TRANSCRIPT: ABC Lateline, Wednesday 9 September 2015




SUBJECTS: Iraq; Syrian crisis.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Labor's Deputy Leader and shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek joined us from Canberra just a short time ago. 

Tanya Plibersek, thanks for being there


JONES: Now Bill Shorten said today Australia's military action in Syria must be strategically, legally and morally sound. Does it fit the action that's being proposed, those three criteria?

PLIBERSEK: Well taking the legal basis first, I think it's pretty clear that Iraq has the ability to defend itself against strikes launched from Syrian territory and it has the right to ask other nations to do that too. I think the moral case, when you consider the size, the scale of the threat that's posed by Daesh, I think that there is a clear moral case under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine also for Australia to help the Iraqi Government protect the people and territory of Iraq. I think whether this makes sense in the long term depends on a number -

JONES: Strategically, you mean?

PLIBERSEK: Strategically - depends on a number of other elements. First of all, the international community must redouble its efforts to find a political solution for the tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria for many years. There is no way that bombing will solve the crisis in Syria. There has to be a political approach that of course is led by the people of Syria, but also involves the major political players that are all backing a dog in this fight.

JONES: Let's move on to the mission that's being proposed for Syria, and in your speech tonight, you've used the term mission creep. You've also used the term quagmire. Is this Labor's fear?

PLIBERSEK: Well of course. It's the fear of any rational person. We believe that the Government of [Iraq] has an absolute right to defend itself across the border from attacks by IS. But any rational person would say that the problem that spans across Iraq and Syria requires a political solution, not a military one. We are of course concerned that the international community redouble its efforts to find a short-term humanitarian response to the terrible crisis there, but a long-term strategic response that actually solves the problem, that doesn't continue to generate this human misery.

JONES: Let me ask you this - it's a strategic question: do you think the ultimate aim of military engagement should be to keep the Assad regime in power, given what happened in Iraq when we attempted to create regime change by getting rid of Saddam Hussein?

PLIBERSEK: No, I don't. I don't accept that for a moment. I think our military involvement must be confined to helping Iraq defend itself. I think our interest in Syria must be through renewed diplomatic pushes through the international community. In the short term, a humanitarian response; in the long term, a diplomatic and political response. And I don't accept - I know there are a number of people writing at the moment that the Assad Government is looking pretty good compared with the mess that's there now. You've got to remember, this conflict started because the Assad Government opened fire on unarmed protestors who were protesting against children being locked up and tortured for graffitiing walls -  this is a terrible regime.

JONES: It sounds like you'd actually favour the notion of regime change, which of course led to so many problems in Iraq.

PLIBERSEK: No. Tony, I don't think you can simplify it to the degree you're trying to simplify it to. This has to be a Syrian-led process that of course involves - you've got Iran, you've got Russia, United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, arming, supporting, financing different groups on the ground in Syria. A solution has to take account of the big geopolitical pressures that are brought to bear when all of these players are backing a dog in the fight.

JONES: OK. Quickly, are you concerned that while the Pentagon has admitted to, in the course of its air strikes in Syria and Iraq, killing two civilians, both young girls. Independent sources such as Airwar - the Airwar site run by a former BBC journalist are saying that civilian deaths run into the hundreds?

PLIBERSEK: I am concerned about any support of civilian - any report of civilian casualties. Of course I am concerned about any -

JONES: So do you think we're hearing the full story from the Pentagon is really what I'm asking?

PLIBERSEK: Of course I'm concerned about any report of civilian casualties and any information must be made transparently available.

JONES: Now we don't have a lot of time, but on the new refugee intake Labor's offered support to the Government's decision to offer 12,000 additional places for Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Are you convinced that Muslim refugees in those camps will not be discriminated against?

PLIBERSEK: Well it's absolutely vital that any decisions about who comes to Australia are made based on need, based on vulnerability and that's why we should take the advice of the UN High Commission on Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration about who we prioritise for resettlement in Australia. We need to take the people who are most vulnerable. That should be our policy, that's always been the way -

JONES: Have you sought assurances from the Government that Christians won't be prioritised, which is one of the things that's been suggested?

PLIBERSEK: Well we've made very clear that we expect people to be resettled on the basis of need.

JONES: There's been disquiet about this in the Muslim community. The Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed said that choosing refugees based on religion or ethnicity was the kind of sectarian thinking that got Iraq and Syria into the problem in the first place. Are his fears completely unfounded, do you think?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think we should never make a choice about who comes to Australia based on their ethnicity or religion. We help the people who need the most help. Bill Shorten's been very clear about this. Richard Marles, our Immigration spokesperson, has been very clear on it. And I'd have to say the Prime Minister in his press conference this afternoon when he was pushed on this did admit that there are Muslim minorities who are persecuted in Syria and Iraq and that they would also be eligible for resettlement in Australia.

JONES: Finally, is there a risk that if handled badly, this could actually inflame divisions, sectarian divisions in Australia?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think we need to focus on the positive. The Australian community has been calling on the Government to do more, both to provide extra assistance to refugees in the region and to bring more people to Australia.

JONES: So you've got no concerns at all about some of the rhetoric from within Government circles from that side of politics that preceded this decision?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I've got to say I'm not going to pass running commentary on some of the poisonous nonsense that we hear from Government members. I'll simply say it's a good thing that they're bringing more people and the decision has to be based on need.

JONES: Tanya Plibersek, we'll have to leave you there. Thanks very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.