SUBJECTS: Drought funding; national security; foreign fighter laws; tax cuts; Building Australia Fund; asylum seekers, Julie Bishop; Christopher Pyne; John Setka.
FRAN KELLY: The Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, joins me now in our Parliament House studios. Anthony Albanese, welcome back to Breakfast.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning, Fran.
KELLY: The Government’s consistent line this week, in fact we heard it from a number of ministers yesterday, is ‘whose side are you on’? Talking about Labor on anything from drought funding to national security. You’re being pretty much portrayed as the enemy of the State. Is that a dangerous perception for Labor if it takes hold, that you’re just being oppositionist?
ALBANESE: What is dangerous, is it is dangerous for a government that doesn’t have an agenda. They don’t have an agenda. They got elected – somewhat surprisingly for themselves I think – and since then what they’ve tried to do is just wedge Labor. They don’t talk about this policy being in the national interest. They talk about it being a test for Labor. And that just shows that at a time when the economy is essentially flat-lining, interest rates are at one per cent, one-third of the level they were during the Global Financial Crisis. You have consumer demand being extremely low you, have productivity going backwards. This Government doesn’t have a plan for economic growth, they don’t have a plan in terms of social policy on things like Newstart, addressing them. They certainly don’t have a plan for the environment, climate change is never mentioned. This is a government in its third term that doesn’t have a reason for existence other than fighting Labor.
KELLY: But it is the government just elected, you held out as long as you could on drought funding and then you passed it in the Reps and I believe you will pass it in the Senate. You’re not yet locked in behind the latest counter-terrorism laws, and we will come to those. You will oppose the IR bill and also the bill to repeal the medevac laws. Let me ask you the question, on the Government’s behalf so to speak, whose side are you on? What’s your answer to them when they pose that question?
ALBANESE: I’m on the side of the national interest, Fran. Labor will put the national interest and good policy first. We won’t engage in day to day political wedges and engage in the negativity that we see from the Government. This is a Government that’s behaving like an opposition in exile stuck on the government benches that doesn’t know what to do with it.
KELLY: You got together with the Prime Minister a few weeks ago; you talked about a number of things including Indigenous recognition. There seemed to be a spirit of goodwill being talked about, now we’re talking about chum buckets, has it evaporated?
ALBANESE: Some things need bipartisan support. Constitutional recognition if it’s going to advance for First Nations people with a Voice to Parliament. Which is what Labor would like to see and more importantly what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would like to see. It needs that bipartisan support and Ken Wyatt and Linda Burney are working towards that. I’m hopeful that we can get a breakthrough but the Government is just engaged in this fierce rhetoric. They’re not really putting forward a positive agenda at all. And all that we’ve seen in last night’s Parliament for example, we had a bill introduced and debated and carried in a way that was quite extraordinary. I haven’t seen it for 23 years in this place. And once again them throwing out the rulebook and throwing out common courtesy and proper processes in the Parliament.
KELLY: Okay, but what about Labor processes? There seems to be a pattern emerging, throughout the whole day yesterday we spoke to Joel Fitzgibbon here in the morning opposing the way the money for the drought scheme was being taken from an infrastructure fund. At the last moment Labor voted for it. It did the same on tax during the last sitting period. What is your strategy because it does seem to be leaving you open to the charge of just not having the courage of your (inaudible).
ALBANESE: Take the drought fund. We always said we supported the drought fund. We don’t think it should have come from the Building Australia Fund and we have committed through Shadow Cabinet to recreate it, and we will do that, but we weren’t about to vote against a drought fund at a time where our farmers are under real pressure. Even though, Fran, that drought fund isn’t $5 billion, it’s actually $100 million, not this year but the year after, and $100 million a year after that. So there is only $200 million during this term. When it comes to tax, you’ve got to always look at the counterfactual, Fran. There’s been a lot of debate about our position on that. We always said we supported stage one, and we said even before the election that was a commitment that we had. We changed our position after the election to say we supported stage two as well. We tried to get stage three out of the bill in the House of Reps and in the Senate. We don’t have the numbers. So for us to vote against that would have been to vote against stage one, which we supported before the election which we had a mandate for, which gave up to $1080 to every lowest income worker – every council worker, every nurse, every teacher, every child care worker. We weren’t prepared to be defined by what we were against, we were defined by what we were for. And not only did those people need that $1080, which is why more than half a million Australians extra have put in their tax returns at this time than what happened last year. The economy needs them to get it and we were saying that absolutely consistently.
KELLY: So will you do the same when it comes to national security? Because the next test comes today, it’s the legislation introducing the two year exclusion orders for foreign fighters trying to return to Australia. In the past there has almost always been bipartisanship on national security. Are you going to support this bill?
ALBANESE: It’s not that there ‘has nearly always been’; there has always been adoption of the Joint Intelligence Committee recommendations. What we will seek to do, and Kristina Keneally wrote to Peter Dutton last night asking for it to be referred back to that committee. Because there are a range of recommendations that they have made unanimously which the Government is not supporting.
KELLY: But they’ve already made them, what’s sending it back to them going to do?
ALBANESE: If the Government has a different position, if there is a reason why, then the committee should examine that. At the moment the Government hasn’t put up any reason for the change in position and not adopting the Joint Intelligence Committee recommendations.
