Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne, Drive, with Raf Epstein

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australians in Iran; conflict in the Middle East; family law system; Gladys Liu.
18 September 2019

Rafael Epstein: Sharing a luxurious studio inside the ABC at Parliament House in Canberra is Simon Birmingham. He is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and also a Liberal Party Senator for the great state of South Australia. Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Raf. Great to be with you in your very humble Canberra studio.

Rafael Epstein: Oh, you’ve got a red throne. Tanya Plibersek- Oh sorry, you’ve got a blue throne. And Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training and Labor Member for the seat of Sydney, has a red throne. Tanya Plibersek, welcome.

Tanya Plibersek: We’re actually doing it from the Jacuzzi, Raf. Can you hear the bubbles?

Rafael Epstein: Okay, I’ve never heard that before. Let’s get serious. Simon Birmingham, I want to start with this text. This is about the lecturer who was at Melbourne Uni. Kylie Moore-Gilbert was my tutor at Melbourne Uni, where she disappeared with no explanation, second semester last year. We knew she was researching in Iran but never imagined she was still detained after a full year before it was made public. So shocking and terrifying for students who are researching politics in this area. Has she got any chance of getting out without spending years in jail?

Simon Birmingham: Well Raf, we will work as we have been very closely with her, with her family. Our consular services in all of these cases do the best they possibly can. Of course, we urge all Australians to follow travel advisory notices that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issue. And in the case of Iran, that encourages people to reconsider their need to travel to Iran. And so, these are places where Australian laws self-evidently do not apply. Australian practices and customs don't. But we work as best we can through our representatives in those countries to try to assist Australians who find themselves in these circumstances.

Rafael Epstein: And as the Trade Minister, can you trust America when they talk about Saudi Arabia — the conflict right now between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or at least a proxy conflict — can you trust America if they say the missiles came from Iranian territory?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we look at the evidence provided to us and ultimately we make our own determinations in terms of any matters as the Australian Government. But America is a very valued ally and partner and a critical intelligence partner in terms of sharing information with is.

Rafael Epstein: Intelligence on war in that part of the world's been wrong before.

Simon Birmingham: Well Raf, that doesn't mean that you discount every bit of intelligence that comes your way. You obviously receive it all, assess it all ourselves through our own experts, and we strongly condemn the targeting deliberately of civilian assets seen in Saudi Arabia in terms of the oil attack that occurred there and the drone strikes that happened. But if we have more to say in relation to those statements it will be made by the Australian Government following our own analysis of the evidence provided to us.

Rafael Epstein: Tanya Plibersek, do you trust America — I mean, they're only saying this in the media at the moment, they’re not saying it officially — but would you trust America if they said the attacks come directly from Iran?

Tanya Plibersek: Look, I think the first thing to say is that the attacks are very concerning. I don't think it's productive or helpful to, sort of, speculate on the sources of the intelligence and so on. What's important when we're talking about the three Australians who are in Iran at the moment is that the Government and the Opposition work together to ensure that they are brought home to Australia as quickly as possible and safely. It must be an awful time for their families to think of them overseas, and we stand ready to assist the Government in any way we can to focus on the interests of those Australian citizens.

Rafael Epstein: Did we make their situation worse by adding military forces to the coalition in the Strait of Hormuz, which is close to Iran?

Tanya Plibersek: Well, Labor was supportive of the Government's decision to participate in freedom of navigation exercises in the Gulf. It is very important that our ships and the ships of other nations can successfully trade through international waters. I think it's also important to say that, as we did at the time, that this shouldn't be taken as any sign that Australia supports the US walking away from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Rafael Epstein: I think [indistinct] Iran sees it that way.

Tanya Plibersek: Well, our position and the position of the Australian Government is that the Iran nuclear agreement was a very important step forward — very important and very valuable in securing a more peaceful region, and we're very supportive of that restoration of the full operation of the agreement.

