SUBJECTS: AFP raids; Biloela family; Australian economy; Government’s lack of economic policy infrastructure investment; Brexit.
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now is the Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese, for reaction to this story and the other matters of the day. Mr Albanese, thanks so much for your time. The latest AFP raids, are you comfortable with what you’ve seen in terms of police behaviour?
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: What I’m not comfortable with is a Government that doesn’t seem to be prepared to defend freedom of the press. What I’m not comfortable with is the idea that journalism is a crime. And what we’re seeing here is a report by Annika Smethurst and reports by the ABC which led to raids on their homes and offices. We don’t know the precise circumstances of why the raid occurred on this gentleman’s home yesterday but I’m not comfortable with the general approach of what’s going on here. I think that the Government needs to make it much more clear that freedom of the press is an essential component of our democracy. That shouldn’t be compromised. The stories that have been published have all been in the public interest.
GILBERT: The Minister did make a statement in terms of freedom of the press in terms of a direction to the AFP. Do you want him to go further? Do you want him to say leave whistleblowers alone as well?
ALBANESE: I want the Government to be unequivocal about supporting freedom of the press. I don’t think they are doing on this point in time.
GILBERT: Well there’s more than one way to target media reporting as you know. You don’t have to target the journalists.
ALBANESE: No, that’s right. What we have here is circumstances whereby there’s been a series of actions which I think put together have undermined the position of freedom of the press and the Government needs to be very clear about the role of the press in a modern democracy. In the circumstances around the raid on Annika Smethurst for example, where they went through absolutely everything in her home over a long period of time with multiple officers, I think was over the top. I said that at the time. That’s still my position.
GILBERT: Onto the issue of the Tamil family. Obviously there is great emotion and compassion around this case but in policy terms does this mark a shift in Labor policy given that when you were last in government more than 2,000 Sri Lankans were deported in 2012/13 alone, found to be economic migrants not refugees?
ALBANESE: No it doesn’t at all. This family are making an economic contribution. Nades works at the local meatworks. That meatworks is full of people who are on temporary migration visas. We’re importing labour to do work at that meatworks from overseas on temporary visas. At the same time, we have someone who wants to make a permanent contribution to that community being deported and a four-year-old and a two-year-old. The treatment of them when they were rounded up and put in separate cars from their parents, you’re a parent Kieran, the idea that a two-year-old who was then much younger could be separated from their parents for that is not the sort of behaviour that we would expect in a country like ours. The rounding up of the family in the middle of the night, taking them from Melbourne to Darwin. The rounding up in the early hours of the morning to take them to Christmas Island. It’s no wonder that their local LNP member Ken O’Dowd says they should stay. Barnaby Joyce says they should stay. Yesterday I went to Biloela to talk to people in that regional country town of 5,000 people saying that this family is a part of the community. They want them to stay and what I’ve said is that Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison should go and talk to the people of Biloela.
GILBERT: Well it is heart wrenching, there’s no doubt about it, the images and so on. But it’s obviously been a very personalised case because now we have seen the faces of the young kids and so on. But more than 5,700 asylum seekers are on bridging visas and are pursuing legal challenges just like this family. What happens for the next family in a town that’s integrated and the next and the next? Where do you draw the line here?
ALBANESE: Kieran, Peter Dutton has intervened as the Minister on more than 4,000 occasions. He intervenes on average more than three times every day. If today’s an average day in Peter Dutton’s working life, he’ll sign three documents allowing people to stay due to special circumstances. That’s what he does each and every day. And I’ve simply pointed that out. Here you have a community in this regional town that are asking for this. The local LNP member is asking for this, Ken O’Dowd. This is not about changing Australia’s migration policy. Barnaby Joyce is not about changing Australia’s migration policy either. What he’s saying is that we can’t on the one hand say new migrants should move to country towns and should contribute at the same time as we are taking this action at enormous cost to the taxpayer. How much is it costing on top of reopening Christmas Island essentially for a media conference that could have been held with palm trees in the back in Cronulla? They then closed it, now it’s opened again for this husband, wife and two little kids. This is extraordinary action from the Government and you can have strong borders without being weak on humanity. The Government should be responding accordingly.
GILBERT: The difference between this case and the thousands of others that you referred to rightly, that the Minister has granted the discretionary permanent residency or visas, whatever he has in certain cases. But this case has got global attention and the problem is now, as far as the Government and others in the security apparatus in Canberra believe, is if you let them stay, it would be basically just a marketing tool for people smugglers.
ALBANESE: Well don’t verbal the security agencies Kieran.
GILBERT: I’m speaking on the basis of off the record discussions so I’m not verballing them.
ALBANESE: The only people who talk down Australia’s border security at the moment is the Government. It’s the Government who anytime that anything happens, they get out there and they say this is a threat to our border security. What message did it send reopening Christmas Island? What message did that send and why was it sent during an election campaign? Remember the Medevac legislation was going to lead to tens of thousands of people coming in. It didn’t happen. And the fact is that this Government’s rhetoric and any time they want to ramp it up, the same time as they say that they’ll keep this information secure, there will be a photo in the newspaper and at a convenient time for for the Government. This is all about politics, Kieran. And what I’m saying is that no one’s arguing for a change of policy. The people of Biloela aren’t doing that either. What they’re simply saying is that this case here should be considered on its merits. Are they contributing to the Australian economy? Would it be positive for Australia for Nades to be continuing to pay tax here as a worker contributing in a tough job at the meatworks? Or are we better off spending millions of dollars, which we are, on essentially this exercise for the Government? And a bit of common sense could apply here. Peter Dutton was happy to intervene for the au pairs. If this family or someone close to them had his mobile, maybe this could have been fixed earlier as well.
