TRANSCRIPT - Insiders, Sunday 19 October 2014

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SUBJECT/S: Ebola, Iraq, Indonesia, Vladimir Putin, Ban on facial coverings in Parliament.

BARRIE CASSIDY, PRESENTER: Now we’ll go straight to our program guest, and this morning it’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek. Good morning, welcome.


CASSIDY: Very good. Apparently Julie Bishop and Peter Dutton have written to your party calling for a return to bipartisanship on the Ebola issue. How will you be responding to that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it is a bit rough to call for bipartisanship when the Government's plainly doing the wrong thing. We were briefed at the beginning of October about all of the impediments to Australia sending volunteers to West Africa to assist to get this virus under control and, in the weeks subsequent, it appears that the Government has made little to no effort to overcome those impediments. I think it's obvious that if we don't contain Ebola in West Africa, this becomes a greater risk not just to the African continent but to the world more generally. The best way that we can protect Australia and protect Australians is to help stop Ebola in West Africa.

CASSIDY: But the letter, though, accuses your party of having a reckless disregard for the safety of health workers and points out that you are ignoring advice that there is no current capacity to evacuate Australians if anybody catches the virus. Now that's a key point, surely?

PLIBERSEK: A number of health workers have been evacuated to different European countries. We know that the UK and the US are building hospitals specifically for health workers in West Africa. The UK is apparently sending a hospital ship. It is beyond me why other countries are able to make arrangements for their health workers, including now Japan - are able to make arrangements for their health workers and the Australian government is not able to do that. I've got absolute faith in our health officials, our foreign affairs officials and our defence force personnel. I believe if the Government tasked them with finding a solution to this, that they would be able to do it.

CASSIDY: Yeah but the Government points out that the responses they get at the moment is "we'll help out if they can", but that's not good enough. They want ironclad guarantees and until they get the guarantees, nothing will change.

PLIBERSEK: Well, we are getting advice from organisations like the AMA, like the Nurses and Midwives Association, that they have got people who want to go who would go with a bit of extra support from the Government. A bit of- less discouragement and a bit of facilitation. We have international organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres saying that arrangements have been made for the nationals of other countries, they have been evacuated to European countries for treatment when it's become necessary. I think it is plain that the Government are putting up all sorts of furphies. They are saying "we can't air lift people for 30 hours back to Australia". Nobody is suggesting that. What I'm suggesting is that if the Government made this a priority and asked their public servants to find these solutions, they could be found. I would be interested to know whether the Prime Minister, for example, has spoken to Prime Minister Cameron or to President Obama directly and said "What support can you give our Australian medical personnel who wish to go to West Africa to help?". You’ve got to remember that President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, the World Health Organisation, the United Nations have all said - and Australia has signed on to a Security Council resolution with 130 other countries - saying that money is fine but what's really needed are expert medical personnel, supplies and equipment and Australia is not prepared to send those.

CASSIDY: When you raise the issue of volunteers, that's where it becomes a bit of a phoney issue, doesn't it? Because you say they are being discouraged but they are not stopping volunteers from going. They say that they won't direct those who they can direct, that is the military personnel.

PLIBERSEK: But Barrie, the thing is Medecins Sans Frontieres are at capacity. They can't support other volunteers, but we have arrangements that Australia can make. We have got, for example, Australian medical assistance teams which are groups of volunteers that are on standby in case of natural disasters, for example, that could be sent in. So you've got self-contained teams of doctors, nurses, depending on the situation, other types of professionals including logisticians that could be deployed. Peter Dutton is saying "We’re going to hang on to them in Darwin in case Ebola comes to Asia, then we'll deploy". The point is, if Ebola gets to Asia, if Ebola gets to the borders of Australia, we have lost control of this. On some estimates, the Centre for Disease Control think that there will be up to 1.4 million Ebola cases by January next year if the disease continues to spread in the way that it has. The World Health Organisation said on 1 October we've got 60 days to get this under control or we don't know what will happen after that, we don't have the capacity to handle what will happen after that. So we have a very small window of opportunity. Australia should be involved in stopping Ebola in West Africa, getting it under control in the three countries most affected. If we are waiting for it to come to our borders, then we are in big trouble.

CASSIDY: Let me quote something that Phil Coorey wrote in the Financial Review, "If an Australian dies a horrible death in a far off land due to lack of medical care, it is the Government that gets it in the neck". Now that's the reality, isn't it?

