The Prime Minister stands firm on his government’s refugee policy in an exclusive interview with SBS News.
Australia’s offshore detention policy is shaping up as a key election issue, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison has delivered a rebuke to crossbenchers calling for the removal of children from Nauru, declaring: “you don't negotiate your borders”.
Kerryn Phelps, the independent candidate and likely winner of the Wentworth by-election, has continued her calls for the Coalition to remove the remaining children and their families off Nauru.
She now forms part of a significant bloc with crossbench MPs calling on the government to end its detention policies there.
But the prime minister downplayed the situation on the island, saying Australia was actively working to cut the numbers of children detained.
“We've been getting the children off Nauru for years and, more importantly, we haven't been putting children on Nauru,” he said.
“We're now down to a figure of just over 50 [children] and we're continuing to work… to reducing those numbers even further.”
As medical professionals continued to call for their urgent removal, Mr Morrison said there was more medical staff on Nauru than children, and reports of the dire situation “aren't terribly well-informed”.
The PM also hardened his language towards Labor - which earlier this week flagged its support for refugee resettlement in New Zealand.
“You don't negotiate your borders,” he said.
He said the New Zealand proposal was becoming a “pull factor” for detainees.
“There are those on Nauru who are starting to say 'I mightn't take the US option, I might have a better option in Australia'.”
He also slammed the Labor Party’s “mad policy” of putting “pregnant women on Manus Island” while in government.
In for the long haul
Two months since becoming prime minister, Mr Morrison said he has no regrets about the Liberal bloodbath that led to his ascension.
“Leaders always step up, regardless of the circumstances,” he told SBS News in an exclusive interview.
As the Coalition moves closer to a federal election due by May, the prime minister said he didn’t plan on becoming one of Australia’s shortest serving leaders by losing the election.
“You always just stay focused on what’s ahead and the key priorities,” he said.
“I'm not planning on being here for just six months.”
Australia’s future ‘intertwined’ with China
When pressed on issues like China’s conduct in the disputed South China Sea and influence in the Pacific, Mr Morrison said he wanted to be a “measured partner”.
“We're about reducing tensions, not escalating them and maintaining the dialogue,” he said of Australia’s biggest trading partner.
“We will work constructively with China as we always have. Our futures are very much intertwined in the region.”
In a clear signal of his intent for the Pacific region, Mr Morrison said he will use ‘summit season’ meetings like APEC and ASEAN to strengthen Australia’s alliances in the region.
“We're not just the partner of choice, we're family,” he said.
The Prime Minister will attend the ASEAN meeting later next month in Singapore, followed by APEC in Papua New Guinea.
“I'm reaching out to our brothers and sisters in the Pacific,” he said.
‘I’ve also invited them all around for a barbeque up there in Moresby at the residence [at the APEC meeting].”
Assange doesn’t get a ‘leave pass’
Mr Morrison was also surprisingly candid on the issue of Australian WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for six years.
Mr Assange recently threatened legal action against his Ecuadorian refuge after it introduced new restrictions and conditions on his stay.
It was “quite a pickle” Mr Assange finds himself in, Mr Morrison said.
“It's not one that's really burning a hole in my agenda at the moment.”
Mr Assange fears extradition to the United States if he leaves the embassy because of his decision to leak hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables.
But, all Australians should follow the laws of the countries they’re visiting, Mr Morrison said.
“No one gets a leave pass because they're an Australian,” he said.
‘But, they will always get the support all Australian should expect when they're overseas.”
Migrants part of ‘nation’s fabric’
The Prime Minister echoed the language of his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull in talking up Australia’s ethnic cohesiveness.
Mr Turnbull often lauded Australia as the most successful multicultural nation in the world on the global stage.
In the last few months, there have been controversial calls to revive the White Australia policy in Parliament, as well as the Coalition supporting a Senate motion that it’s ‘okay to be white’.
“Canberra can be a bit of a debating society from time to time,” Mr Morrison said.
“But, when outrageous things are said, they should be called and out and they should be decried.”
Mr Morrison said migrants to Australia are part of the nation’s fabric.
“Australia's migrant communities have built the country,” he said.
“It has been one of the key pillars of Australia's prosperity over generations.”
As the Coalition continues to work out its population policy ahead of the next election, Mr Morrison said Australia’s migrant intake must work in its favour.
He reiterated that migrants could be sent to other parts of Australia, like the Northern Territory, instead of settling in Melbourne and Sydney.
SBS-ABC merger not a ‘burning issue’
While Mr Morrison said he was “open” to the potential merger of Australia’s two public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, he said it wasn’t a priority.
“I don't have a habit of ruling things out,” he said.
“But, no one is putting that in front of me at the moment.”
The government commissioned a review of the efficiency of the two broadcasters last month, but has been explicitly instructed not to consider merging them.
Calls to merge the two have been growing since several scandals engulfed the ABC in the last few months over its editorial policies and leadership.
SBS is a national institution, Mr Morrison said.
“SBS is proudly Australian, that's what I like about it,” he said.
“It has always been a great standard bearer about the important role of Australia's multicultural nature.”
But, he said that did not make it immune from questions about its viability in a rapidly changing and growing media landscape
“People have much greater access to overseas content than they did before,” he said.
“So, I believe its role has changed over time.”