LYNDAL CURTIS: Parliament resumed today just days after at least, or around 90 asylum seekers are thought to have lost their lives at sea. There were expressions of sadness from both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, but there’s no sign yet of a compromise on a policy that will stop the boats making the dangerous journey to Australia. The Prime Minister has said she’s open to talking to the Opposition but we don't yet know what might be on the table.
Joining me to discuss the day’s events, are Labor Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles, Nationals MP Darren Chester.
Welcome to you both.
We'll go first to the deaths at sea of asylum seekers and the rescue of 110. Here’s the reaction from Parliament.
SCOTT MORRISON: They have not changed one letter of their legislation that they want to put through this Parliament, not one letter. They have not changed one aspect of their Malaysian people swap proposal in response to the issues we've highlighted with that proposal. They are bull-headedly going ahead and saying, take this arrangement as it is — or that’s it.
Changing, undoing Nauru, does not make their legislation any better.
CHRISTINE MILNE: I think we should start by increasing our humanitarian intake to at least 25-26,000, around about that mark — and also going in and supporting UNHCR in Indonesia. But first thing we're going to do is try and get together with Amnesty International, with UNHCR, with refugee leaders here in Canberra this week to try and sit down and say we're prepared to work on a humanitarian solution to this.
MARK DREYFUS: Australians are sick and tired of the politicking. Australians do not want these drownings to continue, they do not want these tragedies to continue, and the only way in which they can be made to stop is if the politicians in this place, the parliamentarians here are prepared to sit down and reach some agreement, that’s the way in which we've made progress in what is a finely balanced parliament.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Richard, this was not the first loss of life at sea of asylum seekers. We actually don't know how many asylum seekers have died making the journey, usually from Indonesia to Australia. After each loss of life there is expression of sadness and regret by politicians, and eventually you get back to the point scoring and the blame game.
Is there any way to end it?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, we need to have a compromise. I think what the Australian people want to see is that major political parties in this country sit down and reach an agreement. We're very open to that. The Prime Minister made that very clear just now. I remember having a chat with you after a similar tragedy, where you made the point to both of us sitting here — why can't we do Malaysia and Nauru? Well that’s actually the compromise on the table now — that we can do Malaysia and Nauru.
I mean we… the fact…
LYNDAL CURTIS: But in the end the Opposition’s rejected your compromise, so is there need to do more?
Are you willing to offer more?
RICHARD MARLES: I'm not sure how much more one can offer. The Opposition say they want Nauru on the table, Nauru’s on the table. What we've got to see is an Opposition actually interested in coming up with a solution so that we do have a humane position providing a significant disincentive for people making this dangerous journey. If the Opposition don't want to see this problem solved it won't be solved, because we need them at the table and we need to reach an agreement. I think the Australian community are now crying out for everyone in politics to sit down and come up with a solution. It is pretty obvious Lyndal that there is a patent interest for everyone in the Government to see this problem solved. What we've now got to see is the Opposition stop playing politics, and come to the table around a solution.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Darren, the Government has put Nauru on the table, the conference at the L… last Labor Party conference, the conference voted for offshore processing, voted for the Malaysian deal, for Nauru, and for Manus Island.
Is it time for the Opposition to compromise on its position?
DARREN CHESTER: Well I think the context though is important in this whole debate. We're talking about a Government which coming to power, promising this so-called more humanitarian solution — but the simple fact is since this so-called humanitarian solution has come into play we've seen hundreds of people lose their lives in very tragic circumstances. And there’s not one member of this place who feels any satisfaction with that, but also…
LYNDAL CURTIS: But hasn't the Government effectively recognised that by changing the position?
DARREN CHESTER: But we've also seen 20,000 people arrive as unauthorised arrivals in that time frame. Now the simple fact of the matter is the Australian people do want to see a genuine solution, and they're not convinced this Prime Minister has any solution. My concern is that because, under a Rudd-Gillard Government, we've been — we've seen the people smugglers get back into business.
I don't think they'll go out of business under this Prime Minister. I think we need a circuit breaker. I don't think this Prime Minister has the capacity to change this problem. And that’s what I'm worried about.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If you do not let the Government, the Prime Minister do what she says, on advice, is the best solution, how then can you blame her for not having a solution if you're not willing to vote for it and let it get through the Parliament and stand or fall on its merits?
