Transcript: Sunday Agenda, Sky News Live

21 August 2016

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Budget savings measures, Cashless Welfare Card, Offshore detention, Same-sex marriage plebiscite
E&OE

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Let’s talk to Alan Tudge about that, we do have him ready to go now, the Minister for Human Services, thanks very much for your company.

ALAN TUDGE:
G’day Peter, G’day Paul.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
We’ll get to some of those issues in a moment but I just want to quickly ask you about indefinite detention. Paul Kelly talked about offshore processing as part of his editorial off the top of the show. How long’s long enough, for this government, for people to be held in indefinite detention? I just wondering what is the maximum that you can morally tolerate? It’s been three years with genuine refugees languishing in asylum, is five years too much for you or could your conscience tolerate 10 or even 20 years?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well obviously Peter we’re working through this as quickly as possible. Now, you’re referring particularly to the Manus Island detention centre I presume where-

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
[Interrupts] No, and Nauru, and Nauru. I mean, I’m referring to rejections of Colin Barnett’s offer to house people in WA, rejections of New Zealand, the falling through as I understand it based on this government’s choice around Canada. I’m just wondering after 3 years of genuine refugees languishing with abuse claims now surfacing, how much can your conscience tolerate before you start to pipe up within the Government on this?

 ALAN TUDGE:
Peter, you’ve raised a lot of issues there. As you know we have a very strong border protection regime, and we do so for a reason – both for a humanitarian reason, most importantly, and by having our regime as we have it, we’ve managed to save lives at sea and we’ve managed to be able to take people from UN refugee camps into Australia who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to come here. Now, we’re working through those issues which you’ve raised. In any abuse allegation, they’re obviously always investigated. People on Nauru, they have a number of options. They’re not in detention at the moment, they can stay on the island. There are hundreds of people who are already employed on the island, some of whom have started their own business. Those who are deemed not to be refugees may want to return to their country, they have that option to do so as well, and of course there is the Cambodia option. So, there are options on the table and of course Minister Dutton is continuing to have discussions with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea in relation to the situation on Manus.

PAUL KELLY:
Just in relation to the conditions, the leaked reports of the conditions particular on Nauru – does the Government accept the bona fides of these reports, and accept that conditions there are pretty intolerable, or does the Government believe that this is exaggerated?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, some of those reports, my understanding, are allegations that haven’t been verified. Now, every single report is properly investigated. We do know that on Nauru it’s no longer a detention facility, it’s an accommodation facility, and people can come and go as they please. That’s an island of 10,000 people, I think there are 300 people who are now employed on the island. There’s a number of people who have started their own businesses on the island. There’s healthcare, there’s education assistance. But any single allegation is investigated and it taken seriously.

PAUL KELLY:
Well, in relation to third party countries, the Government has not been successful so far - it’s tried Cambodia, it’s tried The Philippines - at finding a third party country that people are prepared to go to in significant numbers. To what extent does the Government need to change its approach here and look at more developed country options such as New Zealand?

ALAN TUDGE:
We’re still working through the existing approach at the moment. For example, with Papua New Guinea, the arrangement which indeed the Labor Party entered into with the Papua New Guinean Government was that those who are found to be refugees would have the settlement option to stay in Papua New Guinea. So that is the option which is there on the table. Minister Dutton, I think, at this stage is very reticent in relation to doing a deal with somewhere like New Zealand because effectively that could become a back door measure into Australia – because obviously permanent residents and citizens of New Zealand also get access to Australia. And we’ve always had a very strong position that people who arrive here unlawfully by boats won’t be able to settle in Australia, that is a strong position for a reason – it has worked and we want to maintain that position.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Can I just clarify something? My understanding is that on Nauru there is around about 1,200 people, 800 of whom have been assessed as genuine refugees living in the community, but there are just over 400 people that are still in detention and roughly half of them have been assessed as genuine refugees. Should they be in detention if they are genuine refugees, with this indefinite detention, after all these years?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well my understanding is that they’re not in detention Peter, they’re at the accommodation or the resettlement facility there on Nauru, which means that they can come and go as they please on the island. Now we’ve gone through the options, which I described, which are there for people. For those whom, where it’s safe to go back to their home country, that is an option for them to do so as well, particularly those who have found not to be genuine refugees.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Can I ask, you were a part of the Howard Government, you were in the ranks of the Howard Government as a staffer – the Howard Government certainly settled people that were held for a period of indefinite detention ultimately in Australia, or like countries around the world. I think 70 per cent were settled here and the other 30 per cent roughly in like countries around the world – what’s changed? He stopped the boats.