PLIBERSEK: You know, no humanitarian mission like this is without risk. It is absolutely right for the Government to be upfront about the risks involved. In the same way that when we send Australian Defence Force personnel to northern Iraq on a humanitarian mission, we are upfront about the fact that there are risks involved. But in the same way that our defence personnel are highly trained and highly experienced and in many instances are wanting to go into situations like this that they know are dangerous because they choose this work because of their commitment to helping on a global scale, so, too, our health personnel that are highly trained, highly skilled, have chosen this work because they feel they can make a difference to humanity. So, too, they should be supported by their Government to give the help they know they can give.

CASSIDY: Can I then go to an issue where there is bipartisan support, certainly to this point, and that is on the approach to terrorism and Iraq. Do you find it, though, at least curious that the SAS, the Special Forces, are still waiting to be deployed, the legal work still hasn't been done?

PLIBERSEK: I'm a bit perplexed about why it's taken so long, but I think it's an interesting comparison to make. We pre-deployed Australian Federal Police to Europe to be ready to go to Ukraine to help in the search for MH17 and the recovery of Australians from that crash site. We have pre-deployed SAS to United Arab Emirates to be ready to go into northern Iraq. The Opposition supported both of these important missions. It's a bit mystifying why you wouldn't, in the same way, say to medical teams "We are trying to put in place the arrangements that you will need to keep you safe, be ready to go". On the issue of the SAS, it is absolutely vital to have those legal arrangements in place for our personnel if they are assisting the Iraqi Army. We need to know very clearly the arrangements that that assistance is provided on. I don't blame the Government at all for insisting on having those arrangements properly in place but it is a bit perplexing it is taking so long.

CASSIDY: Okay now on Indonesia, what do you make of the words from the incoming Indonesian President who is warning Australia not to stray into Indonesian waters? This seems to be an old issue. They've already conceded that they inadvertently strayed and they have sorted it out and it won't happen again.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it's quite telling that this has been in the first interview that Jokowi has had with an Australian media outlet. It is obviously, as we said all along, a very big deal for Indonesia that the Government is making announcements about what happens on Indonesian soil and in Indonesian waters without ever talking to the Indonesian Government. And we think that the Navy have inadvertently entered Indonesian waters around six times perhaps. I think the Navy has been put in an extremely difficult position by the Government and the cost of that is to our very important strategic and economic relationship with one of our closest neighbours. Indonesia of course is important to us strategically but it is also a fast-growing economy with a very fast-growing middle class and will become increasingly important as a trading partner for us as well. It is not a very good start.

CASSIDY: Okay just a couple of other quick issues. Julie Bishop did manage to button hole Vladimir Putin in Milan and she won an agreement from him. He says he will use his influence with the Russian rebels in Ukraine to open up access to the site of the plane crash. Does that seem like a good outcome to you?

PLIBERSEK: Look I certainly hope that there is an improvement for Australian and other personnel who are wanting to get or needing to get access to the crash site to undertake their very important work. Unfortunately, I mean we heard that at the Security Council, we heard that the outcome of the Security Council resolution that Australia sponsored was that investigators would have unimpeded access to the crash site, that proved not to be the case. So I mean, I think all we can hope for is that there is an improvement now.

CASSIDY: A good enough outcome to negate the need for Tony Abbott to shirtfront Vladimir Putin in Brisbane?

PLIBERSEK: Well look, I think the problem here is - we have said all along that many Australians will find it difficult to welcome Vladimir Putin to Australia but we also understand, as an Opposition, that this is not Australia's meeting alone. Australia is hosting the G20. We are not in charge of invitations and uninviting people. If Tony Abbott - Tony Abbott can't uninvite Vladimir Putin, if he is embarrassed by the fact he doesn't have the capacity to stop him coming to Australia, he should just explain that to the Australian people, that this is an international meeting, he was unable to stop Vladimir Putin coming. He shouldn't overcompensate with this sort of sandpit language.

CASSIDY: And just finally, Parliament sits tomorrow and still the presiding officers' segregation decision stands. Does that bother you and is the Opposition doing anything to try and overturn it?

PLIBERSEK: We wrote to the presiding officers on the day that the announcement was made. It is an absurd suggestion. Anybody who is in the galleries in Question Time has been through two security checking points. It is a ridiculous - just a ridiculous position that anyone should be segregated. Our Parliament is one of the few in the world that actually has these open galleries. Many other Parliaments have galleries behind glass. It is one of the signs of our strong and healthy democracy that Australian citizens are invited in to watch their parliamentarians at work. Whether they are doing a good job or a bad job, they are invited in to see it first-hand. And it is, I think, profoundly,  deeply insulting and stupid to say that women wearing coverings should be further segregated.

CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.


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