TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE ROBERTS, ABC NEWS BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 5 SEPTEMBER 2012
TOPICS: Indonesian relationship
PAUL KENNEDY: The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, is in Jakarta for talks with the Indonesian Government, and spoke to Indonesia correspondent George Roberts.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Before we get into the details of the plan, isn't even the existence of increased cooperation on rescues an admission that the current policy hasn't stopped boats leaving and hasn't stopped people drowning?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don’t think anyone in the Government is denying that we needed to do more to stop people taking high risk journeys over the seas and put themselves at risk, and put themselves in search and rescue situations. That's why we've embarked upon offshore processing, both at Nauru and at Papua New Guinea.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Isn't it the case that this policy and the threat of going to Nauru or Manus Island hasn't stopped people taking [indistinct]-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I have always been of the view that there will be what the experts describe here as a demonstration effect that once Nauru is up and running, once Manus is up and running, and people smugglers and their unfortunate clients see the outcomes, that that will stem or stop the flow.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Asylum seekers have told us, here in Indonesia, they don't have another option. They face a ten month waiting list to get an interview with the UNHCR, another year perhaps, before they get refugee status. When do you expect the new policy will start working for those people?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, for those people who are here in Indonesia, we say don't risk your life on a small boat on the high seas, don't put yourself in that position. We're making changes to our onshore humanitarian and refugee programs that will open up additional places, which will see our program go to 20,000, and we've already indicated an additional 400 immediately. So we've also made it clear that there will be no advantage from getting on a boat and embarking upon a dangerous journey.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Indonesia's search and rescue organisation BASARNAS has said it just simply doesn't have the capability. Last week, its helicopters couldn't reach the search zone. Its boats were too small to go out into big waves. And they say they just can't do ocean rescues. So these six points don't help Indonesia effect a better rescue if they don't have the right equipment.
STEPHEN SMITH: Indonesia is thousands of islands on an archipelago. It takes you five and a half hours to fly from the east to the west. So they have enormous challenges, enormous challenges. And an additional ship here or an additional plane there won't necessarily help. What will help is growing their capacity, growing their capability, fixing their systems and providing them with the best possible chance of instantaneous communication and instantaneous access. But you're not going to solve Indonesian search and rescue problems overnight because of the vast maritime space that they have to deal with.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Just looking at the tragedy from last week again, the 55 survivors who were transferred from HMAS Maitland and other ships, you transferred them into a country that hasn't signed the Refugee Convention. Doesn't that go against everything that your party has said about not turning boats back and not sending people back to a country that hasn't signed the Refugee Convention?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they were transferred on the high seas by people who made a judgment that they were in desperate need of medical assistance, and the best place and the closest place and most appropriate place to receive that medical assistance was in Indonesia.
GEORGE ROBERTS: With respect though, nonetheless you still transferred people back to a country which hasn't signed the Refugee Convention. Doesn't that go against everything you've said?
STEPHEN SMITH: But with the greatest of respect, you were dealing there with a search and rescue operation, people badly injured, in desperate need of medical assistance. It wasn't a decision made by a Minister of the Crown sitting in Canberra or anywhere else. It was made by people on the ground, on the high seas, making a judgment about the safety, welfare and security of people in enormous distress. That is 1,000 miles away from the Opposition, who say that they would, against the advice of the Chief of Navy, pretend that they could turn the boats back.
GEORGE ROBERTS: That decision was made underneath your command effectively, and it goes against what your party have said in the past, that you wouldn't send people back to Indonesia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, with the greatest of respect, frankly, I think you're missing the point. And Minister Clare made the same point to you three occasions at our press conference today. These were operational decisions made by people who had one thing in mind - rescuing people from a circumstance where they were in great danger. They weren't judgments made by me, they weren't judgments made by you - they were made by people on the spot, trying to save lives. And it doesn't cut across any of the things that we have said about the way in which it is unsafe to seek to tow boats back or turn them away.
GEORGE ROBERTS: They did ask for asylum in Australia though, and requested of Australian authorities they be taken to Australia. Doesn't that then, as the Australian Government, give you some onus of responsibility?
STEPHEN SMITH: [Indistinct] -They also asked to be rescued from the high seas, they also asked to be rescued from sharks that were attacking them, they also asked that their fellow colleagues be given desperately needed, urgent medical attention and that's what they received. And they were decisions made by people on the spot. And with the greatest of respect, it's not for you to think you have some luxury of making a judgment after the event.
KARINA CARVALHO: That's the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, speaking to Indonesia correspondent George Roberts in Jakarta.