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Transcript of interview with Chris Uhlmann: ABC News 24: 20 October 2010: Australia's commitment to Afghanistan; Murray-Darling Basin



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The Hon Richard Marles MP Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs

Interview with ABC News 24 correspondent Chris Uhlmann

Subjects: Australia's commitment to Afghanistan, Murray-Darling Basin

Transcript, E&OE

20 October 2010

ALI MOORE: Well, back to Canberra now and the debate on Australia's role in Afghanistan. For that and other political matters, let's hand it over to our political editor, Chris Uhlmann.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Thanks, Ali, and I'm joined by Jamie Briggs who is the Liberal Member for Mayo in South Australia and Richard Marles who is the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and the Labor Member for Corio.

Gentlemen, Good afternoon.

RICHARD MARLES: Hi Chris.

JAMIE BRIGGS: Chris.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The Afghanistan debate continues so can we continue by asking you both, and first you Jamie Briggs, what your view is?

JAMIE BRIGGS: Look, I think the parliament in the last two days has heard a range of good speeches on the deployment of Australian troops to Afghanistan, starting yesterday with the - I think, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition gave fine speeches yesterday on the reasons for why we're there and what we are trying to achieve. And, importantly, what were the reasons that we went there initially, reminding people that this was, of course, a response to the horrific events, the generational events that occurred on September 11, 2001. I believe that the contribution we make in - we are making is important. I believe the honour that we give those who have lost their lives serving our country over there is worthwhile sticking out for, to achieve the results that we

wish to achieve. We don't want Afghanistan to again fall back into the hands of the truly bad people who not only mistreated their people so badly but also became a base for - a base camp establishment for attacks on Western interests across the world. But it is a great opportunity for all members to express their views in the parliament.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Richard Marles?

RICHARD MARLES: Look, I agree with Jamie. I think that was well put. I think it's been a really good debate and it's been a great opportunity to honour those who are doing service in Afghanistan. But, like Jamie, this is a very important mission for our country. It's very important to make sure that Afghanistan can never be used again as a haven and a training ground for terrorists. We need to remember the enormous toll that was paid by this country and many others through the terrorist attacks that have been made by people who were trained in Afghanistan. And it's a very important mission we're involved in and I think we've got to stay the course until we've trained the Fourth Brigade of the National Afghan Army in their roles.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But Andrew Wilkie today said that both major parties were perpetuating what he called the big lie, that this was all over-blown, and in fact that the reasons for going there have now evaporated and that the troops should come home as quickly as possible.

JAMIE BRIGGS: And he's entitled to express that in the Australian parliament. He's been elected to represent an electorate and he's able to - and this is what this debate's been about in the last couple of days and will continue for some time - to express his views.

I listened to a majority of his speech this morning. He's obviously got a perspective on these issues, and some of it I don't agree with. I don't agree with his take on Australia's relationship with the United States. I think it is important, as the Leader of the Opposition I think very well identified yesterday, to stand with your friends when it's tough, and it is tough. This is a tough time.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Richard Marles, do you think that some might be a bit disturbed by what the Prime Minister said yesterday, that there will be some involvement for Australia for a decade at least? That seems like a commitment, almost without end.

RICHARD MARLES: Look, I think it's important to have realism in this debate and I think it was a really important statement that the Prime Minister made. Now, what we have made clear is that our mission, at the moment, is about training the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army. The Karzai

Government and ourselves have estimated that that's a two to four year job but, you know, that's an indicative timeframe and the completion of that job is when the mission ends. But from there, there is going to be a transition into a development, an aid relationship that we have with many countries around the world and Afghanistan is an aid recipient. And through that we'll be providing support to Afghanistan and that is a process which takes a long time.

But I think we do need to bear in mind that we've got relationships with dozens of countries around the world where that kind of development assistance is being provided.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Now, one point of departure between the two major parties though, is what Tony Abbott was talking about yesterday in the fog of war with the charging of these three soldiers, that he was questioning whether or not the Government had done the right thing by these soldiers. Now, it is an independent process but there have been questions raised by the Coalition all the way along this path as if the Government can some way intervene in this process, and they clearly can't, Jamie Briggs.

JAMIE BRIGGS: Look, I'm not sure I'd characterise it in that way. I think what Tony Abbott is doing is raising a legitimate concern out in the community. I'm sure Richard's had emails to the same effect that I've had through the office as well and contact through the office as well. People are concerned I think that these three Australian troopers are treated appropriately and are given an opportunity to defend themselves. There is a very difficult balance for these guys when they're in these firefights.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But in the end what makes Australian troops different from the Taliban is that there are rules.

JAMIE BRIGGS: Absolutely, and we don't argue with that. All we're saying is let's make sure that they've got all the opportunities to be well represented so they can put their case as fully as they possibly can.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Richard?

RICHARD MARLES: Well, as you rightly said Chris, there are rules and that completely distinguishes us from the enemy. And we would not want to be going down the path that the enemy has gone down, and so we have rules of engagement. There is an independent process, which I might add, was established or at least the Office of the Defence Military Prosecutor was an office that was established under the Howard Government, with Tony Abbott as a member of the Cabinet. It's an important independent process and we've got to let it run and we shouldn't be getting involved in it as politicians, even as the

Chief of the Defence Force has said in his role either, other than to say, as he has said, that no expense will be spared in terms of providing these three soldiers with the resources that they need to engage in these proceedings, and that's an appropriate support to provide.

CHRIS UHLMANN: All right, speaking of independent processes which were established by the Howard Government, the Water Act of 2007 established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and gave it its riding instructions. And it would - it seemed to be, to me, a little unclear of the Coalition's position at the moment on this, Jamie Briggs, and the National Party's been very long and loud in its abuse of the MDBA and the process and the way that things are going. Your electorate sits at the mouth of the Murray. What do you think?

