Subjects; Manus island, citizenship, Greens.
MATT WORDSWORTH, PRESENTER: To discuss what can be done on Manus and the continuing citizenship crisis, I was joined by Minister for Urban Infrastructure, Paul Fletcher, and Labor frontbencher, Anthony Albanese, for the Late Debate. Gentlemen, welcome to Lateline.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be here.
PAUL FLETCHER, URBAN INFRASTRUCTURE MINISTER: Thanks.
MATT WORDSWORTH: The situation on Manus Island, let’s start there. There could be a confrontation as early as tomorrow when the men who are there, refusing to leave, they could be forcibly removed. Is this on both of your parties or is this the men’s decision? Minister, can I just start with you.
PAUL FLETCHER: Well, certainly it is the men on the island and the activists including Greens Senator, Nick McKim, who are irresponsibly encouraging those men to stay in the Manus Island Detention Centre which has now been closed for some days following an order or a decision of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court. There is alternative accommodation available for those men and they certainly should move to that. The East Lorengau, West Lorengau and Hillside House facilities, they should certainly move to those. That is the safest course of action and there they will have food, water, sanitation and so on.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Minister, I’ll talk to Anthony Albanese about his view in a second but just this morning GetUp! released those pictures because they went over there, looked at the conditions and said the men are just too scared to go to this new accommodation because they fear attacks from the locals. What do you say to them?
PAUL FLETCHER: What I say is that there is alternative accommodation available for them and unfortunately Australian political activists, for their own purposes, including Nick McKim and the Greens, are deliberately inciting this behaviour, which is very unhelpful. What is in the best interests of those men is to go to the alternative accommodation and, of course, for those who have been found to be refugees, they have the option, should they wish to go to Nauru or to be considered under the arrangements that we have struck with the United States. This is a problem we inherited when the Labor Government established this facility. We have been working systematically to go through the number of people there, identify whether they had a refugee claim or not, and it’s very unfortunate that political activists, for their own reasons, are choosing to inflame the situation. As a Government, we are working calmly and methodically to resolve it.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Anthony Albanese, does Labor take any responsibility for the being the ones that reopened Manus?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Manus was reopened as a processing centre. The problem is people haven’t been processed. They’ve been left in indefinite detention now for more than four years and people can’t see a resolution to their predicament, even though some of them, a majority, have been found to be refugees. The Government can’t continue to say, “This is the fault of something that happened in 2013.” They have had a responsibility to find a third country of settlement. There are offers on the table that they’ve rejected for years, such as New Zealand’s, that was reiterated by Prime Minister Ardern just last weekend.
MATT WORDSWORTH: But do you think those men should move to the alternative accommodation for their own safety, for their own hygienic security?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, I am not there on the ground but certainly the men need to look after their own interests with regard to if they’re in an area that isn’t safe, that is unhygienic and there are facilities that will improve their living standards today, then, of course, they should take up that option. But the longer-term issue has been the failure to provide certainty for these people and that’s created a climate of mental anguish, a climate whereby it’s understandable that these men are incredibly frustrated and are acting in a way, perhaps Paul’s correct, in terms of the actions of some more concerned with scoring political points. I’m concerned about …
MATT WORDSWORTH: So you blame the activists as well here?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No. Well, I’m primarily concerned with not allocating blame. I’m concerned with getting a solution in the interests of humanity rather than scoring political points. My concern is that the Government has used these people essentially as political footballs, as a political opportunity, have not done terribly much to provide any solutions so that they can continue to point towards them and say, “Look, when Labor was in office people came here as unauthorised arrivals seeking asylum.”
MATT WORDSWORTH: Paul Fletcher, can I get your response to Anthony Albanese here saying it’s your fault for not finding a third country resettlement option for these guys.
