TRANSCRIPT: ABC 774, Melbourne, Thursday, 12 May




SUBJECTS: Labor's investment in schools; Immigration policy; Panama Papers, Long campaign and Malcolm Turnbull

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So the Panama papers reveal that Malcolm Turnbull more than twenty years ago was one director of a British Virgin Island's company, Star Technology Services Ltd. That company was created and administered by the firm we all know so well now - Mossack Fonseca. It was actually about exploiting gold in Siberia. But still, the Prime Minister says it's not relevant, it was a long time ago and the company never made a profit.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: There is no suggestion of any impropriety what so ever. There is nothing new there. The company concerned was a wholly owned subsidiary of a public-listed Australian company - so an ASX-listed company of which Neville Wran and I were both directors for about 2 years.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek is the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party. If the ALP were to win the election she would likely be Australia's Foreign Minister. Tanya Plibersek thanks for having a word with us.


EPSTEIN: You heard the Prime Minister there, it was legal, it never made a profit - why is it even an issue?

PLIBERSEK: Nothing to see here -

EPSTEIN: But why is it an issue?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think the Panama Papers have exposed just how far some people and some companies will go to avoid paying their fair share of tax. And I think it is very important that the Prime Minister is up front with his involvement in a company associated with Mossack Fonseca, which has, as you know, developed a reputation for being a company that helps people minimise their tax, or helps companies -

EPSTEIN: But he was upfront this morning wasn't he?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not sure that you would call that an extensive explanation of his involvement, but that's for others to decide. I guess the question arises as well, whether the fact that you've got the Prime Minister involved in this sort of story about tax minimisation, does that explain why the Government's had to be dragged kicking and screaming to tax transparency measures for multi-national companies and dragged kicking and screaming to actually doing -

EPSTEIN: Well they've done a number of things over a couple years but we'll come to their plan and your plan -

PLIBERSEK: Well actually, they've allowed some of our tax transparency measures to live even though they, in fact, opposed them when they were in opposition and they have done some things in the most recent budget about multi-national tax avoidance but, you know, basically they've copied what we've been saying for several years.

EPSTEIN: We might get a chance to talk about the different policies, however, what that company did when Malcolm Turnbull was director was not illegal. There are many, many people who have done that for a very, very long time. There's no evidence actually, that Malcolm Turnbull knew about that particular creation of that particular company in that particular place. It's very similar, isn't it? To dredging up incidents in people's youth and trying to apply the framework we have today to what was going on more than 20 years ago?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think we need to know more detail about exactly what the allegations are here, but I'm a big fan of the writing of Anthony Trollope and he has a character, the Duke of Omnium who becomes the Prime Minister of Britain. And the Duke of Omnium is having an argument with his son and his son says, 'Well, what I want to do is not illegal' and the Duke of Omnium says to his son, 'Son if the defence you're relying on, is that what you are doing is not illegal, you have already sunk so low that I'm disappointed in you'.

EPSTEIN: There wouldn't be a parliamentarian elected in the nation who hasn't tried to minimise their tax. So what's the difference? You claim a work allowance don't you, if you have an expense?

PLIBERSEK: What? How can you even say that?

EPSTEIN: Everyone tries to minimise their tax. What's the difference? I'm asking the question in terms of - if you file a tax return and claim an expense, what's the difference?

PLIBERSEK: The idea that people set up companies and channel income into companies and use arcane overseas islands to avoid paying their tax - that is absolutely not a common experience of any Australian. Not Australian parliamentarians, not any ordinary Australian.

EPSTEIN: It's not quite what I asked. It might not be a common experience, but how is it different in principle, trying to pay minimal amount of tax within the law? How's it different in principle?

PLIBERSEK: If you have ordinary work related expenses, if you're working on a building site and you need safety boots - that's a reasonable work-related expense. If you are pretending that you are not receiving income that you are clearly receiving, by restructuring yourself to minimise your tax - that is beyond the pale - that is not usual behaviour.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek is with me, she is the Deputy Labor leader, in Melbourne today. You have heard what she has to say, the Prime Minister named in the Panama Papers. Is it an issue or is it just something in the distant past?  What else do want the Prime Minister to say? He's spoken about: it was a publicly listed company, they did something perfectly legal, they never made a profit. What other specific questions do you want him to answer?

PLIBERSEK: The higher level question is, if someone is prepared to engage in these sorts of arrangements in their personal life can they -

EPSTEIN: Business life. He was a director of a company.

PLIBERSEK: Well, in their business life, in their personal finances and so on, can they really reflect community values when it comes to making sure that we do crack down on tax avoidance?