GILBERT: I want to look at a couple of other matters before I let you go. On the economy, GDP growth was flat for the September quarter in 2016 when the previous election was held on the second of July that year. Isn’t the result yesterday simply the typical election caution around an election?
ALBANESE: No. You can’t explain what’s been happening through that. What we have is not just lower economic growth being downgraded and then not even meeting the downgraded forecasts. What we have is low consumer demand. We’ve got retail spending at levels of the 1990s that haven’t been seen since then. This is weaker growth than we saw during the Global Financial Crisis. We’re seeing productivity going backwards for four quarters in a row. We’ve got stagnant wages. We’ve got interest rates at 1 per cent, one third of the emergency levels as defined by the current Government when they were the Opposition of the 3 per cent which was the lowest it reached during the GFC. This is a Government that doesn’t have an economic policy. They just have political strategies. And this is a third term Government. They’ve been through three Prime Ministers. What is their plan? What’s their plan for skills? One of the issues about skills and jobs here in Queensland is the importing of labour rather than equipping young Australians and retraining older Australians for work opportunities which are there.
GILBERT: One of the things hanging over the election though was the prospect of many new taxes under Labor. Isn’t your case diminished until you have resolved some of those matters?
ALBANESE: No. The fact is that they’re the Government. They need to be held to account. We’re not the Government. We lost the election. It’s about time that this Government stopped acting like an Opposition in exile and explain exactly what its economic policy is. What we heard in the lead up to the last sitting fortnight of the Parliament, before we had a rather long break, it will be interesting to see what the dynamic is this weekend as well, everything that they we’re doing was a test for Labor. How about they just govern? They are at the beginning of their third term. What’s their plan? What’s their energy policy? What’s their policy to lift wages and lift living standards? We see all of the economic indicators are not positive for the Government at the moment and they’re complacent. They’re just busy being engaged in a victory lap and not putting out a serious economic plan to secure our future.
GILBERT: Do you have to be careful not to talk down the economy though? Wayne Swan, when he was Treasurer used to criticise the Opposition for talking down the economy and undermining confidence is the way he put it.
ALBANESE: Well the fact is that Wayne Swan as Treasurer saw Australia through the Global Financial Crisis better than any industrialised economy in the world. And we did that by supporting jobs. The Opposition opposed all of the economic stimulus plan. They opposed the infrastructure investment. And they were were constantly negative under Tony Abbott. We haven’t been negative. We voted for and supported the first stage of the tax cuts. Indeed we said that the second stage of the tax cuts should be brought forward. If it’s a good idea in two years time then it’s a good idea now when the economy needs it. The other thing we have argued for is for infrastructure investment. Linkfield Road here in Brisbane – where during the election campaign Peter Dutton and Luke Howarth in Petrie – it’s a road that goes between them, made a commitment, they wrote to all voters in those electorates. The voters didn’t get told that the investment won’t start until 2026 before they dig a hole. We need that investment now, here in Queensland and it should be brought forward.
GILBERT: Just finally, turn our attention to the UK, not to discuss Steve Smith’s impressive ongoing knock at Old Trafford, but to talk about the Brexit debacle which continues. It really is unbelievable to watch. You met with Jeremy Corbyn in March of this year, is he ready for an election do you think?
ALBANESE: I met with members of the Conservative Party as well, and ministers. And what was clear to me about Brexit, I was there in Westminster with our High Commissioner George Brandis for the vote. And what was clear is that I don’t think the Brexit strategy has been thought through at all and it’s very unclear what the outcome will be, the uncertainty that’s there. And we’ve seen since then, of course, the replacement of the Prime Minister and we’re seeing the proroguing of Parliament, quite extraordinarily. And if I were in the UK I’d be very concerned about events. There will be an election sooner or later there in the UK. But I think that, quite clearly, they’re very uncertain times. It’s a decision for the UK that they’ve got themselves into this circumstance by a very small margin, and that goes back to a promise that was made in the expectation that the Brexit vote would not be carried. And certainly some of the rhetorical position has, I think, proven to be a bit of a triumph of rhetoric over reality. And I just hope for the UK’s sake and for the working people of the UK that this can be sorted out.
GILBERT: Yeah, because the fact is that both the major parties, Labor as well, bitterly divided, aren’t they? In terms of those that are ‘remainers’ and those that want to get out of the EU.
ALBANESE: Well, it’s a difficult issue for them to deal with. What it requires is some maturity and a working through of these issues. It’s not up to, I don’t think, politicians in Australia to dictate what should happen there. I hope for their sake and for the sake of the global economy – I mean this is one of the issues that’s feeding into the global economic uncertainty – which is one of the reasons why what politicians in Australia should be doing, and in particular the Government, is having a plan to secure Australia’s economic growth and Australia’s economic future. And they’re not doing that at the moment.
GILBERT: And just finally, Jeremy Corbyn has copped a lot of flak; for those that don’t know much about him in this country, should we be worried about a Corbyn prime ministership, or the prospect of that? Is there a strain of anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party as far as you can tell?
ALBANESE: Who the Government of the UK is, is a matter for the people of the UK. I don’t get a vote in that process. Can I say this, though: someone who I’ve had a lot of contact with over a long period time, Philip Hammond, he was the Transport Minister, he was a very senior Tory in the UK. You know, I read in the last couple of days he’s likely to be expelled – Winston Churchill’s grandson likely to be expelled from the Tory party. Quite extraordinary occurrences that we’ve seen with Boris Johnson effectively losing a majority on the floor of the Parliament, literally while he was speaking.
GILBERT: Anthony Albanese, live from Brisbane. Thanks, appreciate it.
ALBANESE: Thanks a lot, Kieran.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.