07 July 2014



SUBJECT/S: Sri Lankan asylum seekers; Climate change; New Senate.

KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. Thanks very much for your company. With me this morning now, Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland and also Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham. First to Senator Birmingham on this confirmation by Scott Morrison; he will be doing a radio interview in Sydney shortly on 2GB but I want to ask you for your thoughts on some of the comments made by Mark Dreyfus that he doubts whether Australia has honoured its international obligations with the return of these 41 Sri Lankans to their country.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Kieran, Scott Morrison has released a statement this morning detailing the process that is applied to return these 41 people who were on a boat that was illegally seeking to travel to Australia. They have been returned to Sri Lanka following an enhanced assessment process to ensure that we are complying with our international obligations. One of those individuals was found to be worthy of further scrutiny and further assessment. This is the type of process that all potential asylum seekers go through. That individual however chose voluntarily of their own will to go with the other 40 and go back to Sri Lanka. So entirely proper processes were followed here but overall this is part of our government’s policy of determination to end this evil trade of people smuggling, and it is now 200 days today since the last successful people smuggling venture to Australia. And so that’s a significant –

GILBERT: But they’re trying aren’t they? People are trying.

BIRMINGHAM: It’s a significant achievement and we are making great inroads of slowing that trade of people smugglers. The trade may not have stopped entirely of people trying to leave but it has slowed dramatically. The arrivals have stopped and we are still doing this in a manner that is completely fulfilling our international obligations.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland your reaction to that as one of the spokespeople for Labor on this matter?

It’s deeply concerning Kieran that we have a Minister who has consistently said he would not comment on what he calls “on-water matters”, including not answering questions in Parliament, now dropping a media statement on his way out of the country. This is a peculiar situation where the Minister has accused -

BIRMINGHAM: Michelle, the transfer started yesterday.

Just a moment. This is a peculiar situation where the Minister has accused others of conducting a shipping news service and yet here he is detailing chapter-and-verse what has happened. Now as Mark Dreyfus has said, we simply don’t know whether or not our obligations under international law, in particular the non-refoulement obligations, have been complied with here. What we’re talking about, according to the Minister’s own statement, is a number of questions that have been asked on the high seas and a decision being made based on that to return Sri Lankans back to Sri Lanka, a country where even Australia as part of its UN Committee work has raised significant concerns about human rights. I just ask this question, Kieran: can this government honestly guarantee the safety of every one of those people being returned to Sri Lanka? I ask that question.


Well, the Prime Minister was also asked that question last week on 3AW radio, Senator Birmingham, he did. He did say that he could guarantee that those people that have been under our charge would be looked after. Is that a guarantee he could make?

BIRMINGHAM: We are working closely with a number of governments in our region, including the Sri Lankan government and have been for some time to ensure we have proper processes in place that do their best to give safety to those who are returned but do their best to stop people departing in the first place. But I do think we need to put to bed this ridiculous furphy that Mark Dreyfus and now Michelle have run –

GILBERT: Can you give guarantees though? The Prime Minister did last week. There are no guarantees are there?

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, in a sense there are no guarantees in life about anything of course. But we have done everything within our power to work with Sri Lanka and elsewhere to ensure the safety of individuals, to ensure proper processes are followed and to adhere to the rule of international law.  Now Michelle and Mark Dreyfus have been making these ridiculous claims that somehow Scott Morrison is slinking out of the country today. He’s undertaking scheduled negotiations with another key regional partner in Malaysia. He’s released this statement today with the transfer of people having taken place yesterday. This is of course the proper sequencing of events and exactly what you would expect. Would they have had him try and release the statement in advance of doing so? That would be running a commentary. This is dealing with facts, this is exactly what’s happened. It gives the information, the numbers of individuals, the case where one in fact had the option of further assessment, declined that option and voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, the enhanced screening process is something that Labor established. So you’re criticising and raising questions as to whether the Government’s honoured its commitments. If it hasn’t, isn’t it Labor in part responsible and should be accountable for establishing this enhanced screening process as it’s described when you were in government?

