By Tanya Plibersek

30 November 2020



SUBJECTS: China; International students; Getting Australians home.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training. She actually was previously the foreign affairs spokesperson for the Labor Party, and she joins us now Welcome to the program. 
KARVELAS: Are you shocked by this fabricated post by China?
PLIBERSEK: I think it is deeply troubling and really abhorrent. It’s an insult to our serving men and women, those who are currently serving, those who have served previously. It's just disgraceful and it ought to be taken down and we should get an apology for it.
KARVELAS: Okay, we should get an apology for it, but if we do not get an apology, what do we do?
PLIBERSEK: I do not think it's particularly productive for people just to freelance on television shows like this. This is something that ought to be handled Prime Minister to President. Foreign Minister to Foreign Minister. And a little bit less from various Government backbenchers, and little bit more from the Foreign Minister. A little bit more diplomacy. And I think it’s very clear that Labor and Liberal, Government and opposition, are on unity ticket in saying this is completely unacceptable – and the Chinese Government ought to take down the tweet, and there should be an apology to our serving men and women for what is implied here.
KARVELAS: Twitter hasn't taken it down, Michael Sukkar was critical of that, a Government frontbencher critical of Twitter not pulling it down. What's Twitter's responsibility here?
PLIBERSEK: It'd be great if Twitter did it, but I think the real responsibility lies with the Chinese Government official who has posted this extremely offensive image.
KARVELAS: Is it a surprise, given how badly the relationship has deteriorated? I mean have you seen it worse? 
PLIBERSEK: I haven't seen the relationship in a worse position in my time in Parliament. I think it's fair to say that it's the worst it’s been in some time - and it is absolutely vital that we get it back on track. China remains our largest trading partner and we have got many thousands and thousands of jobs that rely on us getting the relationship back on track. But we can't get the relationship back on track simply by caving in to anything that China suggests we do. We need to redouble our diplomatic efforts to come to some understanding with China. We're not the only country that is experiencing this increased assertiveness from China. We need to work with other countries in our region to make sure that we reiterate that a rules based global order suits all of us, and that we can't be expected to respond to this sort of heavy handedness.
KARVELAS: Is Beijing being hypocritical, given its own widespread human rights abuses?
PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to start commenting on that. I think part of the problem is that there are too many people who don't have responsibility for foreign affairs, for diplomacy, who are just saying anything that pops into their heads. We need this relationship to be reset at the level of our Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping. That's where the dialogue has to be. Having every Tom, Dick, and Harry running around freelancing on foreign affairs is actually not helpful to that.
KARVELAS: Does Labor acknowledge that given this kind of behaviour from Beijing, that managing that China relationship is extremely difficult for the Government and would be extremely difficult for a Labor government?
PLIBERSEK: It's a complex task. But other nations in our region and around the world are also faced with increased assertiveness from China. And we need to accept that we will have to work together with them to reiterate that a global rules based order suits all of us, and we need to get the relationship back on track. We really do have thousands of jobs – and to an extent our own economic recovery – bound up with trying to get things back on track. That needs more diplomacy, it needs more back channels, it needs more subtle and patient work. And like I say, a bit less freelancing from the backbench. 
KARVELAS: Do you welcome the return of international students to Australia?
PLIBERSEK: Well I do – I'm looking forward to the return of international students to Australia. It's our fourth largest export earner – international education – and responsible for about 260,000 jobs in Australia before Covid-19. But it should come after we have safely returned Australians to Australia. We've now got well over 36,000 Australians stuck overseas. The Prime Minister promised they would be home by Christmas. A big part of the constituent work in my office at the moment are really distressed parents worried about their sons and daughters, people worried about their spouse or brother or sister or child, who is stuck overseas. Some have been stuck overseas for months. They've been trying to get home for months. They have bought multiple air tickets trying to get home. Some have gone over for jobs. Those jobs have been lost because of Covid-19, their visas are expiring, the places they are renting they are being thrown out of. People are desperate. In fact, the number of Australians who are desperate to return home, who are categorised in that vulnerable category, has actually doubled from about 4000 to about 8000 recently. I wouldn't be very surprised if people who have got relatives stuck overseas, or Australians who are stuck overseas themselves, are looking at this trial and thinking 'well if the Prime Minister can manage this, why can't he manage to get me home?' – especially when he can also manage to fly Mathias Cormann around Europe at $4000 an hour. Apparently it's possible to get the RAAF to help with that, but not possible for them to get Australians home.
KARVELAS: So does that mean you think that that trial should be paused until Australians take those places in terms of the order of how this works?
PLIBERSEK: I think the first responsibility for the Federal Government should be getting Australians who are stuck overseas and desperate to get home – it should be getting them home. Think about what the Federal Government is responsible for in the Covid-19 response. They're responsible for getting Australians home; for the tracing app that was supposed to help us discover outbreaks and trace them; and for aged care. They have failed in all three areas of their responsibility. Thank goodness we have had state governments who've managed the health response in the way that they have. But getting Australians home is clearly a responsibility of the Federal Government. And if I were an Australian who's got a kid who I wanted to have home for Christmas, or a parent I wanted home for Christmas, and I saw the Government doing this, I would be scratching my head.
KARVELAS: Okay, but the states have obviously a role here too. They have imposed caps, the Federal Government has been working with the states. Should the Federal Government just override those caps? Like how should they manage it? I know you've previously suggested, the Labor Party that is, that different sites should be found. But ultimately it is, we are a federation, you've got to work with the states, don't you?
PLIBERSEK: Yes you have to work with them, and that's the key. Jane Halton has given the Prime Minister a suggestion about alternate ways people can be brought home, and it would be a good start to listen to the advice that he’s already being provided by his own bureaucrats on this issue.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.
PLIBERSEK: Thank you Patricia.