TRANSCRIPT - Doorstop Interview, Monday 23 March 2015

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SUBJECTS: Malcolm Fraser, Lee Kuan Yew; aid cuts; Abbott Government Budget chaos

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Parliament convened to farewell an Australian Prime Minister and we saw a great deal of bipartisan support for the legacy of Malcolm Fraser. He was a Prime Minister and later a commentator who spoke a lot about the importance of an independent Australian foreign policy. He was, of course, very personally committed also to Australia playing an active role in the world as a generous aid donor.

Just as Australians have farewelled a former prime minister, so, too, have our friends and neighbours. The people of Singapore farewelled a towering figure in Singapore's history, Lee Kuan Yew, as called by many people the father of modern Singapore. And just as Australians today are mourning Malcolm Fraser, many Singaporeans will be mourning Lee Kuan Yew.

Turning now to matters a little closer to home, we read in today's newspapers another leak from the Abbott Government about proposals for further cuts to the Australian aid budget. It seems that the Foreign Minister is once again in the dark about cuts in her portfolio. We read in the papers today that this will be the fourth lot of cuts to Australia's foreign aid budget. We've had two lots of mid-year economic and fiscal outlook cuts, one lot of budget cuts already and it looks like a second lot of budget cuts coming. You could see from the expression on the Foreign Minister's face when Joe Hockey started talking about the expenditure review committee, how disturbed she was about the proposals or the leaked proposals for further cuts in her portfolio area. This comes after more than $11 billion has already been cut from Australia's aid budget, taking it to the lowest, weakest aid budget that Australia has ever seen. Taking our region alone, the Asia-Pacific region, one year's lot of cuts is worth $110 million. That gives you some idea of the scale in our region. It means that even the poorest countries in our region, countries like Timor-Leste are experiencing substantial cuts of many millions of dollars. This comes at a time, of course, when the Foreign Minister is being kept in the dark about other issues in her portfolio area, too. She was kept in the dark about the replacement of her Parliamentary Secretary. She woke up one morning with a new Parliamentary Secretary that no-one had bothered to discuss with her. She was prevented in the first instance from going to Lima to represent Australia at climate change talks and later was only allowed to go when she was chaperoned by Andrew Robb. It is extraordinary that after all of the cuts made in the Foreign Minister's portfolio area, she is still prepared to go out and defend these vicious cuts and the effect that they have in reducing Australia's ability to be a substantial player internationally and in our region in the area of development assistance.

JOURNALIST: Ms Plibersek, speaking to Sky News this afternoon, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said that he was also surprised to hear about these supposed cuts in the paper today and he effectively ruled out that any cuts would take place. He said the Government has already done as much as they can in this area, in the Budget 2014 and in MYEFO. If the Finance Minister didn't know about it and the Foreign Minister didn't know about it, do you think these cuts might not be happening?

PLIBERSEK: Well, you can only ask yourself who knows what's going on in the Liberals' budget. We are only weeks out from the next federal budget. Many of the measures from the last federal budget have been repudiated by the Government. Some of them have been re-committed to, even though there is no chance of getting them through the Senate. We have further leaks today that there will be more cuts to the aid budget. It would be consistent with the fact that every time there has been a Budget or mid-year economic update, there have been cuts, taking Australian aid spending to its lowest level since records have been kept. You're saying that Mathias Cormann is telling a different story? Well, I mean, it's representative of the chaos that you see with this Liberal Budget and frankly the cruelty that you see with these cuts to aid that nobody knows what's going on.

JOURNALIST: What did Julie Bishop's reaction in the House say?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Julie Bishop's spectacular failure to keep a poker face shows that cuts have been inflicted in her portfolio area without consultation or without her agreement, but I would also say that Julie Bishop has been pretty keen to go out after the fact and try to make a virtue of these cuts by somehow claiming that they are good for the nation. The cuts to foreign aid aren't just bad for the countries that experience them as donors, they’re bad for Australia's standing in the world.

