SUBJECTS: Election 2016; Peter Dutton’s comments on refugees and asylum seekers; David Feeney

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism, and for Small Business as well. Welcome back to RN Drive.


KARVELAS: Should Peter Dutton be sacked? The Greens leader Richard di Natale says he should be.

ROWLAND: Well, look, there's a box on the wall in Liberal Party headquarters that says 'Emergency: Break Glass' and Peter Dutton has reached into that with gusto and brought out the worst Hanson-esque elements that I think we've seen during this campaign. And honestly, I wouldn't have expected that much of him. When they're panicking they reach in and drag these kinds of comments out. But firstly I just find his comments bizarre. If he's talking about people not being numerate or literate and then saying somehow they're going to steal Australian jobs, I don't know what Australian jobs he says they're going to steal. I don't know many jobs you can get in Australia where being illiterate or innumerate are actually sound qualifications. So firstly, they don't make sense and I think he's proving himself to be completely incompetent. But I think more so, this exposes the character of Malcolm Turnbull, the fact that he's gone in there to bat for this bloke for a set of comments that he has always railed against. He's always said that we are the most successful multicultural nation in the world. 

KARVELAS: In fact, he said that again today in his press conference. He tried to reframe, certainly he backed his Minister, you're right, in an election campaign that's often the case. But he did then reframe the comments and said it's no fault of their own for not being literate or numerate but also that there was a cost involved to resettling refugees in Australia. It does cost a lot of money, doesn't it?

ROWLAND: It's a fine thing for the Government to start talking about cost and talking about proper resettlement, on the settlement journey. And the case in point are the 12,000 Syrian refugees whom we promised to take nearly a year ago, and in the same space of time Canada has managed to settle 20,000 of these unfortunate people. We've barely managed to settle 300. We've got civil society, state governments, the private sector who are all getting together, all sharing the cost of this, and I think most Australians would fully agree with our responsibility as decent human beings to accept these 12,000 Syrian refugees. They can't even do that properly. I think this government has got a hide talking about cost, talking about efficiency and then trying to compare themselves to us. 

KARVELAS: On RN Drive, my guest is Michelle Rowland. She's the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism, also for Small Business. She's joining us to talk about those comments by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Of course the PM has backed Peter Dutton, a bit nuanced in his comments but certainly backed his Minister. What do you make of those comments that refugees cost money to resettle, of course often they come in innumerate and illiterate: 0418 226 576. Do you see those comments as offensive as Labor is arguing today or as some people have already texted in, are statement of facts some people are saying that are sending me texts right now: 0418 226 576. Michelle Rowland, Peter Dutton's office today released estimates that Labor's policy of taking 27,000 humanitarian refugees annually, about twice the current amount, so you're going further than the government and the Greens are going further than that if they could implement their policy, would cost about $2.3 billion over four years. Do you accept those figures?

ROWLAND: Even if you did want to accept those figures, and I've got no way of verifying what they've come out with, that fails to take into account the contribution that humanitarian migrants actually make to our society. You don't have to take it from me, you can take it from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. They have shown that the most entrepreneurial, the most innovative people who come here are on a humanitarian basis. They are the most entrepreneurial. They end up here, come to Australia with virtually nothing, they have to make do with what they've got. You only have to walk around some of my suburbs in Greenway to see the incredible change that a lot of humanitarian migrants have made to our societies, opening small businesses, making sure their family and children are housed, that their kids go to school, that they become citizens, they pay their taxes. Now they want to talk about cost, I want to talk about the important benefits that come from having these people in our country. Remember this: in 2000, 5 out of Australia's 8 billionaires were from refugee backgrounds. 80 per cent of humanitarian migrants are literate in their own language. So if you want to talk about the contribution these people make, you can talk about it but let's think about the actual contribution they end up making to our society.

KARVELAS: Okay, so you're saying the cost benefit analysis if you're even going to look at it economically is worth it, but do you accept that it will cost billions of dollars, $2.3 billion, to settle the number that Labor is putting forward.

