ABC News Breakfast
SATURDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER 2019
SUBJECTS: Biloela Family, Drug Testing Welfare Recipients
JOHANNA NICHOLSON: Well, it's time now for our Pollie Panel. This week, we're asking what's next for the Tamil family facing deportation from Australia? And whether it will be third time lucky for the Federal Government's plan to introduce drug testing for welfare recipients. Joining us to Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and also Labor MP Matt Keogh. Thank you both for joining us this morning.
MATT KEOGH MP: Great to be with you.
SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: A pleasure.
NICHOLSON: So, the Government is taking this to the Senate, this plan to drug-test welfare recipients. Matt Keogh, I might start with you. What's Labor's take on this plan?
KEOGH: Well, the Government's trying it again, and, lo and behold, a few days before Parliament resumes, we see an attempt by Government to wedge Labor, when really what it should be doing is focusing on getting people back into work, getting people into jobs. This Government always seems happy to look at how it can attack workers or attack their unions or attack people that are looking for work, but doesn't have a plan for getting them into work. And is putting forward some legislation that the Senate had already looked at, held an inquiry, the expert evidence all said "wouldn't work". And I just want to say, if the Government was really serious about trying to help people with issues like drug addiction, they would be putting more funding into detox centres, rehabilitation support for the whole community. There's no denying that drugs as an issue on -- drugs is an issue in the street, whether it's in my community, or across Australia, and making sure those services are properly funded, properly rolled out, would be fantastic. But what the Government is really doing here is trying to dress this up as a political issue, showing that it's still a mean and nasty Government by picking on people who are looking for work, and maybe the Government could turn its attention instead to looking at how it could better support those people into work, and better support them by looking at reviewing the level of Newstart.
NICHOLSON: So, just quickly and to clarify, Labor does not support this?
KEOGH: We need to still see the legislation. I understand the Government says they're going to "tweak" it somewhat. We still want to see what it is they're proposing. It's always hard to say we will do X or Y on legislation we haven't seen yet. But I think it's fair to say, given what happened last time, we've got some serious reservations. When all the experts lined up the previous time the Government tried to do this, to say this won't work.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Let's get your take on this, Senator Abetz. Is there any new evidence that the Government has to suggest that it will work? Because one of the last published reports in this, in 2013, from the Australian National Council on Drugs, found that the conclusion was unequivocal. "There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or society."
ABETZ: What the Government is seeking to do, very clearly, is to assist people that may have a drug issue so that they can get gainful employment. There is no doubt that people that have drug issues find it exceptionally difficult to either get a job or keep a job. And if we are seeking to assist those people, then I would have thought the Labor Party would be saying, "Yes, let's support this and see if we can help more people into employment and kick the drug habit." So, this is something that is good social policy. It's good economic policy. It's about seeking to lift people. And whenever Labor is confronted with these issues, it always says that somehow the Liberal Government, in seeking to lift people out of drug addiction and into employment, is mean and nasty. Can I say to your viewers that when you seek to lift people out of drug addiction into employment, it is the exact opposite of being mean and nasty. It is a bit of tough love to assist people to be able to get their lives together. And as part of this package, yes, there is more money to assist people once they have been identified as having a drug issue, to get them off it, so that they can get on with their lives. Good social policy, good economic policy that makes good, common sense.
ROBINSON: But should it be a social and economic policy, or is it health policy? And is there a risk, are you concerned at all, that you won't be harming those most vulnerable? Linda Burney suggested yesterday you'd be further demonising the most vulnerable?
ABETZ: Look, we random breath test drivers on our roads. Does that mean that we demonise road users? Of course not. It's for the benefit of the totality of society, and to protect those that might be likely to drink-drive, to protect them from themselves and to protect others. This is a similar good, sound, social policy that has benefits all over the social agenda, the employment, economic agenda, and, of course, the health agenda as well.
NICHOLSON: Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie says that she would like to see federal MPs also be drug tested. She indicated that she'd back this plan if that was the case. A question for both of you. Would you be willing to take drug tests as you head into Federal Parliament?
ABETZ: Look, I get random breath-tested on the road from time to time, like every other road user. If it is deemed an appropriate thing to do, of course, I would be more than happy to submit myself. I've got to say, I'm not sure that it is an issue. Look, it's got Jacqui Lambie a headline. Good luck to her. But is it needed, will it make any difference? I doubt it.
NICHOLSON: Matt Keogh?
KEOGH: I think for once in my life, I agree with Eric.
ROBINSON: Just on that, you say, Eric "Good luck to Jacqui Lambie." She may hold the power here in getting this legislation through. How have you been negotiating with her?
ABETZ: Well, I haven't been...
ROBINSON: Or your party.
ABETZ: Of course, that is for the ministers to do. Look, on balance, if it means we can help people out of drug addiction and into employment, then I would be happy to go through a drug test walking into Parliament, simply to ensure that we can help these people that are afflicted by drugs, out of employment, have got no real future. And if that means we can lift them into a better, brighter future, and I have to go through a drug test, so be it.