DARREN CHESTER: Well which solution are you referring to? First of all the Prime Minister had the East Timor solution which was no solution whatsoever, then the Malaysian solution which failed in the High Court, and also fails a credibility test.
Does anyone serious believe that offering an 800 people to 4000 people stop is actually going to stop the people smugglers?
Now any people smuggler looking around the world would suggest well I'll actually make sure I'll flood the first 800 people into Australia as quickly as possible.
And then goes that solution.
So I think it’s not really fair to put this back at the Opposition and suggest that we've created this problem. We had a situation in place under the previous Government where the boats stopped.
Now that’s a simple fact that boats did stop. Since the Rudd-Gillard Government came into power and changed our border protection approach we've seen 20,000 unauthorised arrivals.
Now I agree with a lot that Richard had to say in terms of we do need solutions, but let’s be fair about this and let’s be honest with the Australian people. The context of this is this is a problem that was created by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in Government, and now we've got to try and clean up the mess.
RICHARD MARLES: I think Lyndal these are weasel words.The fact of the matter is the Opposition comes to this place as an Opposition and says because we are the Opposition we have no obligation to the Australian people, and we have no obligation to working on public policy solutions in this country. And I think the Australian people are sick and tired of hearing that from the No-alition, from the Opposition, and they want to actually see them participate in solving the great public policy challenges that are facing this country.
I mean we are a minority Government. We have never made any bones about that.
That means we need to work with everyone in the Parliament. And that includes the Opposition. But to stand here and say that you have no obligation by virtue of being the Opposition, you know, is to put your head in the sand and do an enormous disservice to the Australian people.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If I can ask you both — you first, Darren — what are your voters telling you they want about asylum seekers. Are they actually concerned about it? Or is it a bigger issue in Parliament than it is in the community.
DARREN CHESTER: Oh, no, I think it’s a big issue. It’s a big issue in different electorates, I'm sure, compared to my electorate of Gippsland which is a long way obviously from where the boats arrive.
The people who contact me are very concerned about making sure there’s an orderly border protection system so they're very concerned about that.
And then there are others who are very concerned — obviously when you have such a tragic circumstance like we did last week.
So no. It is a genuine issue that people are concerned about. But I — and I reject the assertion that these are weasel words. I would work diligently with the Government to try and come up with solutions. But there needs to be a recognition that some of the policies in the past actually worked. And I don't think there’s an acceptance within the Government that John Howard’s solution actually worked.
Now John Howard was pilloried and attacked and vilified by people for his approach which actually stopped people getting on boats, it stopped people from dying.
Now I think it’s a far better approach than what we've seen over the last five years.
RICHARD MARLES: It is a far better approach to see that people don't get on the boats in the first place. But the Opposition wanted Nauru. We've put Nauru on the table. I mean that’s the fact of the matter.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But they say it comes as a package, the package that John Howard had — Nauru, temporary protection visas, and turning back the boats where safe to do so.
RICHARD MARLES: How it is possible that putting up Nauru and Malaysia can be a worse situation than simply having Nauru has got me beat.
The fact of the matter is — and this is why we think Malaysia is so important — Nauru had run its course. People smugglers understood if you got to Nauru you were likely going to get to Australia, and so therefore you had a product to sell. That’s why we've proceeded with the Malaysian arrangement. Now the Opposition says it’s not going to work. Okay. We've put Nauru back on the table. We're concerned about whether Nauru works but it doesn't hurt in the context of having Malaysia there. But, if we've both got our own solutions about how to do it, let’s do both.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we — clearly not going to find any compromise here. If we could move on. Richard, if I could ask you about the Point Henry Alcoa smelter, do you know how much money governments of… the State and Federal Governments will be tipping in to help that plant with?
RICHARD MARLES: I don't Lyndal. I've seen the speculation in the paper in the last 48 hours, but I'm personally not aware of that. What I am aware of is that negotiations with Alcoa and indeed with the State Government are still ongoing. We're hopeful about a resolution.
That’s good news from the point of view of all workers at Point Henry. If we can reach a successful conclusion to that, I understand that could happen in the near future.But can I just say that hearing the leader of the Opposition today describe support for Alcoa as hush money puts him at odds with supporting jobs in Geelong.As a result of that it puts him at odds with the Geelong community.
