HELEN DALLEY: The Pacific Islands Forum continues in New Zealand with the Prime Minister meeting her counterparts there, but apparently not talking about asylum seekers and offshore processing with those leaders.
However, that issue is still very much on the front pages here at home. Tony Abbott says he'll support the Government but not if it includes Malaysia as part of the deal.
Meanwhile after the pretty terrible poll this week, the Government will have a small sigh of relief that New South Wales Police has ended its investigation into Craig Thomson’s use of his union credit card. Police saying no crime has been committed.
Even better news for the Government were the GDP growth figures yesterday, the best in four years; showing the economy is growing much better than expected. We'll talk all that with our panel but first this morning Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles is at the Pacific Islands Forum and he joins me now.
Richard Marles, good morning and welcome.
RICHARD MARLES: Good morning Helen, how are you?
HELEN DALLEY: I'm well. Now I know you've been out of the country but you and the Government must be extremely relieved the New South Wales Police said on the pages of documents and evidence that it looked at, no crime has been committed and no charges will be pursued against MP Craig Thomson.
RICHARD MARLES: Well, this is a simple matter Helen. This is fundamentally a matter for the police, a matter for the New South Wales Police and, if they become involved, a matter for the Victorian Police. It’s not a matter for politicians. It’s not a matter for George Brandis. It’s not a matter for the Opposition. And the only job that we have in public life is to…
HELEN DALLEY: [Interrupts] Well if some wrongdoing has been done then surely it is up to politicians to look at that first and bring it out if something has been done.
RICHARD MARLES: No, that’s not right. In terms of the criminal justice system in this country, that is much better left in the hands of the police and the court system and the enquiries they conduct. The last place it ought to end up is in question time or in the media.
The media and politicians are not at our best when we try and enter the world of the criminal justice system. It ought to be left to that system and our only job is to remember the fundamental principal of the presumption of innocence.
That’s what Craig Thomson has a right to and that’s what we ought to accord him.
HELEN DALLEY: All right, well now the New South Wales Police have really backed that up but they will refer it to Victoria Police as well. Do you think after — it will be the end of the matter?
RICHARD MARLES: I think it’s a matter for the police to carry out their investigations. This is fundamentally an issue for them. I don't think the way this has been conducted in parliament has put politicians in a good light at all. We are all much better if we leave this to the people whose job it is, which is the police in this case and the criminal justice system, and for us to stay out of it.
HELEN DALLEY: All right. Well now to where you are in the forum. One of the big issues there is Fiji. I guess as the pariah, there is pressure from some countries to let Fiji back in. Have you argued against that happening?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, certainly the suspension of Fiji from the forum ought not to be removed at this moment.
It is, of course, very painful for the Pacific and the Pacific Islands Forum that Fiji doesn't take its place within the forum. We feel that pain as well.
But a fundamental value of the Pacific is that we are a democratic part of the world. We have democratic countries who participate in the Pacific Islands Forum.
What’s going on at the moment in Fiji, the conduct that’s being undertaken by the interim regime — banning the Methodist Church from holding their annual conference, the crackdown against trade unions, the sacking of independent academics who criticise the Government — none of these are the behaviour of a country which is taking steps to return to democracy.
In that context, it would be completely inconsistent, given the values of our region, for Fiji to take its place within the forum.
HELEN DALLEY: So, I guess you're saying you can't conceive of any circumstance where Fiji would be allowed back in unless they have free elections?
RICHARD MARLES: I can conceive of the circumstance and that’s where Fiji takes meaningful steps towards returning to democracy. At the moment we've had no sign from the interim regime that they're the slightest bit interested in doing that.
HELEN DALLEY: All right.
RICHARD MARLES: But you know, Australia has stood ready from day one to engage with Fiji. We'd do that today and tomorrow if there was any sign, a sign, from Fiji that they were genuinely interested in moving towards elections.
HELEN DALLEY: All right, let’s briefly talk asylum seekers and offshore processing. Now the Prime Minister has said she is not talking to the other leaders there about it. Are you having any talks about it with senior people in our neighbouring countries?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I'm not. I mean the exception to that is that I have spoken to Papua New Guinea over a number of months in relation to the memorandum of understanding that was reached prior to the High Court making its decision.
PNG have been briefed on what the High Court decision says and where that leaves us in terms of our considerations.
But, with the exception of that, in context of a process which was well underway, no, we're not having conversations with other countries in the Pacific.
I know that this is something which has been running very heavily in Australia but it might surprise people to know that it’s actually not the number one item on the agenda of the countries in the Pacific.
They're facing big issues in terms of climate change, big issues in terms of building sustainable economies in a context where you've got very small populations in a very isolated part of the world.
That’s where their heads are at and, in the midst of all of that, they're not really raking through the debate in Australia about a regional processing centre.
HELEN DALLEY: No but nonetheless people here are raking through that debate and if the PM wants a regional solution which she’s talked about many times, I guess people would ask why isn't she talking to the Pacific part of our region?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, the simple answer is that in light of the High Court decision, which really has turned the law on its head in Australia, we now have quite a bit of work to do at home.
We know two things now. One is that in light of how the law is understood after the High Court decision, it casts doubt about any form of offshore processing. That includes what existed under the Howard Government.
HELEN DALLEY: All right and also…
RICHARD MARLES: And the second point is therefore…
HELEN DALLEY: Go ahead.
RICHARD MARLES: Well, the second point is that if we're going to do any offshore processing of any kind, there’s going to have to be some legislative solution in Australia.
So, we've got a lot of work to do with that and I think it’s not appropriate now to be engaging in dialogue with countries abroad.
We need to be doing the work at home which can create the platform — if that’s what we ultimately do — to enable us to do that in the future. And it’s not as though we don't…
HELEN DALLEY: All right.
RICHARD MARLES: …have mobile phones, there’s modern telecommunications…
HELEN DALLEY: Okay. Sorry I just…
RICHARD MARLES: …we can talk to the Pacific any time.
HELEN DALLEY: All right, I just want to ask you then, I mean, you — you say that you will change the legislation, you want to do a deal and Tony Abbott has offered that he will do a deal with you but he says he won't accept Malaysia. You still want Malaysia so there’s still no real cooperation between you and the Opposition is there?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, if that ultimately is the case, that is a sad indictment on the leader of the Opposition who has been saying this is an issue which needs to be resolved.
Earlier in the week we seemed to be hearing this kind of good faith narrative from the Opposition, that they were willing to talk to us about a solution in light of what’s occurred with the High Court.
Now we're seeing crab crawling away from that and it’s only a solution on Tony Abbott’s terms.
The fact of the matter is, what’s come out of the High Court decision is that we're going to have to have some form of legislative solution in Australia to enable any of the possibilities being talked about by the various parties in the Australian debate, be it the Malaysian solution, or any of the ideas that are being put forward by the Opposition.
We actually need to have everything on the table so that we can get a proper legislative platform in Australia.
If Tony Abbott is serious about dealing with this issue then he needs to come to the table and work with us constructively.
HELEN DALLEY: All right, well he has said he will and he’s waiting for a solution, a policy from you, but look Richard Marles…
RICHARD MARLES: No, no he said he'll only do it on his terms and that’s an important…
HELEN DALLEY: All right.
RICHARD MARLES: … point to make. Ruling out Malaysia is not coming to the table in good faith.
HELEN DALLEY: All right Richard Marles, we will have to leave it there, thanks so much for joining us from the forum.
RICHARD MARLES: Thank you Helen.
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