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Transcript of interview with Jennifer Byrne, Dick Smith and Geoff Cousins: ABC Sydney, Monday Political Forum: 20 June 2011: Foreign Minister; pricing carbon; Opposition's plebiscite stunt; Malaysian transfer agreement; Nauru

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MONDAY, 20 JUNE 2011

SUBJECTS: Foreign Minister, pricing carbon, Opposition’s plebiscite stunt, Malaysian transfer agreement, Nauru.

JENNIFER BYRNE: And it is time for the Political Forum, being a Monday at 25 to six, and we’ll be joined today by Chris Bowen, the Federal Immigration Minister, in Canberra, Dick Smith, entrepreneur, and Geoff Cousins, businessman.

Good afternoon, all.

DICK SMITH: Hi, Jen. I reckon I’m a businessman too; how come I’m an entrepreneur and he’s a businessman?


BYRNE: Oh, I don’t know, because we had to come up with a one-word description. Are you satisfied with yours, Chris?

CHRIS BOWEN: Yes, I am a politician, I can confirm, thank you.

BYRNE: [laughs] That’s right, you’ve got a title too and everything.

Now listen, let’s start with the former Prime Minister: cancels his ‘assassination party’, as he’s described it, to mark the one-year anniversary of his ousting as Prime Minister by Julia Gillard, but not before a series of set piece appearances and ‘what I’ve learned from the experience’ interviews which have riled many in the party, including Peter Beattie, the former Queensland Premier, who warns that Mr Rudd’s behaviour is killing Labor electorally. Is the Foreign Minister entitled to share his pain, or should he just buckle down and keep quiet? Chris Bowen?

BOWEN: Well, I think he is buckling down, he’s buckling down and working hard. And I work closely with Kevin as Immigration Minister and he’s Foreign Minister, and as you can imagine, we work on a lot of things together and he works very hard at it.

Now, if he didn’t do interviews people would criticise him for that and say, ‘Oh look, he’s gone quiet’. In every interview he’s done he’s outlined his position, which is to support Julia, support the Prime Minister, and I’ve seen and I work closely with Julia and Kevin, and it’s a very professional relationship.

BYRNE: Oh, come on Chris, he also says - hang on just a minute - he says also things like, ‘oh, good try’ when you ask him yet again about being Prime Minister, ‘good try’, in other words, ‘feel free to ask me’.

BOWEN: No, no. Well, he’s also made it very clear that, you know, he’s interested in

supporting Julia Gillard as Prime Minister right up to the next election and that’s the perfectly appropriate position for him to take.

I think Kevin’s got a lot to offer Australia. I think he’s a really good Foreign Minister, I think, you know, traditionally in Australia Prime Ministers have left the scene when they cease being Prime Minister. I think it’s really good that Kevin’s decided not to do that; he’s still got a lot to offer. He’s still a fairly young man and he’s well known around the world, well known with his Foreign Minister and leader colleagues, and he’s got a lot of respect and I think he’s making a great contribution as Foreign Minister.

And, you know, we can all get caught up in, you know, one photo. We all get our photos taken in this building a hundred times a day. You could take one photo and show us looking grumpy or happy or sad or anything, you know, and I think a lot of this stuff gets overanalysed, frankly.

As I say, I work closely with Kevin in the Cabinet on joint issues and he’s very professional, very positive in his dealings with his other colleagues and I think a lot of this just gets overblown.

BYRNE: Yep, and therefore Peter Beattie is wrong, I assume, but look, we’ll come back to that. Dick Smith, what do you think?

SMITH: I happen to agree with Chris here.

BYRNE: Okay.

SMITH: Believe it or not. I think it’s so much beaten up by the media, you know, I really do. I think that yes, he’s lost the job as Prime Minister and he’s doing the job as the Foreign Minister, and I think he’s doing it okay and I just think so much beaten up about it.

BYRNE: What do you say, Geoff Cousins?

