TRANSCRIPT - ABC Radio National with Waleed Aly, Wednesday 17 September 2014

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SUBJECT/S: Iraq; Ebola; The Abbott Government’s Broken Promises.

WALEED ALY, PRESENTER: Joining us now is Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Thank you very much for your time.


ALY: I’ll get to the Ebola thing in a moment because I think it’s actually very interesting but let’s start with Iraq. I’ve spoken with you before about this concept of mission creep and I think last time we spoke it was a narrow mission that we were contemplating to prevent genocide. Now it seems to have evolved into something much more than that. Are these the limits or will this continue to evolve?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Australia needs to be very clear that our objective is the humanitarian objective that includes helping the democratically elected Government of Iraq to fight off the threat that is IS. The Government of Iraq are able to ask for our help. They’ve not just asked for Australian help they’ve got at the Paris Conference around 30 nations signed up it seems as though other nations are also already coming on board including a number of nations in the region in the Middle East to help the Government fight off IS. I think we’ve been very clear that’s Australia’s role. Beyond that I don’t think – well we certainly would have to have a conversation with the Australian people about anything beyond that, I don’t see a role for Australia beyond that immediate support for humanitarian intervention which prevents genocide.

ALY: But there is no genocide happening right now, we don’t need to prevent genocide by supporting the Iraqi military to re-establish control of Iraq do we?

PLIBERSEK: Well there are thousands of people who have lost their lives. There’s 1.8 million people who have been displaced in Iraq from their homes. I’m not really sure that you could down play the seriousness of what’s going on there.

ALY: But can we call it a genocide? As I understand it there was the threat of genocide but then there were Iraqi airstrikes and there was the arming of particularly Kurdish forces and then there was that famous altercation where ISIS lost control of the dam and so on and so the genocidal threat seems to have abated. If that was our aim shouldn’t we have drawn a line under that?

PLIBERSEK: So now we’re only talking about mass atrocity crimes and we shouldn’t worry, is that the proposition you’re making?

ALY: No this is the question I suppose I’m asking about the strictness of the definition. If it’s about preventing genocide from happening that seems to have been achieved is it now about something more than that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’m not sure you can fairly say that we have prevented the mass atrocity crimes that IS is determined to commit in Iraq as they have committed them in Syria. You’ve got thousands of people who have lost their lives, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has sent investigative forces to northern Iraq so they can collect information about these mass atrocity crimes in an effort to hold people to account in the future. IS is determined to kill people who are of a different religion or ethnicity to them. If they’ve been limited in their success by the Iraqi forces, including the Peshmerga forces we spoke of last time, fighting back successfully in part because of the assistance of Australia and other countries that’s a good thing but I’m not sure that that would lead us to be complacent and to say we are completely free of the threat of genocide now.

ALY: There are briefings that you will be getting that none of us get with your role in Opposition of course the Government would be giving you those briefings as well or at least inviting you in on them. What seems to underlie all of this is that ISIS represents a serious threat to Australia. Can you give us an indication of precisely the scope of that threat and the mechanism, can you describe it precise terms? Because it’s not immediately clear when you consider this is a movement on the other side of the world that seems to be importing people rather than exporting them.

PLIBERSEK: Well obviously I can’t talk in detail about the content of security briefings that we receive but you only need to open the newspapers to know that there are Australians fighting with IS and the risk, aside from the people they’re fighting in Iraq and Syria, is that when they come home they would use some of the particularly nasty skills that they’ve developed overseas against Australians on home soil. That is the risk that we have to protect against and we are of course determined to do everything we can to support our security agencies in keeping Australians safe at home. But there is another issue and we spoke about it last time that the world community looked on at Rwanda and the 800,000 people who lost their lives there and said it’s terrible someone should do something, you know make it stop, but took no effective action and 800,000 people lost their lives. So however cautious we are, rightly cautious we are, about Australian involvement again in Iraq and what a disaster it was in 2003, we do have a responsibility to protect and we can debate the parameters that we put around our involvement there. I think it’s very important that the Prime Minister continues to update the Parliament on exactly what the Australian mission is, what role we play, how we will judge when we’ve been successful, what does that mean for the withdrawal of Australian troops. All of that should be part of our public discussion through the Parliament to the people of Australia. But I don’t think we can turn our backs on what is a serious humanitarian disaster.

ALY: Is it really a choice though between military involvement and turning our backs? Is that really a fair binary?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’m not sure whether you’re suggesting that people should have a good hard talking to IS and maybe they won’t kill people. We would always prefer diplomatic means to deal with a situation like this if there was a sensible leadership with a grievance that you could discuss it would be one thing but that’s not what we’re talking about with this organisation. I think that it is at the invitation of the Government of Iraq we have provided humanitarian assistance which includes some military assistance. You’ve got to remember this is not the invasion of 2003, we’re talking about several dozen countries involved not the four that were involved in 2003. This is something that has the backing of the United Nations –

ALY: Oh, we seem to have lost Tanya Plibersek. We might see if we can get her back because the other aspect of this story that I wanted to talk to her about was the Ebola response the Ebola crisis which is a real crisis, I mean not to say that the ISIS one isn’t but this is something that Obama administration has said that they’re sending 3000 troops to deal with this. So we’ll see if we can explore that with Tanya Plibersek who I understand is with us now. Thank you very much for being back with us, sorry if we let you go there it wasn’t anything you said.

