26 August 2015
Transcript - #2015098, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein and the Hon. Mark Dreyfus MP, Fight Club, ABC 774 Drive, Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Australian military expansion into Syria, National Reform Summit, Prime Minister visiting remote Indigenous communities, Canning by-election and the republic debate

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Welcome to Fight Club. The Member for Isaacs, the ALP MP is Mark Dreyfus. He is the Shadow Attorney General, he is part of Bill Shorten's Opposition. Mark, welcome.

MARK DREYFUS:

Good to be with you Raf. Hello Bruce.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And that Bruce is Bruce Billson, they share neighbouring electorates; the electorate of Dunkley, I think it meets somewhere around Frankston way. Bruce Billson is from, as he says, the self-proclaimed Melbourne Riviera.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Good afternoon gentlemen.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You know it has not caught on. I have tried that, it has not caught on.

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is one of the great Southern Hemisphere capitals. Santiago, Buenos Aires, Frankson…

MARK DREYFUS:

Eel Race Road, Carrum is in fact the dividing line.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is right.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Do you bump into each other going door knocking on that road?

MARK DREYFUS:

Well actually we meet at citizenship ceremonies in the City of Frankston.

MINISTER BILLSON:

We reach across the Eel Race Road to share non-partisan good wishes.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am sure you do. Look, let's go global, let's go strategic, let's go national security first. I will actually, I want to ask whether or not there is a moral case for being in Syria.

The not for such a long time, Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, was on AM this morning saying there is a moral case for being in Syria. Let's have a listen.

BOB CARR:

We can trust the realism and the restraint of the Obama Administration compared with the adventurism you saw from the Bush Administration and I think there is a powerful case to be made about Australia and the West making airstrikes where they are likely to have an impact in stopping ISIS from capturing territory in which it would subject the population to mass-atrocity crimes. I think there is a humanitarian case.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, do you agree?

MARK DREYFUS:

There is a humanitarian case for protecting defenceless civilian populations from these mass-atrocity crimes. We have got this organisation, ISIL, which is murdering and raping and enslaving men, women and children.

There is a clear moral case there for protecting people from that kind of war crime, mass-atrocity crime. In the case of Iraq, we got an invitation from the Government of Iraq to go in and assist them to defend themselves against attacks from ISIL.

The difficulty is, with Syria, that the legal case, the legal justification, the framework under which we would be going in is far less clear and we are still waiting for the Prime Minister to lay out that case, particularly when he himself has said on a number of occasions that the legal basis for Australian intervention in Syria is unclear.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson, do you think there is a moral case?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes, I do. As Mark said, the atrocities do not respect what we would know formally as the country borders.

In fact, the movement that Daesh has and the atrocities that they are inflicting on populations in the East of Syria and North of Iraq; the borders are not protecting those citizens, they are not protecting the antiquities that have been there for centuries, they are not protecting the curator of those antiquities – well into his 80's and not representing a threat to anybody.

So I think the morality of it is quite clear, but Mark is quite right, the legality is something that needs to be worked through. We have been invited into Iraq and we are operating in collaboration with the Iraqis and the other allies.

In this part of Syria there is no recognised government in charge, even the border crossings are either unmanned or…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

…I think the… Government …Daesh [inaudible]…. half the territory…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yeah, and that is one of the difficult things and I suppose this is a real challenge for the world. These are new challenges. These are non-state actors, they are not recognising the normal, normality and formalities, if I can use that term, of conflict of this kind.

That is what we are having to get some advice on, it is just what is the legality of it and what are the justifiable grounds.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So if the moral case is effectively, people being killed; the regime is responsible for far more dead people. They bomb civilians from the air, depending on who you ask, they are responsible for 10 to 1, 20 to 1 the people who are dying there – the innocent people are the regime.

So if the moral case is clear, it should be all out shouldn't it? If the moral case is the major reason we are there, we should be bombing the regime shouldn't we?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I guess it has been a topic of international discussions for some time; whether the international legal framework would recognise the doctrine to protect.

