The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP
Deputy Leader of the Opposition
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development
Transcript of Sky News Australian Agenda
with Peter van Onselen, Paul Kelly and Simon Benson
Subjects: The Speaker, knights and dames, Racial Discrimination Act, Medibank Private, intelligence gathering, Russia, party reform, plain packaging
Peter Van Onselen: We’ll discuss some of this in a moment, right now in fact, with Tanya Plibersek, the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party. Thanks for joining us.
Tanya Plibersek: It’s a pleasure.
Van Onselen: Is it a serious issue, the Bronwyn Bishop situation? Because I put it in that package after the knighthoods and dames, which we’ll no doubt talk about as well, but Labor was accused of a stunt on this but Tony Burke was quite clear in his comments that this was something that your side took very seriously before moving the motion that you did.
Plibersek: I think it’s very well worth listening to Tony’s speech or reading it because it does lay out in quite a lot of detail why we took the action we did. We didn’t take it lightly. As your package showed there had been, I think, 98 people thrown out on one side by that stage, and 0 on the other side.
Van Onselen: But is the point there that you just needed a couple of token members of the Government thrown out and then it looks much like what a lot of parliaments have been like on both sides over the years.
Plibersek: Look I have to be very careful not to reflect on the Speaker of course. I think it’s fair to say that it has been a Parliament unexpectedly rowdy. We thought, in fact, that once Tony Abbott became the Prime Minister that some of the very hard behaviour would evaporate. We thought once he achieved his goal perhaps things would settle back into a more normal kind of Opposition-Government relationship, but that hasn’t happened.
Van Onselen: But Liberals would say it’s your side that is being rowdy, because of whatever reason. There was even accusations of misogyny of Labor men on the frontbench against Speaker Bronwyn Bishop.
Plibersek: I don’t think Bronwyn Bishop would claim that for a moment and I don’t think anybody in the Parliament would for a minute suggest that that in fact is the case. It is important that Members of Parliament don’t reflect on the Speaker in the Parliament or outside the Parliament. But it has been an unexpectedly rowdy Parliament. We’ve seen very many members from the Opposition thrown out, none from the Government. And it is unusual for the Speaker to participate in debate in the way that this Speaker has chosen to. In the past for example, Speakers have also chosen not to attend party room meetings because the role of the Speaker is by tradition always one that is independent, that doesn’t intervene in debate, that doesn’t take the side of a particular political party. And they go in of course with the support of their party but then they remove themselves from the day to day rough and tumble of political life. That’s the historical position.
Paul Kelly: But isn’t the truth here that Labor doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to the Speakership given that it traded the job for votes in the last parliament? I mean you’re hardly in a position to be holier than thou here.
Plibersek: Well, Paul I think you understand that when the numbers are as finely balanced as they were in the last parliament, having a Speaker from another party or from the crossbench makes it frankly, easier to govern. If you remove one of your own number from the count every single vote-
Kelly: Wasn’t it a mistake to make Peter Slipper Speaker? Didn’t Labor get that wrong given what happened to Slipper? Surely you’re not defending that.
Plibersek: No, I think if we all had twenty-twenty foresight as clearly as we’ve got twenty-twenty hindsight it would be a very different world, wouldn’t it?
Kelly: But it was a mistake though?
Plibersek: We had very, very finely balanced numbers in the Parliament, a hung Parliament, and having someone who wasn’t taking a vote away from the Labor Party every single time we stood up to vote. We passed 500 pieces of legislation in the last Parliament and in part that was because we could rely on each Labor vote to be a Labor vote.
Simon Benson: Do you expect now that you’ve made your point about the Speaker, and I understand you can’t reflect on the Speaker, on the Chair, Tony Burke reflected in depth the other day–
Plibersek: It’s a great speech, people should watch it.
Benson: It was an interesting speech, it led to an interesting outcome in the Parliament after that, but what do expect to achieve out of it? What’s going to happen now? You’ve made you point about it. It’s unlikely to change anything. What did you achieve by raising that in the way you did?
Plibersek: I think it’s very important that we have a Parliament where both sides feel that they can be heard and both sides feel that they are treated equally and that if they behave the same way they’ll be treated in the same way and I hope that in future our Parliament will be like that.
