TRANSCRIPT - Doorstop Interview, Newcastle, Tuesday 16 September 2014

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SUBJECT/S: Overseas Aid; Iraq

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well, I’m delighted to be here with Sharon Claydon and Tim Clackenthorp today. We’ve just had a very successful forum on international development and assistance. Australia has historically been a generous country with bipartisan support for foreign aid. Today I told the large number of local people who turned up about the most recent cuts in the Federal Budget to Australia’s aid. One in every five dollars cut from the recent Budget has been cut from the world’s poorest people, a $7.6 billion cut. Of course that has drastic effects in our region and around the world, meaning that there are poor people who will miss out on food, shelter, education, health care and economic development, all of which have been a focus of Australia's aid program in the past. Australia's aid has been successful, we have built about 2,500 schools in Indonesia, we’re part of an effort to get millions of Afghan children into schools. When we started our efforts there, 1 million kids were going to school, by the time we finished, 8 million kids going to school. We’ve had terrific success in tackling disease in our region, drug resistant tuberculosis, just one example in PNG, from a 25 per cent death rate to a 5 per cent death rate. We’ve seen the lives of children and mothers in childbirth saved because of Australian health efforts. We’ve contributed to global organisations like GAVI, the vaccines alliance, making sure that more people around the world can get the basic immunisations that will keep them and their children safe. Australia has been an important contributor in the international community and when you look right now at a country like Syria, for example, you see the effects of Australia’s underinvestment in aid. Oxfam did a study of aid into Syria and found that Denmark, for example, gave 164 per cent of its fair share in aid to Syria. The United Kingdom gave 144 per cent, Australia just 27 per cent of what a country as large and as wealthy as Australia would be expected to contribute. I might let Sharon say a few words.

SHARON CLAYDON: Thank you, Tanya. It’s a delight to have Tanya Plibersek in Newcastle today. It should come as no surprise that the people of Newcastle have really strong concerns about the cuts into the aid budget. There are more than 20,000 Novocastrians who make a financial or voluntary contribution to overseas aid in our city, and 550 local businesses, community groups and church networks that have a very active interest in ensuring the delivery of overseas aid programs. So, it should come as no surprise that people in Newcastle have got concerns and have been raising it with me which is why I’ve invited Tanya to address the public forum today and she very generously gave up a lot of time to questions and answers from the audience. You know, it’s an important thing, there’s been some comments about you know, does charity begin at home? You know, it’s our belief that governments should be able to walk and chew and talk all at the same time. That we are a wealthy and generous enough nation that we are able to ensure that we’ve got safety nets for our own people but that we don’t give up on being good global leaders and in fact you know, take our responsibility to develop- to contribute to develop a nation seriously. Our region is part of an area that- one thing that I’d like to note is that the impact of those cuts on women in particular and the overseas aid programs under the former Labor Government had a very strong component in assisting women in developing nations both in terms of education, development of some economic developed micro-financing, those cuts will be felt very, very deeply by those women in the Asia-Pacific in particular and I guess you know when you have a government that only has one woman in their Cabinet, that’s the kind of impact that you expect to slip right by this Government and don’t realise the hurt that it causes. Thank you.

CRACKENTHORP: Yeah, thanks, I will. Look, as someone who has actually worked for a non-government organisation in Indonesia, trying to improve food production through rice banking and research along those lines. I’ve been a beneficiary of the AusAid plan that Australia had and it’s devastating to see that AusAid has now merged with Foreign Affairs and a lot that funding has been slashed. Look, Novocastrians are very generous people, we fight, we’re fighters and we give when we’re down and out ourselves. I know a lot of people who when I talked to them, are not very impressed by this Government’s cut to the foreign aid budget. And I know that they’ll be giving as much as they can personally to organisations but there’s a very important role for government here, and this Abbott Government is letting us down. Thank you.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks, Tim. Okay, any questions?

JOURNALIST: I spose, and Sharon you would probably know about this, there’s a lot of organisations I think that they look after refugees particularly, are you getting a feedback from the community here? Particularly those aid supporters?

CLAYDON: I’m getting strong feedback from right across the board actually. My local community groups contact me most days to talk about the impact of these cuts. It’s of grave concern to me that they feel the need to do that behind closed doors with me as their local member and asking me to take those issues up in Parliament for them, which I’m very happy to do so. But it should be a concern to all Australians that our local volunteer and community organisations don’t feel confident that they are able to speak out against this Government in public.

JOURNALIST: And Tanya I guess you’re getting similar sort of feedback from around the country on those sort of things. Obviously people are really concerned at such a massive cut?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’ve had a lot of organisations contact me about what they won’t be able to do because they’re getting less Government funding. Unfortunately some of them are very nervous about speaking out. We’ve had organisations like World Vision and Oxfam come out very strongly against these cuts but there are other organisations that want to talk to me in private but feel nervous about losing even more Government funding if they speak out in public.

JOURNALIST: Is there growing unrest within Labor ranks about our military deployment to the Middle East?

PLIBERSEK: Everybody in Labor is united in concern for the people of Iraq. There is a very serious humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq with groups such as the Yazidis, Christians, ethnic minorities even Sunnis who don’t support IS’s tactics being the target of this violent extremist group. We are of course also cautious because of the experience in 2003 was a very bad experience for Australia, our involvement in the Iraq war at that time was a very bad experience for Australia, but it was also, in the end, a very bad experience for the people of Iraq. We want to make sure that whatever Australia does is of assistance, genuine assistance, to the people of Iraq. That brings safety and stability for the ethnic minorities and the people of Iraq who are under attack right now. It is very important to be clear about the differences between 2003 and 2014. In 2003 Australia was one of four countries to go into Iraq. Today John Kerry has said that 40 nations are involved in fighting the IS threat in Iraq. So we have a global community that recognises this threat and is prepared to support the fight against IS. In 2003 we went in against the wishes of the Government of Iraq and against the wishes of many Iraqis. Today we’ve been asked by the democratically elected Government of Iraq to protect citizens of Iraq, to assist the democratically elected Government of Iraq and the Peshmerga forces in the north of Iraq to fight off an immediate threat to Iraqi citizens. There are very clear differences between 2003 and 2014 but the experience of 2003 makes Australians rightly cautious. We need to be very clear about the objective here. The objective is to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes, to protect people from possible genocide, from murder, from rape, from forced marriage, from children being sold into slavery and forced religious conversion. That’s the very clear objective here and that’s what Australia should be focused on fighting.

JOURNALIST: Should Melissa Parke be disciplined for speaking out?

PLIBERSEK: I think it’s perfectly proper to have debate in the Australian community and the Parliament. It’s perfectly proper to have a debate in the Australian community, in the Parliament, amongst parliamentarians because in 2003 Australia rushed into war and the results were very bad. But it is also important to be clear when we’ve made a decision as a nation that we want to protect civilians from imminent threat to their lives, that we must act.

JOURNALIST: Are you rock solid in favour of Tony Abbott’s decision to deploy military personnel to the Middle East and why?

PLIBERSEK: Right now, in northern Iraq, there are people who’s lives are at risk. Australians were rightly distressed when they saw images of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar without food, without water, knowing that if they came down off the mountain they’d be slaughtered and so Australians understood that the world community couldn’t stand by and watch. Because of those bad experiences in 2003 Australians are also cautious about an open-ended mission, a mission that has no end. So we must as part of the global community, we have responsibility, but we must be clear about the objective, the specific role for Australia and when that role will be complete.

Thanks everyone.



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