PLIBERSEK: I don’t know what happened.

ALY: No don’t take it personally. We should move on to the Ebola thing, although –

PLIBERSEK: I just want to make one final point on the humanitarian mission. Of course our military contribution is not the beginning and end of what Australia should be doing, our humanitarian support including for the UN agencies who are trying to get aid to desperate people in Syria should be much greater than it is. We should, as Bill Shorten said, be taking more refugees from the area. There are other ways of helping that we should engage as well.

ALY: So let’s talk about the Ebola outbreak. The Obama administration has announced today that sending 3000 troops to help stem the outbreak. He says that this is a potential threat to global security. Have we been as a world, particularly the western world of developed nations, have we been a bit slow moving on this?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah I think you could very easily say that we’ve been a bit slow moving on this. You’ve seen about 5000 cases now and about 1 in 2 of the people who contract Ebola are dying from it. One of the reasons of course is that the traditional practices of washing the body after death mean that more people come into contact with blood and bodily fluids and that of course is the main source of infection. So we could very usefully be working more closely with African health authorities on the basic sort of precautions that you take with that type of disease that [inaudible].

ALY: I think we’re starting to struggle with that line. I might chance my arm with one more question. Hopefully we can get there. The Prime Minister has spoken today about Australia making a contribution, $7 million, an extra $7 million. Is that enough, is money what we should be doing or is it other things that we should be doing?

PLIBERSEK: Look of course the money is welcome but it’s in the context that we cut $118 million from aid to Africa in this Government’s first budget, and we also cut $2.8 million from the World Health Organisation, which of course is one of the agencies that is leading the response to Ebola. I think it’s clear from what Médecins Sans Frontières have said of course money is welcome but they’re also asking for expertise and people on the ground and we have some excellent researchers here, clinicians, health professionals that are terrifically good at working on communicable diseases if there is some way that we can support our people as well as sending dollars I think that would be ideal.

ALY: Tony Abbott has spoken today about doing an annual performance review of his ministry. He was asked about that today this is what he said:

[Recording of Tony Abbott]: Some are getting A’s some are getting A+’s but the fact is this is a competent and trustworthy government which promised that we would stop the boats, that we would scrap the carbon tax, that we would build the roads, that we would get the Budget back under control and that’s precisely what we’re doing.

ALY: Tanya Plibersek your counterpart Julie Bishop would she be in the A or the A+ category.

PLIBERSEK: Well she’s done a number of things that I agree with and support and a number of things I don’t agree with and don’t support including cutting $7.6 billion from Australia’s aid budget so that at times like this when we’re trying to help in Iraq and in Syria and in a number of African countries with the outbreak of Ebola we're in very difficult times when it comes to our aid budget. I’d like to ask if he’s marking people on keeping promises what he’d give himself because he promised no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no change to pensions, no cuts to the ABC or SBS, no new taxes and he’s broken every one of those promises. Does he get an F for that?

ALY: Well I think you just give yourself an overall mark and it’s either an A or an A+ and just go with that. Actually one question I do want to ask you and it’s one I had in mind as we were talking and I lost the connection with you. It’s a difficult question for us to think about but I think we have to given how military intervention has gone for us in the past and that is by doing this we are almost certainly going to be killing civilians, is there a point at which the loss of civilian lives that we inflict directly means that the mission is not worth it. So is there a number that you might be able to identify or ball park so that we can say ‘this is when it’s gone wrong’?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think one of the reasons that I’m so dead certain that 2003 was so bad was because of the incredible number of civilians that lost their lives in that conflict. At this stage our involvement is 600 people, we expect that Australian involvement will be mostly in an advisory role. We’re not talking about sending platoons of soldiers off to fight on the ground in Iraq so it is a different scenario again to 2003.

ALY: But we are contributing to airstrikes which will kill people including civilians.

PLIBERSEK: And it is very important that we get the targeting as right as possible and that’s why our soldiers, very specialised soldiers, are involved as they are. But civilians –

ALY: Do you think our history is great though?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think that civilian deaths are never acceptable but right now we have thousands of civilians being killed by IS because of their race or their religion or because they're the same religion and they don’t agree with IS tactics. We’ve got women and children being sold into slavery, we’ve got forced conversions, we’ve got particularly brutal ways of killing people including aid workers who of course only ever enter conflict zones to help the people who are affected by these terrible conflicts. So yes civilian deaths have to be in the calculations of any military action and are a terrible burden in the decision making during a military action, I mean a moral and ethical burden to think through as you’ve identified. But we are right now preventing the loss of life.

ALY: Tanya Plibersek thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Waleed.




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  • Alexia Salgado
    commented 2016-04-19 07:41:42 +1000
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  • Ally Barnett
    commented 2015-11-16 17:52:52 +1100
    This terrorist sympathizer needs to be banned from public opinion on radio or television!