JAMIE BRIGGS: I'm committed to the Coalition's policy. The Coalition's policy at the last election, which was some three months ago, was that we would have - we would commit, re-commit to the principles announced by John

Howard on Australia Day, January 2007. There is no doubt that this system needs reform. I don't think many people argue that. Some do but most people accept that this system needs reform. The Water Act was put in place in 2007, amended by the Rudd Government in 2008. It does, you're right, call this process and the process is at the beginning. Now, we've been critical that they haven't done enough work on the economic and social impacts of this plan. And what you've seen is a very quick and hasty response in the last couple of days by the Government to try and catch up what they should have done. And, secondly, where we're very critical is they have failed absolutely for three years to invest the $5.8 billion put aside by the Howard-Turnbull plan in rural infrastructure which would make a lot of these water buy-backs unnecessary.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But just to be clear, before I go to Richard, you do believe that reduction of water allocations is necessary along the length of the Murray?

JAMIE BRIGGS: I believe the reform that was started in 2007 absolutely has to be implemented.

RICHARD MARLES: Well, let's understand what we've got here. We have a guide to a draft plan which is now the subject of consultation with communities along the Murray-Darling River Basin, and to look at the social and economic

impacts of the plan. Now, of course, if you want to talk about quick and hasty, what Tony Abbott was saying was that he would have implemented that draft plan two weeks after the election happened and now...

JAMIE BRIGGS: That's not true, Richard.

RICHARD MARLES: Well, that's what was taken to the election and now that election...

JAMIE BRIGGS: That's [indistinct] says in Question Time.

RICHARD MARLES: Now that the election's over, what we've got is Tony Abbott retreating from that position, kind of heckling from the sidelines, trying to wreck the process and it's completely unclear what the Opposition's policy is. And I think the bigger point here, Chris, is that Tony Abbott has got to be more than Mr Waldorf off the Muppets, you know, criticising and heckling from the balcony. He's the alternative prime minister and that requires him to put forward policies and to say what he would do were he in the chair, and we're absolutely lacking that now.

JAMIE BRIGGS: Well look, you know, the person who made the grand promise before the election was Julia Gillard. On 10 August in Adelaide, she rolled in, she knew what would be the political potent promise to make and she promised to do whatever the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said. Now she's backed away from that because of the political pressure they've been under for the last couple of weeks. And even today, in Question Time, the water minister indicated that he was now seeking legal advice on the Water Act.

So the question on who's committed to reform is really squarely in the Prime Minister's court and it's because she has mishandled this issue so badly.

CHRIS UHLMANN: It strikes me that both sides now are beginning waiver on the Water Act.

JAMIE BRIGGS: As I said, our policy before the election was we're committed to the principles of the Howard plan in 2007.

RICHARD MARLES: We're committed to the process that is being undertaken at the moment. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is going through a consultative process. We absolutely accept that business as usual is untenable, that what we need to have is a situation where we've got a healthy

river because, you know, people in Jamie's electorate, people up and down the river basin require a healthy river. And that means that we do have to look at better ways of utilising those water resources and how much of the resources are taken out of the river. So we're committed to walking down that path. We're actually doing it. The Howard Government were in power for 12 years without

doing much at all on this, until the...

JAMIE BRIGGS: That's certainly not true.

RICHARD MARLES: Well, really until the death pangs and the last moments of the Howard Government.

JAMIE BRIGGS: No, 2004 the National Water Initiative was started by the Howard Government. The first buy-backs out of the Murray-Darling Basin system were brought about by the Howard Government. The first investment in rural infrastructure to improve water efficiencies. The problem here, on both

sides of the fence, Labor and Liberal, has been with state governments. The state governments for 100 years have mishandled this issue. It should have been put in the Constitution as a federal issue, as the South Australians argued in the late 1800s.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But we'd never have been a Federation at all.

RICHARD MARLES: But what that - I mean, and the point that Jamie raises there, just highlights the fact that what you then need is a consistent policy from the Commonwealth Government if we're going to see this process through. And that's what we're pursuing and to see what Mr Abbott is doing, which is flip-

flopping around, you know, taking a policy to the election, running away from that now, heckling from the sidelines. That is not a way to run a government and he is simply not performing his role as an alternative prime minister.

JAMIE BRIGGS: But in saying that, today the water minister has questioned - has said that he's seeking legal advice on the Water Act. Now, if the Government believes there needs to be change to the Water Act, they need to bring it to Parliament and tell us the reason for that.

CHRIS UHLMANN: It's obvious though, isn't it, Richard Marles, this is going to be a tough reform? It's a long timeline anyway. As you say, this is a draft to a guide plan - a guide to the draft plan. There's a year's worth of discussion in that and there's 10 year's worth of discussion potentially in the way that this whole thing is laid out.

RICHARD MARLES: Yeah, look Chris, of course it's tough but we're actually doing it and that's the point. We are stepping through this. We're stepping through it in a consultative way. We're balancing the needs of having a healthy river, of looking at what resources there are to have a more efficient use of water and what methods can be put in place in terms of water buy-backs to reduce the amount that's being taken out of the river. Now, that is a complex balancing act. We're working through the consultative process of doing that. What we've got is Mr Abbott, from the sidelines heckling at us while we're doing it.

CHRIS UHLMANN: All right, well unfortunately we're going to have to leave it there. So Jamie Briggs and Richard Marles, thank you.

RICHARD MARLES: Thanks Chris.

JAMIE BRIGGS: Thanks Chris.

END

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