TRANSCRIPT - Breaking Politics - Monday, 24 March 2014







SUBJECT/S: Manus Island detention centre riot inquiries and Regional Resettlement Program; Labor minority government in South Australia; Paul Howes’ career; Australia becoming a Republic.

CHRIS HAMMER: The Papua New Guinean Government is looking to stymie a human rights into conditions at the Manus Island detention centre. This follows a tour of the centre last Friday by journalists led by the head of the inquiry. The Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, has defended the decision, saying it is a matter for the PNG Government. Well joining me to discuss this and other issues is Andrew Laming, Liberal Member for Bowman in Queensland and Andrew Leigh, the Labor Member for Fraser in the ACT, also Shadow Assistant Treasurer.

Andrew Leigh, to you first, Scott Morrison is right isn't he, this is purely a matter for the PNG Government?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: It's important that the Australian Government works constructively with the PNG Government and part of the refugee resettlement agreement was always that resettlement would occur as speedily as possible. What I'm concerned about is Minister Morrison's slowness to engage with Papua New Guinea; the fact that we know that he only spoke face to face with his PNG counterpart less than a month ago and the Government hasn't put resettlement at the top of its agenda. The events in the detention centre with the tragic death of an asylum seeker have led Labor to call for an independent inquiry and for a senate inquiry, both of which are now underway and it's really incumbent on the Government to begin that resettlement process as quickly as possible.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, surely an investigation into the events of Manus Island are required?

ANDREW LAMING: There will definitely be investigations there occurring but I also respect Papua New Guinea's right to determine the kind of investigation that it holds. I've said before that Australia, by virtue of setting up this arrangement owes some sort of informal interest and responsibility here, even though we acknowledge it's completely within the borders and completely run by PNG itself. That is a rule of support that they seek but what they do within their own geography, their jurisdictional boundaries and their constitution is completely up to PNG.

HAMMER: Okay. Now, part of the agreement is resettling people who are found to be genuine refugees. Now that seems to be falling to bits to an extent, with PNG saying they won't take all those refugees and now there's a scramble on to find other Pacific countries to take refugees. So, Andrew Leigh, to you first. This was Labor's policy to begin with. It's starting to unravel isn't it?

LEIGH: It's vital that the Government focuses on making this work because we need that resettlement to occur for that resettlement agreement to stay in place and that resettlement agreement is the main factor in reducing the number of boat arrivals and reducing the number of drownings at sea. That was always why Labor put this into place, to stop people drowning at sea. If the Abbott Government doesn't work more effectively with the PNG Government then I've got concerns about the ongoing viability of the resettlement agreement. I'm also worried about the conditions inside the detention centre; the overcrowding, the riots we've seen recently. I don't feel as though the Abbott Government has given it sufficient attention. They've done very well with sloganeering in immigration but this is about the hard work of public policy to make this effective.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, isn't this evidence that the Government in general, Scott Morrison in particular, hasn't run the relationships with the PNG Government that well so it's saying, hang on, we're only going to resettle some of these people?

LAMING: You can see that the urgent crowding out the important when Kevin Rudd rushed to get that signature on paper, Julia Gillard in fact to set up the camp on Manus. The hardest decisions are always about where to resettle or repatriate -

HAMMER: Hang on, you can't blame Labor for what's happening now?

LAMING: Oh, you certainly can blame them for a lack of agreement on where successfully identified refugees are placed. It's always the hardest decision to make. There is some history of regional players getting together to solve this problems and you can see that it was probably by Labor, left as the great unanswered question.

HAMMER: If they can't be resettled in PNG, where should they be resettled? Where in the Pacific?

LAMING: Clearly as we know there haven't been any determinations at all yet at Manus. I think that's a concern for all Australians. No one would wish long term detention who need to be processed. But when they are resettled PNG will have a key role, we know, because they're actually the domestic nation doing the processing but numbers haven't been decided. They'll be hard discussions between regional neighbours to find solutions. I'm optimistic that in the past, there are good hearted countries in the region and we'll be calling on them again I suspect.

HAMMER: If we can move onto the South Australian election. Now there'll be a Labor Government for another four years. Andrew Leigh, is this a poison chalice given that Labor's primary vote was so low, something like 30.8 per cent? It's in minority government. Isn't it a poisoned chalice?