Benson: But it looked, from the look on the Speakers face after that speech, it’s unlikely that that will occur, I would have thought. You might be in for a rather cool winter, I would have thought.
Van Onselen: Yeah, I would have thought Bronwyn Bishop’s personality is not the kind where she’ll now take the six week break to reflect on her own role after you’ve tried to knock her out in a show of dishonour towards the way she’s done her job till now.
Plibersek: Well, what’s the alternative? Just sucking it up? I mean the alternative is just allowing the current situation or the way the House of Representatives has been functioning to continue and I don’t think that is an alternative.
Van Onselen: Well, I guess the question is, if she doesn’t change is the Opposition prepared to do it again?
Plibersek: I wouldn’t want to speculate now.
Van Onselen: I was just going to move to knighthoods and dames. I don’t know if you were going to do that Paul, but I just want to quickly ask you–
Plibersek: I think you mean Sir Paul, don’t you?
Van Onselen: Knighthoods and dames, do you consider it anachronistic to go down this path? Are you upset or are you just ridiculing?
Plibersek: I’m not upset. It doesn’t make me angry, it doesn’t make me sad or worried. I find it perplexing. I think it’s an odd choice to make. I think it’s an odd thing to do particularly without the Prime Minister speaking to his Cabinet. The Cabinet had apparently met the day that the announcement was made and he hadn’t mentioned it to his Cabinet colleagues. So I think if you want to get support from your own side for something like that it’s a wise thing to raise it with your Cabinet colleagues. And I guess the other thing I’d say is the people who are upset by it I think are upset because, you know, truly the highest honour I would think you can get is the citizens of the country that you serve to bestow an honour upon you. No matter what you feel about the Queen, she’s a long way away and she’s not engaged in the day to day political or social life of our country. If I were thinking about the greater honour I would think that having the citizens of this country support you for an AC, for example, would be a greater honour.
Van Onselen: What about the idea though that if a man is knighted and becomes a sir, his wife becomes a lady –
Plibersek: I hope not for the first time.
Van Onselen: Well said. But if he’s in a de-facto relationship there’s nothing, if he’s a homosexual there’s nothing. I mean there would be a distinction between Justice Kirby being knighted and another justice being knighted.
Plibersek: I think you’re pointing out a few of the range of things that’s wrong with the proposal but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. We have said that this is a distraction, it’s a side issue –
Van Onselen: You’d reverse it?
Plibersek: Yeah sure, but I’m not going to spend any more time thinking about it, campaigning against it, talking about it, it’s not going to keep me awake at night.
Kelly: I know that Labor Party has had a lot of fun with this issue but it does raise another question and that is for how long will the Labor Party run dead on the republic?
Plibersek: I don’t think we are running dead on the republic –
Kelly: Of course you’re running dead on the republic. You hardly hear anything from the Labor Party about the republic for the last six to seven years.
Plibersek: Well, I think the republic is a very important issue. Is it as important today as the one job being lost every 3 minutes, or the cuts to education or the cuts to healthcare? No, it is an important issue and we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but our focus, the focus of our work, the vast majority of time that we spend in public debate will always be on those issues of jobs, health, education, infrastructure… We should have a republic. What are you doing to support that? You’ve got a voice that’s stronger than most in this country Paul, if you write your next leader on it then I’ll come and support you.
Kelly: Let’s just come back to the Labor Party, we’ve had six years of Labor Government, they ran completely dead, will Labor in Opposition try and crank up the issue more?
Plibersek: I think our main focus will always be on jobs and health and education. But I don’t think there is a single Labor Member of Parliament who is not a republican. The question is, do we throw ourselves at an issue that is not a huge one for the Australian public at the moment or do we focus on the things that are our bread and butter? We are in Parliament to build a strong economy and a fair society and a republic I think is an important symbolic issue but it can’t be the main game for us. But I’m delighted to hear that you’re going to be backing it in The Australian and that you’ll be cranking it up as an issue.
Kelly: We always back it in The Australian.