ROWLAND: The processes undertaken by Labor are not identical to what is being done in this instance and what is being done only recently. Labor has always had in place a policy and this is continuing on since July last year when we reinstated offshore processing. We have always had a position that people should be processed properly. They should be processed properly under our international obligations. And the question I pose in this case, which Mark Dreyfus very validly poses as well, is: how can we as the Australian people, as the Australian Parliament, ensure that everything has been done in this case to meet our international obligations?

GILBERT: Let’s turn our attention to the new Senate. I want to ask both of you about the new look Senate. It’s going to be colourful and eventful you’d think in the Upper House now. Senator Birmingham, in terms of the carbon tax though, first order of business – when would you anticipate a vote to be taken on this given your seven years experience in the Senate. How likely is it this will be delivered in the next day or two?

Well Kieran I hope it will be delivered quickly. The Australian people spoke ten months ago and said to get rid of this tax and it’s time the Australian Parliament heeded that message. The Labor party can choose to vote to keep the carbon tax if they want but they should allow a vote to proceed. They should end the blocking tactics, they should end the strike that they’ve been on in terms of dealing with this. They should let the vote happen, they should commit that they won’t keep filibustering, that they will allow this to proceed properly. Now ultimately though, we will work with the marvellous new crossbench that we have to make sure that we have a proper debate in the Senate and that it is then dealt with and I hope that will be in a matter of days and no longer –

GILBERT: Tomorrow? Would you have a vote done?

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, it’s important that we make sure that everybody has a chance to have their say. Particularly those new Senators. We won’t be  rushing the process.

GILBERT: But you want to rush the Senate Committee process, you want to bring on a vote?


GILBERT: A parliamentary debate today do you?

BIRMINGHAM: There wouldn’t be enough time left in the program to list the number of Senate committee enquiries into the carbon tax over the years. That reporting back of the committee should take place promptly… the debate should start -


BIRMINGHAM: Ideally, or as soon as possible. The debate on the carbon tax should start as soon as possible, ideally today, and then we can let of course process run to a reasonable course of time and bring it to a vote. But ultimately, Labor and the Greens, but Labor  in particular who went to the last election saying they would axe the carbon tax should get out of the way and allow this vote to happen.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, in that context, given it was Labor’s position to terminate the tax, they were the words by the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, should Labor not be seen to be filibustering here, to be drawing out the debate and to get this done given it was such a key part of the Abbott Government mandate?

ROWLAND: I believe in a full debate in the Parliament on this issue and I think that it is up to some of the new Senators, or all of them who would like to contribute to the debate, to have their opportunity to do so. I also think it would be very interesting to hear in the debate people such as Senator Birmingham set out his reasons for advocating a Direct Action policy. Direct Action, which is friendless, which has no significant economic or business backing, and one which essentially imposes a Soviet-style cash for polluters scheme. I would be very interested to see Senator Birmingham and his colleagues debate that and to see what the new Senators make of that.

GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, a number of economists have spoken and yesterday and the last couple of weeks in fact, urging the government to keep some sort of carbon pricing mechanism in place and to trade in cheap international permits. Even the Australian Industry Group suggested this as a way to keep this in place until the rest of the world acts?

BIRMINGHAM: Well Kieran, firstly in relation to the carbon tax itself, you have to understand that in year one it raised $7.6 billion in revenue. A $7.6 billion tax on the Australian economy for a 0.1 per cent change in emissions levels. So it is clearly not effecting achieving its endgame which is –

GILBERT: Just quickly on the other, we’ve got to go.

We will work closely with the crossbenchers and consider options put to us during this process but we are committed to our policy and to achieving emissions through investment in activities, getting emissions reduction through investment in activities that deliver in Australia.

We’ve got to go. Senator Birmingham, Michelle Rowland, thank you for that this morning. Appreciate it.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.