Feb 13, 2019

Transcript of Doorstop, Canberra – Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Subjects: Medical evacuation legislation; Confidence in the Morrison Government, Parliament.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks everyone. Labor’s objective this week and indeed since this issue was raised last year has been to get an outcome that dealt with the fact that people in our care on Manus and Nauru who require health care should get access to it – nothing more and nothing less. We have had a consistent view that you can be tough on people smugglers without being weak on humanity. And we have also had a view that you can protect our borders whilst not giving up on our national soul.

So many Australians have expressed their concern at what is being done in our name when we have a responsibility to people, many of whom have suffered from health concerns, we know sometimes with disastrous consequences. So we have been determined to get this right and I think that we have got it right. That is why we listened to the advice. That’s why we were prepared to move amendments to make sure that the outcome that was secured put the principles, that we had said from the very beginning we were committed to, in place and that’s what the House of Representatives has just done.

JOURNALIST: Why is Bill Shorten not holding this press conference just out of interest?

TONY BURKE: Right now there is a Shadow Cabinet meeting going on as you would expect. But because a lot of people have been asking about in particular the procedure and issues of confidence, we thought it was appropriate that the former Leader of the House and the current Leader of Opposition Business be able to answer those questions, which is why we are both here.

To that end the Government tried to play a last-minute cheap political game today. The Attorney-General held on to legal advice and then asked the Speaker of the House of Representatives to keep the legal advice secret from Members of Parliament that was about what Members of Parliament were going to deliberate on today. The Speaker, to his credit, did his job and made sure that all information relevant to Members of Parliament was available to the House. But it was an appalling act from the Government to pull that as a cheap stunt and try to keep it secret as a last-ditch play today.

That legal advice raised two issues. The first was whether or not the Governor-General would have to issue and appropriation. To remove doubt about that one of the amendments that Bill Shorten moved was to make the positions on the panels voluntary and that fixed any objection there.

The second issue that was raised was not clear in the covering letter, but quite clear when you read the legal advice, which was whether or not these amendments could originate in the Senate was a matter for the House to determine. And what happened today, in an amendment that I moved, the House determined that we were not going to assert our rights against the Senate in that way.

The final question that a number of you have already been asking and speculating is: Are we viewing this as an issue of confidence in the Government? Our view of this issue was that we would deal with it on its merits. At no stage have we focused on anything other than the merits of being able to achieve an outcome today. There have been occasions when prime ministers have seen votes like today as though they were issues of confidence. The key phrase that is referred to in Practice is whether or not a legislative defeat is considered of vital importance. They are the key words that are used in Practice – whether or not something is of vital importance. They are words for Scott Morrison to reflect on. From our perspective, what happened today in the House of Representatives was a change to the law that needed to take place did.

JOURNALIST: Clearly the Government would say it’s a matter of vital importance. You make the point that the Prime Minister needs to reflect on what he thinks but ultimately if anyone was going to move a motion of no-confidence that would be up to you. So can you rule out, subsequent to the loss of this vote moving a motion of no-confidence in the Morrison Government?

BURKE: No Opposition ever rules out, ever, moving a vote of no-confidence. No Opposition would ever rule that out and I don’t rule that out. At the same time, when a defeat in legislation has been treated as a vote of no-confidence previous prime ministers haven’t waited, they’ve gone to the Governor-General. But the key is whether or not they considered it of vital importance. 

JOURNALIST: So that was Fadden in 1941 with Curtin, what are the other examples?

BURKE: Watson is another one. There’s a list in Practice but the phrase “of  vital importance’’ is the one that’s used. That is not something that we’re pushing, it’s something that I’ve been asked about and I am explaining that for the Prime Minister … 

ALBANESE: And something for the Prime Minister to reflect on is that last week he was downplaying this. Last week he said that it would be of no consequence and he would ignore it. And yet, at that time that he said that, did he know that they were going to pull this attempted stunt with the advice from the Attorney-General that they pulled this afternoon? 

JOURNALIST: Is the Prime Minister obliged to seek royal assent for this. Is there any way that that sort of could be subverted? 
BURKE: It would be extraordinary and without precedent for a government to decide that legislation that had gone through the Parliament wasn’t going to go to the Governor-General and if the Government got to that stage we’d be at a different stage to where we are at today.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken  to Senate crossbench about these amendments that went to the House today and if so, what have they told you about the amendment? 

BURKE: Look, by and large the House of Reps people work with the House of Reps crossbench and the senators work with the Senate crossbench. 

JOURNALIST: The Government is already saying that if the boats restart in coming weeks it will be your fault. How do you respond to that?

BURKE: Look at the third part of the amendments that were introduced by Bill Shorten. They effectively ring-fenced who was able to access this legislation. Not one person who gets on a boat now will have their circumstance changed by what’s happened in the Parliament today – not one. And the reason for that is the only people able to access this legislation are the people who are currently on Manus or Nauru or their children. No one else can access this legislation, at all. 

JOURNALIST: You’re talking about the importance of the amendments moved today, however if Labor had of had its way in the last day of Parliament the unamended version of this Bill would have passed the House and have already passed into law. As a party who is seeking to win Government, how can you say that that’s responsible?

