TRANSCRIPT: Radio Interview, ABC AM, Friday 16 October 2015




SUBJECTS: South China Sea, Overseas aid, Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull 

ABC JOURNALIST, MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It’s been a big week in domestic politics and in international affairs. This week marked the first week of Parliament for Malcolm Turnbull’s new front bench and two years since Bill Shorten took the job as Leader of the Opposition. Elsewhere Australia’s Foreign Minister was in the US discussing tensions in the South China Sea, Russia’s escalating involvement in Syria and the Dutch report into the downing of MH17. To discuss some of these issues I was joined earlier by Labor’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Minister, Tanya Plibersek. Let’s start with foreign affairs: do you support the Government’s stand on the tensions around China’s activities in the South China Sea? Beijing was critical of Australia’s support for US plans to sail war ships into the region. It does seem to be getting pretty serious, doesn’t it?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well I think it’s very important to take a calm approach to an area where there is significant tension. Australia has consistently said that we don’t take sides in any territorial dispute in the South China Sea and that they have to be settled in accordance with international laws and norms. I think that’s certainly a bipartisan position. We also, of course say that as so much of our international trade goes through this region, through the South China Sea, it is important that there is freedom of navigation. We agree that the very fast land reclamation program – not just China but other countries also have engaged in is not particularly productive and really should cease.

BRISSENDEN: What about China’s criticisms though – it’s pretty delicate diplomatically for us, isn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think we have to take a deep breath. This is an area where there is significant tension between a number of important countries, countries that are important to Australia’s future. We consistently say that we don’t take sides in territorial disputes, we need to of course reassert that. But we also agree that it is important that there is freedom of navigation and movement through in this vital area.

BRISSENDEN: Ok. Well you’re announcing today you intend to overturn the cuts made to Australia aid organisations by this Government of $30 million dollars a year. But there’s been a lot more cut from the aid budget over the years, hasn’t there? Will you restore all of that if you return to government?

PLIBERSEK: Well first of all I want to say that what we’re announcing today is that we will increase funding of the various successful programs where the Australian Government matches funding provided by donors – Australian citizens – through terrific non-government organisations that have great international reputations and terrific success. We’ve also said that we’ll increase accountability and transparency. The $11.3 billion dollars cut by this government from aid has gone along with the worst accountability and greatest secrecy that we’ve seen in the aid budget for some time. The Government has completely got rid of the usual budget time accounting, what’s called “the blue book” and we would restore that including legislating those accountability and transparency measures. We’ve also set money aside for outside contestable advice on the effectiveness of the aid program, particularly as we change from the millennium development goals to the sustainable development goals which were adopted in New York recently. We want to make sure we’re getting maximum aid effectiveness from the money that we invest.

BRISSENDEN: And the broader aid cuts? Because governments of all persuasions have been shaving international aid money.

PLIBERSEK: I think- that’s just not right. We actually doubled the aid budget when we were in government. This government has cut $11.3 billion dollars. It’s now at about 22 cents in every hundred dollars we spend, it’s going down to 17 cents.

BRISSENDEN: So the question is will you restore that?

PLIBERSEK: It is impossible to restore $11.3 billion dollars overnight and frankly we don’t know whether Malcolm Turnbull will make further cuts to our aid budget.

BRISSENDEN: Ok let’s turn to domestic politics. Bill Shorten – two years in the job this week. We all recognise that the political landscape has changed. The polls certainly suggest that Labor has a lot of work to do before the next election. Are you disappointed with where you’re at, at this point?

PLIBERSEK: I don’t know how anyone could be disappointed with 50/50. We are in an absolutely winnable position and I think Bill Shorten should be given credit for getting rid of a first-term Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the most unpopular Prime Minister Australia has had in generations. That happened because Bill Shorten held him to account and Labor held him to account and it happened because we’ve presenting a positive policy alternative. There’s been, as Bill said at the beginning of the year, a year of ideas and we’ve successfully ended the prime ministership of Tony Abbott. We would have preferred to end it, of course, at an election but I think you have to give Bill credit for that.

BRISSENDEN: Why did you decide to go after Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth so hard this week? With hindsight, was it the right thing to do?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s pretty extraordinary that we’ve got at the moment in Canberra measures to reduce the transparency of the tax affairs of private companies with turnovers of more than one hundred million dollars – that’s been reversed. Labor’s proposals to more fairly tax multinational companies would raise about $7 billion dollars – the Government has rejected that. So you have this pattern of supporting tax avoidance of multinational companies, reducing the transparency around people’s private companies with turnovers more than a hundred million and we’ve got a Prime Minister investing in a notorious tax haven -

BRISSENDEN: But as he points out, he’s not the only one. Bill Shorten, Tony Burke, even you have funds tied up in the Cayman Islands.

PLIBERSEK: Actually, do I? You’ve alleged that.

BRISSENDEN: Well no he has alleged that.

PLIBERSEK: I have no idea where my superannuation invests its money – I’m in the Parliamentary super scheme, I have been since 1998 and I would have to spend hours of my time – that’s not really the point Michael. Ordinary people who have an ordinary superannuation account, like a woman with an average balance of 40 thousand dollars in her super in an industry superfund might have what, $30? tied up in some managed fund in the Cayman Islands. We’ve got a Prime Minister buying into schemes that have a million dollar US minimum buy in, in a notorious tax haven and he’s trying to say, “oh look, I’m just like everybody else – we all do it”.

BRISSENDEN: But is it the politics of envy? Because, you know, clearly he’s been careful with his investments and he’s paying his tax in Australia. After all this time in Parliament, you’d expect his affairs to be squeaky clean, wouldn’t you?

PLIBERSEK: Oh look I have no idea. I just think it is extraordinarily out of touch to say that, you know, a cleaner or a taxi driver, as he said yesterday, you know investing in their superannuation as they’re legally required to do by law, trusting that their, say industry superfund or bank superfund is looking after their money properly should be treated in the same way- or the allegation is that’s just the same as these very large investments in vulture funds, it’s an absurd proposition.

BRISSENDEN: Labor’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Minister, Tanya Plibersek.