TRANSCRIPT - RN Drive, Wednesday 1 October 2014


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SUBJECT/S:  Iraq and Syria; Anti-terror laws; Budget Cuts; Ebola

JONATHAN GREEN, PRESENTER: Joining us is Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Ms Plibersek, welcome.


GREEN: Was the Opposition consulted on the decision, for this latest decision that our RAAF planes to fly in the support role.

PLIBERSEK: Our leader, Bill Shorten, was advised about an hour before Question Time that this was intended. I don’t think there was really a necessity for consultation because we have made clear the arrangements that we think would be appropriate in the circumstances where the Iraqi government has asked for Australian support to fight off IS.

GREEN: Is full involvement now inevitable?

PLIBERSEK: Well, no I think we still have to be very cautious about setting the parameters for any Australian involvement. We’ve said that where there’s an imminent threat of mass atrocity crimes as there is in the northern part of Iraq at the moment that Australia does have, as part of the international community, a responsibility to protect. But our involvement of course depends on the invitation of the Iraqi government and on the Iraqi government continuing to behave as a democratic- in a democratic and non-sectarian way. And that we don’t support ground troops involvement on the ground in Iraq and that of course we don’t at this time support involvement in Syria.

GREEN: At this time, you say, I mean once we’re involved, there’s two fights here. There’s one in Iraq and there’s one in Syria. Once we’re committed, don’t we have to follow that through, even if it does lead us into Syria?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think the situation in Syria is tragic, it’s extremely concerning, about 200 000 people have lost their lives. We’ve got pretty much half of the population of Syria displaced from their homes, including millions of people living in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and neighbouring countries and we absolutely have a humanitarian responsibility to help those people who are being displaced. We are not doing enough by any means in helping neighbouring countries deal with the refugees flowing over the border. But there are a couple of key differences between Syria and Iraq, the first key difference is the Iraqi Government, the democratically elected government of Iraq have asked for Australia’s help and the help of the international community. There isn’t such a legal basis for involvement in Syria. There is also a lot less clarity about what the objective would be, it’s an extremely fractured situation there with many, many groups operating. It’s impossible to see how Australia’s military involvement would improve the situation there. But our humanitarian assistance and I mean money to the UN and its agencies to provide food and shelter and education for children and also our humanitarian response could involve bringing more Syrian refugees to Australia, because the Government made great fanfare of taking an extra 2200 - well I think if you’ve got millions of people in countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey we can surely do a bit better than that.

GREEN: You say that Syria is fractured, lacks clarity, is there a clear ambition for involvement in Iraq, militarily?

PLIBERSEK: Yes I think the very clear ambition in Iraq is to make it possible for the Iraqi Government to take responsibility for its own security as quickly as possible so that Australia and all of the other countries that are involved can come back home. There’s a very clear objective which is stopping the march of IS, stopping them taking town after town, village after village, and killing, enslaving, raping as they go. But we should only be involved in a limited way and only for as long as it takes for the Iraqi Government to take responsibility for the security of its own people.

GREEN: Do you have reservations, Tanya Plibersek, about the cost of this? Treasurer Joe Hockey said today that more budget cuts are on the way to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars of new defence and security spending.

PLIBERSEK: Look I think it’s very important we examine every element of this and think very deeply and clearly about it because our involvement in Iraq in 2003 was a disaster. It was a disaster for Australia, it was a disaster for Iraq, the ongoing conflict in Iraq that lasted for many years and saw so many civilian deaths is not something that we should dismiss. You’ve raised the question of cost, I think where you see whole populations at threat of genocide or ethnic cleansing we can’t ask ourselves what dollar value we are prepared to put on those lives. I think that a terrible way of considering this problem. We have to consider this problem in a way that puts our international responsibility and ethical decision making at the centre of it.

GREEN: But the Treasurer has signalled that it will be expensive and he is signalling cuts to the budget to pay for that expense. Presumably given the Opposition’s bipartisan support your commitment to this mission, you’ll also support those budget cuts.

