TRANSCRIPT: Sky News 'To the Point', Wednesday 9 December 2015





SUBJECTS: Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Paris climate talks, COAG & the GST

KRISTINA KENEALLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, thank you for joining us on To the Point.


PETER VAN ONSELEN, PRESENTER: Let me ask you straight up about Tony Abbott’s comments about there needing to be reform within Islam. Kristina Keneally has written about this in the Guardian in fact pointing out to him that there hasn’t been reform, technically speaking, amongst Catholics… what’s your reaction to his comments?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s very important to have a look at what David Irvine said about this – the former head of ASIO - he said that it was actually Muslim Australians who were our best allies against extremism in Islam. I think it’s very important to work with partners in the Islamic community in Australia: there are so many people in the community who are doing their very best to divert young people from a radical course; to help them understand that the true nature of their religion is one of peace. And we need to work with those partners to you know, explain to young people that they are being lied to by some of these online recruiters, some of the people that would have them follow these terrible paths.  

VAN ONSELEN: And Barack Obama said something similar in his address to the nation which was picked up around the world… this is the bottom line though, isn’t it Ms Plibersek? You’ve got a situation where the security agencies are desperately telling political leaders to avoid the kind of inflammatory rhetoric which is going to get the wider Islamic community offside, yet the political class who are not at the upper echelons of Government and getting these briefings, seem prepared to do just that. How do we get past this?

PLIBERSEK: Well I don’t know if you can say the political class are prepared to do that Peter.

VAN ONSELEN: - sections of it.

PLIBERSEK: I think there’s been a very strong message from many of us: that we know that the best thing we can do is work in partnership with Australian Muslims to make sure that if they see signs that young people within their communities are being convinced by some of this horrendous rhetoric that they read online or hear, that they need to be diverted from that. And I think there is – you’re right, Tony Abbott has said some things overnight, but I don’t think he represents the general view of most leaders in the political community in Australia.                                                            

KENEALLY: With that being said, Tanya Plibersek, I mean when we’ve got language coming from Tony Abbott about “live and let live Muslims” and telling Muslims that they have to reform, I mean isn’t it really now incumbent on the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull to take a strong stance within his own coalition and make clear the type of approach that his Government and he wants his Members to take towards the Islamic community?

PLIBERSEK: Well of course it is important that the Prime Minister shows that leadership. And I really don’t want to be speaking for Malcolm Turnbull when I say this, but I’d say that he’s pretty unhappy with most things that Tony Abbott is saying at the moment. What you’ve got is Tony Abbott hanging around in the Parliament after being deposed, just to cause maximum damage and maximum pain for Malcolm Turnbull and we heard Joe Hockey saying exactly the same thing yesterday – saying that he had to be sent to Washington because if he stayed in Canberra, all he’d do with his time there is get even with the colleagues that had deposed him.

VAN ONSELEN: Tanya Plibersek, let me jump in – we’ll talk about Joe Hockey in a moment. But just on Tony Abbott hanging around – if he does decide to hang around, I suspect he’s doing it because he thinks that there’s some chance, as much as this seems improbable to me, of a political comeback. But you know who I blame for that? I blame your side of politics. That’s why Kevin Rudd hung around, and he did come back, he came back as Prime Minister in the end. I mean, the problem is you guys have given every political has-been hope that there’s a chance of a way back.

PLIBERSEK: Well Peter, I think it’s classic conservative politics to blame Labor for everything. It used to be that we talked about the “debt and deficit disaster”, and since we’ve doubled the deficit, I’m not hearing so much about that anymore.

VAN ONSELEN: That’s true.

KENEALLY: That is true. But let’s go back to Joe Hockey because -

PLIBERSEK: - hang on a minute – when I say we doubled the deficit, I mean Australia – I mean the Liberal Government - doubled the deficit – just incidentally.

KENEALLY: No, I think that’s a point worth clarifying there. Tanya Plibersek, yesterday we did see confirmation that Joe Hockey is going to be appointed our ambassador, our – Australia’s ambassador in Washington D.C… What about his background do you think qualifies him for that kind of role?

PLIBERSEK: Well, look I don’t think Joe Hockey has shown a particular interest in foreign affairs in the past – which of course marks him out quite differently from our former ambassador, Kim Beazley, who for many, many decades of his political life had very close relationships with the United States; with particular members of the parliament over there; with defence personnel as well. Especially after Kim Beazley was Defence Minister in Australia, those relationships were very deep and very trusting. Kim, of course, is a huge fan of American politics and history – I think he probably knows more about American history than most Americans do. So he was someone who deeply loved and was deeply connected to the United States before he went.

VAN ONSELEN: Hang on a second – I love cricket but you’re not going to make me the head of Cricket Australia – so what?!

