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Interview: Julia Gillard
April 14, 2002
Reporter : Laurie Oakes

Julia GillardAsylum seekers are again in the headlines. With tension boiling over in Nauru after only seven out of hundreds of Afghans were cleared as true refugees, and opposition to Federal Government plans for new detention centres in South Australia and Queensland, Labor's Immigration spokeswoman Julia Gillard talks with Laurie Oakes ...


REPORTER: Morning, Helen. Julia Gillard, welcome to the program.


REPORTER: When the Prime Minister addresses the Liberal Party Federal Council this morning, you'd expect him to hit the border protection issue pretty hard, wouldn't you?

GILLARD: Yes I would, Laurie. It's been electorally a very good issue for them and I think they'll continue to press on it.

REPORTER: Well, the slogan for their conference is, protecting our economy, protecting our borders. So obviously they still believe they're on a winner. Are they?

GILLARD: Laurie, I think the issue of border protection, because it plays into people's general insecurity fears and in the world in which we live today, post September the eleventh, with the events in Israel and the like, I think people have got a good reason to feel insecure. And they know that they can heighten those fears and then pretend that they've got the solution.

So, it's worked for them so far. I was hoping that during this period of government they would take a step back from continuously pressing the fear button. And we get mixed signals about that. But I'd have to agree with you, the signal today is not a good one.

REPORTER: Well, Treasurer Peter Costello the other day made it clear that border protection will be a clear focus in next month's budget. Do you think he's pressing the fear button?

GILLARD: Look, I think that there's a level of this which is rational and then a level of it which is used for political advantage. I agree with protecting our borders. I agree with John Howard's statement from the last election that we and only we should decide who comes to this nation. They seem to me to be self-evident truths that everybody would believe in. But then there's an area where it's just used to make people feel more insecure, an area that's just spin or at [sic] worse, lies.

We know, for example, that the claim that asylum seekers threw children overboard was just a lie, but it was about exacerbating fear, fear of difference, fear of the sort of people who were seeking asylum in Australia. And when it's used for those purposes then I think it's an unacceptable electoral strategy, and I think it generates long term community division and problems. We don't want, in this country generally, to have issues of race dominating our politics.

REPORTER: Well, you mentioned the children overboard affair. The Liberal Party federal director, Lynton Crosby, says that that's just an inside Canberra argument. He said that voters know that only a Coalition government will continue to take a strong stand on border protection, because since the election they've seen exactly what they suspected they'd see, namely Labor starting to try and worm its way out of the issue. Now, that's a pretty tough accusation, but there's some truth there, isn't there?

GILLARD: It's a pretty tough accusation and you'd expect Lynton Crosby to make it. But when we actually look at the elements of that argument, Labor is tough on border protection, but we think that you can match that with a bit of compassion, and we've taken several positive steps in that direction. And it's interesting that of the policy initiatives we've come up with since the last election, on my count yesterday, five of them have been picked up by the Howard government.

So, they're not irrational or silly policy initiatives, they're good policy initiatives and the government's followed us down the track of picking them up. So in those circumstances I think Lynton's claims fall a little bit hollow.

REPORTER: But it is clear from the polling, and from other evidence, that voters haven't really changed their mind on this since the election. How does Labor get out of the bind it's in on asylum seekers?

GILLARD: I think we get out of the bind that we're in, and indeed the nation's got itself into, by actually being very careful and rational about this debate. And that's why the cycle of fear that the government's generated really needs to be stopped.

My experience moving around the country, talking to people about these issues, is if you get the ability to engage people on some of the questions of detail then the fear falls away and there is a lot of agreement. A lot of agreement around the key principles - yes, we want to protect our borders, yes, we understand that under international obligations people have the right to seek asylum. When they do seek asylum their claims should be assessed as quickly as possible, and those who don't have legitimate claims should be returned as quickly as possible.

They're the things that are driving and guiding me as I develop policy in this area, and I find that they're the sorts of principles that got broad community agreement. So I think we can...

REPORTER: But isn't there broad community agreement that the government, the Coalition, is stronger on this and better able to be trusted on this, and that Labor wishy-washy and can't be trusted?

GILLARD: Well, I wouldn't put it like that, Laurie. I think at the end of the day we'll be saying to the Australian people, let's have a look at the scoreboard, let's have a look at what's happening at the moment, and let's see whether or not we think we're happy with that. I mean, there's so much spin around this debate at the moment, the government would have you on the one hand believe that it's defeated asylum seekers and there will be no more arriving on our borders.

Then, at the same time, they announce the construction of a twelve hundred person detention facility at Christmas Island, and the re-jigging we saw this week wasn't a re-jigging downwards in terms of on-shore detention numbers. The government would have you believe that not one person off the Tampa will ever come to Australia. And then it comes to parliament and seeks legislative authority to bring them here. So, I think when we actually get some concentration on what the government's doing perhaps their rhetoric and their record don't match.

