SUBJECTS: The Biloela Family; Religious Discrimination; Missed Biosecurity Deadline
KIERAN GILBERT: Senior Labor frontbencher, Joel Fitzgibbon, joins us here today – Joel thanks very much for your time. Let’s start with a story that is dominating politics at the moment and much of the national debate about that Tamil family. Peter Dutton says he has had not one death on his watch and he doesn’t intend to let that happen now in terms of not relenting in terms of their tough approach. What do you say to that?
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Good morning – I think, Kieran, it confirms what I believe was the intention of the front page photograph this morning, and that is the Government is pursuing a political agenda. I remember the time when they weren’t allowed to talk about on water issues, but clearly when it suits the Government, when it suits Peter Dutton, they are more than happy to release photos with respect to on water matters. The Government believes there is political advantage in this for them; they believe that continuing to look hard line on boat people plays as an economic advantage to them. And I just appeal to Peter Dutton to put the politics aside and make what I think would be a common sense decision with respect to this family.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: What the Minister has said in his op-ed is that this is something that is following Court decisions, that it has been through numerous Court appeals, and each time they have been denied that status as a refugee. So why shouldn’t we be honouring the decision of a Court?
FITZGIBBON: Because the Minister clearly does have discretion; Peter Dutton has exercised that decision himself in the past, particularly with respect to the au pair issue, and he should do so on this occasion. It doesn’t create any precedent at law, it might mean that Peter Dutton, or indeed David Coleman, might face some challenging decisions into the future. But each case should be dealt with on its merits and it is very clear, and it has broad community support, that on merit this family should be allowed to stay, and it is disappointing the way in which they have been treated, particularly the way they were dragged away to a detention centre.
GILBERT: Well there is some in the Government that agree with you, and Barnaby Joyce, one high profile individual, who would agree with your position on this family. However, the Government has said, as Annelise pointed out, that they’ve gone through every level of the court – to the High Court – and have been rejected in terms of their refugee claim. So shouldn’t that stand?
FITZGIBBON: It’s a real worry isn’t it Kieran when Barnaby and I are on a unity ticket. But the refugee status isn’t the only test here, although how it applies to the parents is different to how it might apply to the children who, of course, were born here in Australia. But all those legalities aside, we have a family, kids born here living in Biloela, or at least were, integrating into the community, filling jobs in the community which are much needed in the local economy there, and on any common sense approach – and you know we have a Prime Minister who often likes to preach the gospel – and on any common sense approach, we should allow this family to stay here in Australia and in the future allow a Minster to explain the special circumstances which the Minister confronted on this occasion.
NIELSEN: It is somewhat counterintuitive to the Government’s stance as well to get more migrants into the regions, I guess that is something you and Barnaby Joyce do have in common is that you represent regional areas and this is exactly the kind of place you want migrants to come to and work and contribute to the community.
FITZGIBBON: I’ve often said that alongside climate change, workforce issues are the biggest challenge facing the agriculture sector and the food production sector. And we do need people prepared to work in those industries – we desperately need them – here we had a gentleman doing just that: living happily in the community, welcomed by the community, and these are all part of the special circumstances we face here, and Peter Dutton and Minister Coleman should do the decent thing: listen to community views, listen to the local view there in Biloela and grant this family a permanent opportunity.
GILBERT: You referenced the Prime Minister and his belief in the gospel and preaching the gospel and so on, are you saying he is being hypocritical in this case?
FITZGIBBON: Well what I am saying is it’s not a particularly Christian approach to this issue – the way that family was dragged away; the way they have been dealt with in this whole process; given they have been so welcomed in that local community; given they obviously pose no threat to security here in Australia; and given it is a bit of a fiction to say that, as Peter Dutton says, if I left this family in, tens of thousands of others who will miss out as a consequence – that is overreach. Indeed this Government runs on fear, it sees fear…
GILBERT: So are you saying it’s hypocritical?
FITZGIBBON: Well it is hypocritical, I’m happy to use that word, this is a Government that runs on fear, takes a divisive approach to every issue it encounters. But on this occasion, I suspect there’s some possibility that the Government may have overreached.
NIELSEN: When it comes to that topic of religion, this is an area we do agree with the Government on the religious discrimination protections. You were quite satisfied with the way those had been drafted by Christian Porter?
FITZGIBBON: Well it’s not quite what I said. I made the point that Christian Porter in his draft Bill has managed to keep pretty much no one happy, which might suggest he has the balance right. There is a lot detail to be examined on this draft Bill as yet, and we’ll take the time to do so. I’m particularly concerned about state’s rights and the prospects that state law might be overridden by this draft Bill. But this is a difficult subject, a subject that has been made more difficult, in my view, by the Government’s mismanagement of the same-sex marriage issue – that’s basically where all this began. But people have to be able to express their religious views of course, but they are not entitled to do so in a way which is injurious to other people; which offends other people. It is a difficult balance and, of course, people are entitled to be protected against all forms of discrimination so it is a challenge. But I am pretty comfortable with the architecture that Christian Porter has embraced, but the devil will be in the detail.
NIELSEN: Do you accept that Labor lost a lot of support within the religious communities at the last election? That it was a bit of a sleeper issue in some respects, particularly in areas like Western Sydney?
FITZGIBBON: Well that’s what my colleagues in Western Sydney tell me. So I have no doubt that is the case. For whatever reasons we weren’t seen to be striking the right balance, and that’s why it will be really important that we carefully consider the fine detail of this Bill, but more particularly that colleagues are given the opportunity to broadly consult within their communities on the draft Bill. I know that my colleagues will be guided by the views of their local communities and they should be given plenty of time and plenty of opportunity to undertake those consultations.
NIELSEN: And just finally you’ve been quite critical of the Government not implementing the Biosecurity Import Levy. You said the deadline was July 31st and we are in September and it still hasn’t happened but that’s because of extreme push back from manufacturers in particular that they say will this importing levy will cripple them when it comes to importing goods, what’s your response to them?
FITZGIBBON: It’s an issue that’s deserving of more media attention; the absolute priority for any Government in the agriculture portfolio should be biosecurity. What we used to call quarantine, it’s the measures to keep our food safe and, of course, maintaining our international reputation as a provider of clean, green safe food; it also protects our environment. And yet, an independent review came to the conclusion that our biosecurity system was under resourced. It needs more money; there was a recommendation that some of that money could come from certain sectors in the economy, and we don’t have any disagreement with that. The problems is the Government has completely stuffed up the process, they designed a tax that was kind of a catch-all, looked much more like a revenue grab than it did a model designed on a risk based basis. And of course industry pushed back; the coal mining industry, the cement industry, which are very, very low risk were being hit with big charges. And as a result of that pushback, the Government keeps kicking the issue down the road; it was supposed to have that this in place by July 1. It missed that deadline. Then it said it would have it imposed by September 1 yesterday, it missed that deadline - $20 million of revenue has been lost in that intervening period. The Government claims it is going to raise $325 million a year, much of that money has been already allocated to important purposes within the biosecurity system, yet we don’t even have a draft Bill and we have no idea when this levy is going to come into effect.
GILBERT: Shadow Agriculture and Resources Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, as always appreciate your time – thanks, we’ll talk to you soon.
FITZGIBBON: Always a pleasure.