KIERAN GILBERT: With me on the program now for the rest of the day’s issues, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Ed Husic and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Simon Birmingham. Gentlemen, before we start our discussion I want to play you a little of the closing arguments made by the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus. He’s been at the International Court of Justice at The Hague and repudiating Japan’s claim that Australia is conducting a moral crusade against Japan when it comes to its anti-whaling case.
MARK DREYFUS: In what I can only assume is an attempt to deflect attention away from the true nature of the unlawful JARPA II [Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic Phase II] program, Professor Akhavan asserted that this case, I quote, “is about an emotional anti-whaling moral crusade that in the name of zero tolerance tolerates Sea Shepherd’s violent extremism, the politicisation of science and the collapse of the IWC [International Whaling Commission]”, unquote. As well as being a statement completely devoid of legal argument, this is untrue and offensive to Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, there aren’t many options beyond this, are there, if Australia loses this case before the 16 judges at the International Court of Justice. There aren’t really… there’s no other legal avenue. This is the world’s top court.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, I would hope that Australia is successful in this case and I hope that, if we are, Japan will abide by and adhere to the rulings of the court. The Coalition’s been critical of the Government’s handling of whaling issues over a long period of time and especially their failure to send a Customs boat down to monitor what happens and to gather evidence, effectively, of what happens in the Southern Ocean during the whaling season but, in the end, Australia’s now got to this point of the hearings and pleadings at The Hague. Hopefully we are successful and hopefully that can bring an end to this terrible practice of whaling in our southern oceans.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, I don’t think many of our viewers would disagree with that assertion. Let’s move on to the debate about ALP [Australian Labor Party] party reform.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, do you see all the major parties, the Liberals, the Coalition also, moving in this direction of democratising the parties?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, the Liberal Party will keep its internal processes for matters where we’ll debate at the appropriate times. What I see about this debate is that it’s a real demonstration of what is wrong with the Labor Party and the Government at present. They are completely distracted by debating internal Labor Party rules, internal Labor Party machinations, how the Labor Party chooses its leader, rather than focusing on governing the country. The Labor Party’s meant to be the Government of Australia at present. Kevin Rudd’s meant to be the Prime Minister of Australia. Why is it that this debate is all about how the Labor Party chooses its leader, what role the trade [union] movement has? This really is just all about King Kevin wanting to get complete control of the Labor Party and that’s fine if that’s what the Labor Party wants to give him but, in the end, the debate we should be having is about jobs for Australians, about managing our debt, about securing our borders. These are the issues Australians want to have a debate about, not about how the Labor Party’s run.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, there have been some reports this morning that there’s a feeling within the Liberal Party that Tony Abbott and the Liberal strategists haven’t been able to shift to accommodate the Rudd return, even though it’s been… well, it was well and truly expected for many months and I don’t think it came as much of a surprise to the Liberal Party but while Kevin Rudd’s got an advertisement already out there, the Labor Party campaign already has a nationally televised ad that’s run, the Liberals have only had a couple of YouTubes. It doesn’t seem like you’ve got on the front foot, certainly not with any coordinated spend in terms of advertising. Has Tony Abbott been a little bit flat-footed in responding to Kevin Rudd?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, are we in the days of governing or the days of campaigning, because I thought we weren’t in an election campaign yet?  I thought Kevin Rudd has, it seems, refused to call that election campaign. Now, he should call it because the anniversary of the last election is the 21st of August. That is just 42 days away, when we will get the third anniversary of when Australians last had a say of who governs Australia. Now, if he calls an election campaign, then we’ll start having election debates, then we’ll start running campaign ads, then all of those things will start. We’re, in the meantime, getting on with engaging with voters on the ground, releasing policies… I mean, let’s understand this, that Tony Abbott, in the time since Kevin Rudd has been leader, has released our medical research policy, has released our policy on red tape reduction… we’re actually getting out there trying to address the issues of how we can make Australia more competitive in the future, how we can generate more jobs for Australians, of course how we can secure our borders, how we can bring our budget back under control. These really are the important issues…
KIERAN GILBERT: So, you don’t have any worry that Kevin Rudd’s caught… the return of Rudd has caught the Liberal Party and its strategists flat-footed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, I’m not at all worried because there is an entire election campaign to go. We’ve always known that this campaign would be very difficult to win. It’s always difficult to win an election from opposition into government, so we take nothing for granted, we take no seat for granted, but Kevin Rudd is just at present demonstrating for him it’s all about campaigning. What about governing, Kieran?
KIERAN GILBERT: We’re now going to take a look at this issue around Tony Abbott paying back accrued travel expenses which were accrued when he was promoting his book Battle Lines back in 2009. It sparked a bit of an exchange with a journalist at a news conference in Sydney yesterday. Let’s take a look if you haven’t seen it.
