Minister Chris Bowen’s address Address to the second annual Bishop Joseph Grech Colloquium on Ethics and Migration, Melbourne Victori

Minister Bowen addresses the colloquium


Thank you, and thank you to Father Pettena for the opportunity to contribute to this important colloquium on ethics and migration.

Father Pettena combines passion with action. Last year, Father Pettena came to see me to lobby for faster action in moving children into the community, out of detention. I pointed out to the Father that one of the very real challenges is finding appropriate housing for children and families, and that with more accommodation we could move quickly.

The next day, Father Pettena called back saying that he had found a former monastery in Canberra that could sleep plenty of unaccompanied minors and made it available to us, an offer we accepted with alacrity. He’s my kind of action-oriented advocate.

Your Grace Archbishop Denis Hart, Father Pettena, Associate Vice-Chancellor Mr Chris Sheargold, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation, the traditional owners on whose land we meet today, pay my respects to their elders – past and present – and thank them for their stewardship of our land over the millennia.

This Colloquium is a fitting tribute to the late Bishop Grech who we remember in this colloquium tonight; his advocacy for justice for refugees and his untiring efforts in serving and including those so at risk of exclusion, will not be forgotten. I did not know Bishop Grech, but I know the respect with which he was held and the sense of loss at his early passing.

It is appropriate that in memorial to him the Australian Catholic University and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference have created this opportunity for dialogue; to provide an opportunity to rise above what can be a heated and divisive debate and come together in goodwill and good faith.

If you would also allow me a note of personal remembrance tonight, I would like to acknowledge tonight the memory of my friend Father Jerry Iverson, who passed away a few months ago. Father Jerry was the parish priest of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Greystanes in Sydney.

He became a warm friend and counsellor for me – a generous man to whom I would often turn to talk through issues of moral judgement, and who was always happy to talk issues through with his non-Catholic friend. He would have been intensely interested in tonight’s discussion and I pay tribute to him tonight.

I also acknowledge the practical assistance provided that the Catholic Church and her agencies provide to refugees and asylum seekers around the world and in Australia. I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service under the leadership of Father Aloysius Moe. I take the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of Bishop Eugene Hurley and Sister Maryanne Loughry to my Ministerial Advisory Council on Detention.


The theme of this evening’s colloquium is ‘Australia’s moral obligations toward people seeking asylum’.

It may be tempting to suggest that looking at the asylum seeker issue from the perspective of ethics or morality is to look at it from a new or different perspective. Or that the only morally acceptable approach is a generous onshore processing regime which guarantees resettlement to anyone who arrives on our shores as an asylum seeker.

Some argue that we should not return people to their home country even after they have been found not to be refugees after an exhaustive process of determination.

Having had to think deeply about these issues, and put in place practical policies over the last two years, I reach a different perspective about the moral imperatives of asylum policy.

I believe in an approach that is generous, that recognises the complexities of the problem and importantly, acknowledges the desperate circumstances that cause people to travel to seek asylum.

When it comes to our moral obligations towards those seeking asylum, we must consider not just our moral obligations towards those who seek to come to our shores but also to the millions of displaced people around the world – who equally long for safety, peace, hope and a better future for themselves and their children.

Consequently, I also believe in robust measures to ensure that those who have the means and willingness to come here by boat should not be advantaged over those who do not.

I believe that asylum seekers should not be demonised and that they are simply doing what most of us would do in similar circumstances with similar means. Even those who do not turn out to be genuine refugees are simple seeking a better life for their family – not something in any way to be condemned.

More broadly, I believe in an appropriately high migration program and that we should promote and in celebrating the success of Australian multiculturalism.

Ultimately, the case for offshore processing as part of a properly constructed regional framework which improves protection outcomes across the region can probably be best dealt with in two parts: fairness and safety.

I think it was these combined moral imperatives of fairness and safety that led the Expert Panel of Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle to recommend the principle of ‘no advantage’ as the underlying theme of their report – that people who arrive by boat should not receive an advantage in terms of chances at permanent resettlement over others.

To argue otherwise is to argue that they should receive an advantage, not a proposition that, to my mind, stands up to close scrutiny.

Let’s be clear, this is not about punishment or punitive actions. Three good men would not have put their names to a report which recommended this. Punishing some to warn others would not, to my mind, be a justified, sustainable or morally acceptable position. But putting all on a more even playing field when it comes to resettlement certainly is.

Fairness and Equity

Let me deal firstly with the issue of fairness – with equity.

There are 42 million displaced people in the world – people who have been forced from their homes through no fault of their own. Around 15 million of these are recognised as refugees, having fled across national borders.

Australia plays a unique role in resettling some of these people, giving them a chance of a better life.

Most countries, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, are kept busy dealing with those arrive. So they resettle virtually no refugees from elsewhere.

Others, such as the United States and Canada, have very few asylum seekers arriving on their shore and so have generous resettlement programs.