Rafael Epstein: Can I just ask that trust question? Because even this week, President Trump saying I never said we should meet with Iran without any preconditions; when in fact he and his cabinet have been saying that for years. Would you- can we trust America when it comes to what they say is going on in a military conflict in the Middle East?

Tanya Plibersek: Sorry, were you asking me, Raf?

Rafael Epstein: Yeah I was asking, Tanya, that to you. Yes.

Tanya Plibersek: I mean, of course we work very closely and very cooperatively with the United States — our most important security partner. But we do, nevertheless, take an Australian view and an Australian position on these things. So we are prepared to work with the United States to ensure that there is freedom of navigation through the Straits of Hormuz. We have, for many decades, usually had a ship in the Gulf area to work on international issues such as piracy as well. It is an important contribution we make to global security. We of course share intelligence, as Simon Birmingham said, with the United States and the other Five Eyes partners, but we have to make our own assessments of where that intelligence leads us.

Rafael Epstein: It's 14 minutes after 5 o'clock on ABC Radio Melbourne. Your questions for Simon Birmingham and Tanya Plibersek in a moment on 1300 222 774.

The Government’s keen to set up — I’m not sure in what form it will succeed — but keen to set up another parliamentary inquiry into the family law system. Rosie Batty was on with Jon Faine this morning. She is not at all happy at the idea of another inquiry and also that Pauline Hanson would be deputy chair of that parliamentary committee. This is what Rosie Batty told Jon Faine this morning.

[Excerpt]

Rosie Batty: If there’s something that's making me even more angry it is this decision. It is completely unacceptable for us to have another inquiry. We have had multiple inquiries about the failings of the family law court system: 60 recommendations presented to the government earlier this year. Not one recommendation has been acknowledged or enforced. It is completely unacceptable for these politicians with their own agendas to head up any inquiry.

[End of excerpt]

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, what do you say to Rosie Batty?

Simon Birmingham: I understand Rosie's passion in this area and the point that she's making. It is not the case that this inquiry is going to pause any action in other fields. And in fact quite the contrary, the Government has already proposed substantial reform in relation to family law court structures and looking at the merger of two competing courts that have created significant delays and administrative burdens in relation to the way in which family court decisions are resolved. We equally see that there will be scope to work through some of the very legal and technical recommendations that form part of the Australian Law Reform Commission's work. But we think there is also scope to look at not just the detail of the law or the structure of the courts but also how else we can help to prevent family breakdown, to support families who are going through what is a very trying and difficult time.

Rafael Epstein: Hasn’t all of that been looked at repeatedly?

Simon Birmingham: And I don't think anybody suggests the system is perfect at present, Raf.

Rafael Epstein: No. But hasn’t it- hasn't it-

Simon Birmingham: I would hope not and that there-

Rafael Epstein: There’s any number of reviews, you've got the Law Reform Commission stuff in front of you and a parliamentary committee finished less than two years ago. What's changed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think in this area, which is complicated by all of the frailties of humanity, it doesn't hurt us to continually look to see how we can further improve. We will probably never get it perfect. There will always be scope to enhance the operation of the family court system to protect women, to protect children, to protect the family unit wherever possible…

Rafael Epstein: Why do you give deputy chair, though-

Simon Birmingham: …to protect the rights of mums rise of mums and dads, but most importantly children.

Rafael Epstein: Why do you give deputy chair to someone who continually presents numbers without evidence?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think this type of process, the very open, engaging parliamentary process of inquiry, is also one that hopefully can inform all range of opinions across the Parliament and hopefully make sure they're better informed at the end of it.

Rafael Epstein: Sorry, that wasn’t an answer to my question. Why are you giving the deputy chair position to someone who for decades has presented numbers about this issue without presenting evidence?

Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously, in the case of Senator Hanson, she has very strong views, a strong interest in this issue as well. We hope that it can be an apolitical exercise. That's what we sought it to be. And we want it also to be though an exercise where Australian families tell their stories to better inform every parliamentarian who participates in it, regardless of which side of politics they come from.