EPSTEIN: I guess that's one of the questions that we’ll ask people to answer at the ballot box. If I can ask you another question in a very different area - asylum seekers. A candidate in Sydney in a newspaper there says that the Manus Island detention centre is a concentration camp. Is that going too far?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think anybody who's studied the Second World War would be very careful about using that sort of language. I don't -

EPSTEIN: Is it the wrong sort of language?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I wouldn't use that language because I think as a student of history, the horror that you're talking about when you say concentration camp. But I would also say that a lot of Australians do have concerns about Manus Island and Nauru because they seem to have become places of indefinite detention and that is something that we do need to address as a nation. We do need to have more transparency, independent oversight -

EPSTEIN: Can I ask you about indefinite detention? I know the ALP is very keen to say we are different to the Government because we don't want to lock people up in indefinite detention. However, Labor, under Kevin Rudd made that agreement with Papua New Guinea. So if there is any failing in the structure of that agreement, if there is any difficulty in processing people or settling them on Papua New Guinea, that blame is shared equally by Labor.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'll say two things about that. The first thing I'd say is our original wish was to have an arrangement with Malaysia where we would have taken four people for every person we sent to Malaysia and those people would have been able to live in the community. They would have had work rights, their children could have gone to school, they would have had health care...

EPSTEIN: But by the time you set up PNG you knew that wasn't an option.

PLIBERSEK: I have to finish saying this. That arrangement was blocked by a deal between the Liberals and the Greens. They blocked that. We went to Manus Island and Nauru with the intention that people would be processed and resettled in a genuine regional resettlement arrangement and in the two and half years that we have had a Coalition Government no effort has been - well sorry, that's not fair to say - the only effort for resettlement has been with Cambodia. Cambodia, I believe, received about $55 million to resettle two people, four people -

EPSTEIN: But to cut to the chase to where we are now, you opposed the turn back policy back at National Conference. You've got about a dozen candidates who, I know you'd say you will fall into line and argue party policy, but you personally opposed turn backs when your party had a chance to debate it. There are a dozen candidates who clearly don't like where the policy is. So the question to every Labor candidate surely is: can I trust Labor not to listen to the dozen candidates, and more people, senior people like you and Anthony Albanese who have said things in the past, well maybe you'll change your mind. Why should they trust you not to change your minds?

PLIBERSEK: Because we've come through a very difficult debate at conference to a balanced position. A position that balances increased compassion, includes an extra $450 million dollars for the UNHCR, the UN High Commission on Refugees, includes a genuine commitment to regional processing with the tougher parts of our policy which are designed to make sure that the boats don't start.

EPSTEIN: Can I ask you a question about education? It is clear Labor wants to spend more than the Government. How do we know that the money you will spend will lift standards? Because there was six years of Labor and there's been three years of Coalition spending. And the money does increase each year, it doesn't appear that the standards are lifting with that money being spent. So you've both had a go, so how do we know that, this time, your extra money will lift standards?

PLIBERSEK: Because it's about how you spend the extra money. We actually didn't, sadly, have much time in government to implement the Gonski recommendations and the report itself is not just about needs-based funding. It includes some very important recommendations about how you improve the quality of our school education system. So the Government loves to say 'it's not just about extra money'. We agree, it's not just about extra money. But it is very hard to do the things that we know we have to do to improve our school system without extra money.


PLIBERSEK: So, today for example, we've said that $1.8 billion is going to focus on regional schools, about 1.5 million kids in rural and remote areas. We know that those kids are falling behind, that there is an education gap between kids who are growing up in the city and kids who are growing up in the country. And we know some of the things that we need to do to address that education gap. It is about having specific outcomes attached to the extra funding. We want to lift school completion rates, for example. We want 95 per cent of kids to be finishing Year 12 by 2020, as an example. We also want to focus on teacher quality. We've said that when people are teaching in those STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering and maths, in high school in particular -

EPSTEIN: It makes a difference when they are teachers.

PLIBERSEK: Well, they should have a relevant qualification to be teaching in those fields.

EPSTEIN: They all just seem very, very difficult to achieve.

PLIBERSEK: Well, that's why you need a bit of extra funding to achieve them. Yes, they're difficult but we are being left behind globally. We have gone from being one of the top performing education systems in the world, to being number nine, number 16. We don't have to be.

EPSTEIN: You enjoying the campaign yet?

PLIBERSEK: I love it!

EPSTEIN: Really?

PLIBERSEK: Yes I do. I really love it.

EPSTEIN: Why, just because you're not pregnant?

PLIBERSEK: Not this time. But thank you for asking -

EPSTEIN: Do you actually enjoy it?

PLIBERSEK: Yes, I really do love it because when someone's really pushing you for what's the difference between the Government and Labor and we've got this great story to tell with 100 positive policies, the campaign is the time that people really focus on those differences. They are making a choice.

EPSTEIN: You like it because people are actually interested in politics.

PLIBERSEK: I love it because people are interested in politics and I love it because I get the opportunity of saying: 'what are we about?' We are about jobs, opportunity, growth, environment, climate change, education, health and a whole lot of things that I am really proud of.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek thanks for your time.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks Raf.