GEOFF COUSINS: Does anyone really care whether Kevin has a party or not? I think he actually -

BYRNE: Well, Peter Beattie does.

COUSINS: I think he actually should have a really big party, I think it would do him the world of good. But look, honestly, the reason the Government’s in terrible trouble has got absolutely nothing to do with Kevin Rudd, it’s got to do with the fact that there’s no policy development, that they’re floundering around on just about every major issue.

You look at - and it’s deeply disappointing to anyone who has an interest in politics, not party politics but political ideas, and quite frankly I don’t think the Coalition, the Opposition is much better. I think Australian politics right at the minute is at about its lowest ebb, I really do, and I wish to goodness somebody would come up with some well thought out policy decisions and put them forward in a considered way. At the moment it all seems to be fly-by-night stuff. A policy is announced before anyone has figured out what it even means.

BYRNE: Well look, that’s a fairly broad-scale attack, I would say that.

COUSINS: It sure is, it sure is, and I think the Australian people demonstrably agree with this because look at where the Government is rating right at the moment.

SMITH: And I agree with Geoff, by the way, there is no real policy from either side. In my whole life, I’m 67 and I’ve never seen such a lack of leadership. I just, I think it’s extraordinary, I can’t work it out.

BYRNE: Chris Bowen, I don’t want to drag you through all the polls because that’s not really the point, you know. Would you accept that people are feeling very disenchanted?

BOWEN: Well, look, I think we’re dealing with a lot of difficult issues at the moment, and governments, when they’re dealing with difficult issues, lose bark and they go through difficult periods, and we are. We’re dealing with things like pricing carbon. Now, you’ve got to remember, pricing carbon has cost, you know, I think it’s three leaders of the Liberal Party their job. It’s a controversial issue, and yes, it’s controversial in the broader community, and we’re embarking on that difficult reform. And people will be critical of that, they will be critical in both ways and -

BYRNE: I take your point, but if I could just bring you back, Chris, to where we started, which is these are all big, important matters, I understand, but do you not think that perhaps for, you know, ordinary members of the community - forget the Labor Party - to see the kind of ferocious leaking that has been going on between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

I mean, maybe Dick Smith is right that the media shouldn’t cover it, but the fact is even the articles say what Kevin Rudd says in public and what he says in private. We have clearly had briefing by the Julia Gillard people because in all the articles they have the same thing, ‘well, maybe we should have told people the truth about what a bully Kevin is’. You can see the leaking going on, isn’t that part of the problem? This animus that seems to be so rankling still between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister?

BOWEN: Again, Jennifer, I can only call it as I see it


BOWEN: And I can only talk about what I see. And I see, as a fellow Cabinet member, Kevin Rudd working hard and working with his colleagues, and obviously working with the Prime Minister. And I’ve been, you know, obviously very regularly in meetings with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the three of us and other ministers, and it’s not as you would describe it. There’s a very real recognition that we’ve got a job to do and that we’re getting on with the job.

Now, I see reports about, you know, somebody said this and somebody said that, and it’s not necessarily the case, but you’re going to get people doing that from time to time.

SMITH: But Jen, I’m amazed that you’ve gone back to this.


SMITH: And here you are in the media, you’re -

BYRNE: Because I’ve -

SMITH: Because it’s irrelevant. I agree with Geoff: it’s irrelevant; who cares?

COUSINS: And it doesn’t actually determine what people think about governments. I’ve had a bit to do with political communication over the years and I can tell you fundamentally people don’t care about all this stuff.


COUSINS: The media get caught up in it, it’s all very fascinating to the Canberra press gallery and the politicians, but what actually determines the success or failure of governments, or oppositions for that matter, is not matters of this kind.

SMITH: Yeah, we want Labor to explain the carbon tax, explain it to us.

COUSINS: Yeah, you got onto the carbon tax, let’s talk about that instead.

SMITH: Something important!

BYRNE: Well that’s one thing, I think, you all agree. So things like ‘lemon, lime and bitter’, that’s just rubbish, that’s just gratuitous rubbish?

