TRANSCRIPT - Doorstop Interview, Parliament House, Tuesday 2 December 2014

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Subject/s: UN World Food Program, Aid Cuts, UN Environment Programme cuts, ADF wages.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: We’ve heard very disturbing reports todaythat the UN’s World Food Program has run out of money. Effectively, that means 1.7 million Syrian refugees are going into the worst part of winter with no help to buy food. At the moment, vouchers are provided to refugees in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, a very modest amount each month to help refugees buy food in local stores. There are about 3.5 million refugees displaced from Syria and about six million internally displaced. The burden on neighbouring countries has been enormous with over a million people, for example, moving to Lebanon which is a country of just over four million people. It is like a million people moving to Sydney and having to find accommodation, food, schooling, health facilities and so on for all of those refugees. The UN World Food Program was providing some assistance in the form of vouchers so that those families could go to local stores and buy food locally just to help them get by. The World Food Program's run out of money. They need $64 million to be able to continue supporting those 1.7 million refugees to the end of the year. Without that money, these people will go hungry. They will go hungry if you can imagine these countries going into winter, in some places snow-bound, in many places in very insecure accommodation, facing no ability to feed themselves. Unfortunately, Australia has been pretty poor in its response to the Syrian crisis. In the last year, we have provided around $35 million. When Labor was in government that figure was $100 million. So Australia's assistance to the refugee crisis in Syria has actually declined as the crisis has worsened. We see the effect of the cuts to the aid budget in our inability to provide a level of funding to these desperately needy people. When Labor was in government we doubled the aid budget. We went from around $2.9 billion to around $5.8 billion. Since the Coalition has been in government, they have cut $7.6 billion from the aid budget and in the last couple of days, you have heard talk that even more money might be cut from the aid budget. It shows up in our inability to meet the needs of Syrian refugees through the UN World Food Program and other appeals for funding. It shows up also in cuts like the one that has been reported today to the UN Environment Programme. This is a program that helps developing countries develop in a way that is environmentally sustainable. For example, one program in India that has helped 100,000 people in 18,000 households get access to solar power, obviously good for the environment but also good for the family budget to have those families relying less on very expensive fuels for electricity production in their local communities. So, you see the effect of the aid cuts to our inadequate response to the Syrian refugee crisis. You see the effect on programs like the UN Environment Programme which also incidentally helps countries around the globe measure how they are going in terms of carbon pollution reduction. It is pretty hard not to draw a link between Tony Abbott's spectacularly unsuccessful effort to keep climate change off the G20 agenda, the Government's refusal to contribute to the Green Fund that many of our partner countries have contributed to and this very petty cut to the UN Environment Programme that cuts 80 per cent of the funding of this organisation. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: The Government would argue that if it was to increase that target, the funding would have to come from elsewhere. Where would Labor get that extra funding from?

PLIBERSEK: If you mean specifically if it were to increase funding to Syria, where would the money come from? It should come from an aid budget that is not cut to the bone in contrast to the clear commitments made before the election by the Abbott Government. The Abbott Government said before the election that they would continue to index aid funding by the CPI, consumer price index, that it would continue to increase. They have cut to the bone, $7.6 billion cut, which is the largest single cut in the Federal Budget. So where should the money from? It should come from fewer cuts to the aid budget. If you're talking about more broadly this notion that Julie Bishop mentioned at the World AIDS Day meeting where she said well, if we can't get our cuts through the Senate then we will come back for another bite at the aid budget, then I think it is very important to say that Labor has already supported about $20 billion worth of measures that improve the bottom line for this Government. We have supported measures for example that tighten means testing on a number of programs. It is a bit rich for the Government to continue to blame everyone but themselves for the worsening state of the Federal Budget. We had before the election both Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey saying no surprises, no excuses. Joe Hockey saying very clearly, the Budget's our responsibility from day one, no excuses. I take full responsibility for the Budget. Now they are looking around for anyone to blame but themselves. But you’ve got to remember this is the Government that has basically doubled the deficit, they have given for example, almost $9 billion to the Reserve Bank of Australia. Money that the Reserve Bank didn't ask for, and didn't need, and is now repaying in the form of dividends. They have changed the Budget parameters to blow out the deficit. They have – [divison bells ring] is that a green or red bell? That is a green bell. Just let me start that section again. This is the Government that has doubled the deficit since coming to power. They have given, for example, $9 billion to the Reserve Bank, money that the Reserve didn't ask for and doesn't need and is now repaying in the form of dividends. They have made massive spending commitments like a $20 billion paid parental leave scheme and all the while they are looking around for someone to blame for their economic mismanagement.

