THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
AUSTRALIAN AGENDA, SKY NEWS
SUNDAY, 17 AUGUST 2014
Subject/s: Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Japan, China, Federal Budget
PETER VAN ONSELEN, INTERVIEWER: We are joined now by the Deputy Labor Leader and shadow Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek. Thanks for being here.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Pleasure.
VAN ONSELEN: The whole issue around foreign affairs and national security, the opinion polls, and I dont mean to bring it to that level, they do always tell us that the Coalition are well-respected by voters to handle these issues. Are you worried as a political party that this will distract from the strong success from Labor at the moment in terms of rebutting the Budget and get the Coalition on the firm policy ground the voters appreciate its efforts on?
PLIBERSEK: Well Id never be worried about a national security issue on the basis of what the polling told me, Ill make a decision and Labor will always make a decision based on whats in the national interest. So I think well talk in a minute about Iraq and Ukraine and some of these issues that are running at the moment, but if you take the issue of national security weve been presented recently with a second tranche of national security changes, and weve said that on those proposed legislative changes we need to see some legislation, that we are happy to support greater powers for our national security agencies if they come with stronger safeguards and stronger oversight. Its also important to recognise that our threat assessment hasnt changed since the September 11 attacks in New York, there are indications that we need to be on heightened vigilance because of, in particular, whats happening in Syria and Iraq, but we need to take that in a balanced way.
VAN ONSLEN: It sounds like you think the Government might be over-dramatising the extent of the problem.
PLIBERSEK: No Im not suggesting that, I just think that its important to make decisions based on the facts, based on the information that we have, and that applies to any proposed changes to legislation as well. We need to see the legislation when its drafted as well. I think it was a little odd to make an announcement, for example, about metadata and then to say that theres no clear timetable for even when that legislation would come before the parliament or when we could even see draft legislation. I think the other important thing to say is that the Government have been talking tough on terrorism but in the last few months two well one convicted terrorist, someone who has spent time in jail in Australia for terrorism-related offences, has walked out of the country, and we hear a report that theres a suggestion that a second young man has also left Australia using his brothers passport just recently, so its important if youre going to talk tough on these things that youre going to actually have in place the systems that would prevent Australians who have been convicted or suspected of, or on watch for terrorism-related offences, from walking out of the country and joining fights overseas.
PAUL KELLY, INTERVIEWER: Tony Abbott said this week that the new Islamic State in Syria and Iraq needs to be defeated. Is that Labors position?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think they certainly need to be stopped. I think whether you could claim that you have defeated an organisation that has no structure, no internal communications, no hierarchical organisation, I dont know quite how you would determine that the organisation had been defeated, and one of the problems with these organisations is that they reform and change, they are factionalised, they are not clearly under any chain of command. So its not like one army fighting another army, its the Iraqi forces, the standing Iraqi army, fighting an organisation that is changing in its character and make-up all the time. One of the critical elements I think is what happens with the Sunni tribes now who were initially making way, frankly, and in some cases even supporting IS coming through, sweeping through Syria into northern Iraq. With the change in the Iraqi Government, with some strong suggestions that there will be a greater place for Sunni Iraqis in the decision-making structures of Iraq theres been a couple of Sunni tribal leaders now saying we can defeat IS any time we want, I mean I dont know how much credit you give that, but they are saying a lot of these people are foreign fighters, we can take them on. And I think the indications are that if the Sunni tribal areas, tribal leaders, did say that they would fight off an IS advance, I think that would really change the situation on the ground.
KELLY: Given that theres going to be a new government formed in Baghdad now, to what extend do you think its desirable for the United States to take whatever action is required to stop the Islamic State?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think its very important for the United States to support the Iraqi Government in doing that. Its clear we have a moral obligation and responsibility to support the people of Iraq to return to a situation of a peaceful country, I think our involvement in the earlier Iraq wars and the United States involvement in the earlier Iraq wars gives us a special responsibility and a special relationship there. But it is important for the government of Iraq to lead this process.
KELLY: Sure, I guess the question is then how we exercise the responsibility you just talked about, we are involved in humanitarian efforts which both sides support, would Labor be prepared to contemplate some form of military action in support of the United States.