Australia has determined that we will help as many refugees as we can. And each year we spend hundreds of millions of dollars helping 13 750 settle into life in Australia – a figure we announced, last week, would lift to 20 000 – the biggest increase in our humanitarian program in 30 years.

Some people argue that we should both resettle a large fixed number of refugees from faraway places and settle all those who make it to our shores. Australia is the only country in the world that ‘links’ the onshore and offshore programs, you may hear them argue.

But Australia is essentially the only country in the world that both resettles large numbers of refugees and has a significant number of asylum seekers who arrive on our shores.
A point of pride for our Humanitarian Program – and an essential ingredient for effective social integration – is that our settlement services are considered to be the best in the world, a point reiterated earlier this year by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, during his visit to Australia.

But such settlement services are expensive.

That is why the government sets a cap on the total number of refugees we can take each year, whether from offshore or onshore. An uncapped program would mean an unlimited budget. Consequently, such a policy cannot be advocated by those who have the responsibility of economic management.

Still, we are increasing our Humanitarian Program quota to 20 000 places – at a cost of more than $1 billion over the next four years.

I note that this is not a bipartisan position and, indeed, has been heavily criticised by some as sending ‘the wrong message’.

But the government’s view is that, in addition to removing the ‘advantage’ of arriving by boat, our policies must increase refugees’ prospect of resettlement in Australia through authorised means.

This concept of ‘no advantage’ is based partly on the moral and compassionate principle of fairness.

Say what you will about Australians’ sense of right and wrong; one quality that is deeply entrenched in our national psyche – including among our newest migrants – is our sense of fairness.

Sitting in my Fairfield electorate office in Sydney’s West, I am constantly reminded of the inherent unfairness of a situation that rewards those who come by boat over those who don’t and can’t.

I hear the stories of people trying desperately to get family members to safety from Syria, where they fled from Iraq after a family member was kidnapped and after receiving regular death threats from local fundamentalists.

I hear of the hardship of family members of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Mandaeans suffering persecution back home; of Copts in Egypt whose places of worship are shot at or burnt.

I talk to some of the relatives of the 1.6 million refugees in and around the Horn of Africa who wonder if there is any chance, after years of waiting, of being reunited with their loved ones to enjoy a new life in Australia.

Barely a day goes by when, as a local member, I don’t hear a story like this, tearfully told by a local resident worried about the plight of their loved ones.

They beg us: though we be out of sight; do not cast us out of mind.

This is why, in the most multicultural area of Australia, where many refugees have made their home, there is very strong support for policies that deter boat journeys and give more places to people sitting in desperate and prolonged circumstances around the world.

The constituents I speak to every day – who came to Australia as refugees and who still have relatives in the Middle East, Asia and Africa patiently but desperately waiting for the chance of a new life in Australia – are to me a pretty good guide as to whether our refugee policy is operating fairly.

Like them, I believe our refugee program should be calibrated to give those refugees in protracted situations around the world – in the Middle East, in Asia and in Africa – who don’t have the opportunity or resources to use people smugglers at least the same opportunities as those who do.

There simply is no moral justification for providing those with more money and more mobility with a greater chance at a humanitarian visa and a life in Australia over those of equal or greater humanitarian need.

Proximity surely cannot be the overriding moral principle, whereby we take full responsibility for every imaginable need – including food, shelter, language skills, occupational training, entertainment and so on – as soon as an individual makes it to Australian jurisdiction, but absolutely no responsibility until that point.

So it is from people like the refugees in my electorate that I get the strongest feedback that policies such as the Malaysia agreement, which removes the incentive to come to Australia by boat but which gives more people the chance of resettlement in Australia, are the right ones.


Let me turn, then, to the second moral principle underlying the Expert Panel’s report: safety – and the need to remove the perverse incentive for desperate people to risk their lives to get to Australia.

There will always be a range of complex circumstances which cause people to travel to claim asylum. But it is a fact that properly designed regional processing can save human lives.

Conversely, asylum seekers are effectively encouraged to sell everything they own, borrow whatever other money they need and risk their lives on overcrowded boats organised by unscrupulous smugglers. And many, as we know, never make it.

The first time I had to deal, as Minister for Immigration, with the loss of life at sea was the December 2010 Christmas Island tragedy.

The fact that there have been more tragedies since then should never mean we get used to or accept these tragedies. Being Minister for Immigration has its challenges – but nothing is harder than the too frequent phone call that informs me that more people have drowned.

I challenge anyone to stand at the memorials at Christmas Island that commemorate these losses of life – particularly the memorial to the SIEV X of 2001, in which most of the people who died were young children – I challenge anyone to stand at those memorials and not commit themselves to a better way.

Even as I speak to you this evening, efforts are continuing to find survivors of a boat that sunk around 45 nautical miles off the coast of Java. Around 150 asylum seekers on their way to Australia were believed to be on this boat. I have just been advised that only 22 have been rescued so far.