JOURNALIST: Most of the Government's budget measures have delivered damaging political domestic political consequences for the Government. The aid budget cuts, despite being among the biggest, have barely caused a ripple domestically for the Government. Is cutting the aid budget a short of consequence-free option for any Government and if so what does that say about the Australian public's attitude towards aid and how much they actually care about it?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think it is a consequence-free cut because cutting the aid budget contributes to insecurity and instability in our region and around the world. Of course Australians have been extremely concerned when they see, for example, the girls that were kidnapped in - by Boko Haram in Nigeria. There is an outpouring of community response to events like that, to natural disasters and so on. Cutting the aid budget seriously compromises our ability to respond to those crises. So I think that the Australian community do want to respond generously and effectively to the crises they see around the world. The Australian community also understands that the best way that we can have a stable and peaceful environment is for countries that are dealing with poverty and instability to be lifted out of that poverty and instability and that Australia has a role in doing that. We have trading partners today, like South Korea for example, that used to be aid recipients from Australia are now countries we are signing trade agreements with because of the way that they have developed their economies over time. That is our hope for all of the countries that we have an aid relationship with. I think it is also very important to look at countries like the United Kingdom, where there has been very clear bipartisan support for reaching aid targets. There has been political leadership on both sides and I think sadly, we used to have that in Australia. It was John Howard who committed Australia to the 0.5 per cent of gross national income target for our aid budget. John Howard committed Australia to helping achieve the millennium development goals. That bipartisanship has been lost under Tony Abbott. Unfortunately, Julie Bishop looks like she is going to be rolled a third time in ERC when it comes to cuts in her own portfolio. It is disturbing to see how far backwards Australia has gone.

JOURNALIST: Labor wants to spend more on defence pay and more on the ABC and more on education and more on foreign aid. What priority do you give foreign aid in that mix?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s - there are certainly a number of calls that we will have to make closer to the next election. There have been a massive number of cuts under this Government, higher education, school education, hospitals, GPs, foreign aid is obviously a very serious one of those. But here is a couple of things to remember. I said earlier that Labor has supported the Government in improving their Budget bottom line by $20 billion. It is worth noting also that the Government has actually reversed around $20 billion worth of Labor savings and revenue measures from when we were in government. You look at things like the high income superannuation changes that we made and other savings measures over our period of government. The tax avoidance measures that we tried to introduce to prevent companies offshoring their tax liabilities. And these are savings that Labor was making in government that the Government, the now Government, has reversed. So it’s not-

JOURNALIST: So will you return that measure?

PLIBERSEK: I’m not going to start talking about individual measures. The point is, that we have supported tens of billions of dollars’ worth of the Government’s savings and they have reversed billions of dollars of savings that Labor made when in government.

JOURNALIST: You’re happy to talk about individual measures when it comes to government legislation that you don’t like, why won’t you speak about individual measures that you may bring back to pay for those things?

PLIBERSEK: Well, because we’re a long way from having those discussions right now.

JOURNALIST: The cuts to UNEP were actually announced in the budget -

PLIBERSEK: Sorry, the cuts that -

JOURNALIST: The cuts thatUnited Nations Environment Program were announced in the Budget. Why is Labor reacting to it now?

