Sep 16, 2011

Transcript of interview on Sky Agenda with Chris Kenny

Subjects: Malaysia, Tony Abbott

HOST: But also today we have a very special guest in a very senior member of the Gillard government. That is the Infrastructure Minister and leader of the government in the House of Representatives,Anthony Albanese. Thanks for joining us, Minister.


HOST: It’s been a very febrile and feral week in parliament. Do you thinks it’s getting worse, the political climate?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Tony Abbott’s very much got a strategy of a 24-hour focus of trying to batter his way through into government or into a new election. So there’s a conscious strategy to wreck. But when you look beneath that, what’s happening? We’ve had 191 pieces of legislation passed, not a single bill defeated, nor a single amendment carried without the support of the government.

HOST: It’s really just a bit of Labor’s spin though, isn’t it, to say that Tony Abbott is a wrecker, that parliament is testier than it ever has been? I mean there’s always been a clearing house of democracy: Paul Keating, Mark Latham, yourself. You’ve always been aggressive in parliament. It hasn’t changed really, has it?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: It’s always been pretty robust, but I think there is a difference in strategy. Here we have a hung parliament, an opportunity for the Opposition to get through amendments, or to get progress on its own agenda in a constructive way.They’ve chosen to not really put a great deal of effort into that, and we’ve seen it even over the carbon pricing legislation this week. Their strategy hasn’t been how do we change it, how do we defeat it? The strategy is how do we stop it even coming to a vote.

HOST: Well we’ll get to the carbon tax later, but I wanted to talk to you first today about the asylum seeker issue, and Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister, has written to Tony Abbott last night. I have the letter here, and she sent him the draft legislation, the legislation she wants to fix the Malaysia solution, to lock in the government’s right to choose which country it sends people to for offshore processing. Why do you want Tony Abbott to fix a problem that you’ve created?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: What we want Tony Abbott to do is to do is what he says is his position, which is to support offshore processing. We’re not asking for him to endorse the government’s position. What we’re simply saying is that because of the High Court decision there’s either opposition or at the very least real uncertainty about offshore processing. That’s acknowledged across the board, including by Tony Abbott, and we’re asking him simply to support legislation to restore the position, previously thought to be a fact, that governments had a right to determine their border security policies.

HOST: It’s a bit rich though to ask Tony Abbott, to try and put pressure on Tony Abbott, to save your offshore processing solution. Now could you imagine this in the Howard government years; if Howard’s Pacific solution had been knocked out by the High Court? Do you think you would have given him the authority to fix that problem?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well we didn’t support his Pacific solution, of course.

HOST: Exactly, in fact…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’re not asking Tony Abbott to support our position. What we’re asking Tony Abbott to support is the view that governments should determine border security policy. So the amendments that have been drafted would not only enable our government, but any future government, be it led by Tony Abbott or anyone else, to be able to have control over border security policies.

HOST: But Malaysia is obviously the sticking point. Why don’t you rule out Malaysia then, and guarantee that you’ll give Nauru a chance? It’s worked in the past, but it seems that you won’t accept the political embarrassment of going back to a John Howard solution.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No it’s not a matter of that, and Tony Abbott’s got the same advice that we’ve got from the same people, which says that Nauru is not a deterrent because people who went to Nauru ended up coming to Australia or New Zealand.

HOST: It seemed to have pretty much worked. It stopped the boats.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: And that you need that circuit breaker in terms of the Malaysian solution. That’s the advice that we have, that’s the policy that we have. We’re not asking Tony Abbott to endorse it. We are asking him to facilitate our policy, but also his own policy, through the adoption of these amendments.

HOST: How do you personally feel about this? I look back; only five or six years ago you were part of a group of Labor MPs trying to force your party to adopt a softer, more humane policy on border protection. And now you’re here arguing for the rights to have a tougher policy. Now that’s confusing enough for Labor voters, or potential Labor voters, How do you feel personally about switching sides effectively on this debate?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I have very much a humane perspective on these issues, and I think that a lot of us who saw when that boat crashed into Christmas Island last year, none of us have wanted people to get on boats. How do we stop that? That’s a humane position. I oppose temporary protection visas, because what that did was encourage people’s relatives to get on boats, with the results of the tragedies of SIEV X, for example.

I think in terms of the position – these are difficult, complex issues. I’ve argued my case always within the party. When the party makes a decision, I’ve also argued that case.

HOST: Well you do argue your case, and we’ll just go to some vision now of you arguing your case on the carbon tax out the front of your electoral office recently, as we switched on to that issue. And there’s been a lot of talk about a sort of hostile public environment. Some of your colleagues have criticised shock jocks and said things about protesters. But if people are unhappy about the carbon tax, they’ve got every right to protest, haven’t they? And I thought you did the right thing by just going out and talking to them.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look they absolutely have the right to protest, but they also have to accept that there’s a right to critique the nature of those protests. I did it face to face, fronted up to them.

