TRANSCRIPT: Doorstop, Parliament House, Wednesday 2 March 2016




SUBJECTS: East Timor; marriage equality; foreign aid

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: When Malcolm Turnbull was in the United States he made a speech about how Australia should be a good global citizen and how the United States and China should follow the international rules-based order, that that was the best guarantee of safety and security globally. So, it’s quite believable that the Government of Timor-Leste would have imagined that they’d get a better hearing from Prime Minister Turnbull than they had from Prime Minister Abbott when it comes to the issue of finally settling the sea border between our two nations.  Our newest, smallest, poorest neighbour has been asking for many years for the issue of this border to be finally settled, and Labor’s policy, of course, is that we would expedite negotiations but if we’re not able to come to an agreement on the sea border between our nations that we would submit to international arbitration or adjudication to finally determine this matter. We heard yesterday, of course, that Prime Minister Turnbull is no different to Prime Minister Abbott on this issue and he has again sent a strong message that Australia – a large and wealthy country – will hold our smaller, newer neighbour, hold them up, and make sure that we don’t settle this issue anytime soon. It will be a great disappointment to the Government and the people of East Timor. But, of course, it’s pretty par for the course for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to be disappointing the people that had high hopes for him.

This weekend thousands of people will march in the annual Mardi Gras parade and thousands more will watch. For the first time the Leader of the Opposition will be marching and I know that people are delighted that Bill will be there with his family because it sends a very strong message that if Labor were to win government we would have marriage equality within the first 100 days. But of course, we could actually have marriage equality before the weekend if the Government was interested in moving on this issue. There is a Private Members Bill before the Parliament – we could bring that Private Members Bill on for debate immediately – it could pass the House of Representatives today, it could pass the Senate tomorrow. This could be done by the weekend if we had a Prime Minister that was prepared to allow a free vote in the Parliament right now. What’s extraordinary about Malcolm Turnbull’s about-face on marriage equality is that he is now to the right of John Howard on marriage equality. John Howard said earlier this week that he believed this is an issue for the Parliament and an issue for a free vote in the Parliament. So we have Malcolm Turnbull so desperate to win the support of the right wing of the Liberal Party that he is actually pursuing this $160 million, wasteful, expensive, divisive plebiscite – that the right of the Liberal Party have said that they won’t accept the results of in any case. So we have a proposition -  bring this legislation on now. Let’s vote in the House of Representatives this week, let’s vote in the Senate this week. We could have this done by Mardi Gras and it’s extraordinarily disappointing to millions of Australians that the Prime Minister they thought they were getting is not the Prime Minister they got. People hoped that Malcolm Turnbull would change the Liberal Party but in fact the Liberal Party has changed Malcolm Turnbull. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Has this been a good move by Joe Bullock?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Joe Bullock made a very dignified speech in the Senate last night and his words speak for himself. He has spent decades representing some of the lowest paid workers in Australia. I wish him and his family well.  

JOURNALIST: Does he have antiquated views though?

PLIBERSEK: No I’m not going to make any comments about Joe Bullock’s views. He and I have different views on marriage equality and he has a right to those views. He made a very dignified speech last night where he laid out those views and his words stand on their own.

JOURNALIST: Gary Gray said on radio this morning that Labor should be more accommodating to different views in the caucus.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think we are pretty accommodating.  I go to a lot of Caucus meetings, as you can imagine, and we have some pretty fierce debates, and in fact the great thing about the Labor Party is at our national conferences, at our state conferences, you can go and hear those views expressed. In fact with our national conferences, most of the time you can see them broadcast live. So you saw very passionate debates at our national conference and at a range of state conferences, that’s one of the best things about the Labor Party and that’s why people join the Labor Party. We are a very broad church.  We have a lot of people with very passionately held views, we fight them out but once we come to a resolution, we stick together. That’s the way we have survived as long as we have as a party. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t keep working as members of the Labor Party to progress our views, to update, to change, to develop the views of the Labor Party.  We’re not stuck in one place. But we make those decisions collectively and that’s what has made us successful as a party of government.