PLIBERSEK: Well because it’s been drawn to our attention amongst a number of cuts in the foreign affairs portfolio. It has been extraordinarily difficult to get straight answers out of this Government on where the cuts will be; $7.6 billion worth of cuts. We can get country by country figures, we’ve had extraordinarily difficult times getting program by program answers from this Government, we’ve had two lots of Senate estimates where we’ve put questions on notice, there have been delays and obfuscations from day one about the real effect of these cuts.

JOURNALIST: On Syria, the Government has announced some 4,000 positions for refugees from Syria and Iraq that arguably wouldn’t have existed under Labor’s policy where all those places went to people who came on boats-    

PLIBERSEK: That is simply not the case. The number of positions that the Government have announced, 2,200 from Iraq and 2,200 from Syria actually increase the number that came virtually not all. This is pretty close to the numbers that were coming from those countries in any case. They come as part of the existing 13,000 odd places, they’re not additional to the number of humanitarian entrants that the Australian Government is proposing to take. There’s some - fact there’s a decrease in the number from 20,000 under Labor to 13,000 or under this Coalition Government. So arguably there are fewer people coming from those countries.

JOURNALIST: But wasn’t that quota filled with people coming by boat?

PLIBERSEK: And some of those were Iraqi and some of those were Syrian.

JOURNALIST: But 4,000 of them?

PLIBERSEK: I can’t tell you the numbers for the last year but I can tell you that from our Immigration spokespeople, the numbers are very little different to the numbers that were reported in any case and they are part of the existing quota, they are not additional to the quota. And you’re talking about 3.5 million people who are now displaced from Syria, 6 million internally displaced. Countries like Lebanon, with a population of 4.3 million with over a million refugees. Jordan, a population of something over 6 million, over a million refugees.

JOURNALIST: So, obviously the $7.6 billion in cuts in foreign aid over the last year or so have set us back considerably on reaching the 0.5 per cent of GNI target. What sort of trajectory would Labor be looking at in government to get us back on track for that target? What kind of years? How many years?

PLIBERSEK: It will depend on whether there are further cuts announced as we fear in coming days to the aid budget, but I can say that we are already very, very far away from anything near the 0.5 per cent of GNI. We’re looking at less than 0.3 per cent in coming years, perhaps 0.28 per cent or 0.29 per cent of GNI. We are a long way from 0.5 per cent and it will be difficult to reach that target.

JOURNALIST: So are we talking about another decade?

JOURNALIST: On another matter, can I just ask about the Greens? It’s very gender specific. [inaudible] As a parent, can you see any harm in girls playing with Barbies and boys playing with toy guns?

PLIBERSEK: I think parents can make  whatever decisions they like, I trust parents to make those decisions. What I can say as my experience as a parent is kids make up their own minds and you can try not giving guns to boys but they pick up any little bit of stick or lego or newspaper and use them to play gun games and it’s - good luck to parents who think they are actually going to change that.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

PLIBERSEK: Well if the reports are correct, I think any Australian would be absolutely appalled to think that that would be the case. I think any Australian would expect the full force of law to be used against anyone who has allowed or facilitated a nine year old girl being taken out of Australia for a forced marriage. There is no excuse, no explanation that is acceptable if indeed the reports are true. As to any government program, I haven’t seen the details of the proposal, but anything that strengthens the legal framework that would prevent such a thing happening, and anything that strengthens the hand of many people campaigning in our communities to ensure this does not happen of course would be welcome.

JOURNALIST: Finally, one more question. Defence pay - Labor's decided to [inaudible] why is that and is it going to go further?

PLIBERSEK: Well Labor has been saying all along that defence personnel deserve to have their wages at least keep pace with the cost of living. What the Government’s proposed is a cut to the leave and conditions of defence personnel and insultingly the wage increase that doesn’t even keep up with the cost of living increases that defence families are facing. We took yesterday a petition of 60,000 signatures to that effect in the Federal Parliament. Labor has been very strongly opposed to this completely inadequate pay offer to defence personnel, particularly when we know that those people are often facing the risk of traveling overseas, risking their lives, leaving their families behind at Christmas and difficult times like that. The bill in the Senate is a reflection of Labor policy which is that this pay offer was inadequate- Thank you everybody.


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