PLIBERSEK: Well weve been very supportive of the humanitarian action as you say, I would draw attention to the fact that our aid to Iraq last calendar year was $7.7 million and that went to zero in the last federal budget, so I am pleased that there is humanitarian assistance now because it is obviously so desperately needed, I think its unlikely, all the indications are that its unlikely that the Americans are even thinking about putting combat troops on the ground. President Obamas approach to intervention in other countries was pretty clearly laid out at that West Point speech, and the American commentators and American officials seem to be saying its unlikely that theyll put, as they say, boots on the ground. So I think that its unlikely that Australia is asked to provide that kind of support. If we are asked to provide that kind of support we would look at the legal basis for any intervention. Australia has always been a supporter for example of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, Gareth Evans was a great proponent of that, where governments are unable to protect their civilians or unwilling to protect their civilians the international community does have a responsibility to protect those civilians. But the problem with the Iraq wars were they were done without any international sanction and the consequences were felt for some long time after that, I think you could still say that the consequences are being felt.
KELLY: I take it from that answer that what it suggest to me is that Labor is flexible, that if youve talked about looking at what might be the international foundation for intervention, looking at the responsibility to protect doctrine that is, is it correct to say that Labor doesnt rule out a military role for Australia?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think its very unlikely, extremely unlikely, so were talking very hypothetically here, and I dont think its productive to talk too hypothetically, but if you were seeing acts of genocide I dont think Labor would be saying we stand back and allow those acts of genocide to continue.
VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you about how you think weve gotten to this point, do you think the international community has been too slow to react, I mean it strikes me that when you look at it, that what was originally happening in Syria was that it was a largely moderate-led rebellion against a dictatorial leader which has morphed into the origins of the support-base for ISIS and the radical jihadists, and it wasnt always like that.
PLIBERSEK: I think you can very easily make that argument, but the question of what should we have done, when should we have done it, I think theyre much more difficult questions to answer.
VAN ONSELEN: The argument is that the international community could have got behind the rebels in the situation in Syria earlier, before they were radicalised.
PLIBERSEK: Well I dont know that you could even say that the rebels have been radicalised, I think there are still a number of groups that are fighting the Assad regime, and theyre also fighting the elements that, extremist jihadist elements that have come, some from Syria but many from other parts of the Middle East and indeed internationally have been attracted to this fight in Syria. I dont think theres any simple time or point of intervention that you can say, if only we had done X, if only we had armed
KELLY: Thats what Hillary Clinton has said, I mean shes come out very publicly, with a very strong critique of President Obama saying that he got it wrong, that there should have been an intervention at a much earlier stage to support the moderate rebels.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think its very easy to talk counterfactuals but its very difficult to know. I think that there is an argument that if the anti-Assad forces had been supported earlier on there would have been less room for extremist jihadist groups to come to Syria and fight and grow stronger, but I dont think its as easier to assert that as Hillary Clinton is very certain of it, I guess Im less certain of it.
VAN ONSELEN: Do you think that the existing nation-state boundaries which, lets be honest, were colonially divvied-up with minimal regard to the ethnic divisions within the Middle East, are they maintainable? Youve got a push for a Kurdish state that incurs on Turkey potentially, although the tensions there seem to have dissipated because of the greater concerns around ISIS. States like Iraq are not formed in a way that have an understanding of the ethnic divisions within the Middle East. Should we be looking to adjust the nation-state boundaries do you think?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think if we start looking to adjust nation-state boundaries well see conflict for decades to come. I think its possible to argue that the boundaries are not natural boundaries in some cases, but you cant rewrite history, you have to deal with the present as it is, and if we go to a situation of, there are many people saying that the whole borders of the Middle East will be redrawn over the next decades. My fear if that comes to pass is that the fighting will be ongoing for those decades. It wont be a situation where people are sitting around a conference table somewhere making conciliatory decisions about where the borders should be, theyll be determined by fighting.
VAN ONSELEN: And presumably if you were going to go down that path of reshaping nation-state boundaries, it probably empowers an organisation like ISIS that is looking for a caliphate state based around Islam.
