SUBJECT/S: Scott Morrison’s Wentworth disaster; asylum seekers; national apology

FRAN KELLY (HOST): Tony Burke is the Manager of Opposition Business, well are you feeling cocky after this big whack to the Government in Wentworth?

TONY BURKE, MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: Not for a minute. We've always known the next election will be hard and we've always known that we need to put forward a serious policy alternative and put ourselves forward as an alternative government. That's why we've been doing the policy work to make sure that we can fund our promises in Medicare and hospitals, to make sure that we can turn around funding for schools, to make sure that we can have a fairer country and we can act on climate change.

KELLY: What do you think the message is to the government? I mean they won't be asking your advice but is it simply that voters are unhappy with this kind of carry on, getting rid of Prime Ministers, getting rid of their local member?

BURKE: I think if you look at what wasn't the most terribly gracious speech from Scott Morrison on Saturday night.

KELLY: In what sense?

BURKE: It was very much back to the fight, the sort of fist pumping speech. It was not the most direct of congratulations to Kerryn Phelps that some leaders have given from time to time. I thought Dave Sharma actually gave a much more gracious speech than the PM. But he clearly has only heard the bit of the message that he thinks isn't about him. So rather conveniently he wants to say Australians are sick of changing Prime Ministers. Well, that's an easy argument when you are now the Prime Minister, you don't want further changes. But it is as though nothing wrong has happened while he's been Prime Minister, it's as though the madness of the last week in Parliament never occurred. True, the public is still asking why isn’t Malcolm Turnbull the Prime Minister of Australia? But they also want to know why we changed foreign policy based on focus group research. They also want to know why we have a government that's not paying attention to what its Senators vote for and ended up voting for a white supremacist resolution. These are all issues on Scott Morrison's watch and so far he has acknowledged none of them.

KELLY: Well given what you've described there is that madness the last week. It looks very likely the government will lose its majority in the Parliament, Kerryn Phelps will get elected. So will it go full term and will you support it to go full term?

BURKE: The only person who can decide the timing of the next election is Scott Morrison and let's look at what Scott Morrison said before people voted. Before people voted he said that if we ended up with this outcome it would cause not only instability for the government but instability for the economy. And that's a big call.

KELLY: Yes but you know that is not true, you were a senior minister in a hung Parliament in the Gillard Government of 2010. So you know that it doesn't cause instability.

BURKE: And we made all the arguments during the by election campaign. But we can't call the election. The person who can is Scott Morrison. And if that's what he believes, unless he was lying in the whole way up to the lead up to the people voting if he in fact believes that, I don't see how he can't call an election. How can you say ‘I reckon this causes instability for the economy but I'm going to cling to power anyway’? That's where he's now at.

KELLY: But what do you think? Will it cause instability? We've got the crossbenchers, most of them say they won't support a no confidence motion. Do you concede that there's no reason that this Parliament with the government one number down, won't be unstable?

BURKE: The government has been unstable all term. We've had three Prime Ministers, three treasurers, it looks like we're going to get four deputy Prime Ministers, and we’ve had three leaders in the Senate. The instability has run the whole way through the term. They were losing numbers on the floor of the Parliament day three after the election. And that's because they are sufficiently arrogant, they don't pay attention to what's going on, they’ve got the born-to-rule attitude that they think they can go home early. This has been the way they've behaved the whole term.

KELLY: You are the manager of Opposition business in the house. During the Gillard years Tony Abbott was the Opposition Leader and he and his members managed to foment a sense of chaos and instability, a perception of it in the Gillard Government. Even though, as we say, so many Bills were passed during that government. Will Labor be trying to foment that same sense instability? Will you be trying to blow up the show?

BURKE: I've been made redundant in that job. They do it for me every day. Yes technically that should be my job to be the ‘chief head kicker’ or person to try to bring down the government but there are enough government backbenchers doing that job far more effectively than me I’ve got to say. We don't need a chaos plan they deliver it for us.

KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, its 19 minutes to seven. Our guest is Tony Burke he's the manager of Opposition Business. If voters are so sick and tired of the revolving door of leaders, inaction on climate change, refusal to take the kids off Nauru, why wasn't Labor's vote much stronger? Tim Murray only mustered about 11 per cent of the vote, one third of what you got last time around the general election. Labor ran dead essentially. You can't really take any encouragement out of this result though can you? There's nothing in it for you.

BURKE: The by-election was never about Labor and there's never been a general election where Wentworth has been regarded as a particularly marginal seat for us. A lot was written by this in advance of people voting. People had worked out that if Labor came third, the way preferences would flow, the Liberals would win. Sorry, if Labor came third, Kerryn Phelps would win. If Kerryn Phelps came third, the Liberals would win and there was a very large amount of strategic voting there. We were still asking people to vote Labor. I was handing out how-to-votes on the day. We still campaigned but there is no doubt that a whole lot of people who were ordinarily Labor supporters this time worked out how the preferencing would work and voted strategically.

KELLY: And they were helped in that by Labor. I mean Labor effectively did run a third candidate strategy to help Kerryn Phelps. Will you be doing that again at the general election to target some Liberal MPs who might be vulnerable to other independents? We've already heard Jane Caro is considering taking on Tony Abbott in Warringah.

BURKE: It actually happens without Labor having to do anything. If you get a strong independent in a conservative seat, then whenever that occurs and we saw the same when Rob Oakeshott ran, when Tony Windsor ran, you saw the same when Cathy McGowan took the seat from Sophie Mirabella all those years ago. A whole lot of the Labor vote automatically shifts and the pattern here every time though is what we're seeing is the biggest swings against the conservative parties, against the Liberals and against the Liberal government that we've seen in history.

KELLY: Can we get some clarity on an issue that was a concern for many people and that's the issue of getting the kids off Nauru. The by-election is out of the way. Will Labor support the Bill before Parliament that ultimately would see 150 asylum seekers settled in New Zealand? You seem to be suggesting yesterday that perhaps Labor was open amending here. Will you be open to this? Will you help make this happen?

BURKE: The first thing we need to know is whether or not what Scott Morrison said before the by-election is something that he believes and we don't know that yet. That Bill when it was put to the Parliament was never said to be about New Zealand, it was never said to be about that. And our objections to it hold. There are deep, deep problems with that Bill. But what I've also said is I remember too clearly when we had something that would have stopped the drownings with an agreement with Malaysia all those years ago and Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott let the politics take precedence. 600 people drowned after that was blocked and Labor will not behave that way. None of this goes any further until we know whether or not Scott Morrison was serious or whether that was just yet another political game in the lead up to Wentworth.

KELLY: Are you saying that if the Prime Minister comes forward and proves he’s serious Labor will negotiate? Will seek to make something happen?

BURKE: I don't want to get into the hypothetical. We first need to know whether or not from the Prime Minister's perspective there is a conversation to be had here. All the evidence that we've seen is of horrific situations for mental health and care. The focus has been on children, it's also for a whole lot of adults who are involved and we want to make sure that the needs of them without creating a situation that other people drown is paramount and that that's done sensibly rather than the politics ruling.

KELLY: And can I just ask you finally, talking about focus because it's very important day today. The Prime Minister will deliver the national apology to the victims of child sexual abuse. The occasion already overshadowed somewhat by the politics surrounding Wentworth. What will Labor do to make sure the focus remains on this apology?

BURKE: We've already agreed with the government on a whole lot of changes to the day. Question Time will be significantly later, the tone of the day will be quite different to what a normal Parliamentary day would be and it needs to be. People have been waiting for so long simply to hear those words ‘we believe you.’ We knew the Royal Commission had to occur but as is often the case once the evidence is presented story after story after story, people were horrified and we want to stand together with the people who have been through that, with the survivors.

KELLY: Tony Burke thanks very much for joining us.

BURKE: Great to be back on the program.


Tony Burke