TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP
DOORSTOP INTERVIEW, KIRRIBILLI HOUSE
24 January 2004
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it seems that Mr Latham is weaker on border protection than either Mr Beazley or Mr Crean. Not only has there been a dramatic weakening of the temporary protection visa system, which will give huge incentives to people who try and come to Australia again. But his attack of our handling of the Melville Island issue raises the question of whether if he had been Prime Minister, his Government would have returned the boat to Indonesia and why that's important is that the explanation for there not having been boats coming to Australia over the last couple of years, has been our policy of returning them. That's the reason why people have stopped coming. The greatest deterrent to people coming to Australia is our policy of returning the boats. Now, if we were wrong on Melville Island - does that mean that a Labor Government would abandon the policy of returning boats and thus strike down the most effective deterrent that we now have?
JOURNALIST: Isn't it impounding the boat though and arresting the people smugglers as Mark Latham has said that Labor would do more of a deterrent?
PRIME MINISTER: But what happens to the people? What about the people on the boat? They've come to Australia and they've achieved their objective and you lose the deterrent.
JOURNALIST: But if they are treated with, processed properly, determined to be proper refugees?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, but once people are here and with this new temporary protection visa system after two years they effectively will be able to stay indefinitely and that will be sending a green light to people to try again to come to Australia. And all the good work of the last couple of years will be undone.
JOURNALIST: So this zero tolerance that Mark Latham is talking about in relation to people smuggling?
PRIME MINISTER: We already have very heavy penalties for people smugglers. We have been prosecuting hundreds of people for offences relating to people smuggling. The key thing though is that the boats stopped coming when we began to return them and if you do anything to change that policy you will undermine the deterrents which has stopped people coming to Australia over the last couple of years and I want to know - is that what Labor's policy means? Because if you attack what we did on Melville Island, you are attacking the policy of returning boats - it's as simple as that.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, does the change to the TPV system bring Australia more into line internationally with the treatment of asylum seekers?
PRIME MINISTER: I think what it does is to make it more attractive for people who come to this country illegally.
JOURNALIST: But it does bring Australia more into line?
PRIME MINISTER: There is nothing that we have done and now do or will do as a Government that is in breach of our international obligations.
JOURNALIST: Mr Latham's suggestion that Labor would automatically review the cases of all asylum seekers who have been mandatory detention for more than two years, probably quite successfully - what do you make of that?
PRIME MINISTER: The existing policy has worked extremely well because we have deterred people from coming. Our first responsibility is to prevent people coming here illegally and because of the policy of returning boats we have deterred people from coming. The length of time it takes to process will be increased under Labor because their platform amendments propose a much wider avenue of appeal and legal and judicial process than we allow and that will prolong the process and, I think, add an extra layer of appeal and attraction to people coming to Australia.
JOURNALIST: Has Mark Latham just made this border protection issue a big election issue now?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, the question of whether something is an election issue is a matter for the commentators. I am responding to the substance of the policy and I am posing the very simple question - If our handling of Melville Island was wrong, does that mean that a Labor Government would not have returned that boat? If that is the case, a Labor Government will destroy the whole basis of the effective deterrence of the last two years.
JOURNALIST: So has Mark Latham failed his first test?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, you can talk about that.
JOURNALIST: Fundamentally, you don't believe that a stronger emphasis on prosecuting the people smugglers would have the same deterrent effect?
PRIME MINISTER: The thing that deters people is the realisation that they won't be able to make Australian land - that's what deters people.
PRIME MINISTER: No, what deters people is to see all those boats turned around and sent back.
PRIME MINISTER: Oh look, you can talk about that. It's a weak policy that's what it is.
JOURNALIST: Are you aware enough of the security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan to know yet whether it's safe for asylum seekers to return or to be repatriated?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, obviously, the situation in Afghanistan is much better than it was and the situation in Iraq, although it's difficult in parts is less tyrannical than it was. That raises, of course, the very important reversal of the onus of proof which inherent in Labor's policy and by putting the onus on the Government to demonstrate certain things means that it is overwhelmingly likely that once you have been here for two years you will be able to stay here indefinitely.