PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
MONDAY, 31 OCTOBER 2016
SUBJECT/S: Andrew Robb’s appointment to Landbridge; Asylum seeker policy.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: My name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. The ministerial code of ethics is the stamp of honesty that a Prime Minister puts on their Government. Compliance with that ministerial code of ethics says everything about the ethical bar that a Government sets for itself.
We've learnt today that although Julie Bishop and Scott Ryan were aware of Andrew Robb's appointment to the Landbridge role two months ago, Malcolm Turnbull has only just found out. We have seen considerable concern within the Government. One senior Defence official was said to be ‘unprintably’ surprised about the decision that Mr Robb has taken.
This raises serious questions for the Turnbull Government. Malcolm Turnbull has to answer why he was only informed today about the fact that Mr Robb has taken this role, shortly after being a key negotiator for the China Free Trade Agreement.
Malcolm Turnbull needs to make absolutely, absolutely clear how he has set about ensuring that Mr Robb doesn't use sensitive information gathered while he was a minister of the crown, in order to benefit himself and his clients.
Malcolm Turnbull needs to come clean as to how he is ensuring that other ministers don't perpetuate a breach of the ministerial code of ethics. It also needs to be made clear whether or not the 18-month exclusion period begins at the point at which Andrew Robb ceased being Minister for Trade, or whether it begins at the point which he ceased to be Special Envoy for Trade.
Labor takes these issues very seriously, and they go to the heart of Malcolm Turnbull's approach to ethical Government. If he's serious about maintaining a high standards of ethics in his Government, he needs to come clean and outline very specifically how he's handling this extraordinary appointment that Andrew Robb has stepped into. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Mr Robb's announced his other jobs that he has got over the last six months on his website. Is that where he should have done it?
LEIGH: It's surprising that this job has only come to light months after it was announced. Surprising too that the Prime Minister wasn't informed about it. Given the 18-month exclusion period, you would expect that Andrew Robb would have kept Malcolm Turnbull informed of this.
It's not good enough for Malcolm Turnbull and other ministerial colleagues like Julie Bishop just to wave it off, and say that Andrew Robb has a right to hang out his shingle doing whatever he likes to earn a shilling. This raises serious questions about the ethical standard of this Government. This is a Government which has overseen the removal of the first Treasury head since Federation; which has seen the removal of the Solicitor-General because the Attorney-General misled Parliament. Go figure on that one. A Government which has been using dodgy data to beat up on welfare recipients over the last few days. The ethical standards of the Turnbull government are under question and Australians demand answers.
JOURNALIST: Dr Leigh, are there any concrete consequences that Mr Robb could face here? I mean, are there any penalties for a breach of these standards? Can the privileges committee call the former minister? What happens next?
LEIGH: You're right to point to that issue. This is a code of conduct which is imposed by the Prime Minister and is upheld by the Prime Minister. So it's directly a question for Malcolm Turnbull. How he'll ensure the ethical standards of his Government. How he'll call Andrew Robb to heel and make sure these standards are kept up. Let's be very clear, Andrew Robb had access to some extremely sensitive data during his period as Trade Minister, during his period as a cabinet minister. And it's absolutely imperative that Australians know that that sensitive data acquired in the public interest isn't being used for private interests.
JOURNALIST: Should he step down from this position?
LEIGH: Malcolm Turnbull needs to answer the questions that Labor has asked. Malcolm Turnbull needs to satisfy Australians that this position doesn't generate a conflict of interest, or a breach of the code. Let's be clear - this is not about China in particular. This would apply to any country that Australia had dealings with, and from which Australians are holding confidential information.
JOURNALIST: Can you think of any instances where Mr Robb as Trade Minister would have come into official contact with Landbridge?
LEIGH: The information would have flowed freely. And certainly the 99-year lease over the port of Darwin was an issue which engaged all ministers at the time. It's clear that Andrew Robb would've been involved in those conversations and it's clear Andrew Robb held sensitive information, as he should've, as a Cabinet Minister. But Australians today I suspect are concerned that Malcolm Turnbull's ethical standards aren't being met.
JOURNALIST: Should there be some teeth added to the ethical standards? Should there be an ethics commissioner or something like that? Queensland introduced one a while ago where ministers and ex ministers could seek advice from a commissioner regarding their shareholdings or their jobs and all sorts of other issues. Is there scope for something like that?
LEIGH: We can always have conversations about how to make the systems work better. In the end, they're really going to turn on the Prime Minister of the day; the Prime Minister's ability to uphold the ethical standards. Malcolm Turnbull has the capacity to do that. But all he's doing at the moment is giving Australians an airy wave of his hand, saying, ‘nothing to see here, move along, please, move along’. Instead what Malcolm Turnbull needs to do is to ask the hard questions. Australians, I suspect, will be pretty surprised that Malcolm Turnbull hasn't known about this until today. That Julie Bishop knew about two months ago and didn't inform Malcolm Turnbull. And that this position generates the potential for a conflict of interest.
JOURNALIST: On immigration policy if we may, I understand you need to see the new legislation before having an official position. Does Labor support it in principle or oppose the idea of banning asylum seekers for life.
