Peter Dutton: Well ladies and gentleman thank you for being here this morning.
I'm here with Major General Andrew Bottrell, who's the Commander of the Joint Agency Taskforce and head of Operation Sovereign Borders.
The Major General and I have just returned late last night from Christmas Island and I want to today provide you with an update in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders.
Also in relation to Syria, and in relation to an important issue that we need to pay more attention to and that is the changing population within the detention centre network, as was demonstrated to us on Christmas Island yesterday.
It is true that there is a lot of talk within Indonesia and other places where people smugglers try to sell their product, that somehow a change in leadership here in Australia will result in an opportunity for people to arrive again on boats.
I want to reiterate today - in the strongest possible terms - that the resolve of the Prime Minister and myself, the whole of NSC, the whole of the Cabinet and of the Government is to make sure that we don't allow deaths at sea to recommence.
That we absolutely are absolutely determined to stare down the threat from people smugglers and to not allow the boats to recommence and also, of course, to harvest the dividend from the success of Operation Sovereign Borders in having an orderly migration program.
That's evidenced in relation to the announcement we made to bring 12,000 people from Syria to our country.
So I am going to ask the Major General to speak in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders shortly and then he can take questions. He will move off the stage and then I'm happy to take questions on other matters.
Just to give you an update in relation to Syria. When I last provided an update, we had 200 people that were being processed.
We have now had 1,000 people who have been referred to our post and we are working through those applications, including importantly, the security and health checks that will need to be applied, so that is progressing well.
The other point I wanted to cover off on today was in relation to the detention population.
It is quite remarkable, when you consider two years ago, in August of 2013, there were 11,000 IMAs - illegal maritime arrivals and illegal arrivals by air - so that was 96 per cent of our detention population. Four percent, or 455 people, were non-IMAs.
Today that figure has reduced from 96 per cent down to 53 per cent. So there are 1,066 people in detention, in held detention and 47 per cent of people are non-IMAs.
The point of that is, of course, the fact that the boats have stopped means that we have been able to bring people out of detention, including, importantly, children.
We have seen an increase in the number of visa cancellations and so the population within our detention centres, including on Christmas Island, has become hardened.
So as we cancel visas of serious criminals, those people are held in detention until matters are resolved. Their visas are cancelled and they are returned back to their country of origin.
So the population within our detention centres is changing quite dramatically.
We saw, over the last 48 hours on Christmas Island, some changes to the detention centre facility there, the way in which the population is managed and it is a very different picture than it was only two years ago.
I also want to make mention of the fact that we met with the staff of the ABF, as well as Defence Force staff, who are currently crewing Ocean Shield, which is a large-hulled vessel stationed just off Christmas Island.
These are incredible men and women, many of them have lived through a number of years in Customs or Immigration before, saw significant failings where 50,000 people came on boats, as we're well aware, 1,200 people drowned at sea.
They do an outstanding job, have done for a long period of time and I was very proud to be able to spend some time with them on Ocean Shield.
So I will ask the Commander to make a few remarks, take some questions and then I'm happy to answer any questions you might have.
Major General Bottrell: Minister, thanks very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
It has now been over 430 days since the last successful people smuggling venture made it to Australia and, more importantly, nearly two years since we had the last known death at sea.
The latest Operation Sovereign Borders monthly report, which will be released today, reveals that there were no people smuggling ventures that made it to Australia in September.
The most recent attempt was in August. The passengers and crew of that vessel were safely returned to their country of departure.
As the Minister said, we are aware that as a result of the change in the Prime Ministership, that people smugglers are marketing to vulnerable men, women and children that the policy in Australia has changed.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I can assure you that we stand ready and postured to be able to deal with any attempt to be able to breach Australia's maritime borders.
Both the Minister and the Prime Minister have made it absolutely clear to me that nothing has changed in regards to the Operation Sovereign Borders policy, which, as I mentioned, we are determined to continue to implement in a safe and deliberate manner.
Since December 2013, we have safely returned over 650 potentially illegal immigrants and more than 20 ventures to their countries of departure.
This is the result of the tireless efforts of the men and women of the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force and numerous other government agency and departments who work very collaboratively together to implement a successful Operation Sovereign Borders policy.
The overriding regard for the policy, or the overriding priority for the policy, is that we implement in a safe and deliberate manner.The safety of all people involved, whether it is the potentially illegal immigrants, the crew of the suspected illegal entry vessels or the Australian men and women involved in Operation Sovereign Borders.
