TRANSCRIPT: Sunday Agenda Sky News, Sunday 15 November 2015





SUBJECTS: Paris attacks, South China Sea, Port of Darwin, the Pacific and climate change.

PETER VAN ONSELEN, PRESENTER: Let me introduce and welcome to the program our main guest today, Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Labor Leader and Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman, thanks for your company.


VAN ONSELEN: This was a prearranged interview that we had, but obviously these events are well within your purview as Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokeswomen as well. I don’t know what there is to say other than to ask you, what is your reaction?

PLIBERSEK: Well I thought that the interview that you showed earlier with the surgeon who said, “We can’t let these people win”, was about as articulate as you can get. This is a shocking attack. So many Australians have been to Paris, have affection for the country France – have travelled not just in Paris but in other parts of the country and feel – can picture themselves there, so I think it has really struck home. But coming so closely after the suicide bombing in Beirut where more than 40 people also lost their lives, coming so quickly after the downing of the Russian passenger jet over Egypt, this shows a concerted effort to project harm around the world by IS and its affiliate organisations. So, I think it is, Paul’s very right to say that this does change the complexion of the fight to a degree. I think Francois Hollande saying this is an act of war I think expresses the sentiments of many Western governments. I don’t, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the discussions at the G20 in Turkey over the next few days will be largely focussed on how this renewed threat might be met. But also again on a political solution for what’s going on in Syria. Syria has driven so many of these – the conflict in Syria has driven so many of these attacks outside the borders of Syria. It’s driven one of the worst humanitarian crises we’ve ever seen internationally; millions of refugees fleeing the sort of terror that we saw on our screens in Paris. So I think the renewed effort for a political solution in Syria will have to be part of the discussion in the next few days too.

PAUL KELLY: I appreciate that we’re still talking within hours of these attacks and that it’s very difficult to make assessments. But you’ve recently, in recent weeks, stressed the point that there’s a lack of clarity about the aims of the campaigns in Iraq and Syria, so can I ask you, how do you feel this debate will play out in terms of the military campaigns? Do you anticipate that there will be renewed pressure to build up and intensify the strength of the America-led campaign, and what’s your particular view about that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think there’s three elements to this issue. The first is a search for a political solution as I’ve said. The second is addressing the humanitarian need particularly in countries of first asylum because the only way to reduce the movement of millions of people into Europe is to make sure that there is food and shelter for the coming winter for the Syrians that are in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Turkey. But the third element of course is the military campaign against IS and its affiliate, or similar organisations. I think certainly the attack in Paris will intensify pressure to find a strengthened military solution to Syria and northern Iraq. Our involvement in initial stages was simply to protect civilians against the onslaught of this organisation that has indiscriminately killed anyone that has a different religious or political view, has enslaved people, has used sexual abuse as a technique in its warfare, has been brutal and indiscriminate. I think that there will renewed international search for a stronger military solution, but this is the area of complexity now introduced because obviously the Russians have experienced an attack, the Russians are supportive of the Assad regime, the French have experienced attack. They will not accept IS or a sort of Assad regime continuing on. How the international community agrees on what the specific aim of the military action is, I think that is the question for the next few days.

VAN ONSELEN: There’s a lot more to discuss in that space, we’re talking to Tanya Plibersek, the Labor Deputy Leader and well as Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman, but we’re going to bring in David Speers now who is live in Turkey, just at the media conference that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull just had.



VAN ONSELEN: Tanya Plibersek, can I ask you, I guess inevitably where this is going to go in the coming months is to questions around flow of asylum seeks, questions of what intent, amongst whom. How do we ensure that we have this debate in a way that is both highly security-conscious but equally not too divisive?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think that every government around the world will accept that its first responsibility is to keep its citizens safe and that’s why we’ve sought to work with the Government as cooperatively as possible on the basis of the advice from our security agencies about the best way of keeping Australians safe. Our security and intelligence agencies tell us of course that they are monitoring several hundred people and it is important that they are enabled to do that work as effectively as possible. One of the differences, of course is that Australia, you know, we know who's here; the issue that a lot of Europe is facing at the moment is this massive number of people travelling from Syria and from some other countries as well, putting extraordinary pressure on European countries. In the first instance to offer them proper humanitarian assistance because the vast majority obviously are people who are desperately fleeing IS in Syria and in Iraq. But secondly to be aware that there may be people with ill intent amongst those people moving through Europe. It’s an enormous challenge and one of the keys to dealing with this challenge of course is to find a political solution in Syria and we were seeing from David earlier that the measures that are going on in that area, and to provide assistance in countries of first asylum so that people are looked after as close to Syria as possible, and that the push factors for these people moving through the rest of Europe are reduced. In Australia, of course, as well as our security and intelligence efforts, we need to work in cooperation with the broader Islamic community. We need to ensure that parents, teachers, brothers and sisters are confident if they see changes in the behaviour of family members or people that they’re associated with that they report those concerns to authorities so that there can be intervention at the earliest possible time.