TONY ABBOTT: The matter was fully dealt with last year … As I said, it was an oversight in my office. It was fully dealt with last year … Fully dealt with last year … I think I’ve fully dealt with it. Time to move on … This was dealt with two years ago. This is old news, old news. Now, why is Kevin Rudd now trying to dish this sort of dirt? … nothing that was deliberately done wrong and the matter was closed … Calm down…
KIERAN GILBERT: Ed Husic, it was closed by the Special Minister of State at that time, Gary Gray. Tony Abbott was right to say that?
ED HUSIC: Yeah, he’s dealt with it, you know, and it’s a matter for him to deal with and move on. I just didn’t understand why he needed to introduce the Prime Minister into it. I’m reminded of that saying ‘when you’re sitting on a limb, don’t saw’. I just figure, you know, he’s got to deal with it himself but there’s no need to introduce others or deflect the way that he did to the journalist that was present at that press conference and asking questions.
KIERAN GILBERT: He’s saying Labor’s digging the dirt. That was the assertion, wasn’t it?
ED HUSIC: Well, I mean, again, he’s got to… but that’s a matter for Mr Abbott to deal with. I mean, I just, you know, from my perspective and it’s why I make the point, you know, he can deal with it and move on. We’re not interested in blues and negativity, Let’s just get on with things and, you know, he can answer the questions along the way but there’s no need to deflect to either the PM or the journalist involved. If he’s got nothing to… if he’s got no problems, he’s got no issues, then just deal with it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, to you on that, was the way Mr Abbott handled it the best approach?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, it’s a remarkable coincidence that a matter that was dealt with, done and dusted, two years ago, that is a minor administrative error, suddenly comes back in the days after Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister and seems to be being pushed around in certain quarters, so I think there is a strange coincidence at best at play here and if Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party are going to preach positive politics, then I would hate to see these types of things turned into smears because, in the end, these types of mistakes happen all the time. Tony Burke recently repaid $7000 from an administrative error. In Tony Abbott’s case, his publisher paid the money because it was an administrative error between his office and the publisher. Now, these are matters from a couple of years ago and it’s just disturbing that, as we get close to an election campaign, we start to see these types of smears being pushed around by somebody and it’s obviously not somebody in the Liberal camp so I just question where that would be coming from.
KIERAN GILBERT: Onto the issue of asylum seekers, seven asylum seekers, according to The Australian report this morning, jumped overboard from their vessel. They received assistance from an Australian patrol boat. This was a couple of weeks ago, Ed Husic. They jumped, reportedly, according to this report in The Australian, because they feared that they were going to be sent back to Indonesia. This is a really problematic trend, isn’t it, where you’ve got asylum seekers either threatening or undertaking self-harm to put pressure on those that are rendering them assistance? How can the Government respond? Is there anything you can do other… you know, short of sending in the military as Scott Morrison indicated you should consider, earlier in the week?
ED HUSIC: We’ve been discussing this over the last few years, Kieran, and reflecting on the point that, you know, every time a Government response on this issue is undertaken, you know, people smugglers change the rules and you need to be able to be fast enough to move with the changing circumstances. It’s not good enough to just, you know, throw back to old solutions. You need to think of new ways of dealing with the issue and, importantly too, there’s no point us standing on the Australian shoreline with a megaphone yelling at the Indonesians and making demands on them to do what we want. We need to find a way within the region, and within interested parties as well and interested countries as well, of tackling this, so I think the announcement last week by the PM and Indonesia – in terms of holding the, you know, a regional conference on this involving all the nations that have an interest in this matter – I think’s an important step forward and reflects the fact we can’t just… we just can’t push a solution on one country. We’ve got to work together on it.
KIERAN GILBERT: The point that Ed Husic and Tony Burke made yesterday, Simon Birmingham, is that you can’t photocopy a policy from more than a decade ago and expect it to work, given the people smugglers have shifted their approach.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, a key point that was just made then by Ed Husic is that, when you change the policies, the people smugglers change the model and that’s absolutely true because what happened five and six years ago is Kevin Rudd axed temporary protection visas, Kevin Rudd eliminated the ‘Pacific solution’ [Pacific Strategy], Kevin Rudd backflipped on his previous commitment to turn back boats where it was safe to do so. On all of those things, the people smugglers reacted and that’s why we’ve had 45,000/46,000 additional arrivals since that time, because the policies that had worked were dismantled and we’ve now seen a $10 billion-plus blowout in the costs of managing this problem, so I fully accept that policies have consequences to how people smugglers try to get boats to Australia. We know that. That’s why we want to restore policies that have worked in the past.
ED HUSIC: This is the point, Kieran, and…
KIERAN GILBERT: We’ve got to go, Ed – within ten seconds, just quickly.
ED HUSIC: It’s impossible. You know how much I talk. The ten-second rule just won’t work with me.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, mate, well, we’ll cut it off there. We’ll reconvene another time, Ed Husic, Senator Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much, gents…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Kieran, Ed.