TRANSCRIPT: Doorstop, Sydney, Thursday 1 October 2015





TANYA PLIBERSEK, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: I wanted to start by talking about developments overnight in Syria. We are very concerned that Syria, one of the most dangerous places on earth, has just become more dangerous. We hear that Russian air force have been bombing around Homs and unfortunately, the reports are that despite the Russian stated objective of fighting IS or Daesh, in fact the targets have been opponents of the Assad regime, including pro-democracy-type groups like the Free Syrian Army.

Of most concern is the fact that it is reported that 36 civilians have been killed in these attacks. This area apparently does not have IS or al-Qaeda fighters operating in it. It does have other opponents of the Assad regime. This shows once again how critical it is that international forces that are involved in Syria work towards a political solution.

The Russians say that the Assad Government is a legitimate Government and President Assad is a legitimate President. I think it is difficult to accept that definition about a man and a Government that have killed 200,000 of their own citizens. But it will mean that Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries that have an interest in a Syrian peace process, need to sit down and work out what the political objective of their military action is.

We have heard in the last few days from the Australian Government, a change in position on the Assad regime. I certainly believe that there may be some argument for a transitional arrangement but the notion that the Russians are proposing that the Assad Government is the legitimate Government of Syria and that President Assad is the legitimate President of the Syrian people, I think doesn't bear close scrutiny given the human rights record of the Government and of the regime.

I further add that this shows once again how critical it is, not just to find a political solution for Syria but also to tackle the enormous humanitarian need in this country. More than half of the population is either internally displaced or fleeing for their lives to neighbouring countries and further on into Europe. Millions of people are relying every single day on the assistance of the international community. We have already seen organisations like the World Food Programme cutting their benefits to Syrian refugees because they simply cannot afford to keep feeding people.

As we see fighting increase, as we see the Russian air force enter this conflict, those humanitarian needs are only likely to increase. The country is only likely to become more dangerous, humanitarian assistance is only likely to be more desperately needed and so as well as urging the parties towards a political solution, Australia should be urging the international community to provide greater humanitarian assistance.

I also wanted to say a few things about the report from the IMF on the Australian economy that we have received overnight. This shows that the Australian economy is struggling with the transition from the mining boom to the post mining boom economy. The IMF says that the Australian economy for 20 years, two decades, has been a well-managed economy but that it is facing difficulties with the transition from the mining boom. This is basically what we have been saying for the last couple of years, that Australia needs a plan for the future. The IMF says, Labor has said, that we need to invest in our people and we also need to invest in good quality infrastructure to boost confidence and to keep our economy ticking over.

It is important to also say, given the snap summit that we have in Canberra at the moment, that you can't boost confidence by cutting wages. We hear from too many Liberals that their only plan for micro-economic reform is we cut wages of people who are giving up their Sundays with their family and their friends to work Sundays. On the one hand, we have a Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who is basically using the same lines as Joe Hockey, saying that we need to give tax cuts to high income earners to give them an incentive to work. What he wants to do is cut the wages of low and middle income earners who are relying on penalty rates on a Sunday just to make ends meet. It is a completely inconsistent and illogical argument.

I also just want to comment on something that has just come through on the wires a few minutes ago. I hear Tony Abbott being interviewed by Neil Mitchell suggesting some slogans for the Liberal Party's next election campaign. I think the slogans he has proposed are ‘Government Goes On’ and ‘The Government Doesn't Change’.

Neil Mitchell has said that the new Government is the old Government and that Malcolm Turnbull is Tony Abbott in a better suit. It is interesting to have so many commonalities between the old Government of Tony Abbott, and Tony Abbott himself pointing out that this is the same policies sold by a different spokes model.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Firstly, on the Russian air strikes in Syria. Does this cause you to suggest that the Government needs to re-examine Australia's ambition within Syria and if so what changes should be made?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: The first and most important thing is something that we have been calling for for some time and that is for a clear statement in our parliament about what our political objective is in Syria and for a discussion by the Australian parliament, a debate about how we can best manage our involvement. I stand by our decision to support the Government of Iraq, to defend its own people from attacks by IS, both in Iraq itself and launched across the border from Syrian territory. We have just seen a very complex situation in Syria become even more complex as the Russians seek to protect their friend, their ally, Bashar al-Assad. But also to protect their military facilities, their warm water port, their access to the Mediterranean. The Russian involvement in air strikes does make the situation in Syria more complex and it is very important that the Australian Government clearly articulate the extent of our involvement, the involvement that they expect Australia to have in this increasingly complex theatre of war, and that that can be debated in the Australian parliament.