COUSINS: Political posturing, who cares?

SMITH: It’s just the press wasting everyone’s time.

BYRNE: I think that we can get unanimity from all three. Chris Bowen, would you agree, press wasting time?

BOWEN: Well, I agree with Geoff and Dick that you will get people getting focused on particular issues. As I said, one photograph, I mean, as I said, everybody walks around this building, I’ve got two cameramen filming me as I speak to you. Now you’d be able to get one photograph out of that of me looking -

SMITH: Put on a grim expression, quick!


BOWEN: That’s right, that’s right, and then you can overanalyse it everybody says, ‘oh look, the body language is not good’. I mean, frankly, it’s nonsense.

BYRNE: I can feel it down the wires! I can feel it down the line.

SMITH: Yes, yes, he’s obviously going for the Prime Minister’s job, isn’t he? I can definitely - I’m going to start the rumour now!

BOWEN: [laughs] Yeah, well …

COUSINS: I can say that, Chris. You raised the carbon tax and said, ‘why aren’t people talking about that?’ and there’s a classic example of an absolutely abysmal piece of political communication where the Government announces it’s going to have

a tax, a very important thing, and you won’t get a stronger supporter of a carbon tax than me. You announce this without the faintest idea, apparently, how you’re going to execute it, how it’s going to work.

SMITH: I don’t understand it.

COUSINS: I mean, that’s just terrible!

SMITH: I support it, but I don’t understand it.

BYRNE: Well, they’re both sitting here looking very confused. Chris, you have the floor.

BOWEN: Well, I think, as I said, carbon pricing is a difficult issue, but what the decision taken was to announce that we’re going price carbon, announce the parameters, and then to announce the details, and sometimes -

BYRNE: Yes, but what they’re asking is what does it mean? What does it mean, what is the shape of it? Is that what you’re asking?

COUSINS: Yeah, look. It’s a simple principle of communication. You don’t announce something unless you have the detail to fill up all the space that will be taken up by the debates that come after your announcement. That’s just simple communication.

SMITH: It’s so basic.

COUSINS: It’s political amateurism. You think you can go out and announce something and then leave a vacuum. The vacuum will be filled by your critics, and that’s exactly what’s happened.

BYRNE: Minister?

BOWEN: The reality of the situation is sometimes governments need to announce decisions and then announce more details later. For example, as I recall, John Howard announced the GST. It was months before he put the detail out. I think I’m right in saying it could have been nine months before he put the detail out because he wanted to work it through.

COUSINS: He got into a lot of trouble too.

BYRNE: He nearly lost an election.

BOWEN: But in the end he got there, he got there.

COUSINS: That’s not a good example.

BOWEN: Well, but he got there. It was a big reform, a difficult reform, and he took the decision that, rightly, he’d made a decision to introduce a GST, he should be honest with people about that, come out and say that, just as Julia Gillard took the decision that we’d made a decision to price carbon, that we would have a fixed price to start with, and then move to a floating system, and that we’d need to talk to people in other parties because we are in a hung Parliament in both houses of Parliament. That means you’ve got to talk to people in other parties and that means having a conversation. You can’t have those conversations secretly. You say, ‘okay, we’re going to price carbon, we’re going to talk to the other parties about it, going to talk to the Independents and Greens about it because the Liberal Party won’t buy into it’.

But that means you’ve got to put it out there, and yes, that’s difficult at the moment because you’ve got Tony Abbott saying ‘no’ to carbon tax and we’re saying there

should be a price on carbon but we’re also saying there will be an assistance package. But when the details of the assistance package are out I think that will change the dynamics very considerably.

BYRNE: Okay, we’ve got Chris Bowen, Federal Immigration Minister, Dick Smith, entrepreneur and businessman, Geoff Cousins, businessman and entrepreneur, with us at a quarter to six.

Chris was just mentioning Tony Abbott’s proposition, of course. In that space you mention, that vacuum of detail, you’re saying that space was waiting to be filled and here is another proposition to be put into that space: Tony Abbott’s plebiscite on carbon tax. Geoff, is it all about the politics or is there a kernel of a good idea?

