TRANSCRIPT - Sky News PM Agenda, Tuesday 3 March 2015

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SUBJECT/S: Iraq; GP Tax.


DAVID SPEEERS, PRESENTER: Joining me now is the Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Foreign Minister, Tanya Plibersek. Thanks for your time. Does Labor support this announcement?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: We were briefed by some defence personnel and intelligence and security personnel just before Question Time. And based on what we have been told in that briefing, we do. We support a training mission to help the Iraqi Defence Force raise its capacity to protect its own people on their own land.

SPEERS: Was there some concern in the left of your party though, as I understand it, in the caucus meeting today, some did raise concerns about this?

PLIBERSEK: No, I wouldn't say concerns. I'd say that there are many people in the Labor Party and in the Australian community who remember the disaster of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and they want to be very certain that we are not engaging in something here that doesn't have the support of the Iraqi Government and people or that is open-ended, that involves mission creep. We need to be very satisfied as an Opposition and I think as a nation that this is with the support and at the request of the Iraqi Government. And that it doesn't involve Australian soldiers taking a front line position fighting Daesh hand to hand, but it is indeed in the first instance a humanitarian and a training mission, and also that the Government has a clear plan here, a clear exit strategy. This should not be an open-ended engagement.

SPEERS: Well just on that final point, do you think there is a clear exit point strategy?

PLIBERSEK: We were certainly told that the second stage of the training mission has a two year period attached to it, that it will have regular troop rotations, it will be reassessed during that period. But, David, I think one of the issues here is it’s very important that the Prime Minister and the Government explain to the Australian people what it is exactly that Australian forces will be doing and how will they judge success. When will they know that it is time to go? These are important questions for the Australian public to be assured of.

SPEERS: Have you been assured of this, those key points you raise there, what they will exactly be doing, how we’ll judge success and how we’ll decide to bring them home?

PLIBERSEK: Yes, we had quite a detailed briefing today before Question Time, and we asked ourselves and the briefers to reassure us on all of the principles that we have set out for Labor support in the past. So that our troops won't be in front line positions, that this is only in Iraq and not Syria, that it is only so long as- until the Iraqi Government and Defence Force can protect their own people in their own land and that it is only as long as the Iraqi Government and Defence Forces behave in a way that is acceptable to Australians. So we have set out those principles.

SPEERS: Okay, I just want to be clear on this. Are you satisfied that what- that you understand exactly what they will be doing and that there will be a mechanism to judge success?

PLIBERSEK: We have had - yes. We have had a detailed briefing about what the Australian Defence Force will be doing with the Iraqi Defence Force. The type of training they will be providing and so on.

SPEERS: And all of your concerns are addressed?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I have to say it is something that we will continue to watch closely. I say for the moment based on what the Government has told us, Labor will support this additional training. But that commitment is not without conditions and it is not open-ended and I think it is important that the Government continue to talk to the Australian public, through the Australian Parliament, about exactly how the mission is progressing and what the expected exit strategy is.

SPEERS: So is it fair to say that you would still like a better explanation of exactly what they will be doing?

PLIBERSEK: I think we need continued explanations of what our defence personnel are achieving and certainly we know that they have achieved a great deal in the humanitarian area. They have been- they have managed to resupply communities that have been cut off and without supplies. They have managed to disrupt oil production facilities that Daesh were using to generate many, many, millions of dollars of oil revenue to fund their ongoing war on the Iraqi people. So we have played a good role –

SPEERS: But we also see constant reports about the Iraqi military being a corrupt outfit, payments going to so called phantom soldiers who don't really exist just to claim the money, you know, about corruption in contracting in the Iraqi military as well. How much confidence should we have that this is a worthwhile expedition?

PLIBERSEK: Well, David, I think it's very important to ask those questions along the way and there's a couple of things I'd say to that. Our training of the Iraqi regular forces, the Iraqi Defence Force, includes the sort of ethical training that Australian soldiers rely on as well. So that it does involve training about rules of engagement, about proper conduct, internationally acceptable conduct in the theatre of war. Secondly, Labor has always had, as part of our conditions in this area, that if we have evidence that the Iraqi Government is not behaving in an inclusive way, if the sectarian conflict escalates again, if the Iraqi Army is not behaving in a way that is acceptable to Australia, for example, if they were engaging improperly with militias, it would be - it is important for us to say as a country, these are our red lines.