I know former Prime Ministers were very focused in on that and this is an evolving area of international law that says, well what are reasonable parameters? Who and to what process is that kind of assessment that you have articulated…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But does the moral case remain if Islamic State is not responsible for most of the deaths?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well that is getting into a whole other area. But this is why…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

…But that is a question you have to answer. Do we, I do not want you to answer that question, but do we need to answer that, Mark? I mean, don't we need to answer that question?

MARK DREYFUS:

I think, the Government, as you can hear from Bruce, the Government is treating this as the serious question that it is. Committing Australian forces anywhere in the world to armed conflict is a very serious decision and we have to go in with a framework.

We have to go in answering these questions that you are juxtaposing. What are our strategic objectives, 'what does success look like?' is a way of putting it, because that, by framing the question that way, we say, well what are we actually looking to achieve by committing our forces.

Are we talking now about committing not just air forces, but troops on the ground in some way? I do not know.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I doubt it.

MARK DREYFUS:

The starting point is for the Prime Minister to lay out what he believes the position to be, what are…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Has that been laid out by the way, on Iraq, do you think?

MARK DREYFUS:

Yes, yes, because there is United Nations support for the work of the Coalition against ISIL in Iraq and there is the clearest of clear invitations from the Government of Iraq for Australian forces to be there on the ground and in the air.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And Bruce Billson, do they actually need help? Canada had a furious debate in March, they are in precisely the same situation actually. Six fighter jets, I think they have flown less than twelve sorties, a couple of sorties a month.

I don't know that the targets are there. Are you convinced that the need is there, if they have had those Canadian planes able to do precisely what we were going to do, and it has only been two flights a month. It does not sound like a big need.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I have no particular insights on what the Canadian Air Force is doing. So I cannot, I do not know what the parameters are or the context of that. I think there is a need and that need we have identified and that need we have engaged with.

With the collaboration and full engagement of the Opposition and the briefings that have been extended and the thinking behind that has been clearly canvassed. Now we are seeing Daesh consolidating in territory that overlaps a border.

The legalities of the way in which we engage might be, and as Mark has alluded to, are quite different. But the morality is not and above all the harm and strategic threat of Daesh is absolutely clear and we have got 120 Australian citizens in Iraq and Syria.

It is not as if we are immune from this. That is the basis in which we have been, in a very sober way, engaging on this topic; mindful that the original approach was some weeks ago.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Quickly, I want to go to a few calls, but either of you, the Kabuki dance that leads to requests from America to Australia, I have looked into the intricacies of that in the past.

I will ask you first Mark Dreyfus, is there anything to suggest, do you think, that in some way that the Prime Minister engineered a request from America?

MARK DREYFUS:

Look, I do not know and I am not really concerned with it. I am interested…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Not really an issue?

MARK DREYFUS:

It is not. I am interested in the outcomes and the process by which the Government and the Opposition consider this difficult and serious question of should forces be committed? And so how we got to here is less important that what the outcome is going to be and the careful thought that now needs to be put into it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce?

MINISTER BILLSON:

The Prime Minister has made it clear today that it was raised with him some weeks ago in the context of the tragedies in Chattanooga and the firearms assault in Chattanooga and also some broader international issues…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That he was speaking to the President about that at the time?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yeah and this is one of the topics that was canvassed.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Anne has called from Ballarat. Anne, what did you want to say?

CALLER:

I believe you are absolute stark hypocrisy saying that you really care about the human conditions of people in Syria. If you look at the submission to the United Nations in 2006, you will see Ban Ki Moon, you will see what happened under the death squads in Iraq which was under the control of the US and the British there.

The misery that was caused, the daily…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I just clarify there Anne, are you talking about Shia militia?

CALLER:

The Shia Iranian militia who is still running Iraq, by the way; the inhumane crimes that were carried out there. You know, they used drills, they used, you know, the torture was absolutely incredible.

