Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Ali Clarke: Good morning Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Good to be with you, wish there was a flying fox down Kensington Road.
Ali Clarke: Yes, well, we could maybe arrange that couldn't we, David? Rebekha Sharkie is with us, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo. Good morning.
Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning, good to be with you.
Ali Clarke: And we're just waiting on Penny Wong to come to the phone so we'll say hello to her once she joins us. But let's start with the story of this footballer refugee Hakeem Al-Araibi. Now, he is a soccer player who is locked up in a Thai jail, has been there since November. Desperate to not be extradited to Bahrain where he originally came from, in fear of being tortured there. What is essentially happened is, he was subject of an Interpol red notice. Now the red notice should be cancelled when they come from the country issued from, where a refugee comes from, but what happened was he checked with Australian authorities and said hey am I free to go to Thailand on my honeymoon. The person he spoke to said yes but then it looks like Australian authorities controversially then informed their Thai counterparts that he was coming, and he was detained. So given all that Simon Birmingham, should the government be doing more to help bring this man back to Australia?
Simon Birmingham: Well Ali, we are doing everything we can to make sure that he is not extradited to Bahrain and is free to return to Australia. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have all been in contact with relevant Thai authorities to appeal on his behalf. We welcome the confirmation from Thailand Office of the Attorney General that the Thailand Extradition Act allows for executive discretion in such circumstances this has also been confirmed, we understand by the prosecutor in the context of yesterday's hearing. With that in mind, we would again reiterate pleas to the Thai government to absolutely exercise that executive discretion and allow him to freely return to Australia.
Ali Clarke: Has anybody there got to the bottom of how it was Australian authorities that tipped off the Thai authorities even though this Interpol red notice was subsequently cancelled and shouldn't have been an issue?
Simon Birmingham: There are obviously issues to work through in so far as the interplay there. Clearly, the Australian Federal Police and our authorities have automatic processes that work alongside Interpol in relation to identification of people where there are notices that exist. Now clearly we want to make sure that Australian residents, citizens, are protected as much as they possibly can be. But our absolute priority first and foremost right now is to ensure that this man is not extradited to Bahrain, that his rights are respected and that he is released and free to return to his family in Australia.
David Bevan: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has the Australian authorities perhaps just through incompetence, effectively set this guy up? Because he was asking Is it okay to go to Thailand. They said yes, he went, and then we tipped them off.
Penny Wong: Look, I think there are a number of issues which will need to be considered after this has been resolved. I think the issuing of notices and the appropriateness of the automatic process is something governments will need to consider. But I think our focus now and my focus rather than blaming anybody, has been to support the cause, and the government, the community the football community, for his release. So my view is what we've been focusing on that that's certainly the basis on which I've been dealing with Marise Payne. I've written to the Thai ambassador and I do want to say it has been really heart-warming, the extent to which Hakeem has been supported by the broader Australian community, and particularly the football community. So, that is a very good thing and that is I hope, a real indication to Thailand that this is a case that does matter greatly to Australians and I have confidence they've heard that, and I hope and trust that they can exercise discretion in the way that Marise Payne and Simon has just now referred to.
David Bevan: Back home, Rebekha Sharkie, your Centre Alliance colleague Rex Patrick has called for a ban on cotton exports. Do you agree with that?
Rebekha Sharkie: Well, what we want to see is the Royal Commission's recommendations implemented and what we are trying to do...
David Bevan: The Royal Commission didn't ask for a ban on cotton exports.
Rebekha Sharkie: No, but what he has said is is that there has been maladministration, that 70 gigalitres was returned to the northern irrigators based on politics not the science and that our own State Water Minister has really sold South Australia down the river...
David Bevan: Rebekah Sharkie, I didn't ask you that give us a summary of what's in the Royal Commission, I asked you do you support Rex Patrick's call for a ban on cotton exports?
