SUBJECTS: National security; Foreign aid; China; Abbott Government’s Primary Health Network debacle

GREG JENNETT: Tanya Plibersek, the Australian Border Force has gone active today. Has Labor been fully briefed about how this regime will work?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well, Greg, I can’t answer for other Shadow Ministers. I haven’t had that discussion with them but of course the Government has been talking about this border force for some time so I’m not sure that there are any surprises there.

JENNETT: Labor supported elements in the legislation here which would make it illegal for classified information about the immigration detention network to be released. Now there are some doctors and other service providers unhappy about this. Is there any chance that the laws could be revisited?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it is important to both protect the privacy of asylum seekers but also, where there are cases of abuse, for those cases to be able to be made public. We’ve heard in the past the Government discounting reports of sexual abuse and I think a regime that makes it possible for allegations like that to be dealt with properly is very important.

JENNETT: Now, the Australian Border Force is also primarily responsible for stopping the boats. Your own Labor National Conference which is coming up will, it seems, have to deal with a motion from Labor for Refugees, in fact there will be discussions in the Left on that as early as this weekend. What’s your position on that motion that’s going to the Left?

PLIBERSEK: We’ve been saying for some time that turn-backs have caused stress in our relationship with Indonesia and Marty Natalegawa has confirmed that in recent days at the Crawford School at ANU, in his own address to that school. I think it’s important that we continue to focus on a regional solution to the movement of asylum seekers, that we continue to ensure that the dangerous journey between Java and Christmas Island doesn’t open up again, but that we treat people decently and humanely-

JENNETT: Specifically on the motion that you’ll be asked to either vote on or participate in a debate on in some way, not sure if you’re familiar with it but it does call for stripping away provisions from the maritime and migration powers legislation act. Do you support that?

PLIBERSEK: Greg, I think we need to take a much broader look at this than focussing in on one particular motion at one particular conference. There are 60 million displaced people in the world, the highest number there’s ever been. Australia has cut its aid budget – the budget that helps make it safe and possible for people to stay at home – by $11.3 billion. We have a responsibility as a wealthy nation to take more asylum seekers or refugees. This Government has cut the number of people that Australia takes, but we do need to make sure that people can come to Australia safely.

JENNETT: We’ve heard Bill Shorten talk about the secrecy provisions surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders. Is it a consideration that Labor could make turn-backs more palatable if they weren’t so shrouded in operational secrecy?

PLIBERSEK: I think there’s a great deal to discuss in this policy area and I’m not going to discuss it all today. We’ll have discussions within the Labor Party in the leadup to National Conference and over coming months, of course, in the leadup to the election campaign we’ll make all our policies clear then.

JENNETT: But are you aware of the perception, or at least the vulnerability, for attack by your opponents if Labor is seen to water down at its conference and subsequently, the existing arrangements?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Greg, there’s a lot of people who want to talk about the politics of this. I think it’s important as a nation we focus on the fact that there are 60 million displaced people in the world, that we have a responsibility to do better than we’re doing to bear our share of that international crisis, and that our aid budget makes it possible for organisations like UNICEF to provide services to refugees in countries of first asylum. We’re actually cutting our support to organisations like that. We also need to keep in mind that many, many people lost their lives making the dangerous journey that you’re talking about today. All of those things need to feature in our thinking.

JENNETT: Let’s go to the Middle East now and we’ve had the reported death of 23-year-old Queenslander Reece Harding. Should his involvement with Kurdish fighters be condemned just as harshly as the activity of jihadists fighting for Islamic State?

PLIBERSEK: Australians should not go to this region and fight with any group. It is dangerous, it is the wrong thing to do. People who want to offer support should do so in a humanitarian context, they should support organisations, I’ve just named UNICEF for one, that are providing services to refugees on the ground. People should not go to this region to fight.

JENNETT: Closer to our own region the head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Michael Thawley, has expressed a view at a university conference that China is not willing or able to play a serious global leadership role. Do you share that assessment or, conversely, think it appropriate that he be expressing those views?

PLIBERSEK: I was actually in the audience for those comments yesterday and I was a little surprised I must say. Mr Thawley was Prime Minister Howard’s chief foreign affairs adviser. He’s now Prime Minister Abbott’s chief policy adviser and I think the comments really give you an insight into why the Government handled the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank so badly –

JENNETT: So you think there’s an institutional view, is there, that somehow China can’t be trusted?

PLIBERSEK: I think it’s a flaw at the core of the Government. China will be absolutely critical to Australia’s economic success in the future. The reason that Labor released the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper was because we know our future is in Asia, the Indo-Pacific region. It’s our economic future, and we need to make the most of the opportunities that being part of the fastest growing part of the world offers us. To have this sort of comment expressed by the Prime Minister’s most senior policy adviser perhaps gives us an insight into why the Prime Minister made those strange comments to Angela Merkel that Australia’s relationship with China was governed by fear and greed.

JENNETT: Let’s just go to a domestic matter, you are wearing the hat of the acting health spokesperson for Labor. Primary health networks were supposed to be launched today, in fact they have been, but not under that name. Labor is calling this the KFC solution. Please explain.

PLIBERSEK: This is one of the worst health debacles we have seen in decades. This is a $112 million rebranding exercise and the Government now can’t use the brand. They’ve spent $112 million sacking people and breaking contracts and now they find they can’t even use this new name. It is an extraordinary waste of taxpayers’ money and an extraordinary debacle. It is inconceivable that this has happened.

JENNETT: Alright, Tanya Plibersek, we’ll leave it there. Thank you.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.