HOST: You didn’t feel threatened out there? You just went out and talked to people face to face. It was pretty brave, but…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I did have a bit of back up, you might have noticed there. There was certainly some security concerns, because of some of the threats that came in. I had all sorts of death threats in the lead-up to that rally. I’m very concerned that there is a sort of hard element to these demonstrations which is pretty feral. One of the things that I’ve said is that we need, though, to be prepared to argue our case. I’ve certainly done that, but the sort of exposure of having a placard with Tolerance is our Demise on Marrickville Road Marrickville I think said more about the protesters than it did about anything else.

HOST: Ok, don’t want to jump around on topics too much, but we’ve just got word that Tony Abbott has spoken on the asylum seekers issue, and we’ll just go to those words now from Tony Abbott.

TONY ABBOTT: And my further difficulty is with giving a blank cheque to a bad government. This is not a Minister who has proven himself to be competent in his previous dealings with other countries, whether it be the so-called East Timor solution, the negotiations with PNG on Manus Island, or indeed the negotiations with Malaysia over the people swap. And this idea of giving this Minister an entirely unfettered discretion, I think is one which is troubling. Now we’ll go through our normal party processes next week, we will go through those party processes and I don’t want to pre-empt them, but as I say I am troubled by this legislation. I’m surprised that local Labor Members of Parliament aren’t equally troubled. I think that Anna Burke, the Member for Chisholm, and Michael Danby, the Member for Melbourne Ports, they’re decent compassionate people, and I think they will find this legislation pretty difficult. Certainly, as I said yesterday, the Howard government and the Coalition not only has the patent on offshore processing; it’s pretty obvious, having seen this legislation, that we also have the patent on offshore protection.

HOST: Well there’s Tony Abbott responding for the first time to the detailed legislation that the Prime Minister sent him. He said he’s not going to pre-empt his decision, but it sounds very much, though, that he’s going to reject this move from the Prime Minister. Of course I’ve had a quick look at this legislation and it does seem to do exactly what Julia Gillard said. That is, give the minister the authority to choose whatever country she wants to send asylum seekers to. So, Anthony Albanese, that doesn’t sound hopeful for a compromise outcome here.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’ll wait and see what Tony has to say in the meeting he’s got scheduled with the Prime Minister on Monday. If he’s got some practical suggestions, let him put them forward. But don’t just sit back and fall back into the no, no, no attitude that has characterised his position as leader of the Opposition.

HOST: Now, just on that, news breaking today has declared that the Independents, the crucial Independents in Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, are actually falling out with Tony Abbott. They are less likely to be supportive, they’re not meeting with him regularly any more. Do you take comfort from that? Do you think that the Independents are now even more firmly locked on to Labor than they were before?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look I think they are. That’s certainly my impression as leader of the House. I meet with them at least a couple of times a week; once formally all together. And certainly what we’ve seen is that Tony Abbott and his colleagues have engaged in abuse against them, consistently, even in the chamber. It’s quite an extraordinary method of negotiation that Tony Abbott and his team seem to have: if I abuse them enough, maybe they’ll decide to come with us.

HOST: Yeah but Tony Abbott and the Coalition seem to have the public on their side. I mean your Labor Party is travelling at record low polling numbers. Even people like Graham Richardson, Labor Party stalwarts that you’d know well, have given up any hope of you retaining government whenever the election is. So why would these Independents lock themselves on to a losing, unpopular side?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’re two years from an election,…

HOST: You hope you’re two years from an election.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’re two years from an election, we have carbon legislation before the parliament. That will be in place from the first of July 2012. There’ll be increases in pensions and support for industry. What is Tony Abbott going to do? Wind it all back? It’s going to be extremely difficult for him. Is he going to give the miners back their additional taxation when the MRRT comes in…

HOST: This is a very important question. You’ve broken a promise. You and Julia Gillard have broken a promise not to introduce a carbon tax. There will be a carbon tax. By the looks it will get through parliament over the next few weeks. If at the next election, which promises to be a referendum on the carbon tax, you lose government, will Labor then guarantee that it will allow Tony Abbott to repeal the carbon tax; not block any repealing action in the Senate with the Greens?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Not at all. We think that clean energy, and our clean energy legislation, is absolutely vital for Australia’s future.

HOST: But don’t you think that the people of Australia, through the ballot box, should get to have a say on this? And if they vote you out at the next election they’ll be saying no to a carbon tax, and you would be actually defying the will of the people again, if you didn’t allow Tony Abbott to repeal it?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’ll make a prediction for you, Chris, which is that if ever the unspeakable happened, and Tony Abbott did become Prime Minister, he would be confronted by the reality of how to deal with climate change, with pension increases. Would he repeal them? Just like the mining tax, is he going to give the miners back money? The problem he’s got is that he only ever has the strategy for today, never a strategy for next week, next month, next year, let along into the future. Which is why increasingly I think over the next couple of years, he’ll be seen as being just not up to the job of being Prime Minister.