The millions of Iraqi people – men, women and children, innocent, that we helped who were under the US and British occupation that were killed, maimed and had to immigrate and all the attempts to stem the…

I am trying to look for a word here…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That is okay, look do you want to refine that into a question, or do you want me to just ask them about the big problem, we are fighting alongside Iran on the ground?

CALLER:

What I want to say is, that when you bomb ISIS, they do not have stickers on them saying, "we are ISIS," how many innocent people are we killing, called collateral damage that you sort of seem to care about?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay, look that is a good point Anne. I was looking at an article I think in the Nation; there are some claims that about three or four hundred people have died in Syria as a result of American and other allied air strikes.

I will start with you Mark Dreyfus…

MARK DREYFUS:

We are not; none of our missions at the moment are in Syria.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

If there is a concern about the innocent people that have died in Syria, should that be a concern to us?

MARK DREYFUS:

Of course it should and as I understand it, our forces that are engaging in air strikes in Iraq take tremendous care to ensure that they are hitting military targets. I accept Anne's point that there is a difficulty here.

But the other point that Labor has been making is that this is a humanitarian crisis in Syria with eleven and a half million people displaced from their homes. That is more than half the population of Syria and we have been calling for the Government to be doing more in relation to that humanitarian crisis.

We should not be approaching this just as something…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Are you talking about something, and I will ask Bruce Billson about the air strikes in a moment, but worth throwing into the conversation, I was actually on the plane that brought the first load of people back from Kosovo.

There were temporary protection visas for those people so they were, and they did – most of them went back after the conflict. Are you talking about that sort of think, Mark Dreyfus?

MARK DREYFUS:

I am talking about accepting refugees, I am talking about assisting the United Nations High Commission on Refugees who are maintaining huge refugee camps, for example in Jordan where there is six or seven hundred thousand Syrians in camps.

A million Syrians in camps in Lebanon, even Syrian refugees that have gone to Iraq – it is that humanitarian crisis that we can and should be doing more to assist. Cuts to foreign aid have made that more difficult.

It is not just about armed response, difficult though that is, we have got to be doing more on the humanitarian front as well.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce, the humanitarian issue and also people dying. Innocent people die when you drop bombs don't they?

MINISTER BILLSON:

And your caller underlines why this has to be done with great care and Mark is right, alluding to fairly stringent rules of engagement that go to extreme lengths to verify targets and where there is some uncertainty, it does not proceed.

That is part of the preparation, the thinking, the real time analysis that is involved with these kinds of things. I heard today, Philip Ruddock, a highly regarded member of my team, and Chris Hayes, an experienced member of Mark's team were putting forward that Kosovo example, saying maybe there is scope for that.

I thought that was an interesting idea….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It is going to be a pretty long term conflict isn't it?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Let's be frank, we were not sure how long the Kosovo circumstance would take and for those that enjoy the Mornington Peninsula you would know Point Nepean was one of the host venues for that kind of…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Are you personally open to that idea?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I have seen it work before, so that makes me open to it, certainly. But the first I had heard of that proposition was today and so, obviously, everyone needs a bit of time to mull over it. But I mean, that was a suggestion dealing with the sorts of circumstances and internally, and displaced people that are arising out of the conflict and more broadly, the terror that Daesh has inflicted.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Let me just read a few texts and then I want to shift to whether or not our politicians are giving us what we need.

A text or two: "me thinks the PM is trying to ramp up the IS threat with his Syria proposal."

Someone else texting: "ISIL would not exist if we had not invaded Iraq."

I have twice asked the current Defence Minister to give a value judgement on 2003 and whether or not it led to the rise of Islamic State, we might try that again with him. However, for Bruce Billson and Mark Dreyfus who are with me now, let me try this on for size.

There is a National Reform Summit going on now, putting aside the irony that it is run by two fantastic newspapers, however, newspapers that do not make money; are we not in a Palas State where the only discussion of everybody involved in public life that can be brought together, is led by journalists and not led by politicians?

