DAVID SPEERS: When it comes to asylum seekers, of course we're not the only country in the world or indeed in this region facing problems. In fact the problems are on a much, much larger scale in some other countries in particular. Myanmar, for example, Foreign Minster, Bob Carr, is about to go there. He's in Singapore right now. He will be talking to the Government and other in Myanmar about the plight of the Rohingya people. He acknowledges they are facing persecution, but should we take them in here in Australia, absolutely not, says Bob Carr. I spoke to him a little earlier.
[Excerpt of interview]
BOB CARR: No, it's not asylum seekers, it's the plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. You've got about 800,000 people and they, by any test, are enormously oppressed. They suffer routine discrimination; they suffer violence; they've been kept in camps; they haven't been adequately settled; but above all they're not given citizenship. So they're a stateless people. And I think if you look at all the people suffering, in our region especially, there'd be few who'd have a stronger claim than the Rohingya to our system. So I'm very proud that we are the biggest donor to providing them with the tents, and the lavatories, and the medical equipment they so desperately need.
DAVID SPEERS: But what about resettling them in Australia should they want to seek refuge here?
BOB CARR: No. We rule that out. We say that in line with the United Nations High Commission on refugee priorities. We need a durable solution within Myanmar. And I'll be saying we haven't got the capacity to take asylum seekers from Myanmar, to take refugees from Myanmar. Our focus is on encouraging the Government of Myanmar towards a durable political solution within the country. And I think again and again, given the pressure of people smuggling and the rise in numb- [audio skip], this is the approach Australia will be taking. Reconciliation within these countries, encouraged by Australia – sensible Australian aid programs where it can make a difference – this is an alternative to the fantasy that somehow we can take the pressure off all the worlds' trouble spots simply by resettling in Australia.
DAVID SPEERS: But surely Minister, given – as you've described – the plight the Rohingya people are facing, they are more deserving of refugee status in Australian than some of the so-called economic migrants, as you yourself have called them, coming from places like Iran?
BOB CARR: Indeed that's my position. I was criticised by people simply for telling the truth, and that is what I said in Jakarta: if you look at the recent boats arriving in Australia, there is a pattern of people who are seeking an improvement in their economic condition and not fleeing persecution. And we've got to see that our status determination, the way we assess people, takes full account of that. And that means a more discriminating approach.
DAVID SPEERS: So what do you do then with asylum seekers coming from Iran, Iran refuses to take them back, and you're saying they shouldn't be given refugee status, what do you do with them?
BOB CARR: Well you seek to persuade Iran that it's the wise and humane thing to take them back.
DAVID SPEERS: And are you delivering that message to Iran?
BOB CARR: That might take some time, but we talk to the Iranians about this, and we'll talk to them more about it in the future. You look at a regional solution, I note that Father Brennan – who's a noted advocate of refugee rights – himself championing the position of Iranians being flown back to Indonesia for processing. But we would say: no unfair burden on Indonesia, we've got to look at these things as a challenge for Indonesia, a problem for Indonesia every bit as much as it is for Australia.
I don't think the Indonesians can take the pressure of more and more Iranians being squeezed by economic circumstances, circumstances brought about by sanctions on their own country, coming to Indonesia – some of them settling there, some of them creating law and order problems in Indonesia, and half of them seeking progress on people smuggling vessels into Australian waters. That's as big a problem for Indonesia as it is for us, and that's why Kevin Rudd went up there to talk to the Indonesian President about a common solution to a common problem.
DAVID SPEERS: Can I turn to a matter back home, the issue of party reform, which has been close to your heart over the years. In fact you were part of the group that wrote a report calling for certain reforms. Kevin Rudd has now announced plans for a reform that would see the party membership able to have a 50 per cent say in who the leader should be. Is that a good idea?
BOB CARR: I think it's a splendid idea. It's got many advantages. One is appropriate security for a leader of the party, who ought to be kept there for the political cycle. I was leader of my party in New South Wales for 17 years. And in Opposition – it was a period of seven years in Opposition, when sometimes I was really down in the polls, but the Party made a commitment to me and the Party stuck with me. It's got that advantage. It entrenches support for a leader across the political cycle, or several political cycles.
It's got another advantage as well. It gives someone a real clout when they take out a party membership ticket. They're not simply stuck in a branch meeting or forced to do duty on the polling booths on election day. They can actually cast a ballot for the person they want to see lead the Australian Labor Party.
DAVID SPEERS: Could it lead to US style primary contests to some degree here, do you think?
BOB CARR: I can see the disadvantages as well as the advantages of primaries. But I think having a few well based, well planned experiments in primaries is worthwhile. And if there's a candidate in a safe Labor seat I'm thinking of, who's got widespread community support, he or she ought to be able to say, listen, I don't want to win… I don't want the legitimacy that comes with winning a ballot of 150 branch members. I want everyone who supports the Labor Party out in this electorate to be able to turn up and cast a vote. I want to be able to have the support of people who are involved in their local schools and their local sporting clubs gathered to support a local hospital. I want to be able to pitch my case to them.
As long as that doesn't lead to a few trade unions mobilising their membership to swing support behind a candidate pledged to never touch workplace reform. I think that's one disadvantage about a primary, and we've got to guard against that.
DAVID SPEERS: Alright, Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, appreciate your time. Thank you.
BOB CARR: My pleasure, David. Thank you.
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