NICHOLSON: We might move on to our second story, and this Tamil family that's still facing deport -- deportation. The case is yet to be settled yet. Matt Keogh, we'll get your response in a moment. I might start with you, Senator Abetz. Why is the Government, and in particular Peter Dutton, so set on not using his ministerial discretion, given that he has used it in many cases in the past, including when he granted tourist visas to those four foreign au pairs awaiting deportation. Why is this a case that he won't be using it?
ABETZ: In relation to the case you mentioned, there was a Senate inquiry that debunked all the allegations that were made around the so-called au pairs, and that was only to allow them to stay in Australia for a very short visit. So, it is materially, significantly different. The simple fact...
NICHOLSON: Senator, under the Migration Act, the minister can grant visas to those in detention if he or she thinks that it's in the public
interest to do so. The community that this family has been living in of Biloela have been very adamant that they have made a huge contribution to the community and to the country. So, why would that not apply in this case?
ABETZ: The minister has looked at all the judicial determinations, and right through to the High Court this family has been determined not to be a refugee family. Indeed, the father of the family has been shown to have travelled backwards and forwards on a number of occasions, which would suggest that there is no genuine, immediate threat to that family. Our refugee intake should be based on need. And if these four are allowed to stay, it will mean another four that are in genuine need, who have been determined to be refugees, will not be able to come. Furthermore, I understand that there are nearly 6,000 other people in similar circumstances in Australia, that if the minister were to be consistent, he would then have to sign off on thousands of other similar situations, where people have been determined not to be genuine refugees. And if we want to stop the deaths at sea, if we want to stop the scourge of criminal people smuggling, we then have to take firm action. And I fully support the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs in their very principled and proper stance on this. Because let's keep in mind, everyone that we allow to stay that is not a refugee displaces somebody who is actually a refugee.
ROBINSON: Well, let's get Matt's point of view on that. Does Eric make a fair point there, that if the minister intervenes and allows this family to stay, it displaces other people, other families, wanting to seek refuge here in Australia? Is that fair?
KEOGH: Well, it's not a fair point. And the issue here is about the minister has the capacity to exercise his discretion, he exercises it 4,000 times a year as it is in many different cases. None of those cases does it create a precedent, which the Government says that it's worried about. We've then seen the Government go out and brief media organisations about maybe there's alternative visas that might be available if they leave, they could come back under a different arrangement. Well, if that was the case, and the Government is completely able to issue those sorts of visas if they are actually available to them now, that would mean that there's absolutely no risk that they're taking up another place, as Senator Abetz tries to say that they might be. But also we've seen that in the Federal Court proceedings, the Department of Immigration is now having to go away and prepare a whole load of additional evidence, which suggests that maybe everything isn't as cut and dry as the Government was previously trying to suggest. And where there has been a rejection of applications previously, that's been in relation only to the parents, not to the youngest child. That's a matter that still has to be considered properly. And I understand that's why evidence needs to be further gathered. So, there is an opportunity. And the real question is here, does the Government, whether it's through the Prime Minister, the Minister for Home Affairs or the Minister for Immigration, want to stick to their guns in a situation which is plainly unfair, where their own LNP local member of Parliament is trying to plead to his own Government to let these people stay. Can they show a bit of compassion to their neighbour and let them stay? No-one is arguing in Australian society that these people should be made to go home. And it just seems very odd that this Government is deciding to make a decision - or not make a decision, yet whilst dangling some sort of alternative in front of them, whilst not providing any guarantees.
ROBINSON: Well, Eric, speaking to the Government sticking to their guns, we know that it has been fractured somewhat. Barnaby Joyce has aligned with several politicians to express concern for the family. But the PM has said, "To change our policy on this, or exercise intervention powers, would be to send exactly the wrong message to those who are looking to sell tickets to vulnerable people looking to get on boats." Eric, does the Government have any evidence at all to suggest that there would be a start-up back in the people smuggling trade if this one family were allowed to stay?
ABETZ: If this one family were allowed to stay, you would then have to ask the question, what message does that send? It sends the message of "try your luck, you never know your luck, break the law, engage criminals to advance your cause without ever having set foot in a refugee camp, just see what you can do, and if you've got money, try it". That's not fair. That's not Australian. That's not just. There's no sense of social justice in such an approach to refugee intake. The welfare of refugees should be determined and our intake should be based on need, not on capacity to pay criminal people smugglers to advance your cause. And there is no doubt that every occasion where it looks as though Australia might be weakening, it will give propaganda value to the criminal people smugglers. We don't want that. We want an orderly intake of refugees. And Australia's got a wonderfully proud record here of intake, and the provision of services, to genuine refugees from around the world.
ABETZ: And we don't want to minimise that by taking in people that seek to game the system.
NICHOLSON: Unfortunately, we've run out of time. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and Labor MP Matt Keogh, thank you very much for joining us this morning.
KEOGH: Thank you.
ABETZ: Thank you.