Benson: One issue that isn’t bread and butter but is a big issue is 18C which we’re going to talk about later. Labor were accused of starting a class war with the Coalition when in Government, do you think that the Coalition now are trying to deliberately start a culture war with Labor over 18C and the knights and dame ships feeds into that as well, do you think it’s a deliberate attempt to start a class war over this issue? A culture war, I’m sorry.
Plibersek: I think it’s hard to say any of the last couple of weeks has been really deliberate. I think the Government has lurched from one mistake to another. I think the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act are designed to deliver on a promise to a very narrow sectional interest, you know a few journalists and a handful of commentators that have said that this is a terrible impost on free speech in Australia. We haven’t heard from the Government who has been so terribly imposed upon by the Racial Discrimination Act that their rights have been curtailed up till now.
Van Onselen: Andrew Bolt.
Plibersek: Well, we haven’t heard about anyone other than Andrew Bolt and I don’t think one instance makes their case for them.
Van Onselen: Is your biggest concern here a process one rather than necessarily the outcome? The fact that there’s one case that wasn’t appealed that this seems to be based on.
Plibersek: No. My concern is not mainly a process one, my concern is that Andrew Bolt versus some other person who’s got an ability to make their case in public, who can access the newspaper, who can have their voice heard in the public debate. I’m not concerned about those two people having a public argument and who gets in trouble there. What I’m concerned about is sending a message that racist speech, or bigoted speech, in public doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all within the bounds of what’s perfectly acceptable. You know, if you’re two strong people having a debate through newspapers and Parliament and so on, that’s one thing. If you’re the person being abused on the bus, if you’re the school kid being abused in the playground, if you’re the person who’s being shouted at on the soccer field, it’s a very different thing. Those people don’t have the ability to protect themselves, they don’t have as clear access to the law and they certainly can’t put their point of view in a newspaper column as Andrew Bolt can or on TV, or anywhere else.
Kelly: But what’s wrong with saying, as the Attorney is proposing in the changes, that community values be the test?
Plibersek: Well, I think community values are critical of the idea that it’s the racists that need protection, not the people that are the subject of racist speech. And I think it’s true to say that community values should be one of the most fundamental tests of any law that they keep in this country-
Kelly: But they put them in the statute. That’s the proposal now, that it become part of the law. The community values, that what an ordinary member of the community deems to be the situation be the test. What’s wrong with that?
Plibersek: I think that that’s a very generous interpretation of what this exposure bill does. I think that your panel will be speaking about it later, but the exceptions that this new approach allows will mean that almost nothing will be out of bounds to say.
Kelly: I understand the point about the exception. I understand that point and I think you’re right on that, but let’s go back to the community values test and I know we don’t want to proceed with this too much.
Van Onselen: No doubt our panel will have some strong views on this as well, but from your perspective?
Plibersek: Well, from my perspective there’s nothing wrong with saying community values govern our legal approach in any situation, but the practical application of the changes to this law as they were proposed mean that you can basically say anything to anyone in any circumstance. The protections become so narrow and so limited almost nothing is out of bounds. So cases like the Tobin case where you’ve got a holocaust denier saying that people who object to his holocaust denial are of limited intelligence would not be picked up by this new law from the legal advice that we have.
Van Onselen: We will come back to this issue on this program. Let me ask you about Medibank Private.
Van Onselen: You were Health Minister.
Van Onselen: Labor could have taken this off the agenda. The Government is able to do this without legislative change as I understand it because it’s been sitting there as an available mechanism for them, which Labor could have adjusted but you never did.
Plibersek: Are you suggesting we should have changed the law to make it harder for them to sell Medibank Private?
Van Onselen: Well, if you had a problem with it, it would have been prudent planning given where the polls were at for the last few years.
Plibersek: I don’t think that governments should try and circumscribe what following governments are going to do in that way.
Van Onselen: It would have put it back to the Parliament. I mean, I think that’s what’s interesting here. It would have meant that a new government would have had to receive Parliamentary support to sell Medibank Private, whether you agree or disagree.