KELLY: We are committed to taking 12 000 Syrian refugees offshore. How confident are you, how satisfied are you that there will be the appropriate security clearances to ensure that we don’t have someone coming in who is in fact a security risk?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think I’m confident that our authorities will check very carefully because this sort of event obviously alerts them to the terrible consequences of not being careful enough. We also have said – Australia has said – that we will target ethnic minorities and religious minorities – they’re the people who are at greatest threat of IS in Syria and in northern Iraq. I think by identifying the people who are most threatened by this organisation, we can be pretty confident they’re not going to come here and act on, as proxies, for IS in Australia.

KELLY: Just looking back at the Paris attack, if this is Islamic State, it seems to suggest that it has got an organisational capacity which we didn’t really appreciate before to reach into the heart of European cities and inflict this sort of damage. What’s your own assessment about the extent to which this is a departure from expectations?

PLIBERSEK: Well I’m not sure that it's right that we didn’t think that IS had this capacity; the French security and intelligence authorities warned months ago that there has never been a greater threat in France. Our own, as you said earlier, our own alert is set at high, I think around the world we are on high alert for this sort of event. Of course the French authorities will be examining why they didn’t pick up chatter, what is new about the organising of these people that let them fly under the radar – that will help us prevent further attacks of this type – when we work out what’s changed in their organising. A number of attacks in France have actually been prevented this year as well, so we know that we are picking up potential attacks and we are preventing them. We have in Australia as well, picked up potential threats and prevented attacks from occurring. But just as the tactics of these terrorist organisations change, so we must be able to keep changing the way that we collect information, survey and respond so we are able to continue to stop attacks.

VAN ONSELEN: Is it too much to say that this is perhaps that this is the equivalent of a modern September 11? And I don’t mean in terms of loss of life or anything that crude, I mean culturally the impact of it. September 11 was such a moment in time for Americans in particular, but for everyone and this, I wonder if you think, can have the equivalent impact on people in countries

PLIBERSEK: Well I think if you look at the series of attacks in the last few weeks – and I think it’s actually important to see them together – because you’ve got the Russian passenger jet, you see the suicide bombing in Beirut in the heart of Hezbollah territory and you see the attack in Paris. Each of them, really attacking different elements of the fight against IS. If it does mean that there is a more united and coordinated response against IS, against al-Nusra Front, against the number of organisations that are driving the destruction of Syria, Iraq, the Middle East more generally, then that might be seen as a turning point later.

VAN ONSELEN: I think a lot of people would worry that even if at this point, this far in, the world was to coordinate a successful attack within Syria to isolate these extremist groups and bring them to an end, essentially, they wouldn’t bring the terrorism to an end in the sense that there are enough lone wolf, and even some coordinated elements of that, that are out and about now. What’s your answer or response to that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Paul was right earlier in what he said, that there isn’t just a military response required here, there is a battle of ideology going on and the Graeme Wood article some time ago, “What ISIS Wants” talks about the desire of these “end of days” kind of organisations for this “end of days” conflict between Islam and the West. We need to be engaged with mainstream Islam so that they are part of the ideological battle here that says that this is never acceptable – there is not victory here that the world will fight against these brutal organisations. And yes a military response – we absolutely need that, but the battle of ideas is important too.

KELLY: Would you like to see more voices – more views being expressed from the Islamic community in this country? I mean clearly there are a range of different views within the Islamic community and one of the arguments is the best way of engaging with the community is for them to be speaking and for us to hear more voices from the Islamic community in this country.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I actually want to hear the voices that are already speaking up amplified, Paul. Because I know that there are people in the Islamic community who are appalled and horrified by this minority group.