The last message that I would like to deliver is to the diaspora communities in Australia, that if you are aware of anyone overseas thinking that the policy has changed and thinking about risking their lives to put themselves and their families on the water, think again and ask them, strongly urge them, not to take that risk.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.
Have you got any questions?
Journalist: Where was the boat returned to, the one that you turned back in August?
Major General Bottrell: That was to Indonesia. That was also reported in the Indonesian press.
Journalist: So there was an expectation that with the new Prime Minister that the people smugglers might test the resolve of Government. That hasn't occurred?
Major General Bottrell: Look, we are aware, through numerous sources and agencies, that there is activity out there.
We know people smugglers are trying to lie to people who are in both source and regional countries that the policy has changed.
Off the back of the 12,000 Syrian - the agreement to accept those - and the Prime Ministership, that something has changed.
Look, nothing has changed and what the Minister has said is that, you know, we have closed off the illegal route so that the Government can then accept them through those more deliberate means.
Journalist: Minister, you talked about a hardening of the population in the detention centre, I take you you're talking about hardened criminals being part of Christmas Island because it has been used as that sort of holding port before they're taken away.
What are you doing to protect the asylum seekers on Christmas Island from these pretty bad dudes that you have locked up there?
Peter Dutton: Well, Andrew, obviously people who are in the detention network, whether it is on Christmas Island or in Villawood or other centres around the country, they're in particular centres or units based on their risk.
So it doesn't matter whether they have come by boat or come by air, if they are assessed as being a significant risk to other boat people, to other people that have had their visas cancelled, who may be of a lesser threat, then they are placed into that sort of an arrangement.
I think that is an important point to make, because there are a number of people who have come by boat that we do have significant security concerns about.
Either they have committed serious offences on other detainees in immigration detention centres, or through investigations we have discovered that they have a criminal past that would cause us concern or ASIO has concerns, whatever the case may be in relation to individual matters.
So the risk is assessed by the individual's behaviour, or what we know about that individual, as opposed to their means of transport, and that's how we decide where it is they will be placed within the detention network.
Journalist: What you are saying is you have turned Christmas Island into a high security prison for people in the detention system who you consider to be high risk?
Peter Dutton: We have got, Chris, people who are at the higher end in terms of their threat level, or in terms of the management that is taken to accommodate them, in other centres like Villawood as well.
So it's not just on Christmas Island, but certainly we have increased the number of visa cancellations that have been undertaken. That includes a number of outlaw motorcycle gang members, but people otherwise with serious criminal backgrounds.
Journalist: Is it fair to say that's the role you see for Christmas Island now is to have that kind of population?
Peter Dutton: My judgement is that the population on Christmas Island detention centre will include increasingly people with significant criminal history. There is no question about that.
We will also have people from other backgrounds within the centre, but bear in mind that, like any detention centre, people are segregated in different units and the judgements are made by the professionals about the threat level from individuals, about whether or not they are then accommodated with other people of a lower risk.
They are professional judgements that the people make who are running the centres and I was impressed with the level of expertise that's been engaged through Serco, but through our own Department, through the Australian Federal Police, in making the determinations about these individuals.
Journalist: Do you have a number of how many people are there?
Peter Dutton: There are 285 people at Christmas Island at the moment. That number has increased over the course of the last 12 months.
Journalist: [Inaudible question]…How many are motorcycle people? How many are asylum seekers? How many are people who were in other detention centres that had to be shifted?
Peter Dutton: The figure that I have got, just to break down, is by unlawful types.
There are 125 cancellations. There are 57 over stayers. There are 96 IMAs, five air arrivals and two in the other category. The makes the 285.
I can inform you that within the population, in terms of nationality - 21 per cent are Iranian, 14 per cent New Zealand, 11 per cent from Vietnam and then a range of other backgrounds from there.
That's the best I can break the figures down for you.
Journalist: Minister, the New Zealand Government has raised concerns about being kept in the dark about the details of its citizens who are locked up on Christmas Island.
Why won't your Department provide them with information and access to their citizens?
Peter Dutton: Again, just to properly reflect what New Zealand have said, because that is not actually what they have said.
We have an MOU with New Zealand, we have got bilateral discussions otherwise.
I have met with the High Commissioner on several occasions, Mr Seed, who is a great friend of Australia and he's put forward the views of the New Zealand Government.
I also met with the Justice Minister from New Zealand when he was here not too long ago.
Obviously, at an officials level, both in terms of corrections, but also police, have had a great deal of interaction with their New Zealand counterparts and we have been able to work with them about the returns and the way in which that will operate.