ALAN TUDGE:
He did, he had a very successful border protection policy and as you know, when the Labor party came to office at the end of the Howard period there was only 4 people in detention centres overall. And of course, Labor unwound that and we had the human tragedy and the cost associated with that. It’s a different situation now. We’ve now reinstituted those tough border protection measures; we’ve got control of the boats, we’ve saved lives at sea, we’ve got a generous program of people coming into Australia.

What we don’t want to do in anyway is weaken our border protection regime or put any sugar back on the table, and that’s why we have this reticence. We know it’s a tough policy but we do believe it is the right policy ultimately, amongst all the imperfect solutions, in order to be generous to refugees who come to Australia, but also preventing those deaths at sea and of course shutting down as many detention centres as possible, and we’ve already shut down 17 in our first 3 years in office.

PAUL KELLY:
Well now just on that point Minister, you said you know it’s a tough policy – do you believe, given the revelations in recent weeks, that there is still public support for offshore detention? Have you still got public opinion with you on this?

ALAN TUDGE:
I still think there is public support for our strong border protection regime, which as you know, Paul, consists of three parts; turn back the boats when safe to do so, the offshore detention and the temporary protection visas.

PAUL KELLY:
Sure, I understand, you have in a sense answered a different question. Do you believe there is public support offshore detention?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, offshore detention is one of the core planks though, Paul-

PAUL KELLY:
[Interrupts] I know, I know. I know it is.

ALAN TUDGE:
But we’ve always said, Paul, that the success of our border protection regime rests on those three operating together. So if you remove one of those then there is a very high risk that the boats will start to come once again. And I don’t think the Australian public want that, in fact I am certain the Australian public don’t want the boats to start to arrive, to see people drowning at sea again and to be having detention centres full even if they are in Australia or elsewhere.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
[Interrupts] Just on the drowning at sea, I know a lot of Ministers line up to say that you have stopped drownings at sea, how can you confirm that? Do you know where these boats go when they get turned around? Do you know where these asylum seekers that have left their country of origin and are now in transit in various non-signatory nations where they don’t have rights to shelter or work or any such, do you know where they go? Can you confirm that they aren’t drowning at sea heading to third locations? Is there any line of sight on that whatsoever to be able to substantiate the claim that you confirm that you’ve stopped drownings at sea? Because they don’t just evaporate do they Minister Tudge? They’re still refugees out there somewhere.

ALAN TUDGE:
Of course this is a global problem, Peter, as you know, in terms of the refugee crisis and Australia is one the most generous countries in the world in terms of taking in refugees from United Nations refugee camps and the coalition Government has agreed to increase that number up to 18,000 per annum and on top of that we’ll be taking in Syrian refugees.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
[Talks over] In fairness though, sorry about that, because that’s not my question. My question is this idea - it’s like a moral high ground that gets claimed – we’ve stopped drownings at sea – you can’t confirm that though can you? You’ve just stopped drownings happening in the orbit of Australia, who knows whether they continue on elsewhere or not - out of sight out of mind.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, Peter, we have stopped the drownings from the boats who were travelling either between the person’s home country, or indeed a third country, to Australia. That’s what is within at least part of our control, and we have managed to do that. Now that is real, it is very significant; the fact that we have saved lives at sea by doing so. We know Peter, there was at least 1,300 people who drowned at sea when Labor disastrously unravelled the successful border protection regime that John Howard put into place. That’s just the ones that we know of, there could well be hundreds of others who drowned at sea, many of those who are children. So this is a real issue, you know. And the regime that we have put in place after the disastrous consequences of Labor unravelling it have indeed stopped the boats, they have saved lives. We have managed to close down 17 detention centres. There is no longer any child in detention, and I think they are very good outcomes. Yes it is a tough policy to achieve those objectives, but I think when you weigh up all the other imperfect alternatives, I think this is the right moral course of action.

PAUL KELLY:
How successful do you think the trial is going of the cashless welfare card which you’ve pioneered as a policy option to really transform the situation in indigenous communities and reliance on alcohol?