PLIBERSEK: I’m talking about Kim Beazley now. If we draw a comparison with Joe Hockey, I’m not sure that he does have that sort of interest and most particularly, those relationships. But the thing that I guess worries me most about this appointment is Joe Hockey says that he has to be sent to Washington because if he was in Canberra he’d just make trouble for Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop. Well, he’s going to be reporting to Malcolm Turnbull and to Julie Bishop. The relationship between the United States and Australia is one of our most important relationships in a strategic sense and also of course in an economic and trade sense. If, you know, can’t get along with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister while he’s in Australia; let’s hope the relationship improves with distance.

KENEALLY: Well I mean, let’s just name a spade a spade here Tanya. I mean isn’t the Government just appointing him to one of our most important diplomatic posts to solve an internal problem? And that just seems to me to be an utterly flippant approach to foreign policy.

PLIBERSEK: Well, look, I guess  it really surprised me that Joe Hockey said as much himself yesterday. I mean, I think that there are times when former parliamentarians make very good ambassadors – because they do have those political relationships with their equivalent members of governments overseas. What surprises me is Joe Hockey himself said yesterday that he had to be sent away because he was going to make trouble at home.

VAN ONSELEN: I think you two are being very partisan here: Joe Hockey was a 10-year minister in the Howard Government; he was Treasurer for 2 years. He’s held a variety of portfolios, including tourism, which is obviously relevant in relation to exchanges, but financial services, health, industrial relations… He’s every bit as relevant to this role as his predecessors on both sides of Parliament that have had it. If you don’t like politicians getting the role, I’m all for that. But if they are going to get the role, Joe Hockey is as qualified as anyone.

KENEALLY: What did the Prime Minister say yesterday? That he’s one of the most persuasive politicians he’s ever met. I mean, remember the 2014 Budget? The public was so persuaded by that, weren’t they?

VAN ONSELEN: But you don’t define a person’s entire life by one budget which admittedly I was as critical of as the next person. I just feel like Joe Hockey is being unfairly maligned here  

PLIBERSEK: Look, Peter the problem with it is that the Prime Minster and the Foreign Minister have said that they don’t have enough faith in Joe Hockey to allow him to be a minister in the Government they lead, but they’re sending him onto one of our most important diplomatic posts.

VAN ONSELEN:  But I do think that’s right.  He would have been the Defence Minister had he not left Parliament, I’m certain of it.

PLIBERSEK: Well, that’s not what he’s saying. What he’s saying – what Joe Hockey himself is saying - is that he would have just stayed around to make trouble if he’s stayed around. And I think, you know, by his own words you can judge him.

VAN ONSELEN: But what do we know? We know from Kevin Rudd’s example that that doesn’t happen, of course that’s a reality of politicians hanging around. But people on the Labor side have still been willing to support Kevin Rudd for a possible tilt for the UN Secretary General’s position further down the track. Maybe not you Kristina Keneally by the look on your face –

KENEALLY: - no, not me!

VAN ONSELEN: - but a lot have.

PLIBERSEK: I’m not making a general comment about these appointments at all, Peter. I think there have been some very good ambassadors who have come from a political background. What I’m saying is that the relationship between the United States and Australia is one of our most important. That the ability for the US ambassador to be able to pick up the phone to the Foreign Minister, or even the Prime Minister, is absolutely critical and yesterday Joe Hockey said that the relationship he has with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister is so bad that if he’d stayed here, he just would have made trouble for them. We’ve spent a $1 million on a by-election, he’s now going off to a very important position. I hope he succeeds, for the sake of our relationship with the US – my desperate hope is that he succeeds – because it is one of our most important relationships. And his success will be our success, so I absolutely wish him well. But I’m not surprised that many people have looked askance at an appointment that Joe Hockey himself says is just about keeping him out of trouble.

VAN ONSELEN: But just on whether he’s, you know, got the requisite skills for it, is my last question on this Tanya Plibersek, and I ask you this as someone who has written and been very positive about the role that you have done, so don’t take this the wrong way, but you didn’t have a strong background in foreign affairs before becoming the Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson and you’ve done very well in the role. I don’t think you have to have had some massive background in it, if you are a capable, proven administrator, as a minister who has held senior portfolios before, and I think the same goes for him moving into the role.

PLIBERSEK: And every new portfolio is a learning experience – I wasn’t a doctor before I became Health Minister too, so your point is a very good one, Peter. But when we become ministers, we have a lot of help and assistance from our public servants and, you know, I’m sure we’ve had ambassadors in the past who have come from a political background who have relied a lot on the professional advice of our very, very good diplomatic staff. That’s not really the point I’m making here. The point I’m making is that Joe Hockey himself says he’s just being sent there to keep him out of trouble.

