October 21, 2019









SUBJECT/S: Your Right to Know/Freedom of Press; Free Trade Agreements; PM Visit to Indonesia; China-Australia relationship; Syria


JANE NORMAN: Well let’s bring in today’s panel now, I’m joined in the studio by Labor’s Anne Aly, welcome.


ALY: Thank you.


NORMAN: And Liberal Dave Sharma.




NORMAN: Thank you, both of you for your time today, Dave we’ll start with you.


Reporters Without Borders has placed Australia twenty-first in the world when it comes to press freedom. We’re behind our like-minded countries like New Zealand and Canada. Now this is not really about journalists, it’s about the public’s right to know, holding governments to account, so how concerning is that? When we’re twenty-first in the world?


SHARMA: Well, press freedom is an important issue and the public’s right to know is an important issue, but an equally important issue in Australia is equality before the law. And you know, we’re really trying to balance those two interests; just as the press, is uh, you know, free to publish, people have a right to not have a trial prejudiced by what the press has written, people have a right not to be defamed and our national security interests need to be protected, so this is a balancing act that that government’s going through.


But, the Parliamentary Committee on Joint Intelligence, sorry, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, is looking at these issues right now, it’s receiving a lot of recommendations, it’s had four public hearings, you know, this is not an easy issue to resolved, we’re working through it.


NORMAN: We’ve heard from the bosses of the main media organisations this morning. One has really questioned whether our laws at the moment are serving our public interest. Journalists aren’t asking for some sort of blanket exemption from the laws, but they’re saying that the laws as they are calibrated are not serving the public interest. What do you think about that, do you agree?


SHARMA: Well that’s an important viewpoint and I obviously expect the media to argue, you know, more strongly for press freedom. We’ve gotta balance that against other issues, but I’m glad they’re speaking out, you know, we need to hear these voices and it needs to be taken in to concern. Now the government’s role though is to balance those, legitimate interests, in press freedom against, you know, other legitimate policy concerns.


NORMAN: Well Anne Aly, we know that Labor has very much backed in today’s Right to Know campaign. I’m curious though, what do you think the community thinks about this campaign? Do you ever hear from constituents who are actually worried about press freedom in Australia?


ALY: I do actually Jane, and look, I think it’s quite an unprecedented and extraordinary move here, where you’ve got all media organisations, regardless of the competition between them, coming together on this campaign. I think it speaks to a very important issue, but importantly also to the threat that media organisations and journalists are feeling about being prosecuted for doing their job.


Nobody should be prosecuted for doing their job. This idea of the Right to Know, this idea of the Fourth Estate is a cornerstone of democracy, and yes, I do get people raising with me the issue of press freedom. Much of it is in response to campaigns such as this, or front page newspaper articles for example.


But I think it’s something that Australians hold very dear and it’s something that – the world is watching what Australia does in this space, as a developed nation, as a democratic nation, the world is watching us and we have a responsibility here to set the parameters of what a democracy looks like.


NORMAN: I wanted to just play a grab here from former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and I think perhaps encapsulates the typical balancing act for the media, so if we just take a listen to what he’s had to say this morning about this issue.


*GRAB* - It Cuts Both Ways


NORMAN: Right, so Barnaby Joyce has a bit of a testy relationship with the media, we know all about the hijinx of last year and his career suffered as a result of it. Anne, I suppose my question is, in some cases the media has not exactly covered itself in glory, so does that make it hard to get the public on side when we’re fighting for changes to –


ALY: I think the test here is public interest, and the public’s right to know, and I think the questions around, for example, the reporting of Barnaby’s personal situations… certainly there were questions there that the press went... crossed boundaries, in terms of the public’s right to know. I think, you know, would a reasonable person – a reasonable person in the street, or at a pub, for example – would it pass the test of their right to know and use it in the public interest. And that’s a test that needs to be applied to all media, the media needs to be scrutinised just as much as any other institution.


But in terms of laws around whistleblowers, the protection the media needs in order to be able to do its job as the Fourth Estate and report news, as opposed to some of the reporting we saw around the Barnaby Joyce case for example, I think that we need to be very vigilant in upholding those principles.


NORMAN: Alright, just moving on to another issue domestically today and that is these Free Trade Deals. The government, well, now both parties, are backing these trade deals with Peru, Indonesia and Hong Kong. There are some concessions that Labor has got from the Coalition but we’ll get to those in just a moment.


Dave Sharma, you’re actually Chair of the Treaties Committee so you know a lot about this. Just looking at the FTA with Hong Kong, given what we’ve seen recently with the rolling series of civil protests, the government’s crackdown, are we rewarding bad behaviour by signing off on this FTA with a country like Hong Kong?


SHARMA: Well firstly, you know, we do negotiate FTAs based upon our own interests and not necessarily with a, you know, analysis of the character of the country that we’re dealing with. We have FTAs with any number of countries we’re dealing with including China for instance. With Hong Kong though I think this is an important point, the political situation there and the political instability there is a cause of concern. But I think the best thing we can do as an outside country is support the One Country, Two Systems framework that Hong Kong operates on.


Now this FTA agreement has been negotiated with the Hong Kong authorities, it’s with the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong special administrative region of China, so, I think by moving ahead with this FTA we’re supporting Hong Kong’s unique status within China and helping to shore up that system.


NORTON: Okay, well, Anne Aly, we know that the Unions, some Unions, were actually deeply opposed to Labor’s decision to back these agreements. Anthony Albanese has held a press conference just a short time ago saying that there is some assurances that Labor has got from the government, hoping to obviously placate the Unions.


Do you think these assurances, like guaranteeing market testing, Parliamentary review after five years, criminal penalties for worker exploitation, do you think these will placate the Unions’ concerns?