LEIGH: I congratulate Jay Weatherill on his win. When Labor has the opportunity to form government in a stable manner we should do so and this appears a stable government going into the future. I've been a little disappointed to see the sort of petulance from people like Christopher Pyne who I think ought to be playing a more statesperson-like role rather than just engaging in all of the sledging of the now successful Weatherill Government.

HAMMER: But very difficult for Labor to claim a mandate there surely?

LEIGH: Forming government is about getting a majority of seats on the floor of parliament. Labor has successfully done that. What we need now is the for the Federal Government to step out of being just a bunch of Coalition barrackers to being the national government for all Australians, willing to work with states and territories regardless of the political complexion of their governments.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, I saw you nodding your head there. Do you agree with that?

LAMING: Oh, they've won it fair and square. Let's be honest. They've won the most seats on the floor of the parliament. They've done a deal with an independent. My point is it will be a very sad four years. There will be no J-curve with Jay Weatherill. It will be all downhill. This a government that got one more term that it deserved and it has a history. This has been a truculent government as far has Indigenous affairs goes. APY Lands should be their number one focus and hasn't been and to be promising more to regional Australia is a little too late.

HAMMER: Does the Liberal Party there in South Australia need a good hard look at itself? I mean by rights, there will be a lot of people in the Liberal Party saying we should have been a shoe-in here.

LAMING: Steven Marshall is a top candidate for a future premier but in reality they lose too many seats by small margins in the cities and win regional seats by huge margins and this isn't good enough in a democracy to win government, and that's the reality.

HAMMER: So, not a problem with political leadership but with political party machine?

LAMING: No, it's just a geographic distribution issue. You've got one massive city of Adelaide and very little else as major centres go. That means we can look like we have more voters voting Coalition when in reality we can't pull those seats. It's a big challenge for South Australia and for the Coalition ahead.

HAMMER: On another subject gentlemen, Paul Howes is reportedly about to announce his resignation from the union movement. Andrew Leigh, is this a big loss to the wider Labor movement?

LEIGH: It's pretty extraordinary to see a 32-year-old hanging up his boots as a senior figure. It speaks to how young Paul was when he got involved in the union. And he's been very successful, not just for the AWU but also in being a spokesperson for the broader union movement. I think his National Press Club speech earlier this year was important calling for consensus: whether it's Andrew and me, or business and the union leaders, we all need to be putting national interest ahead of sectional interest.

HAMMER: Does it suggest he's lost his way or believes that Labor has lost its way, the union movement has lost its way?

LEIGH: I think he's just looking for a new challenge. He's spent quite a while now at the helm of the AWU and what a great position to be in. When I was Paul’s age I was just finishing university.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming?

LAMING: What perfect timing. If timing is everything in politics and public life, it's the perfect time to be walking away from the unions. Paul Howes can see that. We'll see more of him but not in this capacity as defending the past of Australia's union movement.

HAMMER: Why is it the perfect time to walk away?

LAMING: Well now, we're starting to reveal the reality, we're seeing in Victoria the CFMEU's actions making it almost impossible for Boral to lay any concrete in the entire state due to blacklisting. This is not the time to be defending Australia's union past. Well done Paul Howes, great timing. It's a great time to be leaving.

HAMMER: Now, another subject, let me take you back to last Thursday, the Government was under pressure heading into question time over the resignation of Arthur Sinodinos as Assistant Treasurer. The Prime Minister stood up and announced that there was new and incredible evidence regarding the disappearance of the Malaysian plane MH370. Was that appropriate statement that the Prime Minister gave to the House to speculate if you like about this debris in the Southern Ocean, the use of the Prime Ministerial office if you like [to] make a formal statement to parliament? Was that appropriate, Andrew Laming?

LAMING: Completely appropriate for the reasons that major nations are collaborating together and now Australia has firmly made it clear that they are a part of the search process. I would tend to agree with you that if nothing had been found from that incident but the emergence of Chinese satellite images showing wreckage or at least spots in the same locations suggests that a timely and early announcement rather than an isolated one that has let relatives down. I can't see any reason for suggestion that it was premature of inappropriate.

HAMMER: But, what would have happened if the Chinese satellite evidence, didn't emerge two or three days later? Would you be saying something different?

LAMING: We have now been proven that it is the most credible of evidence that is being pursued and that further enforces the Prime Ministers decision being a correct one.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, what is your view about the Prime Ministerial statement last Thursday?

