26 MARCH 2014

Subjects: Knights and dames, Racial Discrimination Act, Peter Greste

Fran Kelly: Tanya Plibersek is the Deputy Opposition Leader, she is now in place in the Parliament House studios, and Labor has been critical of both those announcements of the Abbott Government yesterday the changes, or proposed changes, to the Racial Discrimination Act, and the revival of knights and dames in the Australian honours system. Tanya Plibersek, good morning, welcome to breakfast.

Tanya Plibersek: Hi Fran, how are you?

Kelly: I’m well thank you. Tony Abbott bringing back knights and dames of the Order of Australia, what does Labor think about the PM’s definition here that it’s important to appropriately honour people, like Governor-Generals, whose service has been extraordinary and preeminent? Is there a case for a special category for preeminence?

Plibersek: Look I think it is important to honour people who’ve served our country well and I was delighted to go to the function farewelling our Governor-General last night and pleased to join with people in thanking her for her service. But I really do think this knights and dames thing is just basically a distraction. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it but we’ve got one Australian losing their job every three minutes, we’ve got big cuts to health and education, we’ve got troubles overseas, I think this kind of back to the future stuff is a distraction more than anything else.

Kelly: Governments do need to do many things at the one time across many fronts that’s what makes running a country so difficult. So perhaps it’s less relevant to criticise a government for doing this you can’t really say their ignoring jobs while they’re doing this. But what do you think of these things and what would Labor in office do? Would Labor abolish them as Whitlam abolished them, as then Bob Hawke abolished them when he came into office.

Plibersek: I just think the focus on this right now shows that the Government has their priorities all wrong. We’ve got some really serious issues in the Parliament, it is true you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but they’re not doing much of either and the fact that they’re focusing on distractions like this when we’ve got cuts to health and education, jobs being lost, you know, cutting benefits to orphans of war veterans, I don’t know it just strikes me as really missing the main game and I think –

Kelly: Would Labor abolish them?

Plibersek: Look I don’t know, we haven’t had a discussion, we haven’t given it any thought, this is not the sort of issue we’re going to waste our time debating, when the real issues are about jobs and the economy and the cuts to health and education this Government is making. They came in with all sorts of promises about what they were going to do. People didn’t get the Government they thought they were going to get, and now after saying no excuses no surprises we’re getting surprised with all of these distractions.

Kelly: Why do you think the Prime Minister has done this?

Plibersek: I think he’s had a bad week in Parliament, he’s been talking more than he would like to about Arthur Sinodinos, about future of financial reforms, regulations that make it possible for financial planners to sell products to people that are not in the best interests of their client. He’s got the Attorney-General who you were just speaking to out saying bigotry is a free right for Australians and none of these things are I think going quite the way the Government had intended. So they do a quick ‘look over here’ distraction.

Kelly: Let’s go to the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s nine minutes to eight, we’re speaking with Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek in our Parliament House studios. The PM told Australia yesterday in the Parliament that this is the freest, fairest and most decent country on earth and the Attorney-General as we heard him say again say these changes to the Racial Discrimination Act are the most protective in terms of against vilification of any law that this country has ever had. What’s your response to that?

Plibersek: I don’t think there’s anyone in Australia who agrees with them. I think it’s… It is a sad thing that one of the first priorities of this new Government is to make it easier to racially abuse people. Now I am a great supporter of free speech, that’s why I’m a great supporter of the ABC and I notice that this Government whenever the ABC says something that the Government doesn’t like they’re very quick to hop in and say that it’s not justified that the ABC should have the same right to free speech that they say they’re defending with these legal changes. But why would you make this a priority? Making it easier for people to racially abuse one another, why would you make that a priority for a government?

Kelly: Do you accept that this is an exposure draft and there’s thirty days now for people to propose changes to the Government? Do you accept as some, even though some critical of the draft as it now stands suggest that twenty years on these laws could do with a bit of a rewrite? And perhaps we don’t need the notion of insult and offend to be including in section 18C? That the so called hurt feelings provisions perhaps could do with a little bit of tweaking?

Plibersek:  Look, I don’t think there’s any harm in re-examining any of our legislation, but I would like the Government to point out where this law has been misused in its current form. I’d like them to point out why it’s so broken that it needs to be interfered with. I think what happened is George Brandis went too far in his comments the other day saying that bigotry is a right of every Australian. He’s been pulled back into line, he’s been told to go out and say alright we’ll do it slowly, we’ll do it with an exposure draft, but my understanding is that the exposure draft that they’ve put out, has as our Attorney-General said, holes big enough to drive a truck through, our shadow Attorney-General said it’s got holes big enough to drive a truck through and that seems to be the consensus of lawyers and others who are interested around the country and I think it is very interesting that neither the Prime Minister, nor the Attorney-General can say that the sort of Holocaust denying hate speech that we had from Frederick Tobin would in fact be captured under the laws as they’ve drafted them. Why can’t they say that?

Kelly: The, ah, as I say thirty day consultation period, how hard is Labor going to fight these changes because I’ve read in the Sydney Morning Herald today that Labor is planning a blitz on Liberal held marginal seats to warn migrant communities about these plans to water down the race hate protections. Is that true? Is there a grass-roots campaign already planned and about to be unrolled?

Plibersek: Well, I’ve certainly been talking to my community groups already and to anyone who’s contacted me about this about my views on these proposed changes. I don’t think that it’s a top priority for a government to make it easier to promulgate the sort of hate speech that we gave examples of yesterday in the Parliament. And can I tell you it’s not us contacting community organisations, it’s community organisations contacting us with their concerns. There have been dozens of organisations that have contacted me and the Labor party more generally talking about their concerns about these changes and the idea that it would make it, would make our society a place where it is more acceptable for people to abuse one another racially.

Kelly: And can I just ask you finally and briefly as Shadow Foreign Minister about the plight of Australian journalist Peter Greste. He’s been denied bail, I think yesterday you suggested the Prime Minister should be doing more now.

Plibersek: I think it is very important to say first of all that Peter and his family have been in regular contact with Australian consular officials. That our people in Cairo are doing the very best they can. This is no criticism at all of the consular assistance that’s been given but at the end of the day this is a man who has been accused of doing his job. He’s a journalist who has been accused of doing his job and I think it is very important particularly from a Government that talks so much about free speech for us to say loudly and clearly that we would expect him to be released now - he has served more than 3 months in gaol already. No substantive allegations have been made, no substantive evidence, and I think it is really time that we say very clearly he and his colleagues need to be released.

Kelly: Tanya Plibersek thank you very much for joining us.

Plibersek: Thank you, Fran.