ROWLAND: Of course these programs, the settlement journey is one that costs money. But we need to accept that not only do we have a situation where migrants and people from humanitarian backgrounds have made an incredible contribution but we should welcome that contribution into the future. Now not only is Peter Dutton saying that he doesn't want to increase our humanitarian intake, he is putting down those people who are already on the program so he doesn't seem to have any appreciation for people within his own portfolio for whom he has responsibility and I think that exposes him as being absolutely incompetent for this position. He was an incompetent Health Minister, I'm amazed he's still on the front bench. I'm not that amazed anymore considering the number of turnarounds I've seen Malcolm Turnbull perform. But how amazing is it that Malcolm Turnbull seems to be the cheerleader backing in this person and his comments. It simply exposes him as yet again beholden to the far fringe of his party, people like George Christensen and Cory Bernardi. He has completely morphed into Tony Abbott.

KARVELAS: Is there a concern among your Western Sydney constituents about Australia's refugee intake, about where the people will live, what they'll do for work, how they'll adapt to Australian life. Is that a live concern?

ROWLAND: Remember many people around Sydney, but not only in Western Sydney, have come from migrant backgrounds. And as I speak to people, they openly tell me they are happy to see so many Australians, people coming here deciding to be Australians, deciding to be good citizens. When I go to citizenship ceremonies in Blacktown, it is some of the most uplifting occasions when you see hundreds of people from every corner of the world who have decided to make Australia their home.

KARVELAS: So there is positivity as well but are there also real concerns because let's be honest here, refugees has not only played well for Labor so I'm trying to get... has anything shifted or are you taking a political risk by being quite strident today and talking about this?

ROWLAND: This is fact and I'm happy to talk about fact any day of the week.

KARVELAS: But is that, because the government wanted to talk about refugees too, that's why they've put it on the agenda because they think there's an electoral benefit for them. There is a political risk for you to.

ROWLAND: Of course they are, they are dog whistling to the highest degree. I'm happy to engage in a discussion about facts. I'm happy to engage in a discussion about the kind of Australia we want to see. One in which multiculturalism is not just talked about, one in which we see the benefits of it and in such a diverse part of the world, in Western Sydney, you can see the contributions that so many people from different migrant backgrounds have made and I'm happy to celebrate that any day. 

KARVELAS: So is this Labor staring the government down and saying we're not afraid of having a debate about refugees because historically Labor has really struggled on this issue. Of course the government has argued that you lost control of the borders and that since then you've tried to back the hard end policies that the government has put forward, there is bipartisanship on those really hard line policies in terms of border protection, and yet today I feel like I've heard a different line from Labor. You've taken on this argument and you don't appear to be steering away from it at all.

ROWLAND: Well the reality is, Patricia, we had a long and difficult debate leading into and at our national conference. Our national conference backed in an increase to our humanitarian program to 27,000 people by 2025. And that was a clear endorsement of the position that we took, a clear endorsement of what we recognised to be good policy. And if you want to talk about shift, the biggest shift that has been here is the transformation of Malcolm Turnbull. He likes to talk small business, likes to talk about entrepreneurialism, likes to talk about innovation but not so much when it comes to talking about the realities of migrants, the realities of humanitarian migrants and the contribution they make to our society. So I'm happy to have that debate any day. And remember this too, Patricia, Malcolm Turnbull was the person who said he would engage in adult debate with people, not dumbed down messages, and actually bring some new intelligence to the political debate. And he has reached into the Pauline Hanson playbook and has backed up a Minister, a completely incompetent Minister, with some of the most divisive remarks that we have seen on this matter.

KARVELAS: Before I let you go, is adverse media attention really the only consequence David Feeney will face over failing to disclose his $2.3 million negatively geared Melbourne property? That's what Bill Shorten suggested on the campaign trail today.

ROWLAND: Well I'm sure David Feeney would not be happy with the adverse media and the talk that would be happening around this. He says he has acted immediately to resolve the situation, that it's an error, Bill Shorten has clearly said he is displeased about the matter and it's unacceptable and I doubt that any candidate would want this sort of attention in an election campaign.

KARVELAS: Michelle Rowland, many thanks for your time tonight.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.