MARIUS BENSON: Tony Burke, good morning.


TONY BURKE, ACTING OPPOSITION LEADER: Good morning Maruis, Happy New Year.


BENSON: Happy New Year to you too. The Prime Minister is speaking in very general terms about troop numbers in Iraq and you are offering from the Labor side very general support. Do you think Australian troop numbers in Iraq should rise on what you know about the situation there?

BURKE: We’ve offered support for the deployment that’s been made there so far. While the Prime Minister has made comments that have caused people to be asking a lot of questions about additional deployment, there is no proposal that we’re aware of. Even the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has said there’s no proposal that she’s aware of. If the Government wants to go down this sort of path, I am very confident they would be responsible enough to engage the Opposition in briefings, in discussions. We’ve had bipartisan support for the current deployment, but there’s no issue more serious then when Australia commits its forces. No issue more serious than that. I think it’s important that I don’t respond to speculation at a point where even the Foreign Minister is saying there’s not a proposal.


BENSON: On the current deployment, the initial description of it was simply as ‘training’, and the expectation was that Australian troops would not go out into the field with Iraqi troops. Fairfax newspapers are reporting they’re going outside the wire, in the phrase, going into combat regions with trainees - is that ok with Labor?


BURKE: Our principles have been that our forces not be combat troops, that they not be engaged in combat, that our support is confined to the conflict in Iraq itself and they’re the principles we’ve been keeping to throughout all of this. Other principles such as if the Iraqi forces engaged in unacceptable conduct, our support would be withdrawn. They’re the principles we’ve been working with.


BENSON: Can I go to another topic, which is the GST. There’s been a bit of talk within Liberal ranks about the expansion of the GST. Some support that. The Prime Minister says on that “If there is going to be any change, we will take it to the next election. There will be no change on the GST in this term. If we want to expand the GST we’ll put it to the voters.” That, it seems, is very honest political reform.


BURKE: I’m not sure those words get applied to this Prime Minister anymore. Today’s debate has been kicked off by Senator Dean Smith writing an op-ed. Exactly a year ago, Dean Smith put an article in the paper calling for a GP tax. At that time the Prime Minister came out immediately saying ‘there was no proposal, it was not under consideration’ he gave the same sorts of noises that he’s giving now on the GST. We saw after this same Senator went out 12 months ago, by the time we got to the next Budget there was a GP tax in the Budget regardless of the guarantees the Prime Minister had given. What we have right now, the same person going out flying the new kite, flying the changes, and increases effectively to the GST by broadening the base, which means a GST on food when you get rid of those sorts of exemptions. What Tony Abbott is doing with his denial of it, is no different to when he denied they were going to have a GP tax when the same senator made comments about that almost a year ago to the day.


BENSON: So are you saying that the Government is actually going to introduce the GST, extend the GST, to things like fresh food between now and the election – that would be electoral suicide surely?


BURKE: I’m saying this Prime Minister’s word means nothing. His word means nothing. Whether they do it now or whether they do it later we know they are going down this path. We know they’re planning to and we knew it from the moment they tried to force the states to support an increase to the GST in the last Budget by ripping $80 billion out of schools and hospitals. They did that in a calculated move to start to set a path towards increased revenue for the states by slugging families every time they go and buy fruit and vegetables.


BENSON: Can I ask you to give a quick answer to what is a complex proposal, which his Senate reform, which is endless.


BURKE: I’ll do my best on that.


BENSON: Nick Xenophon is speaking on that again saying there needs to be a change to the rules for electing senators so you don’t have this preference whispering deals where a tiny fraction of first preference votes can end up cascading into a spot in the Senate. Do you think it’s time to reform Senate voting?


BURKE: Some of those principles were canvassed in a Senate report that came out last year. I think the most important thing on anything that involves electoral reform, is it’s done in a consensus manner. You don’t ever want people using their numbers in one House or the other to be changing our voting system.


BENSON: Tony Burke thank you very much.


BURKE: Ok talk to you again Marius.

Tony Burke