COUSINS: Well, he revealed what a complete sort of stunt it was today by saying that if the result that came forward wasn’t one that he liked he’d ignore it.

BYRNE: Yes [inaudible] because it is hard to go on from there, isn’t there?

COUSINS: For goodness’ sake.

SMITH: I think he’s scared because if there was a plebiscite, if it was properly sold, most Australians are sensible, most Australians know that no one will ever know for sure about carbon, but there’s always the doubt and we should give the benefit of the doubt to our children and grandchildren. Once that’s communicated properly I believe most Australians will support a carbon tax.

COUSINS: Well, they might do. I mean, I don’t disagree with Dick on that, if -

BYRNE: So whatever the polls say -

COUSINS: If the thing was properly communicated, but I still think the idea of a plebiscite is a nonsense. The Government’s been elected, it is supposed to govern the country; you don’t go and have a plebiscite on every question that comes along. You articulate a policy, you sell it, you get political support and you get on with it.

And Tony Abbott doesn’t believe in plebiscites either, as he demonstrated, so instead of having again a debate about a plebiscite or not a plebiscite, we should be talking about how this thing is going to work. It was John Howard who first came forward with the idea to put a price on carbon, as a matter of fact, and Tony Abbott was a minister in that government.

SMITH: And do you realise Rupert Murdoch is making News Limited carbon neutral which is costing the consumers who buy his newspapers, the small business who advertise, it’s costing money. Now he’s made that decision, but if you look at The Australian newspaper they constantly criticise anyone in government who might do it.

BYRNE: Well -

SMITH: Ridiculous.

BYRNE: Also, he’s set up his mother as a stalking horse, don’t forget that.

SMITH: I don’t think he’s done that, but it’s interesting that Rupert Murdoch can spend the tens of millions of dollars. He’s obviously concerned; it’s a pity his papers don’t communicate that.

BYRNE: Chris Bowen, when you heard this report this morning about Tony Abbott and his plebiscite did you laugh?


BYRNE: Did you think it could be a bit of trouble for politics?

BOWEN: No, I laughed because I agree with Geoff: if you are fair dinkum and you said, ‘let’s have a plebiscite and it’ll be binding’, well, you might respect that, but when you say, ‘let’s have a plebiscite but if the people vote yes I’m still going to oppose it’, well, it just exposes it for the stunt that it is.

BYRNE: For one minute it looked like it could hurt perhaps, before he sold it out himself.

BOWEN: Well, I heard it on the radio coming down this morning and thought, ‘well there’s a stunt for you’, and very clearly we all know where Tony Abbott stands on pricing carbon. He doesn’t believe in man-made climate change and he doesn’t believe in pricing carbon, and then he says, ‘well, we should have a plebiscite but by the way if the people vote yes then I’m still saying no’. Well, that’s pretty clearly a stunt in my view. It walks like a stunt, talks like a stunt, it is a stunt.

BYRNE: Eleven minutes to six.

[Traffic report.]

And the Political Forum is in session this afternoon with Chris Bowen, Federal Immigration Minister, Dick Smith, entrepreneur, and Geoff Cousins, businessman; they can have interchangeable descriptors.

Now, arguments over the Malaysian refugee swap continue to rage, both within the Labor Party and without. The Left’s Senator Doug Cameron insists the deal must have UN support; you’ve got Nauru saying they are going to sign on to the UN Convention of Refugees; we’ve got Scott Morrison - your counterpart, Chris Bowen - visiting Malaysia later this week which you can’t imagine will help moving towards any kind of resolution. Was there a better way to handle this hottest of political potatoes and how much damage do you think it is actually doing to the Government? Dick Smith?

