TRANSCRIPT - Australian Agenda, Sky News, Sunday 17 August 2014

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Subject/s: Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Japan, China, Federal Budget


PETER VAN ONSELEN, INTERVIEWER: We are joined now by the Deputy Labor Leader and shadow Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek. Thanks for being here.


VAN ONSELEN: The whole issue around foreign affairs and national security, the opinion polls, and I don’t mean to bring it to that level, they do always tell us that the Coalition are well-respected by voters to handle these issues. Are you worried as a political party that this will distract from the strong success from Labor at the moment in terms of rebutting the Budget and get the Coalition on the firm policy ground the voters appreciate its efforts on?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’d never be worried about a national security issue on the basis of what the polling told me, I’ll make a decision and Labor will always make a decision based on what’s in the national interest. So I think we’ll talk in a minute about Iraq and Ukraine and some of these issues that are running at the moment, but if you take the issue of national security we’ve been presented recently with a second tranche of national security changes, and we’ve said that on those proposed legislative changes we need to see some legislation, that we are happy to support greater powers for our national security agencies if they come with stronger safeguards and stronger oversight. It’s also important to recognise that our threat assessment hasn’t changed since the September 11 attacks in New York, there are indications that we need to be on heightened vigilance because of, in particular, what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, but we need to take that in a balanced way.

VAN ONSLEN: It sounds like you think the Government might be over-dramatising the extent of the problem.

PLIBERSEK: No I’m not suggesting that, I just think that it’s important to make decisions based on the facts, based on the information that we have, and that applies to any proposed changes to legislation as well. We need to see the legislation when it’s drafted as well. I think it was a little odd to make an announcement, for example, about metadata and then to say that there’s no clear timetable for even when that legislation would come before the parliament or when we could even see draft legislation. I think the other important thing to say is that the Government have been talking tough on terrorism but in the last few months two – well one convicted terrorist, someone who has spent time in jail in Australia for terrorism-related offences, has walked out of the country, and we hear a report that there’s a suggestion that a second young man has also left Australia using his brother’s passport just recently, so it’s important if you’re going to talk tough on these things that you’re going to actually have in place the systems that would prevent Australians who have been convicted or suspected of, or on watch for terrorism-related offences, from walking out of the country and joining fights overseas.

PAUL KELLY, INTERVIEWER: Tony Abbott said this week that the new Islamic State in Syria and Iraq needs to be defeated. Is that Labor’s position?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think they certainly need to be stopped. I think whether you could claim that you have defeated an organisation that has no structure, no internal communications, no hierarchical organisation, I don’t know quite how you would determine that the organisation had been defeated, and one of the problems with these organisations is that they reform and change, they are factionalised, they are not clearly under any chain of command. So it’s not like one army fighting another army, it’s the Iraqi forces, the standing Iraqi army, fighting an organisation that is changing in its character and make-up all the time. One of the critical elements I think is what happens with the Sunni tribes now who were initially making way, frankly, and in some cases even supporting IS coming through, sweeping through Syria into northern Iraq. With the change in the Iraqi Government, with some strong suggestions that there will be a greater place for Sunni Iraqis in the decision-making structures of Iraq there’s been a couple of Sunni tribal leaders now saying ‘we can defeat IS any time we want’, I mean I don’t know how much credit you give that, but they are saying ‘a lot of these people are foreign fighters, we can take them on.’ And I think the indications are that if the Sunni tribal areas, tribal leaders, did say that they would fight off an IS advance, I think that would really change the situation on the ground.

KELLY: Given that there’s going to be a new government formed in Baghdad now, to what extend do you think it’s desirable for the United States to take whatever action is required to stop the Islamic State?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s very important for the United States to support the Iraqi Government in doing that. It’s clear we have a moral obligation and responsibility to support the people of Iraq to return to a situation of a peaceful country, I think our involvement in the earlier Iraq wars and the United States’ involvement in the earlier Iraq wars gives us a special responsibility and a special relationship there. But it is important for the government of Iraq to lead this process.

KELLY: Sure, I guess the question is then how we exercise the responsibility you just talked about, we are involved in humanitarian efforts which both sides support, would Labor be prepared to contemplate some form of military action in support of the United States.

