TRANSCRIPT - Doorstop, Parliament House, Thursday 2 October 2014

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SUBJECT/S: Cuts to Foreign Aid; Asylum Seekers; Ebola; Victoria Police Investigation; Burqas

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Reports in the paper today that the Government are planning further cuts to the aid budget are extremely concerning. Reports suggest in order to pay for the humanitarian assistance being offered to Iraq we would further cut humanitarian assistance to other places. It makes absolutely no sense for Australia to be involved in protecting the people of Iraq from the threat of IS and at the same time say, to those same people, ‘we can’t help you with food and water and shelter and education for your children if you should choose to flee your homes’. Already, the Australian aid budget’s been cut by $7.6 billion, the largest single cut in the Federal Budget. One dollar out of every five - cuts in the Federal Budget are from the aid budget, on the back of the world’s poorest people. The situation in Syria is critical too, with 200,000 people now dead, with almost half the population of Syria having fled their homes. Australia should be doing more in humanitarian assistance for Syria, not less. Syria now has lost millions of refugees to neighbouring countries, countries like Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey. Those countries that are looking after millions of Syrian refugees need more assistance from Australia, not less. In fact, the United Nations has launched a $6.5 billion appeal for Syria, asking countries around the world to help the Syrian population displaced from their homes cope. And what’s Australia given? So far, just $31 million, to that $6.5 billion appeal. If what the Prime Minister and the Government say is true, that IS is a disastrous organisation that must be stopped because of the effect they’re having on the lives of Syrian and Iraqi people, then surely our responsibility goes beyond military assistance to also include humanitarian assistance. If you look at the situation in Iraq, in particular, we are there offering humanitarian assistance to protect the people of Iraq from threat of mass atrocity crimes, at the same time, the Government cut the aid budget to Iraq last year from $7.7 million to zero. So it is important that government rule out, firmly rule out today, any further cuts to the aid budget.

JOURNALIST: I understand that’s already happened, Julie Bishop has just said there’s been no discussion in Cabinet about foreign aid and the Government will still keep its commitments on aid. So does that satisfy you?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’d like to hear it from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. They’ve put it into their newspaper of choice this morning, into The Australian, they’re doing that for a reason. I think that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer should make clear today that there will be no further cuts to the Australian aid budget. This is the largest single cut in the May budget. The world’s poorest people cannot afford any further cuts.

JOURNALIST: If- is there any danger of these cuts to go ahead that could have implications for the asylum seeker boats?

PLIBERSEK: Well I can’t comment on whether it will have implications for asylum seeker boats, what I would say is you can’t on the one hand say that there’s a humanitarian crisis in Iraq that we have to send our military to help, and on the other hand say that we’re not going to help in other ways, that we’re not going to help with shelter, with food, water, with health services, with education for people who fled from their homes

JOURNALIST: So what would be a better way to fund this then?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think that’s up to the Government. The Government set out in the May budget a whole series of cuts, cuts to health, education, ABC and SBS, cuts to pensions and family payments. It’s not a new thing that the Government’s looking around for cuts, they’ve already cut the aid budget massively. It’s up to them to balance the budget.

JOURNALIST: Yesterday the Finance Minister was talking about speedy passage of bills that Labor and the Government have agreed on, has there been discussion on this amongst the Labor leadership team?

PLIBERSEK: Well for some time Labor has been saying to the Government that there are measures that we will support. Measures such as further means testing of family tax benefits. We’re happy to pass them and were happy months ago to pass those. The Government refused to split the bills, they were absolutely tied to cutting pensions and to cutting other family payments, to cutting benefits to young, unemployed people. If the Government splits the bills, we’re happy to pass the measures that we’d been publicly on the record as saying we agree with.

JOURNALIST: There’s reports today that the woman who accused Bill Shorten of rape is unsatisfied by the police investigation and she feels that they’ve cut corners because of his position in power. What is your response to that?

PLIBERSEK: My response is that this has been thoroughly investigated by the police. Bill Shorten cooperated fully, and that should be an end to the matter.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any sympathy for David Leyonhjelm’s argument that the taxes on smoking are too high and that vulnerable people are being targeted by the increases?

PLIBERSEK: Well absolutely not. One of the things we know is that, when you’re talking about vulnerable people, poorer people are more responsive to price increases in tobacco and more likely to give up when prices go up. I’ve made no apology for being part of the government that made it more expensive to smoke, than to quit smoking. We put a number of smoking cessation aids like nicotine replacement therapy onto the pharmaceutical benefits list so that it was cheaper to give up, you had all the assistance to give up, making it more expensive to smoke has led to decreases in the number of smokers in Australia combined with the other measures that we took so that Australia has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world and we’ve basically halved the rate of smoking in the last twenty years. That’s a good thing. About half of all regular smokers will die from smoking related causes. I don’t think there’s any freedom and liberty in being allowed to smoke yourself to death.

JOURNALIST: There’s reports Medecins Sans Frontieres has rejected $2.5 million from Australia, yesterday Julie Bishop said it was impractical to have health workers evacuated from West Africa because it would take 30 hours to get them home.  What do you see, I guess the Government’s next step?

PLIBERSEK: Well nobody is suggesting that if an Australian health worker became sick that they’d have to be airlifted to Australia. We should be able to make arrangements with the United States, the UK or European countries to evacuate our health workers should they become ill. We know that there are already around 12 Australian volunteers in different African countries where the ebola virus is prevalent and I’d like to think that if one of those got sick that we could look after them properly and make sure that they’re airlifted to an appropriate country in Europe or the United States for treatment. But what’s more important here is that the $8 million contribution to fighting ebola, that’s welcome but it is an absolute drop in the bucket of what’s needed. At the moment, there are about 6500 people who are ill. About 3000 people have died. But this disease is spreading so quickly that the estimate is by January, about 1.4 million people could be affected by ebola. If Australia does not act now, if the world does not act now, this situation will only worsen. Australia is one of around 130 countries of which through the United Nations supported a UN Security Council Resolution that said yes, more money’s necessary but more personnel, more expertise, more supplies are also necessary. Australia has the capacity to help and it’s very important that we do so, not just for the people who are affected in those African nations now but for peace and security in the world. If 1.4 million people have ebola by January, we have lost control of this disease.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it will take having a case in Australia for the Government to take this issue seriously?

PLIBERSEK: I don’t think that there’s a risk of a case in Australia but I am very confident that if we should have a case in Australia as we’ve seen in Dallas Fort Worth in the United States that we could contain it because we have an excellent health service here, we have highly professional staff, we have excellent methods for dealing with people who have communicable illnesses. But that is not, that is not the risk here. The risk here is of millions of people becoming infected with this disease and then how does the world cope with containing that. No other questions?

JOURNALIST: If you’re happy to answer a question on the burqa?

PLIBERSEK: Well, now that you’ve asked it…do you want to ask me a question?

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

PLIBERSEK: Well I’d prefer if Tony Abbott didn’t get about in his Speedos, but it’s a free country.


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