Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Asylum seekers, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard – Weekend Breakfast

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: The Government’s policy for dealing with refugees has been dealt another blow with yesterday’s High Court ruling that the indefinite detention of a Sri Lankan man deemed to be a refugee is invalid. That ruling has implications for about 50 other refugees, mostly Tamils who also have adverse security assessments.

Joining us is Government frontbencher Brendan O’Connor. Good to have you on the show.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Morning Andrew.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Good morning. This court decision undermines your asylum seeker policy, does it not?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well actually it’s a very significant decision but it’s quite complex, 131 pages with varying reasonings behind each Justice’s determination. But this decision effectively determines that one regulation is invalid but it does uphold the fact that ASIO’s procedural fairness is in place and also upholds a very important decision that in relation to the 50 or so people that have adverse security assessments, they’re to be detained. And I think that’s a very important decision by the High Court.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: But there are 48 or 50 others that you mentioned. The same ruling may well apply to them though.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, as I say, in relation to this one individual, the decision was of course to continue to detain that person. I think it’s a very important decision that ASIO takes to make an adverse security assessment. That’s important. There needs to be procedural fairness and indeed the High Court found there was procedural fairness but in relation to one migration regulation they held that to be invalid, and so there has to be a process to deal with that.

But as I say, the substantive issue I think confirms that ASIO has dealt with the matter fairly. And we have to ensure when we are considering the obligations under the Refugee Convention and our national security matters, we need to ensure that we get it right and I think in the main we have got it right. But the High Court has ruled that one regulation is invalid.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: So is there now concern that this ruling may well allow people who are deemed to be a security risk to get visas?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, what was important is the majority of Justices on the High Court found that if there is an adverse security assessment as is the case here, then the person has to be detained, there’s no question there.

What it did say though is that even if you have an adverse security assessment, that does not automatically rule out the capacity of you having protection under the Refugee Convention. So you have two competing interests here – one that goes to national security, one that goes to our obligations pursuant to the Refugee Convention – and the High Court is looking to find the balance. And I think in the main therefore this decision finds that of course there are security implications and ASIO has acted procedurally in a fair manner. However, there’s one migration regulation that has been found to be invalid and we have to consider that, and the Attorney-General will of course consider that as she’s the responsible Minister.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Now the federal Opposition spokesman, Scott Morrison, says he wants immigration laws amended to combat the High Court decision – will you support that?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well Scott Morrison is not someone you’d tend to take much advice from because he’s really there to make waves and scare people. Let me just say this – we have a very capable Attorney-General. She will, I’m sure, absorb the implications of this very long judgment by the High Court and she will deal with this appropriately.

I mean what we need to do, we’re a Government that supports the Refugee Convention and we also support having strong national security measures in place to protect the interests of our citizens and therefore we need to reconcile those competing interests. And I’m fully confident that the Government will do that arising out of this decision. Remembering this, that we already had foreshadowed that we need a more transparent review of adverse security assessments and the Attorney-General is looking at that matter now.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Okay then, but are you saying that perhaps it is likely that the Government and the Opposition will be in broad agreement, that amendments will need to be made?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think the Government will, as I said – as the Attorney-General’s already made very clear, she will be considering the implications of the decision and will take the appropriate steps and we would expect the Opposition to do what’s in the interests of this country. We’ve seen from time to time they don’t do that, they put their own political interests ahead of national interests, but we would hope on this occasion that they would join the Government and do what is necessary, both to ensure we fulfil our obligations pursuant to the Refugee Convention and at the same time ensure we have the national security measures we need.

But let’s remember, this decision has upheld the fact that ASIO has acted procedurally fair when dealing with adverse security assessments and that’s a very important thing to note. And secondly, that the person in question needs to be detained.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Brendan O’Connor, we’ve seen what seems to be a charm offensive from the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and his wife Margie. Has that worked?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’ve no idea and I’m certainly not going to comment on spouses of politicians who of course I imagine would support their wives or husbands in their careers. But if this is an effort to remake Tony Abbott, I think they’ve got a long way to go in this regard – that as a Leader of the Opposition he’s the most destructive and negative Leader of the Opposition in this nation’s history.

He has spent three years trying to scare Australians. He made wild claims about the consequences of carbon pricing and he was found to be utterly, utterly wrong. So he has told lies, he has sought to scare people, he has been found to be untrue in those matters. And I think as a consequence people are saying and are questioning, should I say, whether in fact he has got the traits that are required to lead this country.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: This is a move, isn’t it, to combat the so-called handbag hit squad from the Government?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, as I say, of course the Liberals are now realising they have in a leader one that continues to seek to scare Australians – to act negatively and destructively when it comes to public policy. For example, he continues to talk down our economy when we have the strongest economy in the advanced world, when we have low unemployment, when we have contained inflation, good economic growth and we have a very low debt ratio to GDP. He continues to say otherwise.

Now I think what’s happening here, Andrew, is that people are realising that the wild claims that he has made are untrue and they are questioning whether, in fact, he has what it takes to be Prime Minister of this country.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Do you think in fact both leaders, both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, are being overly precious with personal attacks?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I don’t think the Prime Minister has sort to involve herself in attacks against her by others. Or indeed sort to involve herself when there’s been some atrocious comments about her or her family. In fact I think by comparison the Prime Minister stayed clear of those remarks. She focuses on her job.

What you have seen however, is a number of people commentate about the extent to which she’s had to deal with some outrageous and offensive remarks for a very long period. And it’s fair to say that there’s been a very negative and very offensive approach when it comes to dealing with the Prime Minister which we haven’t seen before.

Even though all Prime Ministers of this country sometimes get a hard time, I think the level of vitriol and enmity towards this Prime Minister by some commentators – and indeed some politicians in the opposition – has been unprecedented. But she has not sought to involve herself in that. In think she is tough enough and resilient enough as she has shown to focus on those things that matter for ordinary Australians and get on with the job, and that’s what she is doing.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Brendan O’Connor, thanks very much.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Thanks Andrew.