Indonesia, so I'm not sure who's using who as a dumping ground here. But, look, the arrangements with Indonesia are matters that Alexander Downer looks after and I think you need to address those remarks to him.

MARK COLVIN: The Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, ending Alexandra Kirk's report.


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