This is the latest in a regular string of fatal voyages – and these are just the ones we know about.

To the best of our knowledge, hundreds of others have boarded boats that have disappeared in the middle of the night, with none of those aboard ever heard from again.

I simply say to you: this is not a tolerable situation.

No-one disputes the legitimacy of the ambition of asylum seekers – or even of economic migrants who are not refugees – to seek a better life in Australia for themselves and their families. In their situation, I would do the same.

And, so long as Australia’s policy settings hold out the incentive to come by boat, that choice is a rational, if risky, one.

I say to you bluntly: those who argue passionately for onshore processing must accept that this will lead to deaths at sea.

There is nothing moral or humanitarian about telling people that their best chance at a new life in Australia is to risk their lives on the high seas to get here.

That is why it is our responsibility, as policy makers, to reconfigure our policy settings to remove this incentive, without incorporating into our approach the immoral policy of deflecting those who are fleeing persecution back into harm’s way.

And this is the nuanced approach the Expert Panel has sought to achieve through its integrated and complementary recommendations.

The policy changes the Expert Panel has recommended – and which the government is implementing – are designed to discourage people from making dangerous ocean voyages while, at the same time, providing better regular migration pathways and continuing the work we have begun to improve conditions for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in our region.

These policies must work in unison to allow asylum seekers to reach the conclusion that there is ‘no advantage’ in undertaking the perilous boat journey to Australia.

We have moved quickly to implement the Panel’s recommendations.

Not only to reinstate the option of offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Island – and reduce the incentive for that boat journey – but also to increase our Humanitarian Program to 20 000 places, giving more refugees a chance for better lives in Australia without having to take that journey; and also funding greater work on protection and capacity building in our region.

This broader package of measures is fundamental – and that is why it is incorrect to describe the government’s implementation of the Expert Panel’s recommendations as the ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’, as some have described it.

The increase in our humanitarian resettlement efforts, the commitment to working with countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to improve protection outcomes, the commitment to monitoring, transparency and the involvement of non-government organisations makes our approach a very different proposition.

Onshore Processing and Detention

While the government has endorsed the Expert Panel’s recommendation for offshore processing, I also want to touch briefly on the morality of what we were doing while we had no option but to continue with onshore processing.

When I first became Immigration Minister, I travelled to Christmas Island and other parts of our detention network. On Christmas Island I saw a group of young children – about the same age as mine – playing in a sand pit. It was one of those moments that triggers a sense of the need for action.

Shortly after this visit, and about a month after becoming Immigration Minister, I announced that we were to begin moving families and children out of ‘held’ detention into community detention arrangements. Community detention is detention in only the broadest and most technical of senses. As many of you know, it involves placing vulnerable people into community housing and providing them with care and supervision, with the assistance of our NGO partners, led by the Red Cross.

Like much of the good news in this portfolio, this has happened over the past two years with little fanfare or acclamation.

But I am very proud of the way we have progressed these community detention arrangements, including meeting the target I set when I first announced the policy in October 2010 of getting the majority of children out of detention facilities by June 2011.

More recently, in November 2011, I announced that, following initial detention for health, security and identity checks, eligible asylum seekers arriving by boat who were assessed to not pose risks to the community would be issued with bridging visas.

While on bridging visas, they are able to live in the Australian community while their refugee claims are assessed. They are given the right to work to support themselves and access to Medicare.

This was quickly followed by another initiative that I am pleased to say has engendered community support, the Community Placement Network (CPN).

The CPN was an initiative of the Australian Homestay Network to make short-term homestay style accommodation accessible to asylum seekers exiting immigration detention on a bridging visa.

It offers interested Australians the opportunity to open their homes to host asylum seekers for a six-week period.

Feedback from hosts and guests has already been very positive. All guests accommodated through the CPN have found their own accommodation either prior to, or at the end of, the six week transition period. A number of guests have also found employment or been able to gain work experience through their host’s community networks.

These measures have resulted in a reduction in the average length of detention from 277 days in November 2011 to 86 days in July 2012.


To conclude, the ultimate answer to refugee issues, both in Australia and around the world, is, of course, peace on earth. While there is war, tyranny and oppression, however, there will be human misery, suffering and the search for a better life in countries such as ours.

The role of any single nation state in global community, then, is similar to that of the individual human being in their local community: to do the most we can with the finite resources available to us to alleviate the misery and suffering of our neighbour and contribute to the common good.

This, necessarily, must involve an element of justice and prudence in achieving altruistic ends: prioritising our assistance, not based on proximity or an individual’s resources, but to those assessed to be in greatest need.

Unfortunately, we cannot save every man, woman and child in the world; but we can remove the incentive for people to risk death at sea and, along the way, help more of those who desperately need our assistance, providing them with a new home in Australia and an opportunity to rebuild their lives in peace and hope.

These twin moral principles – fairness and safety – are the principles which underpin this government’s policy and my approach.

Thank you.