LEIGH: This is not about ensuring third country resettlement. It's all about internal politics within the Liberal Party. Within the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull is again doing the bidding of the far right of his party and of One Nation. One Nation have expressed their delight at this. Reclaim Australia have expressed their delight. Any moment now, Australians are expecting Malcolm Turnbull to unzip his suit and Tony Abbott to step out from inside. Frankly, this is the extreme wing of the Liberal Party driving policy, not in the national interest but in order to sow discord and division.
JOURNALIST: So you would oppose the idea of banning people who arrive by boat for life?
LEIGH: We scrutinise the legislation when we see it. We don't scrutinise bizarre press conferences from ministers who are clearly doing the bidding of One Nation.
JOURNALIST: This an extreme position?
LEIGH: This is clearly a Government playing partisan politics. A Government looking to score political points from refugees rather than to make sure they deal with the problem facing them. In Manus and Nauru, there are around 800 people in each of those facilities who have been languishing there for over 3 years. Rather than jumping to the tune of One Nation, the Government should get on and find third-country resettlement solutions for those people.
JOURNALIST: So it sounds like you think the law would go too far?
LEIGH: It sounds like I would like to see a law before I tell you what Labor's position is on it. Right now I can tell you that Australians are looking at this decision, and seeing a Prime Minister who is increasingly shrinking into the role. A Prime Minister who's become a hand puppet of One Nation rather than a genuine unifying Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Just back on Landbridge, would it be Labor policy to review that 99-year lease of the port of Darwin, given all the security concerns? Is that something a Labor Government would do?
LEIGH: I'm not sure to the extent that it's possible to review that lease. Certainly we were concerned when it was sent through in a kind of tick and flick approach. We would have liked to see considerably greater scrutiny and indeed the appointment of David Irvine to the Foreign Investment Review Board, demonstrated that the Government itself was concerned about the procedures that they followed through the Landbridge lease.
JOURNALIST: Back to the immigration policy. You say this is about the Liberal Party and divide within their party. What about Labor? Do you think this will create a divide as well you look through the legislation and work out whether you will or won't support?
LEIGH: We'll wait until we see that legislation. Certainly I think that for the Liberal Party, they need to get on with governing the country. You know, this is a Government which is great at dog whistling, terrific at blaming former Governments - but hopeless at actually getting on and doing things. We've seen the inept bungling of the Attorney-General misleading Parliament and forcing the resignation of the Solicitor-General. We've seen the approach of the social services minister, Christian Porter, using dodgy data to try and attack welfare recipients. Rather than playing political games, they should just get on with running the country. One of the questions that Labor will have, what is the Solicitor-General's view on this? And the Government's answer will have to be, well we can't tell you, because we forced him to resign last week.
JOURNALIST: At what point does an idea become too extreme for you to not need to look at the legislation? Isn't that a bit of get out of jail card by saying we need to look at it. At some time you need a viewpoint to say this is too extreme. Where is that line drawn? When do we get to that point?
LEIGH: It's a fascinating philosophical question, happy to discuss it over a coffee one day. It's perfectly reasonable for Labor to say that we'll scrutinise the legislation when we see it. But we will also call out divisive dog-whistling when we see it from this Government
JOURNALIST: Personal view? What do you think should happen to asylum seekers when they arrive? Should they be allowed at some point to come back to Australia on a visa?
LEIGH: I want to see third country resettlement. I want to see the people in Manus and Nauru resettled. We had in April, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court say that the detention of those asylum seekers was unconstitutional. We had a raft of reports on the mistreatment of people in Nauru. We know that there are serious challenges there. This bill won't resettle a single refugee. It won't save an additional dollar for the taxpayer. It won't create a single job for Australians and communities that are struggling with underemployment. It's just a political tactic from a desperate Government driven by George Christensen, Reclaim Australia and One Nation.
JOURNALIST: Resettlement aside, do you think that asylum seekers that arrive by boat should at some point be able to come to Australia on any type of visa?
LEIGH: You know the way that the Refugee Resettlement Agreement works. You know that position has been held for the last three years. I'm sure you can also tell when a desperate Prime Minister is choosing to use an issue to make political capital rather than to actually find a constructive solution.
JOURNALIST: But we're asking about the concept of never allowing some of these refugees into Australia, even on a tourist visa. Do you think that goes too far?
LEIGH: We'll scrutinise the legislation when it comes to us. We've held a consistent position on the Refugee Resettlement Agreement since 2013. Labor wants to find solutions. We don't want to simply see this partisan politicking, an attempt to try and stir up the fear and anguish in the Australian community that we've seen sown in countries from France, to Austria, to the United States. Racial hate-mongering should not be part of the Australian way of life. We need to ensure that we have solutions here, not simply attacking refugees.
JOURNALIST: Legislation aside, do you think that morally and ethically asylum seekers should be allowed to come back to Australia at some point?
LEIGH: I'm strongly of the view that we need to make sure that we have unifying policies in Australia. What Malcolm Turnbull is doing now is shrinking into the role of Prime Minister. He's doing the bidding of One Nation and is using this issue not in order to find a constructive solution, but simply in order to further his own narrow political ends within the Liberal Party. When will Malcolm Turnbull stop governing for the happiness of the far right of his party, and start focusing on the wellbeing of all Australians?
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