TRANSCRIPT: ABC 7:30 Report, Tuesday 31 May



TUESDAY, 31 MAY 2016


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: One of the areas of most common agreement in Australian politics is foreign policy. And, yet, in a landmark speech today at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the Shadow Foreign Minister and Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek, has highlighted a few areas that could turn into points of difference with the Coalition. She's with me in the studio now. Thank you very much for coming in.


SALES: In your speech today, you put the US alliance as one of the tenets of Australian foreign policy. Yet the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, has described the presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump as "barking mad", some of his views as "barking mad". Surely the only logical conclusion, then, is that a Shorten Government combined with a Trump Administration would have to involve a major rethink of the alliance?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think our relationship has withstood many years and would withstand a Trump presidency as well. I mean, you've got to remember John Howard actually said about a young Barack Obama, before he became president, that the terrorists would be celebrating if he won. That didn't affect our relationship; we continue to have a very close relationship with the United States, including increasing the inter-relationship during the Obama presidency.

SALES: But if the future Australian prime minister considers, you know, the potential future US president "barking mad", how could Australia in good faith continue to rely on the United States' judgment and leadership and, indeed, follow it into conflict?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I don't think it's particularly controversial to say that some of Mr Trump's ideas are a little bit out there. I think there are plenty of people in the United States saying the same thing. But our relationship is, our relationship between our nations, is about more than the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. It depends on many decades of relationships between individuals, between our institutions, between our militaries, between our cultural institutions. It's a big and wide and deep relationship.

SALES: Of course. But nonetheless, if you consider the person at the helm of it to be mad, can you give an assurance to Australians that a future Australian Labor government wouldn't follow that person's leadership into conflicts into other foreign policy areas?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think that's a very important point to make: not just at the time of a presidential election in the United States, but more generally. We've always said that we want alliance and not compliance. That it's vital for Australia to make its own judgments about the conflicts that we enter into. There are times when I think we've judged wrongly. We shouldn't have gone into Iraq in 2003. And, in fact, we are a better and more valuable ally when we say: "We don't agree with this decision, we're not going to follow." So I think the alliance, while it is an absolutely central part of our foreign policy approach, doesn't mean that we are, you know, told to jump and then ask how high. It means that we have a partnership. We consult, we work together, but we make our own judgments in Australia's best interests at the end of the day.

SALES: Just to stick with Donald Trump for a moment: Which of his policies does Labor specifically have concerns about in the foreign policy area?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm not going to get into a critique of US domestic policy. But I'd draw your attention to the fact that Kim Beazley has pointed out that Mr Trump has suggested a reduced US interest and presence in Asia. Obviously, we want to see a continued, constructive engagement of the United States in the Asian region.

SALES: And if that occurred, would we have to extend our Defence budget, for example?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals. You're talking about many steps down the track. I'm sure that we'll see a lot of politicking in the presidential election for a start. We'll see a general election in the United States. When that occurs, there will be a great process of whoever is successful determining the make-up of their Cabinet, the advisers that they get. I think it is highly speculative to go down that road at the moment.

SALES: Other than joining the US-led war in Iraq, where else do you think there has been insufficient independence in Australia's foreign policy decisions?

PLIBERSEK: Well, that's one that I'm happy to point to, because I was in the Parliament at the time, and Labor, and many of us, were very critical of the position that we took as a nation at that time.

SALES: But you have made a general statement today about Australia requiring more independence. Is it based on more than that one area?

PLIBERSEK: No, I made a general statement saying that the alliance is a critical part of our foreign policy tenets, and that we do best within the alliance when we are a good friend that is thoughtful, methodical about our approach to the decisions that we take; that we are, we are ...

SALES: But you've actually said, "we're more valuable as an ally," as you've said in this interview as well, "if we act confidently and independently within the alliance." So you must think that there are some instances where we have acted insufficiently independently?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I've drawn your attention to one of them. I'm not going to go through ...

SALES: And I asked for some others?

PLIBERSEK: And I'm not going to go through, you know, half a century of alliance – or three-quarters or a century – and determine, you know, which are the things I agreed with and which I don't. It's a pretty counter-productive thing to do.