ALY: I don’t think they’ll placate the Unions entirely. But I do think the amendments that Labor sought and the guarantees that Labor sought around things like workers’ protection and so on and skills and the protection of Australian jobs, because this really is about creating more jobs and opening up export markets for Australia, I think that they satisfy Labor. I’m not sure that they’ll satisfy the Unions completely.


NORTON: So what’s the consequence then, for Labor? I mean, we saw what happened with John Setka, the CFMEU in Victoria, it’s still unresolved, still an issue for Mr Albanese. What is this new sort of, uh, I suppose –


ALY: Well, as someone who represents a constituency in Western Australia, I support anything that’s going to create jobs. Particularly in my State. And the Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia is going to be huge for Western Australia, for the export of meat and wheat, but also in opening up other markets for export from Australia to Indonesia.


I think it’s a conversation that needs to be ongoing. I know our Shadow Trade Minister, Madeleine King, has done a wonderful job in speaking with the Unions and negotiating with the Unions. We’ve come to a position now where we feel that we can support these Agreements and that’s the way that we’re going to go forth with it.


I’m sure that the conversations will continue though.


NORTON: Alright. Well turning overseas, another issue on the weekend, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, made a flying visit to Indonesia for Joko Widodo’s inauguration. One of the more interesting meetings was on the sidelines, he had a meeting with China’s Vice President.


After that meeting, Mr Morrison says China has a clear understanding of where Australia’s coming from. So, Dave Sharma, with all of your extensive diplomatic experience, do you think Australia’s out of the deep freeze now when it comes to Beijing?


SHARMA: Well, you know, I’m not gunna seek to characterise our relationship. I wouldn’t agree with that characterisation. We’ve got a comprehensive strategic partnership with China that’s enduring, um –


NORTON: There are tensions though, right? Over Huawei, over foreign interference laws, our relationship with Trump?


SHARMA: Undoubtedly we’ve had points of difference, but they’ve been points of difference based upon our national interest and I think as long as they’re clearly understood and clearly communicated, and we do that with China as we do with any other countries, that always needs to be the basis of our relationship with China.


I think it was important that the Prime Minister went to this inauguration, I might just point out that it was in 2004 that John Howard first attended the inauguration of an Indonesian President and that’s a tradition that’s consi-… been continued on both sides of politics in Australia, throughout, and I think it reflects how important Indonesia is to us as a country.


NORTON: So would you like to see now a Leader’s meeting, between Scott Morrison and Xi Jinping? It’s something that’s not happened so far.


SHARMA: I’m sure it will happen in due course, I would just say that Scott Morrison became Prime Minister in August last year, he faced an election in May, he hasn’t actually been in office all that long and there’s a large number of world leaders whom he hasn’t interacted with. He certainly interacted with President Xi on the margins of multilateral meetings and I expect in the fullness of time, a full bilateral meeting. But, you know, we’ve got priorities of Australian interests, as Australia beyond the China relationship. And China does beyond the Australian relationship too.


NORTON: Alright, well Anne Aly, just on the China relationship, we saw some pretty fierce criticism from Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong directed at the government over the China relationship saying there’s no long term plan.


What kind of long term plan do you think Labor – does Labor believe we need?


ALY: A long term plan; I think our relationship with all countries needs to be continuously evolving as the international relations environment evolves and as the international security environment evolves.


I think that we do need to set our plan, in terms of our partnership, or in terms of our relationship with China within the region, but also within the global environment as well. That kind of long term plan would look forward to the kind of soft power mechanisms that China is using in the region and around the world and how we engage with those soft power mechanisms.


NORTON: Would Labor be looking at – so some of the tensions are obviously around Huawei, not using Huawei as part of our 5G network, the foreign interference laws that have come through, these are major –


ALY: - points, they are major points –


NORTON: Would Labor change any of them?


ALY: I’m not going to speak on behalf of Labor and what that plan should look like, really it’s in the government’s court at the moment to establish the relationship with China. But it’s critical at this juncture in time that the seeds, if you like, for that relationship in the long term are established now. Where we stand as a nation in our region and in the world, in relation to China, needs to be established now. I don’t think we can wait.


NORTON: Alright, well just finally, we’re running out of time rapidly, Question Time is upon us; I wanted to ask you about the sixty-five Australian women and children in the Al-Hawl camp in Syria, the situation there is becoming more dangerous, more unstable, more volatile as the days go on, Dave Sharma, do you think that we have the moral responsibility to be bringing these people home?


SHARMA: Well we certainly have a moral responsibility towards these Australians, but I think the situation they’ve found themselves in, in some cases put themselves in depending on their individual circumstances, is one we never would have advised or counselled them to do. Um, and, whilst we’d certainly welcome them back to Australia should they make it back here, I don’t think we should placing Australian lives or personnel or assets at risk in order to extract them from that situation, by and large of their own making.


NORTON: But we know other countries are, so the US has looked at – I mean, well mainly it’s directed at the children and the orphans in particular, so if other countries are bringing out their citizens – shouldn’t we? Like, can we really just leave Australian citizens there?


ALY: Mmm, I don’t think we should be comparing with other countries. The US has a bigger capability in this regard. I also think this isn’t just about a moral question. It’s not just a moral question, there are more practicalities, as Dave has pointed out, in this as well.


Extraction is highly volatile and the peace treaty that’s out there now – it’s very fragile. Extraction, even before that, I meet people who have done extraction and it’s always very difficult to extract people from Syria, but now it’s particularly difficult.


So, as much as our hearts are in the right place, there are practical considerations.


NORTON: Alright. I’d love to continue talking about this, but we have to wrap up now. Anne Aly, Dave Sharma, thanks for your time.