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Transcript of interview with David Speers: Sky News, Parliament House, Canberra: 19 November 2013: Government's border security secrecy; Indonesian-Australian relationship

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Subjects: Government’s border security secrecy, Indonesian-Australian relationship

DAVID SPEERS: We just saw a little earlier Angus Campbell the Lieutenant General in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders in front of a Senate Estimates Committee strongly defending the secrecy surrounding boat arrivals under the new government’s regime. We know the Opposition have a great concern about this. To tell us more about it the Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles is with me now. Thank you for your time.

RICHARD MARLES: Good afternoon David.

The General insists this is an important measure, the secrecy, because it denies people smugglers information on whether their boats get through, where they are, in effect, the release of payments, it can help them sell their business if they get this official information from the Australian Government. Do you accept his arguments?

RICHARD MARLES: First thing I'm not going argue with a General, because that's precisely what the Government are trying to set up here, to have a General argue with us. And in that sense what I'm going to point to is the policy that the Liberal Party put out before the last election and what Scott Morrison himself has been saying in terms of the management of information. Now the point I would make there is if there is really an issue in the Government issuing press releases whenever a boat arrives, and providing the Australian public with the information that we would all expect then why are they going the Friday briefings at all? Because all of this information is ultimately coming to light.

SPEERS: Angus Campbell says it is about striking a balance between transparency and what is good for their operations at sea. That you do need to update the public but not on an ongoing basis.

MARLES: What is implied in that comment is that there is ultimately a balance to be struck here. So this is a matter of judgment, there's nothing absolute about this. And that is what Scott Morrison is saying is there something magical about an operational matter and no one can ever talk about it. Let’s be clear, when Scott Morrison himself was the Shadow Minister he put out a press release every time a boat came here. I don’t think the Coalition were particularly shy about telling the Australian people and presumably people smugglers exactly how many boats had come to Australia and how many asylum seekers had come to Australia.

SPEERS: But it is, now I know you don’t want to argue with him but it is the General, and yes Scott Morrison flagged this secrecy prior to the election, but it is the General now arguing why is it necessary and making the case.

MARLES: Let's not focus so much on who is making the argument because that is exactly what the Government is seeking to do. Let's just look at the content of what is being said and the sense of that. We live in a day and age where people who are getting on those people smuggler boats have mobile phones and GPS technology. I mean if the people smugglers don't know where their own boats are who would? So I think there are lots of means; social media, families here in Australia telephoning families in the source countries about whether people have made it. There are a million ways in which this information is being communicated. What we have got here is the Government refusing to tell us what is going on. Because the reality is they promised to do toe-backs and they're not doing toe-backs. They promised to buy boats in Indonesia, they are not buying any boats in Indonesia. That’s the real issue.

SPEERS: In the several weeks it's been in operation, and we have had updates at the end of each week. What are we being denied that has really mattered?

MARLES: Firstly we have been denied the standing of the Parliament. So last week we had this situation, Scott Morrison was asked the question about whether or not a boat had arrived in Darwin, just the fact of whether a boat had arrived in Darwin. All of that had of course been reported so the whole world knew that was the case. Refuses to answer in Parliament but tells us in the press conference on Friday. Now the point I would make about it is this. If Scott Morrison were to mislead, or indeed if anyone were to mislead a press conference, that's a bad article. As a Minister misleading the Parliament you lose your job. The probity associated with the Parliament is much greater, the gravity of being upfront with Parliament is much more serious -

SPEERS: But is he misleading Parliament if he does inform Parliament, like the rest of us, at the end of each week?

MARLES: He is not informing Parliament, he is just doing a press conference. And the onus upon him in terms of presenting material that is accurate is nothing like what it is in press conferences compared to what it would be in Parliament. That's why we have Question Time. Question Time is the principle means by which we hold governments to account because the consequences of misleading Question Time by a government are so significant. And I think this is the matter that ought to be of concern to the Australian people. We are watching Scott Morrison and this

government just treat the Parliament and Question Time with contempt and in the process they are treating the Australian people with contempt as well.

SPEERS: Now things are fairly tense it would seem with Indonesia at the moment. You did raise some concern in Parliament this afternoon, about perhaps, Indonesia not being as cooperative, what do you think they may do?

MARLES: The point that we were trying to make was that if you look at one measure particularly that we raised which is automatic visas on arrival for Iranians arriving in Indonesia. This was something that the then Rudd Government negotiated with Indonesia, and the Indonesians were prepared to do this and that was not to give automatic visas on arrival. It has been a really significant measure. It has slowed down the flow of Iranians coming through Indonesia and then getting on a boat.

SPEERS: Why would you raise this today, are you trying to egg on Indonesia here?

MARLES: Of course not. In circumstances where we have been saying from the outset and well before all that's appeared in the last two days. We have been saying from the outset that the only way in which you can go about your relationship with Indonesia when it comes to asylum seekers is on the basis of cooperation. We made the point that this government has been seeking to dictate terms to Indonesia from day one and they've ended up with egg on their face.

SPEERS: To that end in the efforts of patching things up, do you think Tony Abbott should apologise for these spy claims?

MARLES: Look, I think that what is - firstly our relationship with Indonesia is a very, very significant relationship and when the then Opposition Leader now Prime Minister, talked about having a foreign policy more based on Jakarta rather than Geneva, I will credit him for this. There is no doubt that Indonesia is one of the most important bilateral relationships that we have. This now has to be worked through very carefully and words matter greatly -

SPEERS: And he's flatly refusing to apologise.

MARLES: Words with matter greatly in terms of how things are carried out.

SPEERS: And would an apology help?

MARLES: The point I want to make is this, we do have some guidance here in terms of how to proceed. With the revelations that Edward Snowden has made and the way in which that's rippled across the world and in effect that is what we are now dealing with here. We do have, in a sense, the first case which was between the US and Germany. Now both the President of the United States and Chancellor Merkel were on the phone to each other almost immediately. There is some guidance there as a pathway towards repairing the relationship -

SPEERS: The President reportedly apologised directly to Chancellor Merkel. Are you saying that is what Tony Abbott should do?

MARLES: We are not being prescriptive in relation to the government, and we do not want to politicise this. We want to try and support the government on this -

SPEERS: Well, it’s pretty clear - you either think he should or he shouldn't apologise.

MARLES: No I don’t think it is as clear as that -

SPEERS: Are you saying he should follow President Obama's lead?

MARLES: I'm saying the path that the US and Germany walked together gives us some guidance in terms of how to deal with this information coming to the fore -

SPEERS: - But what does that mean? It's a good path to follow?

MARLES: It's a good path to follow but I guess the point I am making -

SPEERS: So apology is a good thing?

MARLES: Let me -

SPEERS: Well it is a pretty clear question.

MARLES: The reason it is a difficult question to answer is this: I'm not sitting in the chair. I am not sitting in Julie Bishop's chair nor Tony Abbott’s, and Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek aren't either. We don't have at our disposal all the information, the cables and the communications. We understand they are the ones sitting in the chair and we want to support them in doing what needs to be done to repair the relationship.

So I am not going to sit here and be prescriptive to the Government about what they should do which is why I don’t want to answer the question that you’ve asked me because frankly I'm not in a position to answer it not having that information at hand. The only thing we are suggesting is, there is a road that has already been walked here by both Germany and the US - it's an example to looking at.

SPEERS: Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Security. Thanks for joining us.

MARLES: Thanks David.