SMITH: Well, first of all borders are immoral; now, no one will admit to that. They’re immoral because everyone should have the same right to the world’s resources. Now, don’t think for a second that I don’t want borders but because I admit to the truth, you can’t make something that’s immoral fair. It’s impossible. And that’s the difficulty we have: trying to make something fair that is immoral, that is unfair. So you have to probably make it the least unfair. And I would have a feeling by the record that the Howard solution was the best of the unfair ones. I don’t think Labor has any intention of sending large numbers of people to Malaysia; their plan is that once the people who decide to come here by boat hear that you’re going to end up in Malaysia, they won’t come. That’s their idea.

BYRNE: Once the deal is signed.

SMITH: Yeah, once the deal is signed.

BYRNE: Because [inaudible] coming in the meantime.

SMITH: Even now there would be less coming because there’s a risk of going to Malaysia and that was the risk with the Howard so-called solution. But what people won’t admit is that borders are immoral, you can’t make something fair that is unfair, and you have to admit to that.

BYRNE: Geoff, what do you think?

COUSINS: Well, look -

BYRNE: Do you agree with Dick that in fact the Malaysia solution is not really a serious policy, it is just there to scare off possible comers?

COUSINS: Here’s a real issue of deep concern, I feel. I was in Europe when this arose and I saw in a newspaper a report that said we were going to send unaccompanied children back to Malaysia, or to Malaysia, and I thought, ‘well, this is an example of appalling journalism, no country in the world would do such a thing and certainly not my country that’s had a very good record on refugees’, and yet it turned out to be true.

And we have on the line today the Minister responsible for that. Now, under Australian law, the Minister responsible for these matters is the legal guardian of these children; that is Australian law. He is the legal guardian and if you look up the definition of ‘guardian’ it’s somebody who is responsible for the welfare of children, for the education of the children, for the emotional life of these children and this is the Minister. He is responsible.

Now, in this country the Minister can delegate that responsibility to somebody else on a day-to-day basis, but Chris Bowen is the legal guardian of these children under Australian law. And his answer to that is to send them to Malaysia? A country which has a very poor record on these matters and that was part of this policy.

Now again, I would say to you that is a very clear demonstration that this was a badly thought out policy, that no one had really considered how it was going to work, it was done on the run, and when Chris was then put to the test by all sorts of people, the United Nations and every refugee agency in the world and so on, his answer was, ‘oh yes, well, I wanted to send a signal to people that, you know, unaccompanied children would be sent back’.

You’re dealing with individuals here: these are children, 12, 14 years of age, you don’t send signals about them; you look after them.

BYRNE: Okay, well, we want to hear from Chris Bowen now. Chris?

BOWEN: Well, a few things to say. Firstly, if somebody said to you, ‘let’s come up with a policy solution which stops people getting on boats because it’s a disincentive, means you can take more refugees, and you can work with countries in the region and people like the United Nations to get better outcomes’, you’d say, ‘oh, that’s worth a good look’, and that’s exactly what this policy does. It provides that disincentive. We do not want people getting on boats: it’s dangerous, more people are going to die. I have a responsibility about that as well.

BYRNE: Do you accept Geoff’s interpretation that you are the guardian of these people?

BOWEN: Yes, I am the legal guardian.

COUSINS: Well, that’s the law. There’s no interpretation,; that is the law.

BOWEN: But let me make this point. I’ve said, and I continue to say, there’s no blanket exemptions because I can tell you, as sure as night follows day, people smugglers will then say, ‘oh look, if you send your child on a boat they won’t be sent back’, and you are going to see more and more children then taking that dangerous journey.

Now, what I’ve also said, and this has consistently been the case, that we have been talking to the United Nations about how you deal with children, and you don’t have a blanket exemption, but what you do do is you deal with each case. And we do have unaccompanied minors coming to Australia at the moment. Some of them are quite young and, of course, you deal with them very, very sensitively. We’ve got other unaccompanied minors who claim to be unaccompanied minors, who claim to be 17 or thereabouts, but then my department looks at them and there’s a pretty strong suspicion they’re in their twenties, so you’ve got to have, these are difficult issues. But what we don’t want -

COUSINS: Chris, you said you would send these children back.