I do not know if they will come up with something solid, but both sides of politics have got a problem don't they, if the National Reform Summit, people from business, from unions, from everywhere else feel that is the only way to get some national solutions.

Bruce, I will start with you.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I seem to be a more optimistic character than your good self Raf, but I think these discussions are worthwhile however they are held and whomever hosts them. The irony of two media outlets hosting it, that is interesting, but it has brought together a range of quite interested and invested people in our community.

I personally did suggest that it needed to look more forward, talking about…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It is not a sign of desperation?

MINISTER BILLSON:

From whom?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

From everybody involved? They are pissed off with their politicians aren't they?

MINISTER BILLSON:

You could read it a number of ways, they might not be getting what they want. They might find some of the challenges of our time a little more complicated than what happened 30 years ago when a similar summit was held and most of the discussions was about, if I can use the term, the 'home game'. What are we going to do here?

Now the economy is different. It is global, it is exposed to other influences. New challenges and I suppose, my feedback for the organisers was where are the entrepreneurs, where are the disrupters? Where are the people making use of technology and creating the new ideas for the future?

I thought having them involved to shape the conversation about the future rather than an immediate chat about the here and now might have been useful. But I hope something good comes out of it.

There is no harm in having those discussions and building the appetite and the understanding of the need for change and then working through what that looks like in the best interests of the country.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is it a sign of desperation Mark?

MARK DREYFUS:

I think it is a sign of really, dissatisfaction with the Abbott Government. I will be direct; in not engaging in proper reform, in ruling out – before we have even started  on debate…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I think the anger is fairly… it is aimed at pretty much, both major parties.

MARK DREYFUS:

We have made many attempts in our nearly two years in Opposition now, to put forward concrete ideas for reform, only to have them ruled out just because they come from Labor.

That is no way to approach what is clearly a desperate need for reform across the board in a whole lot of areas and that is what prompted this summit. Bill Shorten went to address this summit today, to again lay out some of Labor's idea for reform.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I should add too, the Prime Minister sent a video tape message. He is off visiting Indigenous communities. I might play a little bit of his bus trip. First, before we get to buses, we are going to do the traffic in Melbourne.

***

Bruce Billson is with me, he is part of Tony Abbott's team; he is part of Tony Abbott's Cabinet – the Small Business Minister. Part of the Shadow Cabinet is Mark Dreyfus, part of Bill Shorten's Opposition.

I mentioned the Prime Minister who sent a videotaped message to the National Reform Summit. There is a nice bit of video coming out shortly, it is a good thing if a Prime Minister catches a bus with kids who live so far from where all the big decisions are made.

He was on a bus with kids from the Northern Peninsula Area State College that is in Bamaga, up the very top of Queensland. Here is the PM, I think, introducing the kids singing the school anthem.

PRIME MINISTER ABBOTT:

We are all on the school bus. We are on the way to Bamaga School and the kids are about to sing the school song. Ready? Setty? Go!

Well done, well done.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That is the Prime Minister making great use. I am pretty sure that was released on his Facebook page. We will get into that debate another day. Let me ask you both a quick question.

Bruce Billson, are you going to win the by-election in seat of Canning in the west next month?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hard to read, and not that cocky to call it when it has just begun. Outstanding candidate. What a…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Former SAS…

MINISTER BILLSON:

He is a remarkable individual who has served this country with great distinction and if we are able to earn the support, I think he will be an outstanding local member. But there is particular issues in Canning; particular challenges, and I suppose the candidate that best responds to those and creates a sense of connectedness with the community can probably look forward to good support.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

However, usually, sitting member dies, usually there is not much of a swing against the government. That is what the record shows. You have an 11% margin, isn't it remarkable that you cannot say with some confidence that you are likely to win?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It might be probably more remarkable that I am not being more cocky about the results. So you could read it either way Raf. The tragedy of Don Randall dying certainly sets the frame for this.

He was an outstanding local champion. He did not mind calling it as he saw it and letting people know what he and his community were thinking and that, I think, sets the benchmark for the candidates and really what the locals are looking for. Let's see how it plays out.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark?