Rebekha Sharkie: Well if we don't get some outcome with respect to this Royal Commission, a Royal Commission we had to have because the federal government wouldn't support the call in the national parliament for a royal commission. We're saying let's look at what's in the national interest, now is it in the national interest that 20 per cent of the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin goes to the growth of cotton, that is sent off and exported overseas for processing? And we're just saying enough is enough...
David Bevan: I'm asking you, what are you saying? Are you saying we should ban the export of cotton?
Rebekha Sharkie: We want to have a conversation in the Parliament about what we grow in Australia. Is it in the national interest that we grow cotton?
David Bevan: No, he doesn't want to talk about it; he wants to ban it.
Rebekha Sharkie: We are going to put a bill forward to the parliament, that's an opportunity for discussion, it's an opportunity to actually unravel what happens with all the floodplain water? Now, the bill might not be supported by both the major parties at this point...
David Bevan: I am asking whether you support it. Can you just say yes I will vote for an export ban on cotton?
Rebekha Sharkie: I'll be introducing the bill in the House of Representatives at the same time that Rex will be introducing it in the upper house but, more importantly, David, we need to have a conversation about what is in the national interest. We are deeply concerned that South Australia is being sold down the river. We are going to spend 13 billion dollars on the Murray-Darling-Basin Plan and that we will get to the end of this and South Australia will be in no better position.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, do you think an export ban on cotton's a good idea?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not and I'm terribly confused at the end of your questioning of Rebekha, there, who wouldn't say that she supports Rex's call for a ban but just told us that she will introduce Rex's bill into the House of Representatives. It would be very peculiar to introduce a bill that you didn't actually support. Look, what we have to see is the Basin Plan implemented in full – that means returning thousands of billions of litres of water to the river system. Now, much of that has already been allocated in terms of licences held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. There's still a task to be done to finish the job. I want to see… and Penny Wong and I have been around this debate since the Millennium Drought, we've seen the Water Act pass, we've seen the Basin Act come into place… I want to see all and every drop delivered, I'll be looking closely to make sure that the deals that have been struck do see South Australia realise the share of water that we expect to flow down the river but, no, we don't go about it by banning a particular crop for farmers to grow; we go about it by ensuring that water licences are issued according to the environmental needs, that they are monitored effectively and that farmers are then free, within those licences, to grow the highest-value crop, whatever it may be, and it's also important to remember, with crops like cotton and rice, often water is not allocated to them in certain years – that's the case across large parts of the Murray-Darling Basin, at present, because of the drought in the Darling, whereas, of course, in other crops, permanent plantings like grape vines and almonds and elsewhere, you need water each and every year to water those plants or they die.
David Bevan: Well Penny Wong is a former Water Minister, Penny Wong do you support a ban on exporting cotton?
Penny Wong: Oh, look it's not what crop they put into the ground, it's how much water they're given. So an export ban is not going to get the outcome we want for the river. It might be good for trying to get a headline and to get you to ask questions about it but ultimately it's how much water people are given. And I think what we have seen is a really damning report from the Royal Commissioner here that bodies of governments need to consider very closely and we need to get the plan back on track. Now I know Simon has tried to do something about this unfortunately the Coalition has for many years. Minister Barnaby Joyce who undermined the implementation of the plan. I mean the bloke said the additional 450 gigalitres of water for South Australia didn't have a hope in Hades of being delivered. He's of course the person who said to South Australians that people should move to where the water is. We've seen the consequences of that and leaving aside all of those sort of political issues, I think that the fish kill we saw over recent weeks just reminds us about the immediate cost of this. We have to deal with this and we have to make sure we don't have a situation where the first act of the Marshall government when it comes to water policy is to capitulate to the eastern states which has been an extraordinary act by Mr Speirs.
Ali Clarke: Penny Wong when you were water minister you went on the record saying you wouldn't force Cubbie Station to sell its water to the federal government. Part of the Royal Commission findings was look at increasing the buybacks for sure. Have you changed your mind?
Penny Wong: Well no. I actually bought a lot of water for the river during the period and was very unpopular with a lot of irrigators upstream for doing so. Nearly a thousand gigalitres of water I bought for the environment as water minister on behalf of Australians.