Rafael Epstein: Tanya Plibersek, what's wrong- I mean, you’ll know the responses to these issues. I get floods of texts whenever I mention it. I guess Simon Birmingham is saying let people keep on talking and contributing. What's wrong with that?

Tanya Plibersek: Well, the time for talk is past, the time for action is upon us. Simon spoke about human frailty. Domestic violence isn't a human frailty, it's a crime. And we're still losing on average more than one woman a week to domestic homicide. It's completely unacceptable. And the work that the Australian Law Reform Commission did on the family law system was commissioned by George Brandis when he was Attorney-General. It was submitted- the final report was tabled in the Parliament by the current Attorney-General. It made 60 recommendations. It heard from 1200 people in written submissions. There were 440 submissions made public in response to the initial issues paper, 179 consultations around Australia. And that comes, as you say, Raf, on top of another report done in 2017 that came up with 33 bipartisan recommendations for the reform of the family law system.

We know so much about what's wrong with the family law system. We know that domestic violence continues to be at epidemic levels in our community. We don't need to do more talking. We can keep talking as we implement these recommendations, but we don't need another inquiry. We've been required to give-

Rafael Epstein: Well isn’t that what Simon Birmingham just said: they can implement while they're listening. Can’t you do both at once?

Tanya Plibersek: But why do you need to do it…

Rafael Epstein: Well, why do you think they’re doing-

Tanya Plibersek: …in the form of another parliamentary inquiry when we've had an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry and a very recent parliamentary inquiry. If Pauline Hanson wants to go out and say that-

Rafael Epstein: Why do you think they’re doing it, Tanya Plibersek?

Tanya Plibersek: Well, I think they're doing it because they want Pauline Hanson's support in some other area. But you've got Pauline Hanson, who would be the deputy chair of this committee, saying to women presenting evidence to this committee about their experience of domestic violence through the family law system that she doesn't believe them. Can you imagine what sort of experience that would be for those people giving evidence? Do you think they would appear at all? Would they even turn up to give evidence when they know that their evidence would be treated with suspicion in this way?

Rafael Epstein: I'll get a response from Senator Simon Birmingham who deals with Pauline Hanson — he must in some way — just after we get some traffic with Andrew Stewart. Hi Andrew.

[Traffic report]

Rafael Epstein: Minister Simon Birmingham is in our Canberra studio, so too is the Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek. Phillip’s in South Yarra and then I'll give Senator Birmingham a chance to respond to what Tanya Plibersek said as well.

Philip, what did you want to say?

Caller Philip: Just two things very quickly. One, really, really disappointing that Scott Morrison is reaching out to Pauline Hanson, to display that he'll go to that low to engage Pauline Hanson, like she’s- marginally, she's pretty racist. She's shown that over the years. And so to court Pauline Hanson in this is just I think it’s a real low for the Government to court Pauline Hanson in that fashion.

And secondly, just with regard to the missile attack, the Iranians know whether the missile originated from their territory or not. No one else does. But whether or not the missile originated from Iranian territory is not the point. It's Iranian technology. And the Americans will say that it's Iran because obviously they're trying to lever against Iran for a regime change. So…

Rafael Epstein: Look, I'll leave that as a comment but I'll put that to you, Simon Birmingham. He's unhappy with your choice of Pauline Hanson as deputy chair.

