SUBJECTS: ALP National Conference; refugee processing; offshore processing; the Stop Adani Campaign;

KIERAN GILBERT (CO HOST): Let’s go live to Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke. Ahead of what he’s hoping is going to be an orderly ALP Conference this weekend and I guess part of that is to ensure that Tanya Plibersek and the left are all on the same page with you and members of the right saying that you do support turn backs, you do support offshore processing but we have heard David Coleman this morning and he’s not buying it. He and the Government say that with your change you will undermine offshore processing as it stands today.

TONY BURKE, MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: The problem with this Government is that they say that no matter what we do. I mean let’s face it, I heard David Coleman, at the end of his interview just before me then where he claimed temporary protection visas were an essential pillar in stopping the boats. Temporary protection visas didn’t exist when the boats were stopped. They were introduced sometime after. To say now that they are a central pillar is bizarre. He then said that this will end offshore processing as we know it. Since when was offshore processing dependent on ignoring medical advice? When were we ever told that that was a critical feature? The most important part of making sure that drownings don’t occur again is in making sure the turn backs policy continues to be implemented and Labor’s been locked into that. There will be a debate about these sorts of issues at National Conference. There is a debate about these issues every conference but the majority has always been that we would continue with the turn backs policy and that’s where we will be this time again.

LAURA JAYES (CO HOST): Tony Burke, there seems to be unintended consequences in the legislation that you have put forward to Parliament. Will Labor seek to amend the legislation, make sure there are no loopholes so that a Minister for example can reject any of those medical transfers on character grounds?

BURKE: If anyone is a serious threat then they are already able to reject them under the legislation that is there. Once again when the Government says they have got legal advice that says this, that or the other. They would claim that no matter what they had. Let’s not forget they have legal advice that says Peter Dutton might not be eligible to be a Member of Parliament or a Minister and it can only be tested by the High Court and they still refuse to refer him. So when this Government claims that they have legal advice, what went through the Senate last week gave the Minister a very broad discretion. A discretion with respect to security and if someone is viewed as a threat and secondly a discretion in terms of whether or not if there is a necessity of the medical advice. If the medical advice is a con the Minister’s got the power to knock it back and there is medical experts who will then verify that. What the Government is doing is typical of how they operated in a number of areas since Scott Morrison arrived. Which is they are more determined to try find the political angle then they are to find an outcome. And it’s really important that we get an outcome to the fact that this Government more recently, they weren’t doing it originally, but more recently have been willing to ignore medical advice and that was never part of offshore processing.

GILBERT: Are you willing to support a change in the Labor platform that reflects the change in the Parliamentary position which wants expedite medical transfers off Nauru?

BURKE: On any of those issues I’d wait until I saw the words. What you won’t find is there being a significant shift from the views of the Parliamentary party by virtue of what happens at the conference. There will be debate and we are not afraid of debate but the majority will be where it’s always been. I notice on the front page of one of the papers today it is described as an exclusive that we have a policy to abolish temporary protection visas. It’s been our policy for more than 10 years but then is there today some sort of exclusive. Let’s deal with the fact that the boats were stopped before temporary protection visas were introduced. Offshore processing never, until the last fortnight, was described as something that required us to ignore medical advice. That in order to stop the drownings from happening again the turn backs policy is critical and Labor hasn’t moved from that.

JAYES: Mr Burke, do you acknowledge Labor’s vulnerability in this policy area? It is the Coalition Government that stopped the boats after almost 50,000 arrivals. So how cognisant are you of that fact going into a Labor Conference just a couple of months out from an election? Do you see this as one of your most vulnerable areas of policy?

BURKE: As you know I held the portfolio for a short period of time. In that time basically the number of people seeking to risk their lives at sea fell by in the order of 80 – 90 per cent because of the changes we put in place at that time. But those numbers would have fallen much, much earlier were it not for the fact that Scott Morrison teamed up with the Greens to stop the Malaysia agreement from being enforced. Half the people who drowned, drowned after Scott Morrison deliberately prevented a policy from being implemented that would have worked and he opposed it because he knew it would work and he wanted the political fight to still be there. My view on this has always been, and I used to say this when I held the portfolio, this is an issue where you just can’t be obsessed with the politics of it. You are dealing with people’s lives, either people’s lives because they are fleeing persecution or people’s lives because they might drown on the way here. You need to keep a singular focus on what works and what doesn’t work, on what’s decent and what’s abhorrent.

GILBERT: There’s going to be another tricky issue for the leader to manage over the ALP conference and that is the Adani mine, the Carmichael mine. There will be an anti-Adani push at the ALP conference from some of your fellow members of the party. Those in Queensland have a different view; they think it is something that needs to be supported. Where will you stand on that?

BURKE: As you know I’m deeply sceptical of the project but I have fiercely resisted anyone saying as Labor policy we should have a policy to stop Adani and I’ll explain exactly why that has always been my view. I’m sorry to give you a quick bit of environmental legal history but I’ll get through this as quickly as I can. In the 2004 election campaign the Howard Government promised to make a decision under environmental law to stop a wind farm in Victoria. That decision got overturned in the Courts on the basis that the Minister had prejudged it because they took an election commitment into account. Since that time it has been clear to anyone who has to hold the environment portfolio, if you make a commitment that you will stop a project then by law you cannot stop it. The only commitment you can make is to apply environmental law and to make your decision based on the brief when it comes to you. If we were to do what some of the stop Adani campaign are demanding it would be a gift to the Adani Company. Some of the environmental leadership know this and they push it anyway but the reality is that there are problems with the project in terms of the behaviour of the company, in terms of things that should have been checked in the water trigger that the Government has not applied the water trigger, breaches of environmental law with coal laden water being dumped which haven’t been investigated federally. There are a series of problems with this project but the only commitment I will make, and I will fiercely resist conference pushing through anything else, is that we will apply Australian environmental law; something this Government has been pretty lax at doing so.

JAYES: Tony Burke, we will be across all the details of the conference. We appreciate your time this morning.

GILBERT: Thank you.

BURKE: Great to be back.

Tony Burke