SUBJECT/S: Plebiscite on marriage equality; CFA Bill

KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. With me now, Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland. Thanks so much for your time. Let's start with the issue of same sex marriage, the plebiscite to go to Parliament this week. And obviously we know it’s not Labor's preferred course of action, and if it doesn't get through this week is Bill Shorten also willing to accept the fact that it could be several years before there is any change here.

Kieran, since we last met, Bill Shorten and other members of the Labor team have been going out into our community and listening to people, listening to experts such as Patrick McGorry on matters such as this and how the plebiscite will affect people. Caucus will be making its decision tomorrow but I can make a few observations. The first is that there is clearly a sense that the plebiscite will be harmful and we have that from experts. There is also clearly a sense that this is not the function that the government should be pursuing. In fact the function of the government should be to have a vote in the Parliament. . And the third is the deep dissatisfaction with the way the government has handled this whole process. So we'll be making up our minds as a caucus tomorrow but I make those observations because as I said sitting here four weeks ago, governments are elected to do their jobs and Members of Parliament should be doing their jobs and voting on legislation as it arises. There are many instances where this has arisen, many opportunities to make this happen, Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to ignore those opportunities.

GILBERT: Isn't there an argument, as put by Warren Entsch this morning, he's been a long-time advocate of marriage equality in the Liberal Party, his argument is - and I think a lot of people would agree with him - that if you have a plebiscite, popular vote, it's a clear majority, then it's very hard to question that, whereas if you had a parliamentary vote where you win by one or two votes potentially that that would leave it open to further challenge down the track by those who don't want any change to the status quo.

ROWLAND: I understand and I acknowledge the argument but I would say this: the way that Acts of parliament are determined is by a vote. It doesn't matter whether they're won by one vote or fifty votes. The Bill becomes law as a result of a vote in Parliament. So I don't quite see how that stacks up on that side. I take his point about the plebiscite and people choosing to have their say in it and that being an opportunity for them. But equally, this government is only choosing, has only pursued this option we know, because Tony Abbott was in trouble at the time that it was devised. There is no logic, no reason behind this decision other than that it was a part of leadership tensions at the time.

GILBERT: The government is going to introduce the CFA Bill as it’s known to protect volunteers from any repeat of the CFA dispute but the Victorian Government also to protect them in that specific dispute from any adverse changes to the work contracts that are done with regular firefighters for example in the CFA, vis-a-vis, the volunteers. What's Labor's position on this Bill?

ROWLAND: Our position is we want to ensure that firefighters are protected, that Victorians have the necessary protections when natural disaster strikes. But our point here is this Kieran; this is a Prime Minister so opportunistic that he doesn't care about workers at any other time other than when he can exploit it for his own political gain. And the process of going through this, I recall some months ago Brendan O'Connor asked to see a draft of the legislation and was blocked. I recall seeing the Minister on television unable to explain accurately her own bill. So I have no confidence in this government's ability to deliver on that front. They have been pursuing this for purely political purposes. We want to ensure that Victorians and Victorian firefighters are protected.

GILBERT: And so does that mean that you're going to support it or block it? Has Labor made a decision on that yet?

ROWLAND: We will note what happens in the Senate, we've already made our position very clear in the House of Representatives but we will ensure that any final piece of legislation reflects those principles. I've noted that some of the crossbench have come out and made their views known on this so we'll have to take that into account as well obviously. But our prime objective is to ensure the protection of Victorians and the protection of firefighters doing their jobs.

GILBERT: The whole fight though during the campaign didn't go down too well in terms of the Labor Party prospects in Victoria.

ROWLAND: Well I think there are a lot of reasons why Labor's prospects in Victoria went the way they did, and we lost one seat of Chisholm, that is a fact. But I think this is also sobering for us remembering that we really have to continue being a responsible Opposition in this area. We've been responsible and constructive in areas of Budget repair, for example. But we also need to be seen as an alternative government, not just as a credible Opposition as I've said to you before. And I think the fact that, you know, we've seen Newspoll results today, certainly this government is not enjoying a honeymoon period. Malcolm Turnbull continues to see Labor ahead in those polls and I think it is sobering for Labor to remember we have to keep concentrating on every seat that we do hold, every seat that we need to win, we are completely focused on delivering well in this term as an Opposition and going to the next election in a winning position.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, as always, appreciate your time.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.