Simon Birmingham: Raf, a couple of points there. Firstly, just this morning, Tanya was happy to say that she thought it would be helpful to hear from people interacting with the family law system and that's what this inquiry is intended to do. Beyond that, I think we can't in this Parliament simply say that because somebody has views we disagree with or at times think are wrong that we're never going to engage with them or try to put the evidence in front of them or let Australians put the evidence in front of them to dissuade them of those views, to better inform-

Rafael Epstein: Just that point Tanya Plibersek made, Simon Birmingham, that women might be afraid to appear before Pauline Hanson because she claims there's a widespread problem of women making up claims about domestic violence. Is that possible, do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Raf, look, I think that the trauma of the family court system and the trauma of domestic violence is a terrible circumstance that far too many Australians find themselves in on both fronts. We have sought through additional investment programs measures to help support issues of domestic violence. Clearly there's an overlap in the family court system. But around 100,000 Australian families find themselves in the family law system. Many- most hopefully of whom do not have family violence circumstances, but do obviously have disputes that are often taking too long to settle, too costly to settle, increase pressure and tension in those family circumstances. What we want to do through this process is to give those families a circumstance to say how they think it could have been handled better, how they could have been supported better, so that in the future other families don't have to go through the same testing, trying, expensive circumstances. And all of that as I said before can be done whilst getting on with reforms to the court structure and dealing with other recommendations.

Rafael Epstein: Okay. I want to bring in Anthony from Narre Warren. If everyone can keep their calls short, everyone can get a chance to have their say. Anthony, what did you want to say?

Caller Anthony: G’day Raf and guest. Now, my contention would be this. Prior to the last election, the federal election, Tanya Plibersek and Labor Party members were flapping their arms about how they were going to do more things to make it harder on men in the family law system. Now, Matthew Guy did a similar thing about law and order for the state election and he lost that. And my contention is Labor have scared the pants off lots of men who would know others that have been caught up in the family law system, and thought s***, I don't need that being done to me. I'll make sure we don't vote for them. They-

Rafael Epstein: Sorry Anthony, can I just clarify, what are you saying Labor's promise was on family law? I know there's promise to spend more on domestic violence services …

Caller Anthony: They were going to increase penalties and up the ante against men in the family law system. That’s-

Rafael Epstein: Okay. Let me put that to Tanya Plibersek. I don’t know about that policy.

Tanya Plibersek: Well, it doesn’t work that way. There's no there's no separate law for men and women. We have supported more judges, more registrars, more support for legal assistance, people who are going through it, more support for family breakdown. We've consistently called for better resourcing so these issues can be dealt with more quickly. I'm the first to acknowledge that no legal system is perfect and that the people going through it often find it difficult, expensive, and traumatic. But we're not going to fix that with another inquiry.

Rafael Epstein: Can I ask you, Simon Birmingham, I'll get some more calls on the family law system — is Gladys Liu, the newly elected member for the seat of Chisholm, seems like almost every day she's done something that's not quite right or not quite within the rules. Is she gonna be the MP for that seat at the next federal election?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Rafael Epstein: No doubt in your mind?

Simon Birmingham: No there's not. And Gladys has long been an active member of her community there in the electorate of Chisholm. It's a vibrant multicultural community. Yes, she's been an active member of various Chinese community organisations through that time, as many members of the Chinese Australian community are. But now she is serving here in the Australian Parliament having been elected by that community, and we ought to continue to celebrate the fact that we have there as the Liberal Member for Chisholm, the first Chinese born Australian to serve in the Australian Parliament.

Rafael Epstein: So, she’s done nothing wrong in your eyes?

Simon Birmingham: No. Look, I think Gladys is somebody who is going to continue in a different way now as a member of parliament to effectively engage and represent her community, and make sure that- whether they are Chinese Australians, other multicultural Australians, or Indigenous Australians who live in Chisholm, Gladys I'm sure will be a great and outstanding representative and advocate for them.

Rafael Epstein: Tanya Plibersek, I’m not sure she’s been accused of doing anything other than forgetting about membership of an organisation; maybe the Minister's right.

Tanya Plibersek: Well, I think there are some questions about her fundraising declarations, and just today, as you say Raf, there’s some additional questions about her involvement in another fundraiser that seems to have been using parliamentary resources to promote an entity associated with the Liberal Party doing fundraising through that. I think- it seems that the closer we look, the more questions there are.