Obviously, though, people have appeal rights and so anybody can return to New Zealand tomorrow if they want, but, in some cases, they will be here for a prolonged period because they are appealing the cancellation through the courts. That is their right, obviously and they can pursue that.
So we've got a good working relationship with New Zealand.
We accept people back to our country, Australian citizens who have committed crimes in New Zealand or the US or in parts of Europe, anywhere in the world.
Of course Australian citizens who travel overseas, if they commit sex offences against children, if they're involved in armed robbery, those sort of offences, they are deported back to Australia and the Australian public would expect us to do the same to citizens from other countries in our country who commit these acts.
I think that is just a statement of the way in which the immigration laws have been enacted for a long period of time.
Journalist: What is the latest on the woman on Nauru who is seeking to come to Australia for an abortion?
Peter Dutton: I don't want to comment, Michelle, in relation to the individual cases.
But I do want to make this point - there have been a couple of hundred people who have come back from Nauru either to themselves seek medical attention because the medical assistance wasn't available on Nauru, or they have come back as part of a family unit.
So if there was a complicated pregnancy, for example, or an assault where that person couldn't be given appropriate medical attention on Nauru - we bring those people back all the time and we've done that over a long period of time.
The point that I'd make is I am not going to comment on individuals and travel arrangements.
Journalist: Is that acceptable not to comment?
Peter Dutton: Well it has not been well publicised by us because in many cases there can be other medical issues which aren't related to the incidents and that may, for example, impact on the ability to transfer those people by air.
We have increased the level of support in terms of the medical assistance provided on Nauru. So people can receive significant levels of medical assistance, quite a high level of acuity.
But in some cases they have to come back to Australia and we have accommodated that in the past and all I would say is that if you have a look at the way in which we have been able to provide a judgement based on the medical advice in relation to individuals, about whether they can get the assistance on Nauru or whether they need to come to Australia, there's not been a case where the doctors have said to me that this person needs to come to Australia for medical assistance and we haven't provided that support.
So I am not going to comment in relation to individual cases, but we make judgements based on the medical advice.
If people need to come to our country for it, they will, that's been the past practice, it's the current practice and it will continue into the future.
Journalist: Is it the case though that she will be able to access termination facilities?
Peter Dutton: I will just refer back to my previous answer.
Journalist: Can I ask about the 1,200 Syrians who have been referred for processing.
Peter Dutton: 1,000.
Journalist: Sorry 1,000 who have been referred for processing.
Can you give us an indication as to their background? Has it ended up being the case they are from minority Christian groups? Are they predominantly women and children – can you give us a picture? And given the time frame, are you still confident they will be in Australia by Christmas?
Peter Dutton: I don't have a religious break down, but we obviously want to prioritise those people who are most at risk, those facing persecution. And we also want to make sure we are providing people who are legitimately in need the opportunity to come to our country.
Under no circumstance, will we sacrifice the security screening.
It will take time for us to conduct the biometric searches. The UN collects biometrics. We do our own collections, but obviously work very closely with the UN otherwise.
I don't want places in the 12,000 taken by people who weren't at threat, weren't at threat of being persecuted because that means we are going to displace from the 12,000 those who are legitimately in need, at considerable risk and that would benefit from coming to our country who otherwise may have faced death or a terrible circumstance.
We are going to do this the right way.
We have screened out a number of people who have applied and predominantly the numbers will be made up of families of women and children.
That has been the stated priority from day one and that continues. I just don't have a break down beyond that.
Journalist: Can you tell us how many have been screened out?
Peter Dutton: I haven't got that number with me I'm sorry.
Journalist: Last week your Government cancelled a visa for US anti-abortionist Troy Newman largely on the basis that his presence in Australia may stir up some sort of violent protest.
By granting Geert Wilders a visa this week are you in turn saying that you don't hold those fears for him and what would you say to members of community who are concerned that he will stir up anti-Islamic sentiment?
Peter Dutton: The only point I would make is there's actually a decision made by the delegate within the Department.
In some cases it is elevated to the Minister, but the delegate within the Department makes decisions based on the individual facts.
They will have a look at the whole history. They will do what is in our best national interest in terms of granting or denying a visa. That is the decision that was made.
In relation to Mr Newman, as you know, Mr Newman travelled to our country without a valid visa.
United Airlines is going to face a hefty fine for allowing somebody onto a plane to come to our country that didn't have a valid visa.
Under no circumstance was I going to issue a visa to somebody who would come here, knowingly without a visa and that's the decision that was made.
Mr Newman, anybody else, can make an application to come to our country.
If there are concerns - and this happens on a regular basis - if there are concerns, undertakings can be sought and that process can be worked through.