SALES: How is it that today, in a signature speech on foreign policy, there wasn't one mention of the one issue in this election where there is actually a point of discussion in foreign policy, which is – how to handle asylum seekers who come to Australia via boat?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I did mention, actually, the very large movement of people around our globe as one of the key challenges that we face as part of the international community. I mentioned climate change, the movement of people, the rise of conflict, particularly with terrorism as a feature of it.

SALES: You haven't mentioned it in the specific terms in which it's being discussed in this campaign?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it's only a half-hour speech. I can't cover every top topic, Leigh.

SALES: But it is a key topic of discussion in this election campaign. I'm just wondering why you chose to not bring it up.

PLIBERSEK: Because the speech was about foreign policy, not about ...

SALES: It is foreign policy.

PLIBERSEK: Well, no. The way that we are handling the asylum seeker issue is a domestic issue within Australia. But if you want to talk about the differences, I'm happy to talk about the differences. First of all ...

SALES: Well, Richard Marles – sorry, just if I can raise my thing – Richard Marles was on the program either last week or the week before. And he said one of the first things you would be doing is going and talking to allies and talking to the UNHCR. So that makes it a foreign policy issue.

PLIBERSEK: Well, if you want to talk about the policy itself, I'm happy to move to that. We've said very clearly that we would absolutely work to prevent the people smugglers plying their evil trade. There is no difference between the Government and the Opposition on that issue. But there are differences. One of the differences is our engagement with the UNHCR. Richard would be going to Geneva to talk about proper resettlement. It is not right that people are sitting on Manus Island and Nauru in what feels like to them, no doubt, indefinite detention. We've said that we would change the conditions for children, including having an independent children's advocate, including mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, neglect. We've said we will get rid of temporary protection visas. We've said we'd restore the UN convention to our domestic legislation. I mean, we have a policy unity with the Government on preventing people smugglers taking advantage of vulnerable people, but that doesn't mean that we agree with the Government's current treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru.

SALES: But on all these points you raise, let me again put to you something that I put to Richard Marles last week, which is that, in government, Labor dismantled a policy that had stopped the boats. We then had a return of numerous boats, the reopening of detention centres that had been closed, long delays in processing still, and then many deaths at sea. So, given that record, how can voters watching this show trust you to handle this policy if you were to return to government?

PLIBERSEK: Well, there are two things I'd say to that. The first is that our initial proposal to resettle asylum seekers in Malaysia would've been exactly the sort of regional processing arrangement that all parties are now agreeing would be desirable. And the Liberals and the Greens teamed up to stop that. Have you ever asked any of the Liberals who are now talking about regional processing why Malaysia was unacceptable to them at the time?

SALES: But part of your job is to get your policies through, when you're in government. And I'm pointing out your record in government in this area was very problematic

PLIBERSEK: Well, it's very difficult when the Liberals and the Greens, who say that they fundamentally disagree on asylum seeker policy, actually team up to bomb a solution that would've worked.

SALES: One quick, broad question before we run out of time. I wanted to ask you about the leaders' debate on Sunday night. There's been a lot of discussion since that it was boring; that viewers were disengaged by it. Fewer than 100,000 people watched it. Even fewer watched the previous one. What is it about the way our political leaders are engaging with people that is boring them?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think that's fair. I think it's been a terrific campaign, with really clear differentiation. You've got a government that wants to spend $50 billion giving a tax cut to big business; and Labor that wants to invest in health, education and jobs.

SALES: But I'm just wondering if even the way you have answered that is the sort of thing that people tire of, which is that then you've answered it by going back to your – "everything we do is good, everything they do is bad"?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think that's fair. I think that the debate on Sunday night was very strictly governed. And I think when you don't have free-flowing conversation between the parties in a debate sometimes it can seem a little bit overly formal. I mean, I'd love to see the leaders do a, maybe, a Q&A with an audience – a bit of audience participation. Tony hosting it or you, Leigh. I think that's a terrific format. I’d like to see another one of those in the campaign.

SALES: I think ... the parties themselves set the rules, though, don't they? I think, for the Press Club?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I don't know how the rules were set, to be honest. I just think where you have no ability for people to really interact with one another: I mean, you know, in one sense it's good. You know you're getting absolutely equal time and so on. But it can seem rather formal.

SALES: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for coming in.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks, Leigh.