PAUL FLETCHER: Let’s be clear, when the Howard Government left office we did not have a border protection problem in Australia. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government comprehensively mismanaged this issue, totally mismanaged border security issues. As a result, some 50,000 people, unauthorised arrivals, came by boat. At least 1200 that we know of died. And, of course, it takes a long time, it takes time to re-establish order and to send a very clear message to the people smugglers that they will not be able to reopen their trade. That’s what we are determined to do. Obviously we want these men to have safe alternatives available to them. There are alternative facilities on Manus Island. East and West Lorengau, Hillside House – these facilities are available. But what we are also determined to do is maintain the strong border protection arrangements that we have put in place so that we do not once again see people encouraged to make the dangerous trip to Australia by boat which tragically under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor Government saw 50,000 people arrive unauthorised and 1200 at least die at sea. But, of course, you can’t trust Labor on this because the left wing of the Labor Party, and the moment they got the chance, you would see them seeking to remove the strong border protections that we put in place.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No-one wants to see, no-one wants to see the people smugglers’ trade start again. No-one wants to see that. But the same time we don’t have to give up our humanity in doing so and the fact that these people have been left there for far too long, and the Government, when these issues are raised, they just go back to blaming someone else other than themselves. They’ve been responsible for this for a period of time. They’re the people who voted against the Malaysia solution when we were in Government and they’re the people that had Cambodia as a solution which has cost $50 million to place one person in Cambodia.
MATT WORDSWORTH: I want to move on before we run out of time. Citizenship crisis sucking basically all the oxygen out of Canberra at the moment. John Alexander reportedly close to quitting. Minister, that’s your next-door neighbour electorate, not just your colleague. You got any intel on whether John Alexander is going to walk?
PAUL FLETCHER: Look, John Alexander is a great member of Parliament, he’s a great Australian. We all remember his triumphs on the tennis court and he’s served the people of Bennelong extremely well. He’s in the course of taking advice. He’ll, of course, have more to say when he’s done that, but he’s a great Australian. He’s made a great contribution, and I’m …
MATT WORDSWORTH: “He made” – past tense. You think it’s all over?
PAUL FLETCHER: I’m very confident that he’ll continue to make a strong contribution.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Sounds like a valedictory, Paul.
PAUL FLETCHER: What we need to make sure of is that we have a proper process to establish certainty across the Parliament. That’s what the Prime Minister announced on Monday. We’ve then been working with the Opposition, seeking to engage in good faith with the Opposition Leader who unfortunately seems to have more of an interest in spinning this out rather than coming to a resolution. But we have established a process, we have announced a process under which members of the House or Senators would be asked to make a declaration, where appropriate provide appropriate evidence. That would be on a register, publicly available, and then it would be open to the House or the Senate to make referrals to the High Court where there was a judgement that there was uncertainty about the status of a particular individual.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Just on that topic, obviously we have already had five MPs booted, more referrals are looking likely. Let’s take a listen to Christopher Pyne speaking to you, Anthony Albanese, this morning on Channel Nine.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE, DEFENCE INDUSTRY MINISTER: If there are Labor MPs with citizenship issues that we have enough evidence to refer them to the High Court, and Labor doesn’t intend to cooperate, we will refer them without Labor’s support. And if Bill Shorten refuses to cooperate, that is a matter for him but we know that he’s not a statesman. He’s no John Curtin or Bob Hawke. We tried to work with him in a bipartisan way. He rejected that.
MATT WORDSWORTH: So Anthony Albanese, it looks like things are getting political. Could there just be a tit-for-tat thing going on in Parliament now, referring people to the High Court?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, that’s just tin pot dictatorship stuff saying you’ll use a majority to make decisions about who has a right to sit in Parliament and who will be referred off to the High Court. What we need is a mature response here and a bit of leadership and it has been Labor that has been showing leadership. We’re the ones who said there should be a full disclosure before the Parliament and now we’re saying let’s do it while Parliament is actually sitting. There is no reason why, on November 10, we can’t say that people can document their backgrounds, of parents and grandparents, by December 1. It is three weeks away from today that they have and they’ve known about this for a long time. Get the documentation in and then Parliament, the following week, in an orderly way, not with special sittings of Parliament at cost to the taxpayer, can refer anyone who Parliament sees fit to, but in an appropriate way, not as this tit-for-tat business, that the Government is threatening to engage in.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Paul Fletcher, is this descending into just a partisan score contest here?