But there is a legislative arrangement, regulations in place that detail the criteria.
The delegates make their decisions and they issue the statement of reasons.
If people want to contest that, they are free to do that through the court process.
Journalist: But what about Geert Wilders specifically.
Do you hold concerns that his presence in Australia may stir up anti-Islamic sentiment given his controversy?
Peter Dutton: The delegate takes into account all of the facts in relation to the individual matters and the delegate will make a decision according to Australian law.
Journalist: …You had no role in that decision?
Peter Dutton: I will come back to you in a second.
That is the job of the delegate. In some circumstances, including in relation to this matter, I was consulted in relation to this visa.
I was happy to take the advice from the delegate which was to issue the visa and that has been the case in relation to that matter.
Journalist: How soon do you expect to sign a deal with the Philippines to resettle refugees there and how many refugees from Manus Island do you expect to go to the Philippines under a prospective deal?
Peter Dutton: I saw some media reporting of speculation around the Philippines discussions in the media today.
We have been having discussions and I have commented on this a number of times publicly. I have had discussions with a number of bilateral partners over a period of time.
Obviously, we want to try and provide where we can a regional arrangement and you are seeing the need for a regional approach in Europe at the moment. No one country can resolve the issue when you have millions of people moving across borders.
We have had bilateral discussions with other countries, including the Philippines at an officials level, at a ministerial level over a number of months and the Foreign Minister obviously spoke with her counterpart in New York recently.
I am not going to publicly comment in relation to where some of the negotiations are at. I think we're best to discuss those issues in private with those partners and if there is an announcement to make we can announce it.
But I would say that we have been very open to discussions for a long period of time with those partners because we have been very clear about the fact that people on Nauru and people on Manus, who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat, won't be settling in Australia.
Now we've got a bilateral arrangement with Cambodia. If we can strike other arrangements with other countries, we will do that, but I won't publicly speculate on it.
Journalist: The sister of the Parramatta gunman apparently flew out of the country the day before, from reports, to Turkey.
Are you concerned that this was a breach of national security? Is there any evidence that she is connected with radical groups? That she's gone to the Middle East for that purpose, what more can you tell us?
Peter Dutton: Look Mark, I will leave any comment to the Australian Federal Police and the NSW Police in relation to what is now a coronial investigation and murder investigation obviously.
From a Border Force perspective, we have 80 counter-terrorism unit officers at the eight international airports.
They intercept people every day, but they do it based on the information that they know about some individuals.
It can be the case that somebody presents - that gets through without being screened because they're not ticking any boxes in the minds of the professionals on the ground.
I don't have any information in relation to this individual that I would make public at the moment, but obviously, we will assist and we have provided information in the past in relation to some of these investigations, as we will with this investigation. Australian Border Force has very close links with the AFP, with ASIO, the other agencies and we will provide whatever support we can.
Journalist: How concerned are you that the leaking of these discussions with the Philippines at this point could actually jeopardise the striking of the deal?
Peter Dutton: I think in the end, there are many parties that are involved in these discussions and no doubt this information on occasion finds its way into the public domain - that is the environment in which we operate.
I have got a great deal of respect for our Philippine counterparts as I do for our Cambodian counterparts, and others, that we're in discussion with. I have commented on that publicly before.
We will continue the negotiations because there is good faith on both sides. If we can strike an agreement that is in the best interests of our country and from the Philippines' perspective, their country, we will arrive at that point.
Journalist: The DFAT travel warning describes the Philippines as a hot bed of violent crime with a high threat of kidnapping and a high threat of terrorist attacks.
What guarantees can you provide that this place will be safe for refugees resettlement?
PETER DUTTON: We can provide the same guarantees that we can to Australians who travel to the Philippines each year, the expats that live in the Philippines, that live across South-East Asia or other parts of the world.
People in the end will travel on a volunteer basis.
We have made it clear to people that you are not going to settle in Australia.
The point that the General made before, the Prime Minister has made and I have made on countless occasions – is that we are not going to allow the deaths at sea to recommence.
We are not going to allow people to turn up again unannounced on boats.
I'm not going to put the Border Force staff in the position of pulling those bodies out of the water again.
I'm not going to allow the people smugglers to get back into their treacherous trade.
If we bend on the policy, as Labor did when they were in Government, we will see boat arrivals recommence.
Part of the policy that Government has announced, and we have been completely consistent on, is that if people have come by boat and they are now housed in Nauru or Manus they are not going to be settled in Australia.
I have been perfectly clear about that.