ALAN TUDGE:
Listen, so far it’s going as good as I could possibly have hoped for. We’ve got two trials up and running now:  one in Ceduna, which is in South Australia, and the other in the East Kimberley up in Western Australia. We’ve got some very initial data coming out of the Ceduna trial. It’s showing already, for example Paul that at the main poker machine venue, they’ve got revenues which are down by 30 per cent which is a result of the card’s introduction. All the anecdotal evidence is that food sales are dramatically up. The bus driver for example, which takes the bus between Yalata and Ceduna – Yalata a community about two hours away – has had to purchase an additional trailer for the bus because of the food which people are buying to take back to Yalata. So, we’re very heartened by the results so far. The indigenous leaders on the ground are very heartened by the results so far. The figure which I’m most excited by, and it is very early days and I hope that it will continue, is the number of sexual assaults which appear to have dropped, which at least is a coincidence with when we introduced the cashless welfare card. So, Paul, early days, but very good signs so far.

PAUL KELLY:
What about alcohol sales?

ALAN TUDGE:
We haven’t got any hard data on alcohol sales yet, but the evidence that we’re getting from the community leaders on the ground is that the parties which are at night may still be occurring, but they’re ending sooner, and that there’s some less drunk and disorderly behaviour which is at least publicly known. So, we hope we’ll get that data soon. Now, of course the main objective of this card – and it’s not just this card but the other elements in with it – is to reduce the very significant welfare-fuelled alcohol, drug and gambling abuse. Particularly the alcohol abuse which, as you know Peter and many Australians know, is catastrophic in some of these communities and leads to all sorts of harm, particularly violence against women and neglect of children.

PAUL KELLY:
Now, there’s still quite a lot of opposition to the idea of the card and of the trial. I’m just wondering the way you assess this and the way you rate this. Do you think that it’s going to be possible to maintain political support for this program so it can become more broadly based?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well I hope so and I think if the results continue to show good progress then I think we will. Now, bear in mind, Paul, that the opposition to it largely is on, what I would say is ideological grounds, rather than practical grounds. Because what we are effectively introducing is that instead of providing all welfare payments into an individual’s savings account which they can access as cash, we are putting 80 per cent of their welfare payments into an account which can only be accessed via what is a Visa debit card. Now that Visa card works everywhere, you can purchase anything with it, but you simply can’t purchase alcohol, you can’t gamble with it and can’t take cash out with it either, and therefore can’t purchase illicit substances. So the impacts I know on peoples’ lives is relatively small. I know it’s an inconvenience for some people, because they have to get used to using a card rather than using cash, but the potential upside for the community, in compensation for that inconvenience, is very significant – a safer community, fewer women being harmed and hopefully more children being looked after.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Well I for one hope it gets a better look in and we avoid any sort of partisanship on that issue. I want to ask you about something where we are unlikely to avoid partisanship on though, which is the savings measures. The Government’s calling on Labor to support them – any truck do you have with the idea of the Coalition looking at some of Labor’s measures as well – things that you didn’t take to the election perhaps – as a way of finding some middle ground after this very close result, as a way of getting the budget under control?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well Peter, of course we are open to having constructive conversations with the Labor party and the cross-benchers. But what’s most important is the measures which we took to the election and indeed the measures which the Labor party supported during the election campaign and they’re the first things which we want to get through the Parliament. Now, they’re worth, as you know Peter, over $6 billion, the Labor Party banked those savings in their forecast, in their budget,which they outlined before the election and so we expect them to back those measures which they themselves said they would back and that’s what is the omnibus bill that we’ll be introducing in the first week of Parliament.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
But on any of the other things that you didn’t take to the election, I’m thinking negative gearing or some of their other policy scripts on the way – are you open minded to looking at them? There has been a bit of a shift, for example, on policy around the banks – you’re now having a tribunal that wasn’t taken to the election. Any open mind on that sort of thing?

ALAN TUDGE:
Peter, there was some policies where we had very clear statements that we would not touch - for example, negative gearing as you pointed out. Now we said we’re leaving negative gearing as it is, so we would like to adhere to that policy. Now in relation to other areas, we’re open to having conversations with the Labor Party and the cross-benchers as to savings ideas that they may have, but of course they can’t be contrary to the policies which we ourselves took to the election.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
And just very quickly, the same sex marriage plebiscite has been delayed till next year – that’s a broken promise technically.

ALAN TUDGE:
I don’t know about that, Peter. I mean the Prime Minister was always very clear that he said his aspiration was to have the plebiscite this year, but his main message was that he wanted to have it as soon as practically possible. We’re now getting advice from the Australian Electoral Commission to say that it’s probably not practical to have it this year, so therefore it’s likely to be next year.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
Alan Tudge we appreciate you joining us on Sunday Agenda, thanks for your company.

ALAN TUDGE:
Thanks so much Peter. Thanks Paul.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:
That’s the Human Services Minister Alan Tudge.

[ENDS]