30 April 2014



SUBJECT/S: Asylum Seekers; proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act; Paid Parental Leave

CHRIS HAMMER: Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia has agreed, at least in principle, to permanently resettle asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru who are found to be genuine refugees. Joining us now to discuss this and other issues, the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism, Michelle Rowland good morning.


HAMMER: Now Labor in Government attempted to seal such a deal with Malaysia, so surely you must support this proposal.

ROWLAND: It’s a curious state of affairs we have before us now Chris, so we don’t know any of the details of this. Once again it seems like we are getting more information from the Phnom Penh Herald than the Government itself. But I will point out that when Labor did propose the Malaysia Arrangement of course the Government – then Opposition – were so forcefully against it. They didn’t want to support it and even went so far as to have Scott Morrison go to Malaysia, tell people how this was a country where people get beaten with sticks and all the rest of it.

The reality is two things. Firstly, I don’t know the detail and it doesn’t appear here that the Government is prepared to give the detail to anyone, let alone Australian media outlets. But also, it is a fact that Cambodia has serious governance problems and they have been pointed out by various institutions, I note that Human Rights Watch and also the UNHCR has said that it has serious concerns about this. All I can say is that I don’t know anything about the proposal. Having worked in Cambodia for a little while as a lawyer issues of governance were very high on the capacity building agenda and I am pleased to say that Australia had a very important role in that and I would hope that continues, but I am concerned that the proposed cuts to foreign aid might actually put a stop on that as well. So there are a couple of issues there Chris, but without the detail it is very difficult to give some commentary on this one.

HAMMER: You say you’ve worked in Cambodia, you know a bit about the country. You know the UN says that in resettling refugees the issue isn’t just one of safety, there are other needs that need to be met such as labour rights, such as education rights. Would that be a problem in Cambodia do you believe?

ROWLAND: It’s a developing economy and it has gone through some remarkable transition. I think that anyone who went there ten years ago would be astounded by the level of progress that’s been made in many areas, including infrastructure. But, serious concerns about governance remain and this is a product simply of the fact that this came out of one of the most brutal civil wars the world had ever seen, a whole generation of people wiped out. Still going through a very detailed truth and reconciliation process itself and again Australia has had a big role as a good regional neighbour to assist in that task. But look, the reality is that you don’t have to take it from me, these are commentaries that will be given to you by the World Bank and by any other agency that says there is a long way to go with improving transparency and governance in Cambodia, and if Australia is going to essentially offshore its obligations, outsource them to another country then there would need to be some very stringent safeguards put in place. But then again, I am making all of these comments Chris without knowing any of the detail about this. These are simply the observations of what I know others have made as well.

HAMMER: So just to clarify Labor’s position if you like, it’s not that you’re opposed to finding a permanent settlement country for refugees held in Manus Island and Nauru that you see is a good thing, it’s that in this particular case you’re not confident that Cambodia can meet the base requirements.

ROWLAND: Well look we’ll have to wait and see on those ones Chris, maybe they have made substantial progress in a number of areas and we don’t know what the Government’s been negotiating with them on that capacity building front. But Labor’s position always has been that we’ve supported regional resettlement arrangements and that’s our very clear position that was reflected in our decision to have the Malaysia Arrangement go through. But really I’m not able to give a solid position speaking for the Opposition until we see the detail and we can actually digest that and give a considered view.

HAMMER: Okay today is the last day for public submissions on proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, the so-called ‘Bolt Amendments’. Now I’m here in Parliament House in Canberra which is as you know is quite a bubble, how strong is the feeling in your electorate about this? Is this a big issue, or is it a marginal issue, what’s the reaction?

ROWLAND: It’s a big issue Chris, and it’s a big issue in many parts of Western Sydney where we have a high concentration of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. I think just about all of them have copied me in on submissions that they’ve made and these range from people from various Indian communities, Armenian, European, the whole gamut. There’s just about every ethnic group imaginable that have put in submissions. But also Western Sydney and the Blacktown Local Government Area is home to one of the largest urban Indigenous populations as well. Labor recognises that people have wanted to have their say on this, all the Government has done is put out an exposure draft, no discussion paper with it, no timetable or schedules for public hearings. So I’ve taken it upon myself, along with some of my Labor colleagues, to conduct some forums and it is very clear the high level of community concern with this proposal.

HAMMER: So, there has been some concern expressed by some Coalition backbenchers including those from the Inner West and Outer West of Sydney. Does that surprise you and do you get any cross-parliament commentary from your colleagues in the Coalition on what they are trying to do about this?

ROWLAND: I don’t get cross-party commentary, I do know something about what they have been doing and how some of them feel about this issue through what I’ve read in the media. But as I’ve said before Chris, it’s one thing to say “look, I’m opposed to it and I’m representing my community”, you’ve got to be actively opposed to it. The reality is these proposed amendments should never go into a bill that goes before the parliament, they are so retrograde they should not even be presented to the parliament. I would consider it a failure on the part of those Government MPs who say they are vehemently opposed to it if it does actually make it to the floor of the parliament. This needs to be stopped now. Maybe it wouldn’t amaze you, but the number of people I’ve spoken to who say that they are offended just by the fact that we are having this discussion about whether racism is acceptable in Australian society and how many levels there should be before racism becomes something that is an offence. The fact that we are even having this discussion a lot of people find profoundly offensive, and I think the failure of the Government to recognise this now really does speak volumes about their so-called commitment to multiculturalism.

HAMMER: Well if the ground-swell in those mortgage-belt seats, in Sydney and Melbourne and that is so strong, do you have any confidence then that the Government will actually hear those people and back out. Do you think this is a matter settled or not?

ROWLAND: Oh look, nothing would surprise me either way Chris. The fact that we had the highest, the number one law officer of this country stand up in the parliament and say the words “it’s okay to be a bigot”. I mean who would ever have thought that we would hear those words coming out of the mouth of someone in that position. Nothing would surprise me in this case, but then again I just think it shows the hypocrisy of this Government and of its MPs. I go to countless numbers of community events where I hear leading figures in the Government – not only the Federal Government, but also the State Government – talk about how wonderful multiculturalism is, praise different community groups and yet they are a member of a party that wants to take such a backward step in our multicultural society and the laws that underpin that. I just think that it’s an absolute disgrace.

HAMMER: Just finally, there are reports this morning that the Prime Minister is preparing to modify his paid parental leave scheme to cap it at $100 000 instead of $150 000. Is that acceptable?

ROWLAND: Firstly, we already have a paid parental leave scheme in Australia that works and I can tell you that I think Greenway would be one of the electorates with the largest number of families who are benefitting from that, and it was Labor that introduced it. Lowering this cap, I don’t know what effect it’s going to end up having on the budget bottom line, I do know that Tony Abbott’s rolled-gold scheme is $5.5 billion worth and it appears just from media reports and listening to the radio this morning that it seems that some of his senior Cabinet people don’t even know about it. Barnaby Joyce was completely in the dark about it. But again, I think this goes to show that we have a Prime Minister who stands for nothing. In the beginning, it was over his dead body that we would have a paid parental leave scheme, then this was his signature policy – “I’m not changing it, this is my signature policy”, and now he’s willing to back down on that. He’s a person who stands for nothing, no principles what so ever, no willingness to follow through on a policy which he says is one of his signature policies.

HAMMER: Okay Michelle Rowland thanks so much for your time this morning.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.