Rafael Epstein: Well, she’s a new MP, people make mistakes, you know.

Tanya Plibersek: Yeah. I think there’s a pretty serious double standard here and I don't think Simon or any Liberal would accept the explanations that have been given for the sort of fast and loose fundraising declarations that have been made by Gladys Liu. And that comes on top of, as you say, you know, three different positions in one answer on whether she'd been a member of some organisations. It's pretty scruffy, pretty sloppy.

Rafael Epstein: Okay. Ian’s in [indistinct], what did you want to raise, Ian?

Caller Ian: Hi. My experience in the military reinforces what Margaret Atwood said in her interview last night with Leigh Sales, that the best way to suppress a group is to recruit from within it. I have- we have our very own Aunty Lydia here in Australia, she sits in the senate, and her name is Pauline Hanson.

Rafael Epstein: She's a character in the Margaret Atwood book. So do you want to ask a question Ian, or is your point that we shouldn't listen to Pauline Hanson?

Caller Ian: If she can come up with figures and proof and convincing material, we should listen to her. But on the basis that she’s coming up now, no. I believe she should not be heard.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, maybe I’ll turn that into a question this way. Are you aware of any — because I'm not — is there any evidence there's a substantial problem with women making up claims about domestic violence? That's Pauline Hanson's continuous claim. Is there any evidence to back up what she says?

Simon Birmingham: No I'm not aware of it being what I would describe as a substantial problem. I have no doubt that through the vast array of tragic cases before the family courts you could find isolated instances. But the issues with the family court are far more complex than that. And the issues this inquiry will seek to examine are not just relevant to what appears before or the arguments made before the Family Court. We are looking more comprehensively on issues of family breakdown and support for families through those environments to try wherever possible to keep Australian families together, where family violence is not a factor, but where other pressures may be leading to a breakdown in relationships. Because where you can keep a roof over somebody’s head, where you can keep a family unit together, then that provides a far, far better environment for the wellbeing of every member of that family unit, when it is a safe and loving environment.

Tanya Plibersek: Raf, can I say if you look at the terms of reference of this proposed inquiry of Pauline Hanson’s and you compare that with the Australian Law Reform Commission terms of reference and you compare it to the terms of reference of the parliamentary inquiry from 2017, honestly, there's just not that much difference between them. We're going over old ground again just to satisfy Pauline Hanson. Now of course, it's great when families are getting along and they’re strong. The families that end up in the family court haven't managed even to separate amicably, they are the families that are in crisis. They are the families where the conflict is high. They are the families where the risk of violence is also high, and continuing to disparage and disbelieve victims of domestic violence as Pauline Hanson has done does not help.

Rafael Epstein: Just a quick procedural question Tanya, if you can keep the answer to this quick. If you oppose the committee, does it stop it from happening or does it just happen without Labor members?

Tanya Plibersek: Depends on what- no. No, no. If it depends on what the crossbench is doing. I'm not sure. Simon will tell you what all the crossbench senators are doing. But if the minor parties support it, it can get out without Labor's support.

Rafael Epstein: And it would- if it goes ahead, do Labor sit on it even though they didn’t support it?

Tanya Plibersek: No- well, we would have to. We couldn't allow it to go ahead without a counterbalance.

Rafael Epstein: Oh, so you would? So even though you might oppose the idea of it, if the crossbenchers support it, there’ll end up being Labor people on their committee?

Tanya Plibersek: We wouldn't boycott. Because then you would have …

Rafael Epstein: No, I understand, I’m just double checking so people are clear.

Tanya Plibersek: … no- yeah, yeah. Then you’d have no ability to make sure that witnesses were treated well, that alternate viewpoints were put.

Rafael Epstein: Thank you both for your time, really appreciate it.

Tanya Plibersek: Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Raf.

Rafael Epstein: Tanya Plibersek’s the Shadow Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham is the Prime Minister’s Minister for state- for Trade, Tourism, and Investment.

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