PLIBERSEK: Joe Hockey’s budget has been a disaster from beginning to end and I’m very happy to talk about the budget. I don’t really want to link the cost of people’s lives in northern Iraq with budget cuts in Australia. But I will talk about the budget itself.

GREEN: But that link is being made, it’s not a thing we are undertaking without considerable expense and the Treasurer is saying he’ll make cuts to pay for it, will you support them?

PLIBERSEK: Well I don’t think it’s appropriate to say we’re going to make budget cuts in Australia to save lives in northern Iraq but I’ll tell you about Joe Hockey’s budget. Joe Hockey came to Government - he doubled the deficit within a few months. They’ve included spending like almost $9 billion to the Reserve Bank of Australia that the Reserve Bank neither asked for nor needed. They’ve got a $20 billion paid parental leave scheme that gives the biggest benefit to the wealthiest people. At the same time they’re talking about cutting the age pension, cutting support for young unemployed people, cutting school education funding, cutting childcare funding, cutting health funding, cutting university funding.

GREEN: None of this has actually happened.

PLIBERSEK: Well not for want of the Government trying. Tony Abbott came to Government saying no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no change to pensions, no new taxes, no cuts to the ABC and SBS. He has broken all of those promises and there are a lot of nasty cuts in there besides the ones that made the headlines. Things like the $400 million cut from public dental care and the $44 million cut just this year from new building and homelessness services. This is a dog of a budget.

GREEN: None of which gets us away from the fact that the military involvement which the Opposition wholeheartedly supports is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the government intends to pay for that through cuts. Which presumably you will in turn support?

PLIBERSEK: I haven’t heard Joe Hockey say that but if Joe Hockey is saying we need to cut the aged pension in Australia in order to save lives in northern Iraq I would be shocked. And this is a Government that has been trying to make these cuts to the budget anyway. They have been firmly rejected by the Australian people as deeply unfair and I don’t know if he has linked it to some other external issue but if he did that that would be in extremely poor taste.

GREEN: Do you have any concerns that the military involvement in Iraq will heighten the security risk at home?

PLIBERSEK: I think we have to be realistic about the fact that we are living in a time when security risks in Australia are higher than they have been in the past. And that is a confronting thing for us to accept as Australians that there are a tiny number of people in Australia who are planning to do ill to other Australians for reasons that most of us find completely incomprehensible. Now I think it’s important that we are careful that we give our excellent security and intelligence agencies the resources they need to keep Australians safe. At the same time I think it’s very important to focus on community cohesion and going about our lives in the most normal way possible.

GREEN: Those counter-terrorism forces, Tanya Plibersek, were given a boost today, laws passing the Parliament. Your colleague Melissa Parke had this to say:

[Recording of Melissa Parke]: I question the Government’s general approach to this area of policy. Which is essentially that freedoms must be constrained in response to terrorism and that the introduction of greater obscurity and impunity in the exercise of Government agency powers that contravene individual freedoms will produce, and are justified in the name of, greater security.

GREEN: Are other Labor MPs also uneasy about these new laws?

PLIBERSEK: Well the reason that Labor argued so hard to have these laws referred to the parliamentary joint committee on security and intelligence was so that we could give them the scrutiny they need. They are not decisions to be taken lightly –

GREEN: And yet there are no amendments to those laws. You are happy with computer hacking powers for intelligence agencies?

PLIBERSEK: Well actually there were a very large number of amendments. There were 18 recommendations made by the Parliamentary joint committee many of which were driven by concerns that the Labor members on the committee raised and those recommendations have been accepted by the Government. So it’s not a question of bringing those amendments into the Parliament and having them voted up or down, in fact the Government has accepted the amendments that we have recommended. So it’s done at the stage before bringing it into the chamber. But it is important that those amendments were made because there were concerns about some areas of the legislation, that’s why we have the committee process. That’s why we insisted on it and that’s why we made those recommendations.