PLIBERSEK: Well we’ve been very supportive of the humanitarian action as you say, I would draw attention to the fact that our aid to Iraq last calendar year was $7.7 million and that went to zero in the last federal budget, so I am pleased that there is humanitarian assistance now because it is obviously so desperately needed, I think it’s unlikely, all the indications are that it’s unlikely that the Americans are even thinking about putting combat troops on the ground. President Obama’s approach to intervention in other countries was pretty clearly laid out at that West Point speech, and the American commentators and American officials seem to be saying it’s unlikely that they’ll put, as they say, boots on the ground. So I think that it’s unlikely that Australia is asked to provide that kind of support. If we are asked to provide that kind of support we would look at the legal basis for any intervention. Australia has always been a supporter for example of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, Gareth Evans was a great proponent of that, where governments are unable to protect their civilians or unwilling to protect their civilians the international community does have a responsibility to protect those civilians. But the problem with the Iraq wars were they were done without any international sanction and the consequences were felt for some long time after that, I think you could still say that the consequences are being felt.

KELLY: I take it from that answer that what it suggest to me is that Labor is flexible, that if you’ve talked about looking at what might be the international foundation for intervention, looking at the responsibility to protect doctrine that is, is it correct to say that Labor doesn’t rule out a military role for Australia?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s very unlikely, extremely unlikely, so we’re talking very hypothetically here, and I don’t think it’s productive to talk too hypothetically, but if you were seeing acts of genocide I don’t think Labor would be saying we stand back and allow those acts of genocide to continue.

VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you about how you think we’ve gotten to this point, do you think the international community has been too slow to react, I mean it strikes me that when you look at it, that what was originally happening in Syria was that it was a largely moderate-led rebellion against a dictatorial leader which has morphed into the origins of the support-base for ISIS and the radical jihadists, and it wasn’t always like that.

PLIBERSEK: I think you can very easily make that argument, but the question of what should we have done, when should we have done it, I think they’re much more difficult questions to answer.

VAN ONSELEN: The argument is that the international community could have got behind the rebels in the situation in Syria earlier, before they were radicalised.

PLIBERSEK: Well I don’t know that you could even say that ‘the rebels have been radicalised’, I think there are still a number of groups that are fighting the Assad regime, and they’re also fighting the elements that, extremist jihadist elements that have come, some from Syria but many from other parts of the Middle East and indeed internationally have been attracted to this fight in Syria. I don’t think there’s any simple time or point of intervention that you can say, ‘if only we had done X, if only we had armed’ –

KELLY: That’s what Hillary Clinton has said, I mean she’s come out very publicly, with a very strong critique of President Obama saying that he got it wrong, that there should have been an intervention at a much earlier stage to support the moderate rebels.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s very easy to talk counterfactuals but it’s very difficult to know. I think that there is an argument that if the anti-Assad forces had been supported earlier on there would have been less room for extremist jihadist groups to come to Syria and fight and grow stronger, but I don’t think it’s as easier to assert that as – Hillary Clinton is very certain of it, I guess I’m less certain of it.

VAN ONSELEN: Do you think that the existing nation-state boundaries which, let’s be honest, were colonially divvied-up with minimal regard to the ethnic divisions within the Middle East, are they maintainable? You’ve got a push for a Kurdish state that incurs on Turkey potentially, although the tensions there seem to have dissipated because of the greater concerns around ISIS. States like Iraq are not formed in a way that have an understanding of the ethnic divisions within the Middle East. Should we be looking to adjust the nation-state boundaries do you think?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think if we start looking to adjust nation-state boundaries we’ll see conflict for decades to come. I think it’s possible to argue that the boundaries are not natural boundaries in some cases, but you can’t rewrite history, you have to deal with the present as it is, and if we go to a situation of, there are many people saying that the whole borders of the Middle East will be redrawn over the next decades. My fear if that comes to pass is that the fighting will be ongoing for those decades. It won’t be a situation where people are sitting around a conference table somewhere making conciliatory decisions about where the borders should be, they’ll be determined by fighting.

VAN ONSELEN: And presumably if you were going to go down that path of reshaping nation-state boundaries, it probably empowers an organisation like ISIS that is looking for a caliphate state based around Islam.