And then, by the time of the next election, we'll be in circumstances where Labor will have outlined detailed and implementable policies in this area that are tough on border protection, that expedite processing - which means we don't see people in detention for one, two or even more years, that we actually get them in, access their claims, and turn them around more quickly. But whilst we've got them in detention actually deals with issues like the circumstances of children in detention with more compassion than this government has shown.

I think when the Australian community assesses those two alternatives they won't be saying Labor's wishy-washy and the government's strong, they'll be saying both are strong on border protection but Labor's got a better way.

REPORTER: Let me ask you about the new detention centre that's being built at Baxter, in Port Augusta. Is it true, to your knowledge, that this will be a sort of a more comfortable, more humane detention centre without razor wire? Or is it a fire trap, and are the fences, as some people claim, going to be electrified?

GILLARD: Well, I have never served as a fire fighter, (laughs) so I wouldn't want to give a professional opinion about whether or not it's a fire trap. But I've been and seen it, Laurie. It is much better accommodation than Woomera. It is more at the standard of, say, the Maribyrnong Detention Centre. Now, that isn't a luxurious standard, what it is is small rooms with bunk beds with on-suite facilities. Now, that is much better than Woomera, so it is a better standard in that sense. I have seen the fencing, and the fencing will have a final layer that is electric and designed a non-lethal, but stunning jolt to someone who is trying to scale the fence. So it is very highly secured, but not secured with razor wire.

REPORTER: Do you approve of that?

GILLARD: Well, look, I think what we need in our detention facilities is we do need some highly secured facilities, there's no doubt about that. There are some people who are at risk of absconding, some people who need to be kept in highly secured facilities because they've exhibited behavioural problems, security problems and in those circumstances you might need electric fences or even razor wire.

But what I've said, and indeed Minister Ruddock made the statement last week that he is now tending to agree with, is that we need to stream detainees. Not everybody is a hard case, some of the people in detention are very little children. Now, we don't need to be confining very little children either by using razor wire or electric fences, there is a better way to deal with children, to deal with their mothers. We've always ... already started pointing, in a policy sense, what could be done to deal with mothers and children and that kind of detainee and I think we need a mix of facilities.

REPORTER: Well, let me ask you about the broader immigration issue. Do you believe that by pressing the hot buttons, as you call it, on asylum seekers, the government has weakened support for immigration overall? And, if so, what can be done about it?

GILLARD: Yes, I do. I think the government has weakened support for immigration overall and I think the business community is the first to recognise this. And it was interesting, that almost immediately after the last election, the business community started saying to this government, we need a population policy which spells out what we're going to do with immigration and what we're going to do with immigration in some kind of context.

And I think that was the business community saying to the government, you have undermined community faith in our immigration program and we need to find a way to rebuild it. Now, Labor agrees that there needs to be a population policy so, ironically, I suppose, we've agreed with the business community when the government has not. The government has still set its face against the need for a population policy.

But there are some cracks there. Minister Ruddock announced last week that he would be hosting a conference called, Migration, Benefiting Australia. Now, I don't think he would have hosted a conference with that title last October, for example, when the government was well and truly using the Tampa and using asylum seeker politics. So, I think even the government recognises that losing community faith in our immigration program is a bridge too far and they are now trying to back peddle from crossing it.

REPORTER: Now, Labor's promised a population policy complete with targets, but there's a split. Bob Carr doesn't want anymore people in the Sydney basin, you believe you can direct migrants to the bush and to other states, but you can't make them stay there, can you?

GILLARD: Well, the real issue about population policy, it seems to me, all of the forward projections tell us that if we just allow natural trends to develop, we'll end up as a twenty-five million society, on the decline in terms of numbers and in five sprawling cities.

Now, that's Bob Carr's fear that Sydney will be the biggest of those sprawling cities and that's not a great vision of the future. So we do need to look creatively at population dispersal strategies.

Now, in terms of immigration, you can't make people stay in areas even if you give them preferential immigration into regional Australia or Adelaide or Hobart. But you can build an incentive ... a system of incentives which mean that they are much more likely to stay there. So, for example, the transition between being a temporary visa holder and a permanent resident could be made much easier for people who are in designated areas of Australia where we want to growth.

Or we could rejig the family reunion program so that it is much easier to bring your near relatives to join you if you live in a part of Australia that is designated for growth. All of these strategies need to be worked through, but I think they are really important strategies to building a vision of this country which is about more than just clustering in a few big coastal cities.

REPORTER: Julia Gillard, we're out of time, but we thank you.

GILLARD: Thank you.

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