KELLY: Well, why don't they speak up with a louder voice?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think, Paul, you would know that there are people in the Islamic community who receive death threats when they speak up. It is important to back those people, to amplify their voices and, you know, when we had that awful Hizb ut-Tahrir meeting a few weeks ago - two or three weeks ago now - and it received an enormous amount of reporting and, on the same day, it was the mosque open day, that thousands of people would have attended. Of course, the shocking negative organisation is front page news. The Muslims that are reaching out saying, "We want to be part of the Australian mainstream," are not front page news. We need to, to make sure that we don't divide our own community, that our community, you know, whatever religious background you come from or no religious background, is united together against the extremist - and we do have them in our community - but united together against those people who profit from division. They profit from division.

KELLY: What should we do about Hizb ut-Tahrir? I mean, do we just let them go? There's a debate about whether you try and ban them? What's your feeling about how the best way to manage them?

PLIBERSEK: Well, there has been a lot of discussion over the years about whether to ban them or not and my information is that our... the advice that governments of both persuasions have received is that, in fact, having them operating underground would be more dangerous than knowing where they are and knowing what they're saying. But I think it is important that we have people saying organisations like this, that preach violence and division, are rejected by us. And when they say things like, you know, there are problems with the National Anthem and problems with the citizenship pledge and people shouldn't be forced to, you know, back in these basic tenets of Australian citizenship, that we, all of us, reject that sort of offensive and divisive talk.

KELLY: What's your view about attempting to prevent Australians who've gone to the Middle East, Iraq and Syria to fight, from coming back into this country? We've had a big debate about this. The Government's put forward the citizenship provisions and so on. How important is it to take new legislative measures to prevent people returning to the country?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we've worked very closely with the Government on changes to legislation that would keep Australians safe and we have, in each tranche of national security legislation, sought changes to the legislation to ensure that we don't impinge on the rights that Australians hold dear. We want to keep people safe, but we also, as well as wanting to protect our citizens, we want to protect the human rights of our citizens. So it is a balance, but I think we've struck the right balance. There are many people on the… you know, I suppose left, as you'd describe them, saying that we've gone too far, that Labor has gone too far in backing some of these changes. There are people on the right who say that the Government and the Opposition haven't gone far enough in restricting the rights and liberties of Australians in the interests of national security. I think we've struck a good balance, and we've done it by ensuring that the Security and Intelligence Committee of the Parliament has had adequate time to look carefully at legislative proposals from the Government and to amend them to ensure that they are strong.

KELLY: But do you think, as a matter of principle, it's important to try and prevent such people from getting back to this country?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's absolutely important to prevent anyone who would seek to do us harm from having the opportunity of doing so. Of course I do.

VAN ONSELEN: What about in the context of Syria? We've seen the air campaign extended from Iraq to Syria. We do have some Special Forces and trainees on the ground. Is there an argument now, do you think, to amplify that, to have more boots on the ground?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think we have to have these discussions over coming days and weeks. I don't think it's wise, you know, within 24 hours of an attack like this to be making pronouncements about any changed role for Australia.


PLIBERSEK: It really will depend a little on the international response, how it changes. If there is… One of the things that we've been concerned about the whole way through is what's the endgame here? What's the target? What's the explicit role for Australia? We need to work with the international community to work out what the political transition is and what military action would support that political transition.

VAN ONSELEN: We're talking to Tanya Plibersek, the Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman. We're going to continue doing so when we come back. This is Australian Agenda.

VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back. You're watching Australian Agenda where Paul Kelly and I are speaking to the Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman as well as Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek. Moving on to other foreign policy issues if we can in this final segment, South China Sea, enormous tensions there between China and the United States, two very important powers, not just globally, but obviously to Australia as well, both as allies and an economic trading partners. Can we balance this if these tensions continue?

Well, we can balance it, of course. I think it's important to say that Australia doesn't take a position on any of the territorial disputes. We say that they should be settled in accordance with international laws and norms. It's also, I think, important to say ‑ and I've said it publicly before ‑ that the speed of land reclamation and other building works on some of these islands, atolls and so on, does make China's neighbourhood a little nervous, and it is very important that China, I think, now ceases this process. It seems that the building work has come to an end. And it's very important that we continue to sail and fly where we have always sailed and flown. A lot of our trade goes through this area, and we'll continue to ensure that we're able to do that.

: Just on that point, President Obama sent a warship to assert freedom of navigation in this disputed area. Does the Labor Party support what President Obama did?

