TRANSCRIPT: ABC Radio National Breakfast, Friday 28 August 2015





SUBJECTS: Syria, China FTA

FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek is Labor’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Labor Leader. Tanya Plibersek, welcome to breakfast.


KELLY: Labor’s support for the Iraq mission when we spoke about this some time ago was conditional on having the invitation from the Iraqi government, on it not being open ended or subject to mission creep, that it didn’t involve Australian soldiers on the front line, and that it was primarily a humanitarian and training mission. Does extending the RAAF fighter jets into missions over the border into Syria fit within those red lines?

PLIBERSEK: I think, Fran, the first thing we need to do is pause and find out from the Government, first of all, exactly what it is that Australia’s being asked to do, and secondly, what exactly the Australian Government is proposing in response to that request. So far, the national security committee of the Cabinet has not met to discuss this, they’re talking about meeting next week. From that meeting, we would make expect the Government to make clear what’s being asked of Australia and what their proposed response is. When we have that critical information, we’ll make a decision about our response to it.

KELLY: But it’s clear what we’re being asked, we’re being asked to join in the coalition missions into- across the border, into Syria.

PLIBERSEK: Well, Fran, I don’t think it’s as clear as that. There’s many different ways that we could participate in that sort of request. It could be just to try and secure the border between Iraq and Syria or it could much wider operations that are being asked of us, we don’t know that. The Government has not shared the content of the letter that we’ve received from the United States and it’s not made clear exactly what it’s proposing Australia should do in response to any request that’s been made.

KELLY: There’s plenty of advice coming in. Former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr says Australia has a moral obligation to join in with the rest of the coalition campaign across the border in Syria. Gareth Evans too thought that there was a moral justification there under the responsibility to protect principle adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. Do you accept there is sufficient moral justification for extending the mission into Syria to prevent mass atrocities?

PLIBERSEK: I certainly accept that we have a humanitarian obligation to the people of Syria. There’s 11.5 million of them that have fled their homes, victims of IS and a range of other brutal terrorist organisations and the Assad government itself. And I certainly have been supportive; the Opposition has been supportive of the Government’s approach in Iraq. But it is important if we’re talking about broadening that approach, that we’re very clear about what our objective is, what the legal basis is and what specifically we’re being asked to do. At the moment, the Government hasn’t made that information public.

KELLY: Have you sought legal advice on this? Gareth Evans, as I mentioned, said that legally it’s a grey area but probably defensible under the notion of collective self-defence, under article 51 of the UN Charter. Have you sought advice on that?

PLIBERSEK: We’ve asked the Government to share its legal advice. The Prime Minister in the past has said that while the moral case is the same, the legal case is different. If he thinks that position has changed, I think it’s very important that he take not just the Opposition but the Australian public into his confidence and share what’s changed in his view.

KELLY: If the mission in Syria is limited to assisting Iraq to defend its own people from attacks coming from across the border in Syria, and if our military targets in Syria is solely the ISIS fighters responsible for those cross border attacks, would Labor support it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Fran, I’m not going to make a position or a statement based on supposition of what’s being asked of us, and supposition of what our response might be. We are absolutely willing to listen to the Government to make its case for expanding Australian operations but they should say exactly what it is that they’re proposing to do and we’ll make a decision based on the information at the time. As I say, we do have a responsibility as good international citizens to help in Syria. It’s one of the most hellish places on earth. IS is obviously an organisation- one of the most evil on earth, everything the Government says about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died, civilians who have been displaced, the treatment of prisoners, slaves, captives, all of that is true and it is important for us to play a role as an international citizen in protecting civilians from those crimes. But we also, you know, Fran, we have spent- or set aside about $650 million for a military response here and we’ve contributed in the last couple of years about $55 million to the victims of this organisation that are living in camps and caves coming in now into the third or fourth of fifth winter displaced from their homes. So yes, we have an obligation but we need to consider what specifically is being asked of us militarily, and what more we can do.

KELLY: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is seeking advice from other countries on this, the legal basis and some legal advice, she’s going to be talking to Iran too.  That’s smart, isn’t it, for Australia to be keeping Iran in on the loop on this given the support Iranian forces are giving to the Iraqi government, in terms of training and support for the Shiite militia and the fight against ISIS.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s for the Foreign Minister to explain why she’s singled out Iran for consultation. Iran is one of several countries in the region that are supporting different sides of this conflict. Iran obviously is the country that has backed Assad, the brutal dictator of Syria, and I think it’s really up to the Foreign Minister to explain why she’s singled out Iran for consultation. Of course, anybody who has been watching the situation in Syria understands that it is important for IS to be confronted militarily, but it’s also important for there to be political resolution to the conflict in Syria. There’ll be no lasting peace there until there’s a political resolution that involves consultation with the international community because so far, big players in the international community have been backing their dog in the fight and unwilling to work on a compromise that would benefit the people of Syria. And then thirdly, of course, as well as a military and political solution, we need to deal with the humanitarian crisis that sees millions of people displaced from their homes.

KELLY: It’s 16 to 8. Our guest is Labor’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek. Can I ask you on another issue? Andrew Robb is headed to Beijing to reassure the Chinese that the Australian Government is committed to the free trade agreement. At the same time, Labor MP Kelvin Thompson says Labor should oppose the FTA with China. Is the Opposition committed to the free trade agreement? Will you pass it when it comes to Parliament?

PLIBERSEK: We’ve always been committed to free trade, or better trading relationships with our neighbours. It’s one of the reasons that we worked in government on this very free trade agreement. What we say about the agreement with China is that it has to be a good quality agreement that enhances Australia’s job prospects.

KELLY: But if the Government says it can’t make changes without threatening the whole agreement, will Labor pass it as it is?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re looking to work closely and cooperatively with the Government to see what we can do to improve the agreement to make sure that it has good job outcomes for Australians.

KELLY: Okay, Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks, Fran.