TRANSCRIPT: Press Conference, Sydney, Wednesday 30 September 2015




SUBJECTS: Australia’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, Liberals’ hypocrisy on UNSC bid, Border protection, Refugee intake, China Free Trade Agreement


TANYA PLIBERSEK – ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION:[Broadcast cuts in] Labor welcomes the announcement that Australia will be seeking a seat on the United Nations Security Council in the 2029-30 round.  While this is a long way off and to some degree unambitious, certainly Labor would always support the Government in making a commitment to participate more fully in multilateral organisations like the United Nations Security Council.  When Labor announced that we were pursuing a bid for the Security Council, of course, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop were very critical, they said that no benefit would accrue to Australia, and when we did win a spot on the Security Council Julie Bishop criticised the win as an expensive victory. Of course Labor's not like that, we welcome this announcement by the Government, despite the fact that it's a very long way off and say that we will offer any support internationally to the bid. We think that Australia's reputation is enhanced as an international citizen when we participate in organisations like the UN Security Council and we believe that the world benefits too from our participation. So there's a domestic benefit for Australia and also we are able to make a strong international contribution. We'll be very supportive of the bid over the next decade and a half and hope to see a positive result when the time comes.

I'd also like to mention another announcement although this is perhaps the worst kept secret in foreign policy, that Australia will be pursuing a spot on the UN Human Rights Council. This is something that Australia should do, for the same reasons that we participate in the Security Council. When we participate in these multilateral organisations we enhance Australia's reputation as a good global citizen and also have the opportunity to contribute to the world. I am a little bit concerned however that in recent days we've seen the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants actually cancel a visit to Australia because he can't get a commitment from the Government to treat the visit seriously. And to ensure that people who speak to the Special Rapporteur aren't punished for raising any issues of concern. I think that when we are actually going backwards on climate change, we've had the largest aid cuts in the history of Australia, taking us down to the least generous aid Budget since we've kept records, and we've also had concerns around our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, the effort to secure a spot on the UN Human Rights Council will be a very difficult one for Australia.

In fact, I've just returned recently from Washington and New York where any number of people raised with me their concerns about the world going in one direction on these big issues of global concern, and Australia going in exactly the opposite direction. That's true of climate change, it's true of our commitment to our aid Budget and it's been true of our treatment of asylum seekers also. Of particular concern at this time when the world is moving to stronger action to tackle global poverty through the sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations just this last week, the massive cuts to our aid budget make it impossible for Australia to be a good global citizen in this respect. So I think the Australian Government will certainly have some explaining to do during the course of its bid for the Human Rights Council spot.

Any questions?

REPORTER: If you think that 2020-30 is too long a time frame what would be more realistic time frame?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to pluck a number out of the air but I would just say something that's 15 years off doesn't strike me as particularly ambitious.

REPORTER: Does that apply also to the Human Rights Council?

PLIBERSEK: That is sooner, 2018-20 and I'd say that we'll have to really get our skates on to be successful there given that we are moving in a direction that the international community is concerned about in a number of areas.

REPORTER: What needs to be done to fix our human rights record so that we can hold our head high on the international stage? What do you suggest in terms of - specifically our detention centres?

PLIBERSEK: In the short-term the Government should offer an assurance to the UN Special Rapporteur that anybody speaking to the Special Rapporteur about concerns in detention centres would not be prosecuted for disclosing any concerns that they have. This is a simple request from the Special Rapporteur, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says there'll be no problems, that should be given to the Special Rapporteur as a guarantee. But I'd say that's a short-term issue. More generally, if we are serious about human rights, then we have to not just sign up to the sustainable development goals in theory, we have to in practice contribute in the way that we have in the past. We've seen 11.3 billion dollars cut from our aid budget. This is the largest cut to any portfolio area, it was one dollar in every five of the Budget cuts in the last Budget and it seriously compromises our reputation as an international citizen.

REPORTER: You just said that the Special Rapporteur issue is a short-term one but it's not really because its relates to Border Force and the particular reasons that he's not been given those guarentees and his concerns relate to privacy and secrecy provisions within the Border Force Act. Is that something Labor would repeal in Government?

PLIBERSEK: Peter Dutton has said that the legislation doesn't prevent people speaking to the Special Rapporteur. He should give that assurance in writing to the Special Rapporteur. That's the short-term issue and then that visit could proceed. When it comes to disclosure of information, it is important to protect the privacy of people in detention. But public servants and others who are working in the system who make reports in good faith about issues of concern, should have all of the regular protection of whistle-blowers.

REPORTER: Would you make any changes to Border Force?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to start re-writing legislation today – that’s the principle.

REPORTER: Aside from the aid budget most people would say that the most serious human rights problem that we have is our detention network and children in offshore detention centres. If Labor is elected at next Federal election how would policy change because initially that was also a Labor policy?

PLIBERSEK: We've made a number of announcements already including substantially increasing our humanitarian intake to 27,000 people, we've made announcements about a massive increase in funding to the UNHCR, to better process refugees and asylum seekers both in our region and internationally. And we've made some significant announcements about children in detention, of course we want to get children out of detention but in the period when they are in detention during health, security and other checks, that there should be an independent children's advocate and that of course if any staff in the network have concerns that they should be able to report those concerns, without fearing that they'll be in trouble themselves. That's particularly true if there are allegations of child sexual abuse and we believe that there should be mandatory reporting of any such concerns.

REPORTER: Do you believe that refugees from Syria and Iraq who are in our detention network offshore should be included in that 12,000 or perhaps the 27,000 if you were the Government?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to get into details of who should be processed in which way. We have said that there should be a substantial increase in the number of asylum seekers that Australia takes. At the same time we need to continue to send a very strong message that people coming to Australia by boat will not - should not expect to be accepted into our refugee and humanitarian intake. It's important to continue to send a strong message to people smugglers so that they don't have the ability to sell to desperate people this most dangerous and exploitative journey.

REPORTER: On the Human Rights Council bid, Saudi Arabia publicly beheads people and one activist there is facing crucifixion, so does that council have legitimacy?

PLIBERSEK: This has been a debate for some time, whether the Human Rights Council actually does as well as it might. I think Australia brings our strong reputation to the table. And the reason we participate in multilateral organisations the UN framework organisations is because it benefits us, it allows us to make a strong case internationally for the things that we value, the things that we believe should happen - like Australia's principled opposition to the death penalty, everywhere that it happens. But it also allows a principled Australian voice, we hope, to improve situations in other countries as well. Of course, there are countries that don't have the human rights record that Australia would think appropriate, there are many, many countries you can point to where human rights are regularly undermined or ignored and our participation in the Human Rights Council, the UN, the UN Security Council is so that we can be a good international citizen and say that that is unacceptable.

REPORTER: How are you reassuring China that you’re not about to block or obstruct the China FTA.

PLIBERSEK: We’ve said very clearly that we support the China FTA – what we want from the Government are assurances in our domestic legislation that would make clear that what the Government is promising is actually true. We want assurances from the Government that there will be labour market testing so jobs will be offered to Australians where Australians can do those jobs. We want assurances that the skills level and the pay of people who are coming in from China to do work won't undercut the skills or pay of Australian workers. The Government says that that is no problem. In fact Andrew Robb has said it will be no problem legislating to give those commitments. If that is the case, I don't know why we are still having this debate. Of course we support a free trade agreement. We were in the process of negotiating it. We just want it to be an agreement that has clear benefit for the Australian economy and for Australian workers.

Thanks everyone.