PLIBERSEK: Well its just a horrendous thought that there would be a country run by an organisation like ISIS, so the reports not only of religious and ethnic minorities that are going on, efforts to wipe out whole communities, apparently they issues a fatwa very soon after moving into northern Iraq that more than 4 million women living in the area that they controlled would have to undergo female genital mutilation, theres reports of women being stoned to death for adultery, theres reports of every town they sweep through theyre closing hairdressing salons and killing people who resist because it doesnt fit in with their ideology. Its not just the people who get killed in the fighting its what comes after that. But this is what we were talking about earlier, the position of the Sunni tribal leaders. One of the arguments is that with a more inclusive government in Baghdad and with the horrendous oppression and violence that ISIS brings with them when they move into an area, that you will have Iraqis saying that we dont want to live in this sort of, under this sort of regime. The difficulty is that youve got now I think about 50 to 80 000 people fighting and theyve captured so many weapons and so many resources along the way. They will be tough to dislodge.
KELLY: Do you recognise or do you accept that there is a security issue as far as Australia is concerned, in the emergence of these forces?
PLIBERSEK: Of course there is, and I think its, I think thats been true really, well its been true for some time but Id say Id put it at the upswing of hostilities in Syria, really would be the time that you would start to say that we need to be more alert to the potential for Australians who are fighting overseas coming back radicalised, and the more recent reports are that Australians who are involved in this internet chatter are being told you dont have to come here, why dont you plan something at home? I mean both of these things are of extreme concern. What I would say is that our alert is not higher than its been since September 11, and we need to balance those two things, we need to have, if we have additional powers for our intelligence and security agencies, we need to have additional oversight and transparency and accountability to go with that.
KELLY: Ok, well how do we balance the point you have just raised, the domestic security point, with our foreign and international security policy, that is to what extent does military activity in the Middle East, military commitments in the Middle East, still remain a reasonably significant priority for Australia, or do you think we should shun those sorts of options, concentrate more on our own region, concern about the effect that any military action in the region might have on the domestic situation at home.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think theyre really two separate questions. Our foreign policy in Australia has to be about Australias best interests, and our most important engagement I believe remains in our region, our priority needs to be fixing our relationship with Indonesia, it needs to be working with both China and Japan to have a peaceful balance between both those nations in our region, but we cant turn our backs on these large conflicts in other parts of the world, our engagement has to be a thoughtful engagement though, and I dont believe our participation in previous US-led invasions in Iraq met that test, I dont believe it was in Australias interest and I dont believe that it was a thoughtful engagement.
KELLY: But do you accept what the Prime Minister has said, that is hes -
PLIBERSEK: - I rarely accept what the Prime Minister says Paul
KELLY: Well I mean essentially what hes said, hes said this very directly, any action now in Iraq has got no parallel now with the 2003 invasion, thats what hes said.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think any support for humanitarian intervention is not the same thing as happened with earlier conflicts, but we need to be cautious in our involvement. Humanitarian assistance to people facing genocide obviously we support, Australian involvement and support for that.
KELLY: As far as Im concerned, do you draw a red line there and say, only humanitarian involvement or not?
PLIBERSEK: No I said very clearly earlier that if a population is facing genocide and if there is a legal basis for intervention such as the responsibility to protect the reason were on the Security Council, Paul, is that Labor has always believed that our multilateral institutions, whatever their faults and flaws, are the best way to deal with international conflicts. The reason we argued so hard to be on the Security Council against Tony Abbotts wishes, against Julie Bishops wishes, they said it was a waste of time and a waste of money, was so that we could engage in international action. We saw the usefulness of that with MH17 and the Security Council resolution that helped Australians get access to the site and retrieve Australian remains from the site. So of course we believe in multilateral institutions and that countries acting together have a responsibility to keep the peace, assist populations like the minorities that have been persecuted in Iraq, but it has to be done thoughtfully and it has to be done with a legal basis.
VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you about the Labor position on Palestine and Israel, because it strikes me that there are quite strong differing views between, if you like, a section of Melbourne Labor versus Sydney Labor. Youve got people like yourself and Anthony Albanese and certainly Doug Cameron who Ive spoken to about this issue as well, and then youve got Michael Danby, Stephen Conroy, Richard Marles and even to an extent Bill Shorten who have, to an extent, a different view. How does Labor come to a policy on this issue, this difficult issue, without dividing itself?
PLIBERSEK: Ill talk about that in just one second. The final think I wanted to say about Iraq is that we also need to have a moral and intellectual look at, why intervene in Iraq, why not Syria, how do we have a logical approach that takes in both of these crisis areas. On Israel and Palestine, our approach has always been a two-state solution where Israel can live behind secure, internationally recognised borders and the Palestinians have a viable state of their own. They have every right to expect a viable state where they provide their own security, where their economy is strong, and where they are able to support their people, see employment, and all of the ordinary things that citizens of any country have a right to expect, a decent school system, a health system, an economy thats growing. We are appalled by the outbreak of conflict in Gaza. Of course Hamas bears a great deal of responsibility for the firing of around 3000 rockets we believe so far, but the number of civilian deaths, 1900 or so deaths in Gaza, the vast majority of them civilians, hundreds of them children, well over 400 children dying, is something that the international community cannot accept or tolerate.
KELLY: I just wanted to go now to Asia. Obviously the China-Japan relationship here and the tensions involved are critical, not so long ago we had a visit from the Japanese Prime Minister Abe, with a lot of security initiatives announced, can I just clarify Labors position here, is Labor supportive of the deepening security relationship between Australia and Japan or do you have concerns about that?
PLIBERSEK: Well were supportive of improvements in the friendships of any of our neighbours. What Id say is an improved relationship with Japan, a closer and deeper relationship with Japan, shouldnt be at the expense of a close and deep relationship with China. Whats in Australias interest is not to be picking sides or elevating one friendship above another, but to have good relations with both.
KELLY: Do you think that were doing that, I mean do you think that theres any danger were doing that?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think that Tony Abbotts language on his visit to Japan where he called Japan our best friend in Asia wasnt well chosen. I think its important for us to have good friendships with all of our neighbours.
KELLY: Can I just clarify, I mean, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has reinterpreted the constitution to give much more autonomy to the Japanese defence forces, the Chinese are extremely upset about that, Tony Abbott has supported the constitutional reinterpretation, whats Labors view on that?
PLIBERSEK: Well I note that its not been very popular domestically in Japan, and the Japanese government realised it wasnt very popular and didnt seek to take the decision to the Japanese people. Look, I think its, Im not worried by the constitutional reinterpretation. What I am worried about is the increasing, well the rhetoric from both Japan and China about one another, and I think Australias role in this should be saying to both countries, tone it down fellas, we have an opportunity as a very long-standing friend of China, weve got over four decades of good strong diplomatic relations, Bob Hawkes about to make his 100th visit to China for example, those person-to-person relations are very strong, weve put a lot of effort into our relationship with China. The same is true of Japan, from particularly the early 1950s weve put a great deal of effort, first on the trade front, but our diplomatic relations again are very strong. There is no need for us to get caught between two countries with increasingly nationalistic rhetoric.
KELLY: Well just on that point, just to finish up on this point, are you concerned at all that there is in the United States and Japanese approach to China a sense of containment, are you worried that theres a containment element in that American-Japanese approach.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think that the United States would say that theyre not interested in containing China, but I think that China may feel that they are, and there is a lot of dialogue between the United States and China, theres a lot of country-to-country meetings, a whole range of security and trade and other levels, I think its important for China and the United States to make a greater effort to understand one another.
KELLY: But are you concerned that the current settings of America, Japan and Australia vis--vis China?
PLIBERSEK: Im concerned that there is room for misunderstanding and our best interests are served by saying very clearly to China, and to Japan, and to the United States, that it is not in Australias interests or in the interests of our broader region to see any increase in tension.
