TRANSCRIPT: Doorstop, Canberra, Thursday 13 August 2015





SUBJECT: Syria; Marriage equality

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: I just wanted to say a few words about Dan Tehan’s comments on Syria. We woke up this morning to see a Liberal backbencher calling for Australia to be involved in bombing IS targets in Syria. I think it’s very important to understand the background of this situation. Labor has been very supportive of the Government in a bipartisan fashion, taking humanitarian action in Iraq. We’ve been invited by the Iraqi government to assist it to train its own troops to protect its own people. There is a very clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Iraq. As the Prime Minister himself has said, there is no clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria. There is certainly a humanitarian disaster in Syria. Syria is country with about the same population as Australia and with about 11.5 million people who are displaced from their homes, either within Syria or neighbouring countries. There are millions of people who are refugees in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and so on. So there is undoubtedly a humanitarian disaster in Syria and it is undoubted that Daesh is a force that should be defeated. But we go back to the problem that the Prime Minister himself first identified, there is no clear international basis for Australia’s involvement in Syria and there’s no clarity about the outcome that Australia would be fighting for. On the one hand we’ve got IS, on the other hand we’ve got the Assad regime. We’ve got hundreds of groups proliferating in Syria; Jabhat al-Nusra, a variety of groups that are also attacking civilians, that are murderous, that are besieging cities, that are using the worst tactics possible. If the Prime Minister believes that Australia should be involved in Syria, he should come into the Parliament, he should explain the basis on which he has changed his mind, and he should make a case to the Australian people through the Australian Parliament. It is extraordinary to be sending a backbencher out to run up the flagpole, a decision as serious as this - that we’d send Australian armed personnel into harm’s way in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PLIBERSEK: Well, our role should indeed include an increased humanitarian assistance to Syria. When Labor was in government, we gave $100 million to humanitarian assistance. Since the Liberals have been in government, they’ve given $35 million, as the situation has become much, much worse. They’ve made commitments to increasing the humanitarian intake from the region- we’ve seen little movement in that area. So primarily, our assistance should be humanitarian. We are, in Iraq, one of- in fact, the most significant country providing assistance on a per capita basis besides the United States. We have certainly committed some of our finest personnel and some significant equipment to the fight in Iraq. And if the Government wants to make a case that there should be a change, that everything they’ve said in the past about there being no legal basis for Australian intervention and no clear ally on the ground in Syria, if they want to make a case that that’s changed, they should certainly offer a briefing to the Opposition. But more importantly, they should explain to the Australian people through the Parliament why they’ve changed their view.

JOURNALIST: If the case is made, then would you consider supporting Australia joining the US air strikes in Syria if requested to by the US?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it’s not a matter of being requested to by the United States. It’s a matter of the Australian government determining that this is in line with international law and making clear: what is the strategic objective here? Who is it we are fighting beside? What is the government that they would expect to see if IS were defeated? None of those questions have been answered and it is important for the Government to answer these serious questions.

Can I also just, before I have to go upstairs, say a few words about the marriage equality debate. Overnight, we’ve heard the Government again in chaos. We’ve heard some government ministers saying there should be a plebiscite, some saying there should be a referendum. This is an expensive and unnecessary delaying tactic for something we know the Australian public want. It’s estimated that this will cost $120 million. Is this really how we want to spend $120 million of taxpayers’ money when we have so many important issues before us? Countries like us around the world have made this decision. In Australia,  the decision is properly a decision for the Parliament. The High Court has already made that ruling. Anne Twomey, an eminent constitutional lawyer, has also said that this is a matter for the Parliament to decide, not for a referendum. We know that the people who are pushing for a referendum in the Liberal Party are the opponents of marriage equality and they’re doing it because they want to delay and hopefully prevent, from their point of view, marriage equality ever becoming a reality. If there is a change of government, there will be legislation for marriage equality within the first 100 days. Thanks.