KELLY: Well it has put up a reason. Peter Dutton says he’s rejected the recommendations, a couple of them, on the advice of security agencies. He said quote: “we act on the advice of our agencies to keep Australians safe.”
ALBANESE: The security agencies give advice to the committee. They do that in camera and that’s why it’s appropriate to send it back to the committee, Fran. That’s the point. Because the security committees can’t appear before the Parliament and say some things they can say before that committee in camera. Now take one of the recommendations which follows the UK legislation, is that it’s up to a judge to determine the temporary exclusion order. Now the Government is rejecting that, it’s not saying why that’s the case. They need to do something more than just say “oh well because the agencies say that is the case.” There’s another issue of what happens when someone hasn’t got anywhere else to go basically. And that was considered by the Joint Intelligence Commmittee as well. So here we have an issue whereby we’ll be moving the joint committee’s recommendations, made by a committee chaired by Andrew Hastie, in which the Government has a majority on the floor of the Parliament and seeing whether Government members vote against their own recommendations.
KELLY: If they do ultimately is Labor going to support this bill? Even with these clauses …
ALBANESE: That will be a decision that we will make in terms of in terms of the caucus meeting today. But we think that these issues shouldn’t be the subject of partisan political debate. We think that there should be agreement on these issues. We’re trying to do that. If that isn’t the case, then we’ll make a decision.
KELLY: Do you think the Government is exaggerating the threat posed by these people? I say that because the temporary exclusion orders are aimed at about 80 Australians in Syria and Iraq who fought with ISIS, according to Home Affairs 20 women, 57 are children. Do you think there’s an exaggeration going on here?
ALBANESE: I think what we’re seeing from Peter Dutton is playing politics. And that’s something that’s defining this Government. This Government is searching for a reason for being arrogant after the May 18 result. Attempting to play politics with every issue rather than actually just sitting back and governing in the national interest, whether it’s on national security, whether it’s on the economy, whether it’s on the issue of drought. On each occasion what they’re looking for each and every day is the short term political advantage. That is not in the national interest and Scott Morrison and his ministers should be called out for it.
KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast it’s quarter to eight where our guest is Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. On the issues of national security, the bill to repeal the asylum seeker Medevac laws will be debated this week. We learned today another refugee boat headed to Christmas Island. That’s the third since the election. The Government has always argued that this bill would start up the people smuggling trade again. Are you concerned that is what we are seeing and is Labor going to stand firm? I mean you led the charge in Labor for the Medevac law to be passed. Will Labor stand firm against the repeal?
ALBANESE: The Medevac legislation has worked, Fran. That’s the truth of the matter. And let’s put this in perspective, there are 90 people who have been brought to Australia under the medevac legislation. The Government itself has brought 900 people to Australia, 900 for medical assistance. So we see no reason to change the legislation. The Government hasn’t given any reason, they didn’t like it. They had all sorts of overblown rhetoric. There were going to be hundreds of boats coming, every asylum seeker would be brought here under this law and that hasn’t happened.
KELLY: So this is one that Labor won’t fold on?
ALBANESE: Well this hasn’t happened, Fran. There is no reason for us to change our position whatsoever.
KELLY: Another issue Labor backed the Senate Inquiry into Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne, whether they breached the ministerial guidelines with their new contracts in the private sector. But even if that inquiry finds that they have, so what? What can be done to remedy that?
ALBANESE: One of the things that we need, Fran, to take a step back here. Is we do need a National Integrity Commission. That’s something that the Government could actually bring forward some legislation and to be examined. Quite clearly there’s a great deal of concern about these issues. There’s a concern about the discrepancy, for example between what Julie Bishop said about Palladium and her relationship with the company and the video that appeared yesterday to endorse the company.
KELLY: Yeah, but these two aren’t the only former ministers to do this. Labor ministers have form on this too. Stephen Conroy in 2016 took a job with the industry body responsible …
ALBANESE: We lost in 2013, Fran.
KELLY: I know.
ALBANESE: No, the ministerial guidelines are very clear. They don’t say forever and ever for a period of time.
KELLY: What about Martin Ferguson? He took a job in the resources industry. I mean, all I’m saying is this is not new behaviour is it?
ALBANESE: The truth is that people should not use their position that they’ve had as ministers and developing relationships, to go immediately into another job in which they use that experience. And that’s why the ministerial guidelines are there, Fran.
KELLY: Just finally and briefly, we are way out of time, but the other bill, Ensuring Integrity legislation, goes the House tomorrow. May make it easier to de-register rogue unions, to impose a public interest test for union mergers. In a way, John Setka from the CFMEU has become the face of this, to quote the Government: “the ugly face of union thuggery.” How can Labor stand in the way of this bill?
ALBANESE: Well this is just another anti-union piece of legislation from a Government that’s anti-union. That doesn’t support the rights of workers to organise. Where people do the wrong thing, Fran, action should be taken. And indeed when unions have done the wrong thing then they’ve been charged, they’ve been fined. I regard John Setka as a person whose values are different from Labor’s. And that’s why he’s currently suspended from the Labor Party and has taken legal action to have a stay in the proceedings to expel him from the Party. But he will be expelled, Fran. I will take strong action against unionists who step out of line. But I also think that the Government never talks about employers that do the wrong thing here.
KELLY: Anthony Albanese, thank you very much for joining us.
ALBANESE: Thanks Fran.