PAUL FLETCHER: Absolutely not. This is an issue that we know affects all parties, major parties, crossbenchers. Labor has been saying for months, “It doesn’t affect us, we’ve got better vetting processes.” It’s very clear it does affect the Labor Party as well. So what we have said, as Christopher Pyne said this morning, as the Prime Minister has said, is that if there are issues about members of Parliament where there’s a significant doubt about their eligibility to serve, that should be referred to the High Court. Now what Mr Shorten has been trying to do is in some way carve out from the process the consideration of the status of Labor members like Justine Keay and a number of others. Well, that’s simply not appropriate. We need to have a process that looks objectively at every member and every senators’ circumstances and that’s what we want to do. So far from being political, this is about having a proper, objective process that looks at the facts and certainly doesn’t give Mr Shorten the kind of special carve out deal that he seems to want. We’re of Government, we’re about delivering the best possible and most certain outcome here, getting on with the job. Mr Shorten, of course, is doing what he’s always doing, which is trying to spread confusion.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No-one is argue for anything other than uniformity. The difference is we’re saying let’s get on with it and do it sooner rather than later because I don’t understand frankly why the Government doesn’t seem to understand that it can’t get oxygen or traction on anything, that this crisis is damaging the political fabric of our democracy. All sides are being damaged by this. Parliament looks bad, the Australian democratic system looks bad as a result of this. So, let’s resolve it as soon as possible.
MATT WORDSWORTH: On that point…
PAUL FLETCHER: That’s why we put forward a sensible process.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: You want to sit on December 18.
PAUL FLETCHER: Mr Shorten is to come to the party …
ANTHONY ALBANESE: You want to sit just before Santa Claus arrives.
PAUL FLETCHER: … and engage on a sensible process rather than playing delay games for very transparent political reasons.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, you’re the ones trying to delay it though, Paul. You’re the ones who want to sit on December 18 just before Santa Claus arrives, have the High Court sit in February next year.
PAUL FLETCHER: The Prime Minister has made it clear; the Prime Minister has made it clear that we’re proposing December the 7th.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: After Parliament rises.
PAUL FLETCHER: December the 7th …
ANTHONY ALBANESE: After Parliament rises.
PAUL FLETCHER: … as the time …
ANTHONY ALBANESE: And when does Parliament rise, Paul?
PAUL FLETCHER: … when we ask people to provide this evidence and we’ve got a clear process to move forward.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: When does Parliament rise? December 7. That’s an absurd proposition.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Well, let’s just hear another suggestion because the Greens leader, Richard Di Natale looks like hitting the panic button on the entire Parliament. He’s revealed he’s writing to the Governor-General. Let’s take a listen.
RICHARD DI NATALE, GREENS LEADER: We know the Governor-General, when it comes to a constitutional crisis, has played a role in the past and a very famous example of that. We need to know what all the options are available to us in terms of bringing this issue to an urgent resolution.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Anthony Albanese, that sounds like he wants the dismissal, part 2.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: He stands condemned for that suggestion. Anyone who was around on the 11th November, commemorated tomorrow 1975, and the damage that did to our democracy. The idea that this bloke would call for the intervention of the Governor-General to dismiss a Government, you know, I’m not a fan of this Government, but I don’t want to see ever again the Governor-General’s powers, reserved powers, be abused like they were in 1975. And that’s precisely what Senator Di Natale appears to be suggesting. It’s opportunist and it’s achieved its objectives, which is it’s got his head on the news tonight on Lateline.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Paul Fletcher, do you think he’s serious, that he wants the Governor-General to intervene here?
PAUL FLETCHER: I think Senator Di Natale’s contribution on this is about as useful as Senator McKim’s contribution on Manus Island. It’s not helpful. It doesn’t advance the position at all. It’s just designed to be bit of a circus and a side show. The Government, led by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has put forward a clear considered way forward on this. We have reached out to Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, who’s promised to be bipartisan. So far performance hasn’t matched word, but we have a clear way forward. We can get on with that. We don’t need the help of the Greens.
MATT WORDSWORTH: And Paul Fletcher, just before we go, I gotta mention leadership, because you’ve got the commentariat saying Malcolm Turnbull is in terminal decline. What do you say to those people out there who are reading stories? There could even be a challenge to his leadership.
PAUL FLETCHER: I say it is absolutely ridiculous. Malcolm Turnbull is strongly backed by the parliamentary party. He’s doing a great job and he’s getting on with important things like working on trade outcomes for Australia to deliver jobs and prosperity across area after area. We’re working on delivering jobs growth, on rolling out infrastructure – $75 billion we have committed to spend on infrastructure between 2016-2017 and 2026/27 across the country, across portfolios. We’re working on delivering outcomes for the Australian people.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: What’s very clear is that Malcolm Turnbull had a plan to get rid of Tony Abbott but he doesn’t have a plan to govern. That’s clear for everyone to see.
MATT WORDSWORTH: All right. We’re out of time but Anthony Albanese, Minister Paul Fletcher, thank you so much for being on Lateline.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
PAUL FLETCHER: Thank you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.