Well, I think we have a very good and close relationship with the United States, and, of course, we are happy to support the actions that they see as necessary. What we would say is that it's important to reduce tensions in the area rather than exacerbate them, though, so we look for ways of ensuring that we continue to have our good relationship with China as well as supporting our closest military ally.

On a related question about China, there have been many reports in recent days about the Chinese company which has acquired the Port Darwin lease for a very long period of time. There's a lot of concern being expressed about the national security ramifications of this and claims are made that it wasn't properly scrutinised, this decision wasn't properly scrutinised. Is Labor concerned about this at all?

Well, I think it is important for the Government to give reassurances that they have adequately considered the reports of the military links of the company that has leased the port. It really is up to the Government to give those reassurances.

At face value, though, does Labor think there's any problem with this transaction, with the Chinese, the Chinese having control of this port for, you know, the next century?

Well, I think it's important that we examine any long‑term leasing arrangement like this very carefully.

Can I ask you about Taiwan just very quickly? Interestingly, right at a time where you've got mounting tensions in the South China Sea, you've got the Taiwanese leader meeting with the Chinese leadership for the very first time. That said, the Taiwanese leader looks like he's going to lose the next election. My issue with China, which I think is…which I'd love your comment on is it strikes me that China has a view of what its boundaries should be, and they haven't really changed that view for a very long time now, and the ability to sort of settle things down until such time as they have that franchise fulfilled is unlikely. What do other nations do in that situation? The Americans are reacting. Some people think they might be overreacting, but China, I don't think, is going to let this go.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think you're right to point out the historic meeting between President Ma and President Xi in Singapore. I think it certainly has received a lot of attention, particularly from Taiwan. I think the reporting in China hasn't been quite as expansive. And you're asking has the Chinese position on its own territorial claims changed. Well, no. I mean, this nine‑dash line that they see as the ‑ their boundary in the South China Sea is fairly constant. What has changed, of course, is the building program around the islands, atolls, rocky outcrops and so on.


PLIBERSEK: The Chinese say other countries are building too, other countries are, you know, putting oil rigs and other constructed, artificially constructed elements into contested areas. We don't make any judgment about the right of one or another over these territorial claims. We say that they should be determined in accordance to international laws. There are some legal disputes currently afoot. We think that they should be properly determined. But I think there is a…aside from the legal and territorial disputes, there is an issue here of the message that is being projected and I think that it would benefit all of us for a message to be a that turns the temperature down in these disputes rather than exacerbating them.

VAN ONSELEN: One final area - because we're almost out of time - you and Bill Shorten, the Labor Leader, had your tour through the Pacific. What was the purpose for that?

Well, we really wanted to draw attention to the fact that climate change is not a potential future threat for our Pacific neighbours. It's a real and present danger that is washing away islands, that is washing away roads and causeways and homes, that is changing the water table. On islands that have sustained human habitation, they're having their water sources inundated with saltwater, that they're not able to grow the crops ‑

So what do we do about it?

Well, we go to Paris with a more ambitious target than the target that we have, and we act as part of an international community to keep global warming at below two degrees change. And we can't do that, as the biggest per capita emitters of carbon pollution, unless we are prepared to not just change our own behaviour and targets but also amplify the voice of the Pacific nations, these tiny nations that are on the front line of climate change.

KELLY: OK. Well, you want more ambitious targets to the minus 26% to 28% announced by the Government. How much more ambitious will Labor be? And when will we get the Labor announcement?

Well, we've announced two targets already, which is keeping climate change below two degrees and a 50% renewable energy target.

I know that. I know that. But I'm asking about these specific, these specific targets relating to minus 26% to minus 28%.

PLIBERSEK: We'll make our announcements in due course.

But presumably, from what you said, Labor will have more ambitious targets.

PLIBERSEK: We're already more ambitious, Paul.

KELLY: OK, so you are more -

PLIBERSEK: We've got 50% -

KELLY: You are more ambitious.

PLIBERSEK: We've got 50% renewable energy. We've got the two degrees target. We back a price on carbon that actually changes our economy to ensure that ‑

And you don't think there's a risk?

PLIBERSEK: Less pollution.

KELLY: And you don't think there's a political risk doing that?

Yeah, of course there is.

There is.

PLIBERSEK: Of course there's a political risk. We've suffered electorally because of our backing for real action on climate change, but it's the right thing to do, and we'll do the right thing.

Alright, we're out of time. Tanya Plibersek we appreciate your time. You've been very generous with it today on Australian Agenda. Thanks very much.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.