BOWEN: I said no blanket exemptions because there -

COUSINS: You said you would send them back.

BOWEN: I said no blanket exemptions. I said no blanket exemptions.

COUSINS: Now, this is not children who might come here, who might be deterred or not deterred, these are children that are here, that are under your care, that you are the legal guardian for. You can’t just ignore that and say, ‘I want to send a signal; therefore I’ll send them back’.

BOWEN: No, I don’t. I don’t ignore that and that’s why I’ve been working with the UNHCR on how you deal with children. And look, I, listen, I need to make this point -

BYRNE: Can I just ask you a question at this point?

BOWEN: Sure.

BYRNE: It seems to me passing strange that you’ve found yourself in a position where you’re working with the UN who may or may not work with Malaysia, and yet Nauru, they are. I mean ,you’re in an impossible situation, aren’t you?

BOWEN: Nauru, how does Nauru work? Nauru works by breaking people, not by breaking people smugglers’ business models. The previous Government sent people to Nauru and left them for years, but they all then still ended up in Australia if they were genuine refugees, or the majority of them, and then you’ve still got people in the community now who are suffering the mental anguish of being left on Nauru for so long. But I just want to make this point about children -

BYRNE: Yeah, and then we’ve got to move on from this.

BOWEN: I take my responsibility - yeah, sure, but I just want to make this point

because it is important - I take my responsibility when it comes to children very, very seriously and I’m the Minister who is moving children out of detention and putting them into the community. It’s been a big task but we’re doing it.

But I also take my responsibility very carefully. If we said, just sent the signal to people smugglers that look, send your children one by one on boats and that’s an exemption and a way through it and then they’d be able to sponsor the parents in, and then we have a boat crash full of children, then people would be saying to me, ‘well, you’ve failed in your responsibility’.

So there is a balancing act to be done here, and as I say, the benefit of the Malaysian arrangement is that you do break the people smugglers’ business model, we take more refugees. I make no apologies for that; I want to take more refugees. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison criticise me because we’re taking 4000 refugees out of Malaysia; I think that’s a good thing.

BYRNE: Okay.

BOWEN: I’m proud of that. And a lot of those will be children, by the way. And it’s not just the people who arrive on our shores that we care about, there’s 18,000 asylum seeker children in Malaysia and I want to see a lot of them resettled in Australia as well.

BYRNE: But I think the intensity of Geoff’s argument is an example of why this is a very poisonous and difficult area, and we all hope -

BOWEN: Sure, I know that better than most people, I think.

BYRNE: You certainly do, Chris, and we all hope, you know, one day we’ll live in a world without borders, Dick, but I think it’s going to be a little while yet.

SMITH: Don’t worry, I don’t want to change it, but I don’t want to kid anyone when the Minister’s talking about people smugglers. What a con: we blame people smugglers, come on. These people are helping people get here who are mostly genuine refugees.

BOWEN: Oh, and they’re making a lot of money.

SMITH: How can that be bad?

BOWEN: They’re making a lot of money out of it and they’re running criminal syndicates as well.

SMITH: So if they were doing it, if I got people doing it for nothing, you’d say it was okay, would you?

BOWEN: No, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t.

BYRNE: We’re going to leave this one here.

BOWEN: We’ve got people making a lot of money and not everybody, of course, is regarded as a genuine refugee when they get here.

SMITH: Right.

BYRNE: Now, we had all these nice gentle ones to get to, but we’re not going to get there, like the things we give away if we were Tom Keneally and so forth, and also because I have to let you know a severe weather warning has been issued.

[Weather report.]

It is just about to come up to the 6pm news. I’m sorry we didn’t get to the light and nice fluffy story about the precious things we would have given away in the style of Tom Keneally, but as ever it has been fantastic to have you. Thank you so much Chris Bowen, Federal Immigration Minister, thank you Dick Smith, thank you Geoff Cousins; it’s been lovely to have you all.