PLIBERSEK: Well it’s just a horrendous thought that there would be a country run by an organisation like ISIS, so the reports not only of religious and ethnic minorities that are going on, efforts to wipe out whole communities, apparently they issues a fatwa very soon after moving into northern Iraq that more than 4 million women living in the area that they controlled would have to undergo female genital mutilation, there’s reports of women being stoned to death for adultery, there’s reports of every town they sweep through they’re closing hairdressing salons and killing people who resist because it doesn’t fit in with their ideology. It’s not just the people who get killed in the fighting it’s what comes after that. But this is what we were talking about earlier, the position of the Sunni tribal leaders. One of the arguments is that with a more inclusive government in Baghdad and with the horrendous oppression and violence that ISIS brings with them when they move into an area, that you will have Iraqis saying that we don’t want to live in this sort of, under this sort of regime. The difficulty is that you’ve got now I think about 50 to 80 000 people fighting and they’ve captured so many weapons and so many resources along the way. They will be tough to dislodge.

KELLY: Do you recognise or do you accept that there is a security issue as far as Australia is concerned, in the emergence of these forces?

PLIBERSEK: Of course there is, and I think it’s, I think that’s been true really, well it’s been true for some time but I’d say I’d put it at the upswing of hostilities in Syria, really would be the time that you would start to say that we need to be more alert to the potential for Australians who are fighting overseas coming back radicalised, and the more recent reports are that Australians who are involved in this internet chatter are being told ‘you don’t have to come here, why don’t you plan something at home?’ I mean both of these things are of extreme concern. What I would say is that our alert is not higher than it’s been since September 11, and we need to balance those two things, we need to have, if we have additional powers for our intelligence and security agencies, we need to have additional oversight and transparency and accountability to go with that.

KELLY: Ok, well how do we balance the point you have just raised, the domestic security point, with our foreign and international security policy, that is to what extent does military activity in the Middle East, military commitments in the Middle East, still remain a reasonably significant priority for Australia, or do you think we should shun those sorts of options, concentrate more on our own region, concern about the effect that any military action in the region might have on the domestic situation at home.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think they’re really two separate questions. Our foreign policy in Australia has to be about Australia’s best interests, and our most important engagement I believe remains in our region, our priority needs to be fixing our relationship with Indonesia, it needs to be working with both China and Japan to have a peaceful balance between both those nations in our region, but we can’t turn our backs on these large conflicts in other parts of the world, our engagement has to be a thoughtful engagement though, and I don’t believe our participation in previous US-led invasions in Iraq met that test, I don’t believe it was in Australia’s interest and I don’t believe that it was a thoughtful engagement.

KELLY: But do you accept what the Prime Minister has said, that is he’s -

PLIBERSEK: - I rarely accept what the Prime Minister says Paul –

KELLY: Well I mean essentially what he’s said, he’s said this very directly, any action now in Iraq has got no parallel now with the 2003 invasion, that’s what he’s said.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think any support for humanitarian intervention is not the same thing as happened with earlier conflicts, but we need to be cautious in our involvement. Humanitarian assistance to people facing genocide obviously we support, Australian involvement and support for that.

KELLY: As far as I’m concerned, do you draw a red line there and say, only humanitarian involvement or not?

PLIBERSEK: No I said very clearly earlier that if a population is facing genocide and if there is a legal basis for intervention such as the responsibility to protect – the reason we’re on the Security Council, Paul, is that Labor has always believed that our multilateral institutions, whatever their faults and flaws, are the best way to deal with international conflicts. The reason we argued so hard to be on the Security Council against Tony Abbott’s wishes, against Julie Bishop’s wishes, they said it was a waste of time and a waste of money, was so that we could engage in international action. We saw the usefulness of that with MH17 and the Security Council resolution that helped Australians get access to the site and retrieve Australian remains from the site. So of course we believe in multilateral institutions and that countries acting together have a responsibility to keep the peace, assist populations like the minorities that have been persecuted in Iraq, but it has to be done thoughtfully and it has to be done with a legal basis.

VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you about the Labor position on Palestine and Israel, because it strikes me that there are quite strong differing views between, if you like, a section of Melbourne Labor versus Sydney Labor. You’ve got people like yourself and Anthony Albanese and certainly Doug Cameron who I’ve spoken to about this issue as well, and then you’ve got Michael Danby, Stephen Conroy, Richard Marles and even to an extent Bill Shorten who have, to an extent, a different view. How does Labor come to a policy on this issue, this difficult issue, without dividing itself?

PLIBERSEK: I’ll talk about that in just one second. The final think I wanted to say about Iraq is that we also need to have a moral and intellectual look at, why intervene in Iraq, why not Syria, how do we have a logical approach that takes in both of these crisis areas. On Israel and Palestine, our approach has always been a two-state solution where Israel can live behind secure, internationally recognised borders and the Palestinians have a viable state of their own. They have every right to expect a viable state where they provide their own security, where their economy is strong, and where they are able to support their people, see employment, and all of the ordinary things that citizens of any country have a right to expect, a decent school system, a health system, an economy that’s growing. We are appalled by the outbreak of conflict in Gaza. Of course Hamas bears a great deal of responsibility for the firing of around 3000 rockets we believe so far, but the number of civilian deaths, 1900 or so deaths in Gaza, the vast majority of them civilians, hundreds of them children, well over 400 children dying, is something that the international community cannot accept or tolerate.

KELLY: I just wanted to go now to Asia. Obviously the China-Japan relationship here and the tensions involved are critical, not so long ago we had a visit from the Japanese Prime Minister Abe, with a lot of security initiatives announced, can I just clarify Labor’s position here, is Labor supportive of the deepening security relationship between Australia and Japan or do you have concerns about that?

PLIBERSEK: Well we’re supportive of improvements in the friendships of any of our neighbours. What I’d say is an improved relationship with Japan, a closer and deeper relationship with Japan, shouldn’t be at the expense of a close and deep relationship with China. What’s in Australia’s interest is not to be picking sides or elevating one friendship above another, but to have good relations with both.

KELLY: Do you think that we’re doing that, I mean do you think that there’s any danger we’re doing that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think that Tony Abbott’s language on his visit to Japan where he called Japan our best friend in Asia wasn’t well chosen. I think it’s important for us to have good friendships with all of our neighbours.

KELLY: Can I just clarify, I mean, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has reinterpreted the constitution to give much more autonomy to the Japanese defence forces, the Chinese are extremely upset about that, Tony Abbott has supported the constitutional reinterpretation, what’s Labor’s view on that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I note that it’s not been very popular domestically in Japan, and the Japanese government realised it wasn’t very popular and didn’t seek to take the decision to the Japanese people. Look, I think it’s, I’m not worried by the constitutional reinterpretation. What I am worried about is the increasing, well the rhetoric from both Japan and China about one another, and I think Australia’s role in this should be saying to both countries, ‘tone it down fellas’, we have an opportunity as a very long-standing friend of China, we’ve got over four decades of good strong diplomatic relations, Bob Hawke’s about to make his 100th visit to China for example, those person-to-person relations are very strong, we’ve put a lot of effort into our relationship with China. The same is true of Japan, from particularly the early 1950s we’ve put a great deal of effort, first on the trade front, but our diplomatic relations again are very strong. There is no need for us to get caught between two countries with increasingly nationalistic rhetoric.

KELLY: Well just on that point, just to finish up on this point, are you concerned at all that there is in the United States and Japanese approach to China a sense of containment, are you worried that there’s a containment element in that American-Japanese approach.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think that the United States would say that they’re not interested in containing China, but I think that China may feel that they are, and there is a lot of dialogue between the United States and China, there’s a lot of country-to-country meetings, a whole range of security and trade and other levels, I think it’s important for China and the United States to make a greater effort to understand one another.

KELLY: But are you concerned that the current settings of America, Japan and Australia vis-à-vis China?

PLIBERSEK: I’m concerned that there is room for misunderstanding and our best interests are served by saying very clearly to China, and to Japan, and to the United States, that it is not in Australia’s interests or in the interests of our broader region to see any increase in tension.