BURKE: Oh wow, if that was the test, the Government would have finished in their first week. Governments are constantly – legislation goes through one House it gets reviewed in another, different issues are raised and amendments … 

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) that wasn’t the tactics that were being played out on that final day of Parliament, and I remember Labor sort of screaming black and blue about the Government playing politics in the Senate to ensure that the House had already risen, before that message could be debated. So you know, given that, and then given over summer where Labor said no, the ministerial discretion in the bill was already enough, it’s on been in this week where you conceded that perhaps it wasn’t and have now made changes. That doesn’t line up.

BURKE: No, constantly even after legislation has gone through, where new advice is given by security agencies, governments come back with further amendments to legislation that they’ve already dealt with. For us Bill Shorten received advice from security agencies and adjusted to amendments as a result of that. That is the ordinary process of the building that we’re in right now.

JOURNALIST: The Government has obviously raised the stakes by arguing it’s unconstitutional; you can’t accept a money bill from the Senate. But you yourself have run this argument in Parliament and used it to defeat similar attempts. Is your argument that it’s OK to run that argument as long as you’ve got the numbers in the House?

ALBANESE: No. What I argue is that the House of Representatives is the master of its own destiny and that indeed is what is provided for in House of Reps practice and precedent – that by the House of Representatives, by a majority voting the way that they did today, they have ownership of the decisions that are made. What occurred in 2011 when Christopher Pyne argued the opposite to what he did today I might note, is that …

JOURNALIST: You are arguing the opposite to what you’re arguing today?

ALBANESE: No, that’s not right. No, I argued perfectly consistently that it was up to the House of Representatives to determine and, at that time a majority of the House of Representatives, a clear majority, disagreed with the approach of the Coalition. What we have here is a sovereign Parliament that has made a decision in a democratic fashion. No one could say they didn’t know this vote was coming. This is a very unusual circumstance whereby because we have a part-time Parliament, which is only sitting for 10 days in eight months, they have had month after month after month to consider this. And what they did was just come up with a last-minute political play and that’s consistent with this Government’s approach, which is that they have stopped governing. It’s all about politics. It’s all about the game. It’s all about their internals. And the fact is that this country needs a government that actually governs in the national interest, and that’s why they need a Shorten Labor Government.

JOURNALIST: You say that technically the changes you made make it no easier for asylum seekers to come here; they don’t improve asylum seekers’ position. That said, surely all of this noise and the fact that there has been a legislative change to the regime sends a signal to Indonesia. Do you acknowledge that there is a signal going to would-be people smugglers over there? And if so, whose fault is it?

BURKE: The only signal that would be going there is if the Government decides they want to trumpet one. That would be deeply irresponsible and I would hope they don’t do that. 

JOURNALIST: Aren’t they already doing it?

BURKE: Let me – just hear me out. The first thing that happens is there is a turn back policy, supported by both sides of Parliament that should prevent people putting their lives at risk on the high seas. If any of them were to, this legislation doesn’t apply to them. It doesn’t apply to them as a matter of Australian law, presuming what’s gone through the House of Reps today goes through the Senate.

ALBANESE: Can I make this point – that today, this was the Parliament working effectively. I pay tribute to Dr Kerryn Phelps in particular, but the other crossbenchers were all prepared to sit down and get an outcome based upon the objective of looking after people in need; that was it not about politics, not about positioning, just about doing the right thing. This is a day in which I’m very proud to be a parliamentarian and it’s a day in which what we saw was the national interest, I think, put first by overwhelmingly, the Parliament. And the only people who made political speeches and partisan speeches were those in the Government who are so desperate. I mean this is a government that shows its increased desperation each and every day with their rhetoric and with their failure to actually govern.

JOURNALIST: You a need 76 votes, I understand, not 75, to retrieve your other major aim at the moment to get two extra sitting weeks of this Parliament. Will you get them? Can you? Essentially, I’m asking for an update on where you are on that last vote?

BURKE: I work very closely with the crossbench and I have an ongoing commitment to them that it’s for them to brief out where they’re up to and I don’t brief out on their behalf. If we already had 76 votes, I would have already moved it. So we’re continuing the discussions. I think the arguments to have Parliament continue sitting are compelling for two reasons. First, we do have the Banking Royal Commission report and the Government’s argument ‘Oh, you can’t deal with 40 pieces of legislation’ – if that was the reason, you’d never had Parliament sit. There are a number of responses to the Royal Commission responding to a number of its recommendations that are involved relatively simple pieces of legislation. And by having the Parliament sit, we’re able to start the process of enacting. But the other argument is people just look in dismay at a Parliament that sits for 10 days in eight months. Ten days in eight months. That is a part-time Parliament and we have lots of jobs in our electorates – that’s all true. But we’ve got a constitutional job as legislators. And simply because the Government doesn’t like the Parliament that much at the moment, doesn’t change the fact that the democracy of this building should be going on and we should be having additional sittings.

ALBANESE: Thanks very much.