David Bevan: Do you think we should be cranking up the desal plant so that we don't have to…
Penny Wong: I haven't actually finished Ali's question.
David Bevan: Well we are going to run out of time with questions.
Penny Wong: Sure, what I was going to say is the problem with forced acquisition at the time is of course it can lead to higher prices and taxpayers don't get value for their money and so we bought on the open market. But what federal Labor has said is that if we can't reach the environmental outcome through the means that are currently there then the cap on water buybacks should be lifted.
David Bevan: All right now what about the desal plant. Do you think we should be cranking that up so that we don't have to draw so much water out of the river?
Penny Wong: Look I haven't looked at that issue in years David and you'd have to look at what the relative price of water is. I think the issue is we've got to fix the basin up.
David Bevan: Back to you Simon Birmingham. The Labor Party have said we've now had a royal commission into banking, we know what it has recommended. We need to get the Parliament sitting for more than just five days before the election so that something can be done. Now what's wrong with that idea?
Simon Birmingham: Well the House of Reps is sitting for several weeks and there is legislation before the parliament already. Some of that is legislation the Labor Party is refusing to commit to support. So let's get on and support the reforms that the government is already acting on which are consistent with or go further than what has been recommended by the Hayne Royal Commission.
David Bevan: So you say sitting for several days several weeks how many days?
Simon Birmingham: For the House of Reps?
David Bevan: Yes.
Simon Birmingham: I would have to do the maths David but it's more than what you said.
David Bevan: Penny Wong, do you think it's how many days?
Penny Wong: Ten days, sitting days between December and August. And the reality is there will have to be an election by May so we're talking even fewer days than that. I mean obviously the government just doesn't want the parliament to sit.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham doesn't it make good policy sense… I mean, putting aside the politics, it's good policy to resolve some of these issues as quickly as possible so that the financial sector, the economy, has certainty rather than letting this string out until the middle of the year?
Simon Birmingham: It's why… well, we can't avoid the fact there's an election, which necessitates the period of time…
David Bevan: But you can bring Parliament back, you can extend the sittings before that election.
Simon Birmingham: But also David we've only just received this report. We can act on the legislation that is currently drafted and before the Parliament but, on that legislation, the Labor Party will not either support it or give a straight answer and indeed, even when it comes to Justice Hayne's recommendations, we've given detailed responses where Justice Hayne has provided detail in his recommendations. Labor said they support aspects of it in principle – what does that mean; how are we meant to proceed with these things with only a vague commitment from the Opposition? – and, of course, there is the technical task of actually drafting all of the legislative reforms, going through the proper consultation to get them right, it can't just be done overnight but we can absolutely act on the legislation that is already drafted, that is already before the Parliament and it'd be nice to see whether the Labor Party's willing to support all of that legislation.
Penny Wong: Well where is it? Look far be it from me to actually agree with David Bevan on something but I am going to, which is… that is, we can recall the Parliament to deal particularly with some of the issues where there is a clear imperative of getting action quickly. One of the things that Justice Hayne, the Royal Commissioner recommended was ending grandfathered commissions so this is we you have commissions that people are getting which are no longer able to be received by financial advisors in respect to products but they were grandfathered. The government's allowing that to continue for a couple of years. We can deal with that now. Bill Shorten wrote to Scott Morrison I think yesterday saying look let's return the Parliament in March, we can sit for a couple of weeks, both houses and we can get the recommendations or the recommendations which can be acted upon, legislated. There's been no argument that makes any sense to the Australian people put by anyone in the government as to why they can't do that.
Ali Clarke: Look unfortunately we do have to leave it there. And on a happy note, Penny Wong and David Bevan agreeing by the sounds of it.
Penny Wong: First time in about 15 years.
David Bevan: Thank you Penny Wong I will call the newsroom.
Penny Wong: And a happy Chinese New Year to everybody.
Ali Clarke: Thank you very much, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie and Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham.