“…the choice to actually go to Australia is represented as economic and lifestyle. And that's not surprising when there is a safe haven just 30 kilometres away where 100,000 Tamils are said to have migrated to in the past 30 years or so,” he told to Australia’s ABC News channel after a visit to Sri Lanka.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: An Abbott Government would charge the Australian Navy with turning Sri Lankan asylum seeker boats around in international waters. That's the promise of shadow immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, who says all Sri Lankan boats will be turned around without exception.
Mr Morrison and Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop have just returned from Sri Lanka and say the country is returning to safety after the 26 years of civil war. The senior Coalition MPs say they were told the greatest threat to a Sri Lankan's life now was getting on a boat, not staying in the country.
Scott Morrison joins me now in the studio.
Welcome to Lateline.
SCOTT MORRISON, OPPOSITION IMMIGRATION SPOKESMAN: G'day.
EMMA ALBERICI: So you've just returned from this fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka. What did you hear from the Tamil people themselves about why so many of them are getting on these boats and coming to Australia?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well it's important to note that the first group of people we went and spoke to were Tamils themselves. The Tamil National Alliance independently organised the first day and a half of our visit, both in Colombo meeting with the TNA leader, then going up to Jaffna and going to TNA headquarters there in Jaffna and visiting displaced persons, camps and other places. What they were talking to us about was lands issues, about jobs issues, things of that nature. And as we moved around the country and visited aid projects that Australia was running, demining projects and housing projects and then ultimately meeting with government and others is India's 30 kilometres away, not 3,000 kilometres away. People have fled to go there. The choice to actually go to Australia was represented as economic and lifestyle. And that's not surprising when there is a safe haven just 30 kilometres away, where 100,000 Tamils have gone over the last 30 years or so and 5,700 have returned since the end of the war and reports to us that right across the spectrum is that they hadn't been violated. Now, that's encouraging news. Now, it's not perfect and we have no intention of getting in the middle of Sri Lankan politics and picking sides. That's for Sri Lanka to work out.
EMMA ALBERICI: But my specific question was what did you hear about why they're coming to Australia?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well as I said, the primary motivation is economic and lifestyle.
EMMA ALBERICI: Not because they're persecuted or under any danger whatsoever.
SCOTT MORRISON: No, the choice for Australia - I mean, if you're in that situation, then you have a safe option 30 kilometres away. To get on a boat and go 3,000 kilometres to Australia, the decision that is motivating that act is economics and lifestyle.
EMMA ALBERICI: Not because they might have family here in Australia or ... ? - I mean, it's not an easy decision to go to a country where perhaps you don't know anyone if you are facing persecution.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well there are 100,000 Tamils in Tamil Naidu. And there is a very large Tamil community. And you can get access to jobs, you can get access to schools, you can get access to housing, permanent housing and a whole range of other benefits. Now - and the UN High Commissioner Refugees has highlighted India as an excellent country for providing that care. Yes, it's true, family is an incentive for people to come to Australia, but that isn't a reason to hand out protection visas.
EMMA ALBERICI: Can I confirm that you spoke to Tamil National Alliance MP Sivagnanam Shritharan in his office when you visited the town of Kilinochchi?
SCOTT MORRISON: Yes, we did.
EMMA ALBERICI: And can you tell us what did he told you?
SCOTT MORRISON: We he told us that in - I think it was the previous week that his office had been raided and they'd found explosives and he had two of his staff members who'd been arrested. So that's a matter that's with the authorities.
EMMA ALBERICI: And he didn't tell you about the fact that many people were fearing speaking to you because there was this feeling that you were being tailed by security officers in Sri Lanka?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, no, he didn't. And - well not to our knowledge, because we were speaking through a TNA interpreter. And what was relayed to us by the interpreter was not that. I mean, the main issue that that MP was raising with us that afternoon apart from the obvious incident that had taken place in his office just the week or so before was the issue of the need to get on with the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. And that process has stalled. And when we met with the Tamil leadership, they were on their way to South Africa to look at their Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. And Julie and I said fairly openly today: I mean, that process needs to go ahead and there are broader national issues that are important. But that doesn't go to the issue of border protection policy.
EMMA ALBERICI: But I'm picking up on your claims today and Julie Bishop that these people are not in any harm, that they're actually leading a fine life and they get on a boat just to come over for the economic - a change in economics and lifestyle. When this particular MP reportedly told a Canadian radio station that in his view you were all more interested in working out how to stop Tamils getting on boats than hearing of their true plight.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well he's entitled to his opinion and we very much were interested in how we could stop Tamils getting on boats and Tamils themselves, Tamil leadership, the Government, the military, everybody apparently in Sri Lanka wants to stop people getting on boats. So, I don't apologise for having that objective and we wanted to work out how we could implement our policies. We had a pretty good idea before going and our view was confirmed while we were there. But the issues in Sri Lanka are complicated and they're difficult. But people who are returning, and I mentioned the 5,700 Tamils that have returned from India and are returning to the country unviolated and able to get on and be part of the rehabilitation and resettlement program which is extensive. I mean, the change in Sri Lanka for a country that was at war four years ago, 20,000 kilometres of roads built, malnutrition in Kilinochchi ...
EMMA ALBERICI: But the discussion is still about whether there is still danger there or not. The picture you painted was that they were doing fine, thanks very much and had no reason to be seeking asylum.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, Emma, I don't believe people who would be sent back under a program we would be running would be violated, and there's 5,700 examples of that in the last three or four years coming out of India. And that's really the point. We're not saying that everything is perfect in Sri Lanka, but we're acknowledging that it has come a long way in a very short period of time. And if you're basing sort of policy on things that happened 12 months ago, 18 months ago, then it's behind the pace. Things are moving quickly.
EMMA ALBERICI: You've said today that The Australian Navy is going to turn back all asylum seeker boats from Sri Lanka without exception. The Greens say that if you do that in international waters, it will be illegal. What's your advice on that?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I don't believe they're right about that remotely and I don't think they actually even put up an argument to suggest why that was the case. But our policy is actually to stop them leaving Sri Lanka.
EMMA ALBERICI: Because your legal advice that you would be within your rights to do that?
SCOTT MORRISON: I'm not going to get into process issues with you, Emma. What I'm gonna do though is tell you that we are going to implement a policy in Sri Lanka. Now, we are currently, that is the Sri Lankan Government is intercepting one out of three people coming to Australia, and our question was very simple: how do we make that three out of three? Now, it's much safer to intercept a vessel closer to Sri Lanka than it is to Australia. The last line of defence from our perspective would be to ensure they don't cross our sea border. But the focus of our policy ...
EMMA ALBERICI: Can I just clarify, would the Australian Navy be patrolling Sri Lankan waters?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, all of this is detail that we will now work through based on the discussions we had with the chief of the Defence Forces and the intelligence services and the police.
EMMA ALBERICI: Was an agreement reached with the Sri Lankan government?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well we're an Opposition. Oppositions don't strike agreements with governments of other countries.
EMMA ALBERICI: An in-principle agreement.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, no, even still. I mean, a lot of those questions go to operational matters which one has to be careful about broadcasting. But we've got a very clear understanding of what they needed and there are a number of ways that we can achieve that and we're working through those options having returned.
EMMA ALBERICI: How did the Chief of Navy, Admiral Ray Griggs, react when you told him of your plans?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well I haven't met with Ray Griggs.
EMMA ALBERICI: Well wouldn't than prudent ...
SCOTT MORRISON: Well he's the Chief of the Navy.
EMMA ALBERICI: ... given he's the Chief of our Navy and you're suggesting they'll be responsible for carrying out this operation?
SCOTT MORRISON: As I've met with Navy people on many occasions in the past, the Navy understand that when there's a change of government policy, that the Navy works with the change of government policy and there's a chain of command that that policy is effected through. But the focus of the policy, Emma, is - this is very important: it's our intention in the vast majority of cases to stop these vessels at the Sri Lankan end by working to beef up the surveillance capacity, the aerial surveillance capacity, the maritime interception capacity, the regularity of patrols, the number of ports that they can work from, the intelligence that actually leads to interceptions. That is the focus of the policy.
EMMA ALBERICI: But the minute you ...
SCOTT MORRISON: The last line of defence is to ensure that if one does get through, that it doesn't cross our sea border.
EMMA ALBERICI: But the minute you introduce an Australian vessel into that equation, how does that square with our obligations under the UN Convention, which strictly says that it forbids Australia from returning people to a country where they might face persecution or be threatened in some other way?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well you should take that up with the Americans because the Coast Guard is ...
EMMA ALBERICI: No, I'm taking that up with you because we're in Australia.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, Emma, this is the important point. The Supreme Court has found in the US that the Conventions does not have that extra territorial application, otherwise the Americans would've been breaking that law for the last 20 years and they turned back thousands of people every year to Haiti and Cuba and other places outside their territorial waters and they've signed the same protocol that we have. So this is a matter that's out there in the international discussion. But that's why, Emma, again, the focus is to ensure that the Sri Lankans can do it at their end and that's our focus. That's why we went there. We wanted to find out what more needed to be done to ensure that could be achieved successfully. And importantly this: I had discussions with the IOM about their involvement in the return program from India and I think there are some really important lessons about how that process has been managed. And I think there are opportunities, whether it's that organisation or other organisations that work in this space - and there are other organisations - that can ensure, and this is why I'm confident, that we can run that program and people returned would be not violated and able to be integrated back into settlement programs.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, today also the United Nations High Commission for Refugees raised serious concerns about the processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Manus and Nauru, both of them they say are unsuitable for refugee families. What do you make of that?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well I haven't been to Manus Island yet. I had intended to go there after I went to Nauru last year. And for personal reasons that wasn't able to be done. I do plan to go there in the next few months. It's clear based on the Nauru experience, and I suspect Manus is the same, the government that was dragged kicking and screaming into this policy rushed and bundled in its implementation and I've been making those comments for some time, so I'm not surprised ...
EMMA ALBERICI: I think the ultimate assessment was that these places, as independent processing centres, are not able or equipped to carry out ...
SCOTT MORRISON: Well the UNHCR, Emma, has always been opposed to offshore processing and I'm not surprised that particularly the regional director has taken another opportunity to have a swing at those policies. He's been involved in this political debate for some time and those comments aren't surprising. That said, the temporary facilities, I think - what I saw in Nauru, I think were really struggling and it was important that they get to permanent facilities as soon as possible. One of the disturbing elements of the report, and frankly what the Greens brought back, was that single males are now in the same facilities as families. Now, as a practice, that is not what should be done. It was out understanding that only families were going to go to Manus Island, not single males.
EMMA ALBERICI: Well the UN says families shouldn't be there at all.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, they're entitled to their opinion. I haven't seen the things on the ground to make that assessment myself personally. But I think it's important they move to permanent facilities and one of the things I heard today: it's going to be some time before permanent, proper facilities are in place on Manus. Now, that's something the Government has to be accountable for. On Nauru when I was there, while I wasn't thrilled about the conditions that I saw, the fact that they would be in permanent facilities by the end of January, and I understand many of those are now in place, well that's welcome. But that same pace should be achieved in Manus Island. But the rushed and bungled nature of the implementation doesn't surprise me with this government.
EMMA ALBERICI: Welcome to you, but not necessarily the international authorities. Unfortunately we've run out of time, but thank you so much for coming in.
SCOTT MORRISON: Thanks, Emma.