Plibersek: I think it’s a curious proposition that we should be legislating for the next government. We are perfectly happy to defend the fact that we didn’t sell Medibank Private. I think the reasons for doing it are that it’s short sighted, that the capital they’ll realise is only a few years’ worth of receipts from Medibank Private, so it’s a short term approach to Government finances. But also I’m concerned that any reduction in competition in the private health insurance market means premiums rise. The last lot of premium rises when Peter Dutton became Health Minister were the largest premium rises I think in a decade, but certainly much higher than anything that any Labor Minister approved during our time, my time and Nicola’s time as Health Minister. You already see the private health insurance industry putting up premiums as often and as much as they can and you take Medibank Private out of the equation, reduce competition, I see that situation getting worse.
Benson: Could I just take you to one of your portfolios as foreign policy? In a nutshell, should Russia be coming to the G20 later this year in Brisbane?
Plibersek: Well, I think that’s a decision the international community has to make together. It’s not something that Australia as host should make on its own.
Van Onselen: But you must have a view?
Plibersek: Yeah and I’m not going to –
Van Onselen: You’re not going to share it with us?
Plibersek: No, because I think that foreign policy is an area where you don’t freelance and it’s an area where there is a large degree of bipartisanship and the only time when we haven’t had bipartisanship it’s because I think the Government has been freelancing.
Benson: That sounds like an accusation that Julie Bishop may have been freelancing, has she and on what issues?
Plibersek: Yes she has, but back to your G20 thing. That’s something the international community has to decide together. I think that we do have to have stronger sanctions on Russia than we’ve had at the moment but you don’t make it up as you go along in foreign policy you have to have a national position and then an international position that you negotiate. We’re in a very good position to do that as a member of the Security Council now, as a host of the G20, I think there is a degree of leadership expected from us but we need to make decisions like that, very serious decisions, this is a serious decision, not just for the next year or two but for the next decade or half century. The decisions we’re making now will be very significant for Europe in particular, but also if Europe becomes a zone of greater conflict, then the United States pivot to Asia comes under pressure, obviously. So these are significant issues for Europe but also for us in our region.
Benson: Can I ask you a question with your other hat on, I’m not sure that everyone knows that you’re also a member of the Security and Intelligence Committee at Parliament. The US only last week are introducing laws for data retention on surveillance and intelligence gathering, specifically around telcos retaining data for eighteen months. It’s very similar to a debate we were having a year ago, the intelligence agencies here wanted extensions to powers they already had. We shelved it, should we be looking at that again? Especially in light of the radicalisation of Australians over the Syrian conflict which is obviously a concern to intelligence agencies. Should we be revisiting that bill?
Plibersek: I think that there is a misconception in the Australian public about the sort of data that’s retained in these circumstances. I think some people imagine that security agencies can go back and listen to the phone call you made to your mum eighteen months ago about what time you’re going to be home for dinner. The information that is kept in these circumstances is basically you could describe it as the envelope that the message comes in, who called whom and when. That kind of information.
Plibersek: And I think that it is important to be able to- people describe it as keeping the haystack so you can go back and look for the needle afterwards. We have disrupted some very serious terrorist plots in Australia. We’ve done it because we’ve got a strong intelligence community here. They do a good job. There continue to be threats. Those threats may increase for reasons that you’ve described and I want to give those agencies the maximum ability to do their job well within the bounds that people would expect.
Benson: It sounds to me as though you don’t have a problem with that concept, extending those laws to require mandatory retention of metadata by telcos for a certain period, whether a year, eighteen months, two years.
Plibersek: I think we always need to balance the expectations people have of living in a democratic and open society. But I certainly want to make it as easy for security agencies to do their job of protecting Australians from threat as we can.
Kelly: Can I just move to the Labor Party? Is it your view that Labor members need to be trade union members?
Plibersek: I think a lot of Labor Party members aren’t trade union members.
Kelly: Are you trade union member?
Plibersek: I am, I’m a member if the CPSU, and I have been for, I don’t know, 20 years at least.
Kelly: Do you want a formal change to the rules or not?
Plibersek: I think that we need to recognise that there are plenty of people working in jobs, self-employed people for example, for whom union membership isn’t easy – there’s not a natural union for some people to join. I’m a proud union member, and I’m happy to be a member of the union, and I always have been since the day I started working.
Kelly: But you want this nexus broken do you?