Some advocates message to these people that ‘if you hold out, don't take the deal to go to Cambodia, don't go to other countries if they are trying to offer you a settlement package to leave Nauru' - they are providing false hope to those people.
I don't think they are doing the right thing by those people.
So on a volunteer basis, if we can strike an arrangement with a country that we believe will provide a new opportunity for that person on Nauru or Manus, it will be on a voluntary basis considering all of the facts that that person will take up that offer or reject it.
But they are not coming to Australia and we have been very clear about it.
That is the basis on which they can make their decision – take an offer or stay on Nauru or Manus.
Journalist: Are you in direct talks or contact with this Somali woman's lawyers…[indistinct]
PETER DUTTON: I don't have negotiations with anybody's lawyers. If there are discussions with the lawyers, they can be conducted in a normal way with the Department.
My interest is in making sure that we do the right thing by the individual.
I know there is a lot of misinformation out there at the moment. A lot of people are jumping to conclusions.
I have made my position very clear. If people require medical assistance, they will receive it. Whether it is on Nauru or in Australia, they will receive it.
But I have been very clear also about the fact that people aren't going to settle in Australia if they have sought to come by boat.
So people at the appropriate time will return back to Nauru - that is Government's policy.
But if they can't receive medical assistance on Nauru or on Manus then we will look at what options are available to them, including coming to Australia.
But I am not going to speculate on individual travel plans because in some cases there may be other medical issues that exist which means people can't travel at that point in time. When the doctors advise us they can, they will then travel.
No amount of campaigns, calls to my office, petitions or anything else will change my position in relation to that.
I will do what is in the best interests of the individual person based on the medical advice available to me.
That has been the practice in the past, as evidenced by the couple of hundred people, and I would ask you to base future commentary and reporting on that fact as opposed to what people might speculate on or Tweet about.
They are the facts and you can draw your own conclusions about whether that is reasonable or not.
Journalist: Can you confirm that Farhad's sister was travelling with another person or persons and secondly can you give us a break down now of the Manus population and the Nauru population as it currently stands?
PETER DUTTON: The answer in relation to your first question is no, I can't provide any comment in relation to that.
It is about now I am wishing, whilst I am resisting my glasses, that I had brought my glasses with me.
The number on Manus is 934 currently and the number of people on Nauru is 631.
Journalist: Can I ask about Nauru.
The Solicitor-General told the High Courtthis week that the change to an open centre arrangement had quote ‘a dramatic effect on the plaintiff's legal rights.'
Did Australia request that move to an open centre arrangement and was that to improve the prospects of the Commonwealth in the High Court?
PETER DUTTON: Obviously M68 has been deliberated on in the High Court at the moment and I will wait for the judgement to be handed down before I make any further comment in relation to those cases before the High Court.
There is a lot of media inquiry, I understand, in my office about trying to get a daily commentary on the proceedings, but I want to be very clear about the fact I am not making any public comment.
My office will be making no public comment in relation to a case that is before the High Court until the judgement has been handed down.
At that point I will provide a response.
Journalist: Did you request that open centre arrangement regardless of the case?
PETER DUTTON: Just in relation to that, I have been very specific and I was, I think, in a Lateline interview the other night to say that the Nauruans have been working up to this point.
The open centre arrangement which first commenced between the hours of 9am and 5pm which we welcomed at the time. I had meetings before and after that with Minister Adeang and others on Nauru.
We were welcoming of that decision.
They then expanded it - after that trial had been successful - to open between the hours of 9am and 9pm.
Following the success of that they have now opened it to 24 hours.
We have been supportive of that decision on each occasion; bearing in mind that we want to make sure that Nauru is providing the adequate support in the community to make sure that conditions are as safe as they can be.
That has been the basis of our conversation during the course of the last 12 months or whatever it might have been.
But in relation to the specific question about the context of the High Court, I just don't have any comment to make.
Journalist: Didn't you make a comment the other day on this though and say that they were unrelated.
PETER DUTTON: Michelle I would I refer you to comments that I made the other day.
I think in two interviews I have commented in relation to this matter. I made comments in relation to this matter before it went to the High Court. Bearing in mind it has now been in the High Court and there will be a decision handed down in due course, that is the comment I would make today.
Journalist: The former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence wants to travel to Nauru to examine conditions there for asylum seekers.
Do you have any objection to that, or will you facilitate it?
PETER DUTTON: I don't have any objection to it and Carmen can make an application for a visa to the Nauruan Government and go through the process as any other visitor going to Nauru, as people who coming to our country have to make application here.
Alright. Thank you.