VAN ONSELEN: Surely were going to talk a lot more about the Budget with John Hewson and Geoff Gallop, but before doing that I want to ask you about some of the Budget issues. Joe Hockey obviously hasnt had a great week, hes ended it with an apology, but getting to the actual issue, the indexing of fuel excise, whats wrong with the principle of it, if nothing else, simply as an environmental measure whereby taxing fuel greater is akin in a sense to a carbon tax, isnt it?
PLIBERSEK: Well thats what Tony Abbott said to President Obama, he said hes got his own carbon tax and its on petrol. Well the difficulty is that poor people spend a greater proportion of their income on transport costs than wealthier people, and more particularly if you take a step back, Tony Abbott came into government saying not cuts to health, no cuts to education, no change to pensions, no new taxes. And this is clearly a new tax.
VAN ONSELEN: Wasnt the bigger error there to make that commitment rather than to then change the indexation subsequently? He deserves to wear political pain for the broken promise, sure, but isnt he better off to go down that path for the sake of reindexing it, something that John Howard never should have changed?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think its a bit rich to say, putting aside the fact that he made this clear, written-in-blood promise more than once, including on the night before the election no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no change to pensions, no new taxes, no surprises, no excuses government, I dont think you can really just say, well setting that aside lets talk about, you know, what he shouldnt have promised, he shouldnt have promised that, well deal with the issue on its merits.
VAN ONSELEN: There are reports today that the Government is looking to backflip on a few differenet budget measures, the linking of the mining tax, some of the issues around university with student repayment rates for HECS and so forth, Labor would welcome those changes assuming that we see Government policy to announce the same.
PLIBERSEK: They should just go back to the drawing board. I mean this is a stinking budget. Its a stinking budget because it breaks so many promises and because its so profoundly unfair. Theyre talking about tinkering at the edges. This is a budget that outsources all of the savings to the states and territories, so $80 billion cut from health and education, the federal government is not making those savings, the states and territories will have to work out how to make those savings, it makes a number of cuts and changes including to health and education and pensions, but doesnt really improve the budget bottom line because all of those cuts are going to pay for the pet projects of the Prime Minister, so theres paid parental leave, theres Direct Action that nobody really thinks will work, and then theres the revenue that theyve given up, so theyve given up revenue from the Minerals Resources Rent Tax, theyve given up revenue from carbon pricing, theyve given up revenue from the business tax avoidance measures, theyve knocked back proposals to change high-income superannuation. So theyre giving away potential savings, theyre spending money on things that nobody really thinks are a priority, and then theyre outsourcing half the cuts to the states and territories for very little improvement in the bottom line. The $7 GP co-payment that is such a hard sell, thats no going back into the health budget, thats going into the future medical research, and I think most people dont really believe thats going to benefit them anytime soon.
KELLY: Isnt Labor in trouble here though because there are $5 billion worth of cuts which you accepted in government which youve now reneged on, so isnt there now a question about Labors real motives?
PLIBERSEK: Well weve agreed to a number of the saves proposed in this budget, weve agreed to $3 billion of them already, things like means-testing on some of the benefits
KELLY: But youve changed your mind on $5 billion worth of Labor cuts.
PLIBERSEK: Ill give you an example. We said we would spend some of the higher education funding that we had massively increased while we were in government, wed spend some of that on primary schools and high schools, because we know that kids arent going to get into university if theyre left behind in primary school. Theres a difference between moving spending within the education portfolio from higher education into primary schools and high schools, compared to just cutting higher education and introducing $100 000, $200 000 university degrees for nurses and teachers. Theres a big difference to the approach that this government has taken, which puts the greatest cost of the budget onto the poorest people. Another example of the unfairness of this budget, is the largest single cut - $7.6 billion comes from the worlds poorest people, 1 dollar in every 5 which is saved in this budget, so weve had $7.7 million cut to country aid in Iraq, theyre now talking about putting some of that money back, money cut from the Palestinian Territories now having to put some of that back. You cant look at any of these measures on their own without understanding that the greatest burden is carried by the poorest people when it comes to this budget.
VAN ONSELEN: Tanya Plibersek, as always we appreciate your time on Australian Agenda, thanks very much.
PLIBERSEK: Its a pleasure, thanks.