JOURNALIST: What does it actually mean in a practical sense about what the Australian aid program will be able to deliver in the region?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it means that programs don't go ahead. So if you look at the work of Oxfam, doing family violence work in Solomon Islands, for example, they talk about the impact that a 20% or 40% cut would have on reducing the number of people that they're able to reach, reducing the number of communities that they are able to affect. If you talk to Oxfam again about their work in Timor-Leste about improving the agricultural output of small farmers, the work they do in helping individuals in savings and loan organisations, saving small amounts of money and having lending circles that allow people to set up micro businesses, they say that their work in that area will be affected as well. And every country, that we have a relationship with, will feel the effect of these aid cuts if they haven't already, and as the cuts deepen over years to come, the impact will just get larger.

JOURNALIST: Exactly what proportion of GNI would you like Australia to be spending on aid and when by?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it used to be bipartisan policy that Australia would get to 0.5% of GNI which is of course 50 cents in every hundred dollars. We are now at a rate of 22 cents in every hundred dollars and we are tracking to go even lower than that, we’re looking at 18 or 19 cents in every hundred dollars. Countries around the world are doing much better than that. Countries who did much worse during the Global Financial Crisis are doing much better than Australia in continuing to be generous donors. The impact of that is important for the long-term. You look at a country like South Korea that was once an aid recipient country and is now one of our most important trading partners and you see the difference that aid can make to raising countries into prosperity, meaning that they can be good trading partners for Australia.

JOURNALIST: But when would Labor like to achieve that 0.5% of GNI by?

PLIBERSEK: Well, that will certainly depend on how much of the Government's aid cuts are implemented by the time we return to government, but we will be inheriting the most depleted, weakened aid budget in Australia's history.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible question]

PLIBERSEK: Sorry, I heard two different questions. Go on.

JOURNALIST: What is Lee Kuan Yew's legacy in the region?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Lee Kuan Yew was a very strong and patriotic voice. As the Prime Minister of Singapore, he implemented health and social policies in Singapore that many nations have looked to as models and of course provided a strong economic foundation for a country that- Singaporeans say their greatest national asset is the intelligence of their people. They are a tiny nation. They don’t have great mines or great farms like Australia, but they've managed to raise their people into prosperity through the efforts of Lee Kuan Yew and his generation.

JOURNALIST: Minister Bishop says that we wouldn't be here talking about the foreign aid budget had it not been for the fact that Labor isn't passing key budgetary measures that it itself proposed. What role does Labor have to play in this whole discussion?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it’s a ridiculous proposition that the Government is cutting the aid budget because of anything the opposition is doing. You can see the gleefulness with which members of the Government are boasting about these aid cuts, including a number of Dorothy Dix questions taken by the Foreign Minister boasting about the cuts to the aid budget. You must remember that Labor has passed more than $20 billion worth of measures to improve the bottom line, but we won't pass measures that are unfair, we won’t pass measures like a GP tax, like $100,000 university degrees because they are unfair and would hurt the Australian people.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the foreign aid budget is an easy target?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think that the foreign aid budget doesn't have the support of many members of the Government and that the Foreign Minister is powerless to stop the cuts that have already happened and further cuts that have been leaked about today.

JOURNALIST: Would you reverse these cuts if you were to win the election next year?

PLIBERSEK: We will certainly be doing better in the aid area than the Liberals have done.

JOURNALIST: So you’d be putting more money back in, would you?

PLIBERSEK: Well we’ll certainly be doing better with the aid budget than the Liberals have done. You need to see that we have gone from being on track to get to 0.5% of gross national income when we were last in government, a target that both parties had signed up to as a bipartisan target, to now being at about 22 cents in every hundred dollars and on track down to 18 or 19 cents. I can tell you we will be doing better than that, and how much better and how soon we’re able to do it depends on when we return to government and how badly damaged the aid budget is at that time.

JOURNALIST: Ms Plibersek, you mentioned earlier the facial expressions of Ms Bishop during the Treasurer's comments in regards to ERC. Do you think that referencing her facial expressions might be trying to read too much into the tea leaves on this issue?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’ll let people make a judgment for themselves about how they interpret the facial expressions of the Foreign Minister when the Treasurer’s talking about the great job that the expenditure review committee is doing.


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