SUBJECT/S: Medical transfer legislation; Adani and the Government failure on environmental law; Murray-Darling Basin Plan; 

BARRIE CASSIDY (HOST) : Tony Burke, good morning and welcome.


CASSIDY: Is he on to something there, that there is a problem that needs fixing, because if he’s right you really could argue that it's the end of offshore processing?

BURKE: There was an extraordinary article yesterday in the Saturday Paper by Karen Middleton on this where allegedly the Government had received advice about this following the Senate vote last year. They'd had it for a long time. Now, they won't let us see the advice. But the amendments that went through refer to people coming here temporarily, in that interview, in the clip you played when Fran Kelly was interviewing the Attorney-General, he acknowledged there would be other parts of the Act that they would deal with. What that interview tells you, first of all this is not a problem. Secondly, what it also says is the Government has one intention, which is to try to string out and create a crisis intermittently every now and then on this issue to try to stoke a bit of fear. It is not a Government trying to deliver an outcome or a solution. It is simply a Government that is wanting to choose a political option here. It's no different to what Scott Morrison did when he was in Opposition, where he voted against the Malaysia agreement because he didn't want an issue to be solved. That is what they are dealing with here. But we've seen Christian Porter's legal advice last week where he withheld it, total the Speaker to keep it secret, turned out once we saw it there wasn't a problem.

CASSIDY: You are saying they should have brought this forward then at the time it was debated in the parliament. But dad they done that, would you have supported it?

BURKE: We haven't seen this legal advice. And we saw when they kept legal advice secret on Barnaby Joyce as well, the High Court ended up having a very, very different view. So, the legal advice that we did get last week raised a couple of issues that we were able to deal with instantly. The Government could have introduced amendments on this if they thought it was a big problem, they didn’t.

CASSIDY: Whatever their tactics on this, though, it may be this is a problem that needs fixing. Christian Porter talked about maybe there is some extraordinary measure that they could take but failing that, would you cooperate with the Government to fix it?

BURKE: I just don't accept that the problem is there on two reasons. First, Christian Porter as Attorney General  has acknowledged there are other sections that they could now look at going to. And secondly the amendment that were carried referred to people being here on a temporary basis.

CASSIDY: On Christmas Island, and Bill Shorten, the Opposition leader, is saying if facilities are up to it, it is fine for people to go to Christmas Island? Do you go along with that?

BURKE: What Bill was focusing on there was our priority is not the location, it's the standard of healthcare. The Government has to answer why on earth it is that standards of healthcare that are not available on Nauru and that the people who live on Christmas Island say are not available on Christmas Island, would somehow be available there. That is for the Government to put forward. What Bill was focusing on there was for, and the reason we supported this the whole way through is it has never been part and Australians don't expect it to be part of stopping drownings at sea that somehow you would deny people medical care when they need it. And the location of that care should be wherever it can best be at the most affordable place for taxpayers.

CASSIDY: You say that is a matter for the Government to answer. I think now you share the responsibility given that Bill Shorten said, if the facilities are up to scratch it is fine for people to go to Christmas Island. Now the Shire President among others has said they’re not, they are nothing like that. Six bed hospital and really no MRIs, no ability to carry out surgery.

BURKE: That goes to the exact point that I made. Our priority is that people will get appropriate medical care. There would be some limited forms of medical care that can be done on Christmas Island. But whether that could be done on Nauru and therefore they wouldn't have been evacuated.

CASSIDY: Why would you go along with limited medical care on Christmas Island. The story has gone up on the Herald website, that says that taxpayers pay up to $100,000 now each time a patient is flown from Christmas Island to the mainland for emergency surgery. Why would Labor give any comfort at all to the idea that you fly people from Nauru and Manus to Christmas Island and pay $100,000 if they need urgent medical attention?

BURKE: People should go where the medical care can be delivered, that's required and at the most affordable place.

CASSIDY: Well then rule out Christmas Island as an option.

BURKE: We will simply keep the focus on appropriate medical care. That of itself for a whole lot of people means that Christmas Island is completely not the right path. The focus for us needs to be that people who need medical care will get the medical care that they require.

CASSIDY: On the Adani mine which got a bit of attention this week as well, Bill Shorten said that, and he said it often, for that mine to go ahead, we would need to environmental and economic standards. You are well placed to make judgements around that as Shadow Environment Minister, do you think it stacks up environmentally?

BURKE: On this, can I first of all say from environmental, from the environmental end, I have always been a bit sceptical of the project. I'm concerned about from what's been reported the Government doesn't appear to have followed the law with respect to the use of the water trigger. Some of what they have dealt with with threatened species and their lack of action when coal-laden water has been dumped into the Caley Valley wetlands. But there's a reason why and the Green Party knows this, every time they say Labor must tell us what they would do with environmental approvals on Adani. If I were to do that, any subsequent decision would be unlawful and that's been the case under the EPBC act and been  clear since 2004 when the Howard Government, to stop a renewable energy project of all things, made an election commitment about the orange-bellied parrot. If you pre-judge the decision, the decision is unlawful. What I will say is when asking whether it stacks up environmentally, I have always been sceptical about it. I don't believe the Government has appropriately followed the law from the reports that I have seen. I will apply the law. If I were to say what the Greens keep begging me to say, they know, and they don't have to provide an Environment Minister so they can get away with this wedge, they know that if I were to say that, if I were to, Adani would definitely win. And my obligation here is to make sure that we apply environmental law.

CASSIDY: Alright. You are a sceptic. If the CFMEU are asking Labor candidates in Queensland to support the mine, and if they don't, they are threatening to campaign against them, being sceptical wouldn't satisfy them, they want outright opposition. What do you say to the Labor candidate in Queensland and what will they say?

BURKE: Everybody is in a position where in terms of the environmental approval it can't be pre-judged. It absolutely can't be. It is unlawful for it to be pre-judged. There are some deep problems with the way the Liberal Government has handled the environmental approvals here. And it doesn't matter whether it's someone saying you've got to approve the mine or whether it is someone saying you have to stop it. If you make an election commitment, saying this is exactly what we will do with environmental approvals, then under Australian law, under the EPBC act, that ultimate decision will be unlawful. And politically people might say it is easier to give a clear answer one way or the other about what you will do, but that will come to haunt you when a decision gets overturned in court.

CASSIDY: Alright, on the Murray-Darling issue, a report this morning in The Advertiser that David Littleproud, the agriculture minister is saying they are about to start spending some of the money involved here, money set aside to return environmental flows from the Murray. But something like half a billion dollars is about to be spent, is that right?

BURKE: Most of this stopped under Barnaby Joyce, not the current Minister. But effectively, $580 million has gone to a special account to provide additional water for the Murray. Of that $580 million, $12.5 million has been spent. Now, this is the most extraordinary act of negligence for the rivers. The money is in a special account to provide environmental water to restore the system to health and almost none of it in six years has been spent.

CASSIDY: David Littleproud makes the point, that is because he needed agreement between the states and the Federal Government and they are waiting on South Australia. Now that that is signed, it can go ahead. That was the problem?

BURKE: They didn't need that agreement. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan always said exactly how that money could be spent. There was a specific clause in the plan that I signed off on that allowed that money to start being spent. There was an active decision from this Government to not get additional water for the Murray-Darling Basin and just before an election, year number six of this Government, they are now saying oh, they will start buying some water now.

CASSIDY: Thank you for your time this morning.

BURKE: Good to be back.


Tony Burke