That is an appalling thing to say about the future and livelihoods of those people at Alcoa.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Darren, if Alcoa needs help because of aluminium prices and the high Australian dollar, should the Government be prepared to give it?
DARREN CHESTER: And also because of the carbon tax as well which is being…
RICHARD MARLES: But that’s not right. Alcoa have made it clear it’s not about carbon price, it’s about the Australian dollar and about the aluminium price on the LME.
DARREN CHESTER: The Government’s own modelling indicates that the carbon tax is going to impact on the aluminium smeltering industry, and there’s a whole range of industries that are going to be adversely affected by the carbon tax. In my own electorate we have the situation where the brown coal fired power generators are subject to the Government’s contract of closure policy. Now the Government wants to shut down $2000 megawatts of coal-fired power generation and supposedly it’s going to make an announcement in five daystime in relation to that, but as far as I know the negotiations have gone nowhere. And the Government really has no certainty in relation to how it’s going to do that.
So I think the carbon tax as a general issue is one that is playing very badly for the Government, obviously. But I think the real impacts on the ground — in towns like Geelong and in towns like La Trobe Valley, my own electorate, are going to be very genuine, and very real for people. The Government likes to pretend that this is a scare campaign being generated by the Coalition. Well people are scared. They're scared they're going to lose their jobs. Lose their jobs in the power industry, in the aluminium smeltering industry…
RICHARD MARLES: They're scared because they're running a scare campaign.That’s why they're scared.
DARREN CHESTER: And these are genuine people, going to lose their jobs and they've been attacked and vilified by the Labor Party describing them as being — working for big polluters. Now when was it that the Labor Party stopped standing up for blue collar workers? When did that day happen? I'm not sure when it was.
RICHARD MARLES: Well it’s happening now, I can tell you that, in terms of the workers at Alcoa. But Alcoa…
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could…
DARREN CHESTER: Bit too late, the carbon tax has come in…
RICHARD MARLES:… have made it clear, this is not about the carbon price. What you've heard just now is politicking from the Opposition. It’s not about a carbon price. This is about the Australian dollar, it’s about aluminium price on the London Metals Exchange.
That’s what it’s about, it’s what Alcoa say it’s about, and we're trying to…
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could… if I could…
DARREN CHESTER: And I accept conditions are tough. So why make it harder? Conditions are tough, why make it harder with the world’s biggest carbon tax.
RICHARD MARLES: Well we're not making it harder we're actually trying to support them.
LYNDAL CURTIS: I just — I'm going to interrupt here. One final question to you both. There was a story this morning that bottled water and fruit snacks for school kids who visit Parliament House were going to be cut as a Budget saving. That’s been — that was actually overturned on Friday saying it’s not being proceeded with at this stage.
There is a talk that MPs might lose newspapers and things like that.
Are you prepared to make some sacrifices in order to help out the Budget Darren?
DARREN CHESTER: Well heaven help us if kids coming to the Parliament can't get a drink of water and a fruit snack. I think…
RICHARD MARLES: But you know that’s wrong now, don't you?
DARREN CHESTER: But I think members on both sides would acknowledge that the kids coming…
RICHARD MARLES: It was there on Joe Hockey’s face on Sunday when the decision was made.
DARREN CHESTER: I think members on both sides would acknowledge that having young people come here and experiencing our democracy for all its warts on some occasions is an important thing.
A little bit of hospitality here in the building I think is certainly warranted. And I would hope that there’s no pressure underway by the Government or anyone else to remove that little treat from the kids when they come here.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Richard, are you prepared to give up other things if you have to help the Parliament House save some money?
RICHARD MARLES: I think we have all been looking at how we can make a contribution to fiscal consolidation and getting the Budget back into surplus.
And that’s what we've been doing.
But this story around denying kids fruit and bottled water we know was wrong, we knew it was wrong on Friday.
LYNDAL CURTIS: It was a proposal and then it was gone.
RICHARD MARLES: Yes, but it was made clear to the appropriations and administration committee on Friday that it was not going to be proceeded with. The Opposition were there — Joe Hockey still ran with this story on Sunday.
LYNDAL CURTIS: That’s where we'll have to leave it. Darren Chester and Richard Marles, thank you very much for your time.
DARREN CHESTER: Thanks Lyndal.
RICHARD MARLES: Thanks Lyndal.
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