VAN ONSELEN: Surely we’re going to talk a lot more about the Budget with John Hewson and Geoff Gallop, but before doing that I want to ask you about some of the Budget issues. Joe Hockey obviously hasn’t had a great week, he’s ended it with an apology, but getting to the actual issue, the indexing of fuel excise, what’s wrong with the principle of it, if nothing else, simply as an environmental measure whereby taxing fuel greater is akin in a sense to a carbon tax, isn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: Well that’s what Tony Abbott said to President Obama, he said he’s got his own carbon tax and it’s on petrol. Well the difficulty is that poor people spend a greater proportion of their income on transport costs than wealthier people, and more particularly if you take a step back, Tony Abbott came into government saying ‘not cuts to health, no cuts to education, no change to pensions, no new taxes.’ And this is clearly a new tax.

VAN ONSELEN: Wasn’t the bigger error there to make that commitment rather than to then change the indexation subsequently? He deserves to wear political pain for the broken promise, sure, but isn’t he better off to go down that path for the sake of reindexing it, something that John Howard never should have changed?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s a bit rich to say, ‘putting aside the fact that he made this clear, written-in-blood promise more than once, including on the night before the election – no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no change to pensions, no new taxes, no surprises, no excuses government’, I don’t think you can really just say, well setting that aside let’s talk about, you know, what he shouldn’t have promised, he shouldn’t have promised that, we’ll deal with the issue on its merits.

VAN ONSELEN: There are reports today that the Government is looking to backflip on a few differenet budget measures, the linking of the mining tax, some of the issues around university with student repayment rates for HECS and so forth, Labor would welcome those changes assuming that we see Government policy to announce the same.

PLIBERSEK: They should just go back to the drawing board. I mean this is a stinking budget. It’s a stinking budget because it breaks so many promises and because it’s so profoundly unfair. They’re talking about tinkering at the edges. This is a budget that outsources all of the savings to the states and territories, so $80 billion cut from health and education, the federal government is not making those savings, the states and territories will have to work out how to make those savings, it makes a number of cuts and changes including to health and education and pensions, but doesn’t really improve the budget bottom line because all of those cuts are going to pay for the pet projects of the Prime Minister, so there’s paid parental leave, there’s Direct Action that nobody really thinks will work, and then there’s the revenue that they’ve given up, so they’ve given up revenue from the Minerals Resources Rent Tax, they’ve given up revenue from carbon pricing, they’ve given up revenue from the business tax avoidance measures, they’ve knocked back proposals to change high-income superannuation. So they’re giving away potential savings, they’re spending money on things that nobody really thinks are a priority, and then they’re outsourcing half the cuts to the states and territories for very little improvement in the bottom line. The $7 GP co-payment that is such a hard sell, that’s no going back into the health budget, that’s going into the future medical research, and I think most people don’t really believe that’s going to benefit them anytime soon.

KELLY: Isn’t Labor in trouble here though because there are $5 billion worth of cuts which you accepted in government which you’ve now reneged on, so isn’t there now a question about Labor’s real motives?

PLIBERSEK: Well we’ve agreed to a number of the saves proposed in this budget, we’ve agreed to $3 billion of them already, things like means-testing on some of the benefits –

KELLY: But you’ve changed your mind on $5 billion worth of Labor cuts.

PLIBERSEK: I’ll give you an example. We said we would spend some of the higher education funding that we had massively increased while we were in government, we’d spend some of that on primary schools and high schools, because we know that kids aren’t going to get into university if they’re left behind in primary school. There’s a difference between moving spending within the education portfolio from higher education into primary schools and high schools, compared to just cutting higher education and introducing $100 000, $200 000 university degrees for nurses and teachers. There’s a big difference to the approach that this government has taken, which puts the greatest cost of the budget onto the poorest people. Another example of the unfairness of this budget, is the largest single cut - $7.6 billion – comes from the world’s poorest people, 1 dollar in every 5 which is saved in this budget, so we’ve had $7.7 million cut to country aid in Iraq, they’re now talking about putting some of that money back, money cut from the Palestinian Territories now having to put some of that back. You can’t look at any of these measures on their own without understanding that the greatest burden is carried by the poorest people when it comes to this budget.

VAN ONSELEN: Tanya Plibersek, as always we appreciate your time on Australian Agenda, thanks very much.

PLIBERSEK: It’s a pleasure, thanks.


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