JOURNALIST: You have spoken about the impact that this might have on humanitarian demands. Do you think Australia should consider upping that 12,000 figure?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: We have certainly said that one way to assist Syrians is to increase the humanitarian intake and we welcomed the increased humanitarian intake from Syria and Iraq. But the other very important way that we can provide assistance, is to provide assistance to refugees who are, right now, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Jordan. These countries have between them millions of displaced Syrians, surviving hand to mouth. The children are missing out on an education. As winter approaches they are living in tents, garages, half-built shells of buildings. We can do much better for those people who have fled to these countries of first asylum. It is not just in Australia's interest, it is very much in Europe's interest to provide assistance to people in those countries and, frankly, I would like to see countries in the region, wealthier countries in the region, in the Middle East, doing more to assist these Syrian refugees. Most Syrians want to return home. They hope for a time that it is safe for them to return home. If they are looked after a little better in the region, they will not be as eager to make the dangerous, difficult, expensive journey to try and get to Europe. It is in Europe's interests, and it is certainly in the interests of Gulf countries to provide better assistance to Syrian refugees in those countries of first asylum.

JOURNALIST: Will you be lobbying the Government to do more to assist the humanitarian efforts there?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: We already said several weeks ago that we believe $100 million would be a more appropriate offer of humanitarian assistance for the region. We think, as this crisis worsens, we will be called on to do more. It is not just Australia that should do more, however, but countries in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf countries and Europe itself. People are risking their lives and spending their fortunes to make a long and difficult journey to Europe because as winter approaches, they believe they will starve to death or freeze to death in refugee camps, or in the tiny enclaves of parts of Syria where they still feel safe. If we can help them to feel safe, help them to feel they won't be abandoned by the international community, there is less likelihood of people making that dangerous and difficult journey.

JOURNALIST: Can you confirm Labor is looking at compromises that might make it comfortable passing the China free trade agreement and if so what are those areas?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: We have always said we're supportive of the China free trade agreement. We would like to see decent protections for workers to make sure wages and skills aren't undercut so the new jobs we hope will be brought to Australia by the signing of a free trade agreement, actually benefit Australian workers and they earn Australian wages for doing them. We have been open this whole time to discussions with the Government. We had Tony Abbott saying that it was impossible and unnecessary, and he wouldn't give us the time of day. We have been open to discussions about legislative improvements that would give us the comfort that we need to support the legislation enabling the free trade agreement. There is no secret to what we're interested in. We are interested in protections for Australian workers and Australian wages that would make sure that the benefits of the free trade agreement benefit Australian workers.

JOURNALIST: Have you made progress in those discussions, particularly in respect to changes to the Migration Act or the enabling legislation?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: I will leave that for our trade spokesperson Penny Wong to give you further details of that when we have any details confirmed.

JOURNALIST:  Now there are reports that Julie Bishop has left the UN in New York in a bid to get back to Melbourne for the AFL Grand Final. Are her priorities in order?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, I really think that’s for Julie Bishop to explain. I can’t answer for her there.

If she was rushing back to make it to Melbourne, would that be a misuse of our resources?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m not going to speculate on hypotheticals. What I would say, is that this is a critical week in the United Nations. We have Australian forces engaged in the Middle East, in one of the most dangerous places on Earth. We also have, as it happens, the leader of Russia, a number of other world leaders, in New York right now and able to discuss how we might work together on a political solution and humanitarian assistance that would support an earlier end and a better end to the crisis in Syria. I would say that that would be the priority of any Australian foreign minister at the moment. 

JOURNALIST:  Why do you think that President Putin has acted in this way? 

TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, the Russians have has a long relationship with the Assad Government. Of course they are interested in protecting the Assad Government. They claim that the Assad Government is legitimate and that President Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria. They have military resources on the Mediterranean. They rely on those; it’s their only access to a warm water port facility. They’re got air force resources on the ground there as well. I think it is really for Vladimir Putin to explain why he is so determined to back President Assad, a man who is responsible for the deaths of at least 200,000 of his own citizens. It’s really up the Vladimir Putin to explain that. What I would say is that in the short to medium term, discussions between the United States and Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries in the region that have an interest in finding a solution here will be critical. In the longer term of course it’s up to the Syrian people to choose their own leader and to choose their own government. 

JOURNALIST:   Just another matter, you must be heartened that the deregulation to universities seems to be off the table.

TANYA PLIBERSEK:  Well, look, I’m delighted that students will have one more year without $100,000 university degrees. But what we’ve heard from the government today is not that they’ve realised that this is a terrible idea and that the future Australian economy demands well educated workers, it demands young Australians who can innovate, create, build businesses here, create jobs out of the fruits of their intellectual labour. They haven’t worked out that it’s a mistake to introduce $100,000 university degrees. All they’ve said is that it’s too late this year to do it. It’s too close to the academic year next year. So what I’d like to hear from the government is not a one year reprieve for Australian students. What I’d like to hear from the government is that it was always a bad idea to make university education unaffordable for most Australians. 

Thanks everyone.