JOURNALIST: Why does there seem to be this exodus of Labor members from Western Australia, Joe Bullock just the latest?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think you’d hardly call a handful of resignations an exodus. I think it’s a very difficult life to be a member of the Federal Parliament from WA. I remember when Kim Beazley was the Leader of the Opposition and he used to, I mean the flying hours that those WA MPs do, particularly if they’ve got a ministerial or shadow ministerial responsibility in addition, is really hard on a person and it’s really hard on family life. So I wish all of the people who have said that they won’t be continuing all the best for the future, and I thank them for their service because it does take a higher toll than for someone like me – I hop on a plane in Sydney and I’m here in two hours.

JOURNALIST: Just back to East Timor. The Labor Party’s national platform used to be a commitment to the median line principle.  Why has the Party, why won’t Labor support that now?

PLIBERSEK: Well our platform is very clear on this: that we want to have a resolution that is in line with the most recent international law. So, if we can’t negotiate that with East Timor we will submit ourselves to adjudication by the International Court of Justice under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or one of the other appropriate treaties. I think it is very important to understand that this is a changing body of international law. We have every right as a sovereign nation to put our case strongly, but if we can’t get agreement with our neighbour we will then submit to international law and accept the resolution that comes about through that process. This has dragged on too long.  For decades now we have not had a proper border with East Timor and it’s an extraordinary situation that we’ve allowed this to continue for as long as we have. It’s not fair to the people of East Timor but it doesn’t benefit us in the long run either. If we say that the most important thing we can do for safety and security in our region is to urge all of our neighbours to accept the international rules-based order and to abide by that international rules-based order then we can hardly exempt ourselves from that. We can hardly lecture [inaudible] in the South China Sea about the land reclamation and militarisation efforts on the one hand and, as Malcolm Turnbull did lecture the United States about not being a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, and then on the other hand say, “oh, except for when it doesn’t suit us – we’ll hold ourselves apart from it when it doesn’t suit us”.

JOURNALIST: Just quickly on foreign aid, the Australian Council for International Development [inaudible] its Budget submission yesterday warning that Australia was at increased risk of infectious diseases such as rabies from Indonesia or tuberculosis from Papua New Guinea because of the major cuts to foreign aid.  Is that a concern?

PLIBERSEK:  Well, we don’t just do aid because it’s the morally right thing to do. It is important for us as a relatively wealthy nation to play our part in the international community through our official development assistance budget. But we do it because it makes Australia safer and it makes Australia more secure. One of the ways it makes it safer is through this issue of pandemics or infectious diseases- if our neighbours have weak health systems, of course we are at higher risk. If we see the development of multi drug resistant tuberculosis and drug-resistant malaria, if we see an explosion of HIV, if we see viruses like the zika virus take hold, then of course we are at greater risk. Not only Australians here in Australia, but Australians who travel across our region very, very frequently are at greater risk of contracting these sorts of illnesses. And when it comes to security, we know that for example, the Australian aid budget built over 2000 schools in Indonesia. It’s to our advantage to have a strong Indonesia with good economic growth and an education system that doesn’t rely on extremist madrasas to educate their children. So there’s both health benefits, there’s the security benefits, and there’s the reputational advantage. Australia has always had a reputation as a good neighbour and we are losing that reputation because of the horrendous cuts to the aid budget - $11.3 billion so far from this Government. And despite the fact that the Foreign Minister promised her Pacific neighbours that they would be exempt from the cuts, some of those cuts in the Pacific have been severe. They have seen programs that were previously benefitting people – health programs, education, climate change adaptation and mitigation – gone - because the aid budget isn’t there for them anymore.

JOURNALIST: Shouldn’t Louise Pratt get the casual vacancy in Western Australia?

PLIBERSEK:  Well we’ll go through our processes. Louise has made a terrific contribution in the Senate in the past. She’s a great person and I’m sure she’s got a big future in the Labor Party but I’m sure there’ll be other people who will also be interested in nominating. Thanks.