KENEALLY: Can I take you now, Tanya Plibersek, to the Paris talks. Your counterpart, Julie Bishop, has just arrived in Paris and Greg Hunt is on his way home. Looking at the talks as they’ve unfolded, one of the key issues that continues to challenge an agreement being reached is that around developing nations: what kind of help they should be provided from developed nations and particularly what type of support, targets, etc. From your vantage point, 1) is the Foreign Minister providing a helpful contribution, and 2) how hopeful are you of reaching some type of agreement?

PLIBERSEK: Well the first thing to say is internationally Australia is regarded as lacking ambition in the area of climate change, and in fact in the last couple of years we’ve gone backwards: we’ve got rid of an emissions trading scheme, we’ve reduced our renewable energy target, the Government has tried to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and a range of others that actually work to reduce our pollution. And we’ve gone to Paris with very unambitious targets for reducing our own pollution, so I think there’s a number of other countries who think it’s a bit rich that the world’s largest per capita emitter of carbon pollution is trying to tell them what to do. I think there will be obviously some agreement out of Paris, we hope. Whether it’s enough to really reduce the dangers that go with climate change is another thing. At the moment it looks like we’ll have an agreement that would have temperatures increasing to about 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels - that’s not sufficient to stop the most dangerous elements of climate change. And poorer countries and less developed countries are, as you say Kristina, quite rightly looking to rich countries like the United States, the European countries, Australia, and others to say, well, “you’ve industrialised, you’re the ones who are responsible for most of the pollution in the world, what are you going to do to help us take a less pollution-intensive development path?”, and that’s a very reasonable question because poorer countries want the same standard of living for their citizens as we have for our citizens – that’s what their governments are trying to achieve. So, what we need to do as Australians I think is reduce our pollution and help other countries to take a less polluting path to development.

KENEALLY: I want to touch just very quickly on COAG and the GST, because we’ve seen reports today about modelling that’s been done for a GST or an increase in the Medicare levy, various options, some of which include compensation. Looking at the modelling that apparently our state treasurers and premiers will be considering, it seems to me that the simplest thing would be to increase the Medicare levy, would Labor be open to that type of suggestion, like we’ve seen from Annastacia Palaszczuk and Dan Andrews? Or would Labor be willing to contemplate any of these other proposals that involve compensation?

PLIBERSEK: Well Kristina, as a former premier, you would know what’s going on in the lead up to COAG, and that is that all the states and territories are hoping for increased funding from the Commonwealth, particularly for their health and education systems. There’s been – from that 2014 Budget that we were talking about earlier - $80 billion worth of cuts from the Commonwealth to the state and territory health and education budgets. So the state premiers and treasurers are basically desperate for any extra revenue they might get. Some state treasurers are therefore saying that they would support an increase to the GST, or an increase to the Medicare levy. We think that there are better ways of raising this revenue and we’ve actually outlined three already – I think probably uniquely for an opposition at this stage of the electoral cycle – we’re saying we agree that we’ve got some problems when it comes to funding all of the things that we’d like to do for Australian citizens, so how do we pay for those great things that we want to do? We want to increase the tobacco excise – continue to increase it by 12.5% per annum. That’s a very substantial – almost $50 billion over the next 10 years. We’ve said that we want to reduce the tax loopholes for multinational companies – we know that some very large companies are paying almost no tax in Australia. And we want to reduce the superannuation tax concessions for very high income earners. If someone’s got millions of dollars already in their super, you know, good luck to them, I’m glad they’re saving for their retirement. But they don’t necessarily need tax-payer help to do that. So, we’ve already outlined three ways that we think  we could pay for the sort of commitments that we want to see: better health and education, and other programs that we’ve said.

VAN ONSELEN: But Tanya Plibersek, just one last quick question. All that is all good and well, but if you don’t get into Government, you can’t do any of it. When are you going to put “Mr 14%” out of his misery and take over the Labor leadership, or do you want to keep your powder dry for 2019?

PLIBERSEK: Well, just before we change the subject, Peter, I think it’s really important to say that there are no circumstances in which we would support an increase in the GST and we will absolutely fight that because the poorest people pay the most and everyone would be paying extra – you think about Christmas time when you’re going out buying your Christmas ham and your kids’ presents, thinking about paying 15% on your food and your drink, and your presents for Christmas and the stress that puts on the family budget, we will never support that.  

VAN ONSELEN: Tanya Plibersek, we’re out of time. I would have loved to ask you a bit more about Newspoll, but we can do it next year, it will be back fortnightly I can assure you. We appreciate you joining us on To the Point, thanks for your company.

PLIBERSEK: Lovely to talk to you.