SPEERS: And they haven't tripped those yet as far as you are concerned?

PLIBERSEK: Well, based on the information we have at this stage, we are satisfied that our conditions have been met. But I don't say this in a way that is open-ended. Of course we always support our defence personnel when they are overseas. But we need to continue to examine this mission to make sure that it is at the request of the Iraqi Government, with the support of the Iraqi people, to protect them, to assist the Iraqi Army to protect its own people on its own soil and it has to be that the Iraqi Army take the lead in this fight.

SPEERS: We were just talking a few minutes ago to Tom Switzer, a critic of this whole deployment. He makes the point this is mission creep. This is exactly what Daesh or ISIL want to happen. They want to see the US and its allies engaging more and more in this conflict. That’s what’s going to attract more people to their cause.

PLIBERSEK: Tom was a very strong and articulate critic of the 2003 war. I think he has consistently, over many years, raised some very valid concerns about mission creep and about, frankly, about the disaster that the 2003 Iraqi war was. I'm not surprised that Tom and many people like him want reassurance that it's not Australians engaging on the front line, that we are there in a humanitarian and training capacity until the Iraqi Army can stand up and protect its own people on its own soil. It's an international force. It's not a US led coalition of the willing as 2003 was. We will be one of four countries engaged in similar training of the Iraqi Defence Force, so the US of course, Spain and Germany, are also committing to a similar mission to the one that the Government has described today. So it has some important differences from 2003. But it is an extremely serious commitment and it's not something that we agree to lightly or that we agree to without conditions. We have explained our conditions and we will continue to monitor Australia's usefulness in this area and I hope we will see a very speedy end to our engagement there.

SPEERS: Now, let me ask you finally on domestic politics, the dumping of the GP co-payment today. Do you welcome the Prime Minister going so far as to say that it is dead, buried and cremated?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I think he said that about industrial relations in the past too and we have seen the resurrection, the zombie like resurrection of some of these policies again and again.

SPEERS: Not WorkChoices though.

PLIBERSEK: No, it is WorkChoices in everything but name and the attack on penalty rates and so on.

SPEERS: They haven't done anything on penalty rates, to be fair.

PLIBERSEK: They want to. They have been sending their backbenchers to soften people up –

SPEERS: They have said that they won't.

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, anyway, we will talk about the GP Tax. The Prime Minister said 53 times that this is necessary policy. I don't believe he's dumped this because he has listened. I think he has dumped it because he can't get it through the Parliament. And the thing that irritates me so very much about this argument is this notion that we have got an unaffordable health system. We spend, if you look at the OECD, we spend about in the middle of the pack. But for that, we get much better value. We are close to the top of the pack on life expectancy.

SPEERS: So we don't need to make any efforts to make it more sustainable?

PLIBERSEK: We spend about average but we get much better results for it and of course we have to make efforts to keep it sustainable. That's why when I was Health Minister I put a means test in place for the private health insurance rebate at a quarter of a million dollars for families –

SPEERS: Should we go further down that path?

PLIBERSEK: Just let me finish this point. Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott opposed billions of dollars of savings by asking people who were already going to buy private health insurance not to receive a government subsidy. The other billions of dollars of savings that I did as Health Minister was paying less for generic medicines when they came off patent, guess what, Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott opposed that as well. So they are not sincere in their efforts to reform the health system. The health system can always do with improvements. But the idea that we have an unsustainable system is wrong and someone should ask Tony Abbott and Sussan Ley - is it a good thing if Medicare bulk billing rates go up or is it a good thing if they go down because the answer you would get from this Prime Minister and this Health Minister is it's good when bulk billing rates go down. Well, that is the absolute opposite to what Labor believes and it is the absolute opposite to what the Australian people want.

SPEERS: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for that.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you David.



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