MARK DREYFUS:

If Labor were to win, it would be the first time Labor has won in circumstances like this since 1966. That shows that, how hard the task is for Labor to win. That said, I am expecting there to be a swing against the Government.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

There is usually a swing, the question is the size.

MARK DREYFUS:

Well I am expecting a sizable swing against the Government and we also have an outstanding local candidate; someone that grew up in the electorate, someone that has been the President of the Law Society of Western Australia.

He has resigned from that position in order to contest the seat and there are two good candidates. That is a good thing for Australian politics.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson, are you afraid to have the Prime Minister there? He does not seem to be campaigning much there.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No, I think you have captured where the Prime Minister was in your earlier piece with kids on the school bus.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That is only this week though.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well, the Prime Minister has got lots to do. I do not know what his schedule is, I am looking forward to being in the West for…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But if he was an asset, he would be there a lot. If he is a liability, he would not be. It does not look like he is going to be there a lot.

MINISTER BILLSON:

This is the joy of these things. You can analyse them anyway you like. Because he is a Prime Minister he is engaging with the Indigenous community and honouring his undertaking, that he would spend a week a year in a remote Indigenous community.

If he did not do that, I am sure people would have lots to say about that as well. So you know, juggling multiple priorities should be a good contest.

I do not know who else is in the field. I am looking forward to being engaged and honouring an undertaking I gave to Don to address the Chambers of Commerce in his community. I will have a better feel for it after that, I would imagine.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark, you have to get a big swing don't you? I think someone said the other day; there have been 163 polls since the last election that have Labor 2 Party Preferred ahead. I know they only have limited utility.

However, if you have 163 polls putting you ahead of the Government and then you get a weak swing that is a big problem isn't it?

MARK DREYFUS:

I think that the Government has been doing very badly, and I think that that is apparent to everyone in Australia, including the voters of Canning. I am hoping that they will be reflected in the result. But it is a very difficult electorate to generalise about.

There has been a lot of commentary about it. It is 6000 square kilometres including rural parts, farming parts, wealthy retirees and a large amount of very new housing developments with young families, lower income people, possibly swinging voters.

So a very mixed electorate which makes it hard to generalise about.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Just quickly Bruce Billson, Joe Hockey's named today as the head of a Parliamentary Friendship Group supporting the republic. Can we handle as a nation, the republic, indigenous recognition, same sex marriage and all the other debates all at once? Or is it a diversion?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well, we can handle whatever people want to talk about. I daresay, many discussions you and I have had, we never seem to quite get onto the economy, or jobs or you know, small business. I wish we could handle more of that, but if people want to bring another issue onto the agenda…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is it a good idea to bring that issue on?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No one has contacted me about it and I have not turned my mind to it. I am just trying to work out, how can we keep going; the 0.9% economic growth in the last quarter, we have employment growth faster than any G7 economy in the world.

We have got more people wanting to engage in the workforce and we need to make sure we have got private sector endeavour to help create the job opportunities for us.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It sounds like it is a distraction.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well no, I do not call that for other people. I just call it for me and I know where my energy and focus is and if there is an invitation in the mail, it has not come my way and I have other things on my plate.

MARK DREYFUS:

I will be more direct Raf. I am very pleased to see Joe Hockey throw his weight behind a republic.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can we handle all these conversations at once?

MARK DREYFUS:

You bet we can. We are a country with tremendous ability and we are capable of engaging in more than one debate at once. The republic is going to take a while to build up a head of steam again.

I am pleased to see the new Chair of the Australian Republican Movement kick it off again and very pleased to see Joe Hockey helping in that effort and personally I hope that we do the Indigenous referendum first.

We need to get back in the habit of changing our Constitution. We are very much out of the habit. The last time we did it was 1977, which is a long time back.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay, we will see what happens. Gentlemen, thank you both for coming in.

MARK DREYUS:

Thank you Raf.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Thanks Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson and Mark Dreyfus.