LEIGH: I was a little surprised at the time, but I think it's a matter for the Prime Minister to respond to.

HAMMER: Okay, another issue. There is a report in today's Australian newspaper that Employment Minister Eric Abetz, or people from his office have asked bureaucrats, if you like, to massage projections of job creation figures. Andrew Leigh, are you concerned by this?

LEIGH: It's a brave public servant who stands up to a government that's cutting back the public service jobs in such a way and credit to the public servants who were willing to give frank and fearless advice to their minister. Minister Abetz has no right to be asking public servants to do forecasts in a way that suits his political desires. Australians deserve the most accurate forecasts, not the forecasts that best fit Liberal Party policies. The Liberal Party is of course concerned that it is not going to make its target of a million jobs over five years. It's now that 100,000 short. They have gotten into this kerfuffle because of what they did in the employment forecasting in the budget update last year which then has had the effect of making budget numbers look worse, but now also make it look as if they are not going to make their million job target.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, this is no way to run a government is it?

LAMING: Well, I really, really love having a government which has a million jobs figure and a target. I mean this is what Australians care about, is just a single focus attention creating more jobs. When it comes to communicating with our public service, everyone knows that they won't be pushed around. Everyone knows that calls from advisors and ministerial officers are always tough and many times can be portrayed as being 'massaged' when they are not. My view is that it is about the jobs and not about the forecasts. Let's see how we go in the next few years.

HAMMER: Well isn't that the point though, that Australian community is not concerned with targets or forecasts. It's concerned about achievements and if cooking the books, if you like, is going to come back and bite you?

LAMING: Well, there'll be real jobs created. You can't cook books around job creation, that's got to be the focus. I accept that there has been some high profile examples of job losses in Australia. But remember every year that we create 650,000 jobs and lose half a million. There will be significant fluctuation. We have got a few years yet and I am looking forward to seeing those jobs numbers improve.

HAMMER: And you are confident of that one million job creation figure?

LAMING: I am very confident of achieving it and if you fall short by five percent I still think it is a fantastic achievement. So setting an ambitious goal is really important for a new government. I'm really glad they have.

HAMMING: Andrew Leigh, you know your way around economics and economic projections, is the a million job creation target a credible one?

LEIGH: Well, we managed it through the Global Financial Crisis, so this is not a high bar for the government to set for itself. A million jobs without a global financial crisis ought to be a walk in the park, if Labor could do it with a Global Financial Crisis. But at the moment they're tracking below projections. They're a hundred thousand jobs short of where they need to be in order to get to a million jobs. Like Andrew, I really hope they get there.

HAMMING: Okay, just finally, later today both of you gentlemen will be speaking on a motion before the parliament on Australia becoming a republic. Why that issue and why now? Andrew Laming, I will pass over to you first.

LAMING: Well I was hoping Andrew would kick this one off because it is his motion.

HAMMER: Oh, okay, sorry. Yes, absolutely.

LEIGH: Very happy to. It has been nearly 15 years now since we had the republican referendum and at the time we were told that if that referendum went down that another model for a republic would come back up. But the 'don't know, vote no' forces have ensured that we haven't had a chance to debate that republic. Now I was delighted when Will and Kate welcomed their new baby into the world. But today about 600 Australians will welcome their own new babies into the world. I actually think that those 600 babies are better deserving to be the Australian head of state than the child of Will and Kate.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming?

LAMING: Well, I don't rate this as a top 10 issue for Australia, I concede that. But I also think that there are times where you have to cross the political divide, be able to debate and discuss what potentially Australia will potentially look like ten or twenty years down the track. I am a strong supporter of the republic and I think it was a good moment for me to support Andrew's motion to re-prosecute some of those ideas, even though they may not be fashionable at the moment. And finally, my sense is that Australia can still be a great nation with minor changes to the constitution that will allow us to have an Australian head of state.

HAMMER: Do you detect any movement on this issue say within the Coalition Government, because that's where the major opponents to a republic reside?

LAMING: No, I see a real focus on delivering on election commitments, so unfortunately not. But it's never a bad time to discuss the issue like a republic versus a monarchy. That's going to happen today.

HAMMER: Okay, gentlemen, many topics covered this morning. Thank you for your time.

LEIGH: And bipartisanship at the end.

HAMMER: Very good.

LEIGH: Thank you.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.