GREEN: You’re not concerned that a single warrant could enable security agencies to access unlimited computers and networks?

PLIBERSEK: No I think that that is a misunderstanding of the legislation.

GREEN: Well it’s an extreme example of what could occur.

PLIBERSEK: No I think it’s a misunderstanding of the legislation. And I understand why people want to be vigilant I think it’s very important that people speak up to protect our freedoms. We don’t want to live in a police state but in this case this legislation has had a great deal of scrutiny and a number of very significant changes were made to reflect that scrutiny and that’s appropriate. It’s very important for security and intelligence agencies to be given updated powers as circumstances change. It’s also very important –

GREEN: Journalists and whistle-blowers should face gaol, is that a fair thing worthy of bi-partisan support?

PLIBERSEK: Well what you’re referring to - the provisions around special intelligence operations - a special intelligence operation is a very limited operation that’s done where ASIO officers risk their lives by, for example infiltrating an organisation that is about to do harm on Australian soil. We asked for a number of changes to the provisions around special intelligence operations including the fact that the Attorney-General should sign off on them rather than the Director-General of ASIO and the provisions around journalists or whistle-blowers talking about special intelligence operations were changed in relation to concerns that I had. So, for example, a journalist will only contravene the provision that you’re not allowed to talk about a special intelligence operation where they know or they recklessly disregard the fact that it’s a special intelligence operation.  And what they are doing if they recklessly disregard the fact that it’s a special intelligence operation is endangering the life of someone who is working undercover.

GREEN: Need that be so? Surely the Attorney-General, who has the capacity to nominate these operations, could not the Attorney-General have nominated the spying on the Timorese Government which led to the international court. Could that not have been determined as a special intelligence operation and could reporting of that not resulted in gaol?

PLIBERSEK: And the other provision that we’ve included is that if the Director of Public Prosecutions determines that the reporting has been done knowingly, but it is in the public interest for us as a community to know that ASIO has made a mistake or done the wrong thing or an officer of ASIO has done the wrong thing then it should be reported in the public interest. So yes concerns were raised about this, that’s why we included these additional safeguards, including the Attorney-General has to sign off on it, including the fact that a special intelligence operation - that someone’s cover has been blown recklessly or the journalist knowing that they’re putting someone into danger and there is still the provision that the director of public prosecutions can make a decision that it’s in the public interest for this information to be disclosed. So of course it’s a very important thing for journalists to be protective of the rights of themselves and their colleagues.  Part of our strong democracy depends on free and frank reporting. That’s why these changes were argued for and that’s why they were accepted.

GREEN: Just a last point Tanya Plibersek you questioned Julie Bishop today on the decision not to send health workers to West Africa’s Ebloa outbreak zones. What’s going on there? How can we contribute? What might we best do?

PLIBERSEK: Ebola is a phenomenally fast spreading disease. We’ve got about 6500 people who are infected at the moment. The estimates suggest there could be around 1.4 million people affected by January if we don’t take stronger action than we are now. Australia cosponsored a Security Council resolution saying that all countries should do more, not just send money, but send doctors, equipment teams, engineering teams - basically look to their own resources and see how they can help. In addition, Medicines Sans Frontier have said very clearly that it is not just more money we need it is more people and more resources. Other organisations, the President of the United States, all sorts of people and organisations have made clear that just sending money is not enough. Australia has sent $8 million, that’s a good start, but we have people in Australia who want to go and who have the skills to go and they’re being told that the Government can’t support their work as volunteers there. There is in fact 12 Australians working with international organisations at the moment and the message to them is ‘hope you don’t get sick’. We can as a country that has absolutely first rate medical teams and indeed engineering and other resources through our defence force personnel - we could be doing much more than we are. And it’s in all of our interests to try to stop this disease spreading at the rate that it’s spreading.

GREEN : Tanya Plibersek thanks for your time.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.


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