Plibersek: Well, I think we need to be a party that welcomes new people in, and if the only barrier to someone joining the Labor Party is that there’s not a natural union for them to join, then that’s a crazy reason for not welcoming them into the Labor Party.
Kelly: So are you happy to see Labor MPs who are proudly not members of a union?
Plibersek: I can’t imagine a Labor MP who proudly stood up and said I’m not a member of the union – and I’m the exact opposite.
Kelly: Wouldn’t that be a good thing though for the Labor Party?
Plibersek: No, why would it be a good thing?
Kelly: It wouldn’t?
Plibersek: I think unions have done so many important things for our country: we’ve got the eight hour day, we’ve got extra pay for working anti-social hours, we’ve got the minimum wage, we’ve got a range of protections because of the union movement. And the union movement was key to defeating WorkChoices. The union movement in Australia does valuable things every single day, sticking up for workers who’d otherwise be kicked around.
Van Onselen: But it’s not a slight on the union movement, you just simply think that you should be able to have people join the Labor Party, also enter parliament, without being union members if they so choose.
Plibersek: Well, I’m not going to make that pronouncement now.
Van Onselen: But you’re the deputy leader of the Labor Party.
Kelly: But I thought you just said that? Isn’t that your position?
Plibersek: No, I said that people, if there’s not a natural union for them to join should still be able to be members of the Labor Party – that saying someone can’t be a member of the Labor party because of the job they do – if they work for themselves, if they’re unemployed, if they’re pensioners – there’s a whole range of times when it’s not natural for someone to be a member of a union, and should that bar them from being a member of the Labor Party? No, I don’t think it should, because we’re interested in increasing membership, opening up to people.
Kelly: I think that’s pretty clear. That’s sort of an indirect way of endorsing the change.
Plibersek: We had yesterday for example, the Newtown state seat pre-selection, where we had half of the votes from Labor Party members, and half from community members, so basically like a primaries pre-selection – a lot of those people they’re not members of the Labor party, they wouldn’t be members of their union, they’re just people who are interested in their community, and who’s going to be the Labor candidate for their community – those sorts of opening up of democratic pathways for people who are outside the Labor Party to participate in Labor politics. Our new policy proposal in the lead up to the next conference will be open to members of the public making submissions, and coming along to public events – that’s all good, that’s great.
Benson: It is important to make a symbolic statement though I suppose, and this is where the leader Bill Shorten is going to go in a couple of weeks I believe, we reported it this week in the Telegraph, that that’s the road he’s going to go down – remove this kind of anachronistic requirement that you need to be a member of the trade union movement to be a member of the Labor Party. Now a lot of branches don’t enforce that, of course, so you do have a lot of members of the Labor Party that aren’t members. But isn’t it an important symbolic message to send to the broader community that the Labor Party wants to broaden its membership? So, would you agree with the leader then?
Plibersek: Do I agree with the leader? [laughs] Yes, generally [laughs].
Kelly: You could disagree with him though if you wanted to.
Plibersek: I think it’s important that Bill makes the announcement that he wants to make when he wants to make it. We are an open and democratic party and the more ways we have of showing that and behaving that way, the better.
Van Onselen: Tanya Plibersek we’re almost out of time, but just one left-field final question. Indonesia is taking Australia to the WTO over plain packaging. That was something that obviously as health minister you had oversight for taking over from Nicola Roxon. They’re one of our biggest trading partners, is that an embarrassment?
Plibersek: No, I think it’s a strong symbol that what we’re doing is working. The countries that are fighting us in the WTO about plain packaging are doing it because they’re worried about sales of tobacco products. I’d be delighted if it means that Indonesian tobacco products are selling less, because it means people are smoking less, it means they’re getting sick and dying less. I’m very confident that our legislation will not be defeated in the WTO because we’re treating everyone equally, there’s no issue of trade here. Their issue might be one of intellectual property, and we’ve had plenty of legal advice that says that we’re on strong grounds here. This is a really important measure for people’s health in Australia and I’m proud of it. I think it’s one of the best things we did in Government.
Van Onselen: Alright, Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, we appreciate you joining us on Australian Agenda.
Plibersek: Thank you.