July 01, 2013
LABOR is prepared to rethink its approach to putting children into offshore detention centres as part of a shift in strategy on border protection.
Kevin Rudd will appoint Tony Burke as his immigration minister in one of the most important changes in today’s cabinet reshuffle, transferring him from environment.
Mr Burke has vowed to take a “close look” at rules that send children to detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea amid concern about conditions in the facilities.
But Mr Burke made it clear the changes will only occur if they do not weaken the existing deterrents against boat arrivals, as he lashed out at the Coalition for avoiding scrutiny of border protection policies he said would not work.
While the government has been moving children out of Manus Island recently, cabinet ministers including the existing Immigration Minister, Brendan O’Connor, insisted there was no change in policy and that the actions were taken to keep families together.
Speaking exclusively to The Australian yesterday, Mr Burke signalled a shift in approach.
“I’m wanting, right at the start, to have a very close look at the welfare of children within the system,” he said. He added that one factor in his consideration was whether changing the existing approach would encourage women and children to try to seek asylum by boat.
“Children being put on boats is against the welfare of children so I include that in the consideration,” he said.
Mr Burke has represented the western Sydney electorate of Watson since 2004 and served in the portfolios of population, the environment, water, agriculture, fisheries, forestry and the arts.
In his first interview upon his new appointment, Mr Burke said the twin objectives of the government’s border protection policy were the “solid Labor principles” to treat people decently and avoid drownings at sea.
But he countered the idea that boats could be stopped by adopting the Coalition’s policy of reinstating the temporary protection visas used by the Howard government.
“The only evidence that I’ve seen to date has been that (TPVs) contributed to a spike in vessel numbers,” he said, adding that they also appeared to encourage more women and children to get on boats.
Mr Burke defended Mr Rudd’s claim last week that Tony Abbott risked a “diplomatic conflict” with Indonesia by proposing that naval vessels would tow asylum-seeker boats back to where they came from.
“I can’t think of another occasion when a country sends its military into the territory of a neighbour without it causing tension,” Mr Burke said.
“If you send your military into the territory of a neighbour when they’re saying you mustn’t do it, you’re going to create problems. It’s as simple as that.
“It’s extraordinary that the opposition would think that wouldn’t create problems.”
Mr Burke said the Coalition should make it clear if its policy was to tow vessels back to the edge of Indonesian territorial waters rather than the shoreline.
“If that’s their position they should say so and they should also say what would happen if the vessel started to sink,” he said.
Mr Burke also endorsed last week’s amendments to the laws on 457 skilled worker visas to require employers to undertake “labour market testing”, such as advertising positions, before seeking employees from overseas.
“The Coalition attack on where the government went on 457s was a complete misrepresentation of the government’s policy,” Mr Burke said.
“The Coalition attack was claiming that the government was effectively wanting to get rid of and challenge temporary work visas altogether.
“That’s never been our position,” he said.
“The position that you need to have labour market testing is a very old principle.”
He said the debate would be “calmer” if those involved got their facts right.
“We as a nation will continue to need to fill gaps in the workforce through temporary migration,” he said.