TRANSCRIPT: CAPITAL HILL WITH LYNDAL CURTIS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 NOVEMBER 2012
TOPICS: AWU, Defence taskforce, asylum seekers.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Hello. Welcome to Capital Hill. I'm Lyndal Curtis. For the second time in three months the Prime Minister has held a lengthy press conference to deal with the questions being raised about her time as a lawyer nearly two decades ago and she gave legal advice on the setting up of an association which is subsequently allegedly the subject of fraud. She maintained as she has throughout the years that she has done nothing wrong and attacked one of the men involved in the association Ralph Blewitt and the Opposition for what she called sleaze and smear. The Opposition then used all of its questions to pursue the matter in Parliament. Earlier today in the Parliament, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced how more than 700 plausible allegations of abuse in the Defence Force would be handled and he gave an apology to those who'd been abused.
Joining me to discuss the day are the Defence Parliamentary Secretary David Feeney and Shadow Assistant Treasurer Mathias Cormann. Welcome to you both. We'll go first to the Prime Minister's press conference held earlier today.
Let me remind you who Mr Blewitt is. He was involved in fraud. That's sought immunity from prosecution. He is a man who has fledIndonesiato avoid a police interview in relation to land fraud although he denies wrongdoing in the case. Mr Blewitt says he owes money on another Asian land deal. He admits to using the services of prostitutes inAsia. Mr Blewitt has published lewd and degrading comments and accompanying photographs of young women on his Facebook page. He has been described as a complete imbecile, an idiot, a stooge, a sexist pig, a liar and his sister has said he's a crook and rotten to the core. His word against mine. Make your mind up. Of course I would prefer that I wasn't standing here today taking questions like this and we were talking about the National Disability Insurance Scheme and education. But we could be in that position if the political strategy of the Opposition wasn't about sleaze and smear but it was about issues of substance for the nation's future. What I can confidently say is I did nothing wrong and these things have been cycled and recycled and re-recycled and re-recycled over 20 years. I did nothing wrong. And out of all of this, all of these questions, the last marathon press conference, the times I've taken questions in Melbourne, in Brisbane, all of the peddling of this right back to Phil Goode in 1995 across all of those years in between, there is not one person who is able to come forward and clearly say I did something wrong. And I do note when the opposition is challenged to do it, as Mr Abbott was today and as Ms Bishop was last week, to articulate what it is that I have done wrong, they are unable to do so.
LYNDAL CURTIS: I put that question to you. What do you believe, what does the Opposition believe the Prime Minister did wrong 17 to 20 years ago that merits the prime pursuit of this?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Plainly the Prime Minister still has got some questions to answer. Let me just remind you and your viewers that the people that got this issue going again were Labor people like Robert McClelland, former Attorney-General ...
LYNDAL CURTIS: But it has been raised by the opposition over the years too?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Oh sure and we have pursued questions in the Parliament, Julie Bishop in particular has raised questions in the Parliament and again today, Julia Gillard refused to answer very legitimate questions that were put to her in the Parliament just glibly referred to her press conference...
LYNDAL CURTIS: But she did answer a number of questions not only in the Parliament but in nearly an hour's worth of questions from journalists beforehand .
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister glibly just referred some questions to the press conference she just held. Plainly the Prime Minister is accountable to the Parliament. She should answer all the questions that are put to her in the Parliament. This is a clear problem with the Prime Minister's understanding of her role: She is directly accountable to the Parliament. I will give you one example ...
LYNDAL CURTIS: But if she didn't do anything wrong, why should she need to then answer questions that don't contain an allegation, a suggestion that she did do something wrong?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Let's remind ourselves of the events that took place. A slush fund was set up. The Prime Minister provided advice to her then boyfriend without opening a file which helped that particular individual to set up a slush fund and a lot of that money which came from various inappropriate means was ultimately misused and misspent in inappropriate ways.
LYNDAL CURTIS: There's no allegation that she knew that the money was misused?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Here is one question, for example, that was put by Julie Bishop to the Prime Minister today, and that is whether she could confirm that she actually provided advice on the operations of the Australian Workers Union to Mr Wilson and of course, the Prime Minister refused to confirm or deny. She provided written advice to Mr Wilson which proves the point that she was well across the processes for authorisation, for these sorts of entities ...
LYNDAL CURTIS: She was also providing advice to two people who were officials of the union?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The point here is this ...
LYNDAL CURTIS: They weren’t divorced from the union, they were part of the union.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Julia Gillard was the lawyer for the AWU. She was manifestly aware and there is advice from Julia Gillard which was provided to Mr Wilson which Julie Bishop sought to table in the Parliament today, which makes very clear that Julia Gillard was very well aware on the processes for authorisation to set up entities or bank accounts. And despite her being well and truly across that ...
LYNDAL CURTIS: But she gave advice on the establishment of the entity, not on bank accounts though.
MATHIAS CORMANN: She assisted Mr Wilson in setting up what she herself described as a slush fund and to what Mr Shorten described as an organisation that was unauthorised and out of bounds. So Mr Shorten is very clear it was unauthorised and out of bounds. Julia Gillard should've been clear on that too. We know that the funds have been misused and abused.
LYNDAL CURTIS: David, isn't the problem for the Labor side of politics that while the Prime Minister said she did nothing wrong, while the issue keeps being raised, that is a political problem for you, is it not?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, I think Mathias has just elegantly demonstrated the point, which is while there is no allegation that the farrago of lies that surrounds this conversation is obviously designed to do the Prime Minister and her reputation harm.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But perception is important in politics and the Prime Minister while she feels she has to stand up and give lengthy explanations, that does have the effect also of continuing the focus on the issue, it's the double edged sword, isn't it?
DAVID FEENEY: Of course it's unwelcome but that's why the Liberal Party have concocted it and that's why the Liberal Party are feeding it. That's why the Liberal Party used every question in Question Time today to talk about this because this is the mechanism they're trying to use to undermine the Prime Minister and of course Julie Bishop has been selected to run this argument because the Liberal Party know themselves that Tony Abbott can't afford to take any more negative heat.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is the other problem for the Labor Party is that at the heart of this there is was allegedly fraud committed by members of the union, who were officials of the union. There've been other questions raised about other unions, including more recently the Health Services Union, that there is a perception that there are problems in unions that may have not been properly dealt with at the time and questions now about whether they could happen again?
DAVID FEENEY: Yes, but there's not a serious public policy debate around those things, is there? What we've seen on Sunday and what one might've thought would kill this story stone dead was Bruce Wilson saying in fact Julia Gillard did nothing wrong. The only thing she clearly did wrong was have a creep of a boyfriend 20 years ago. So what?
MATHIAS CORMANN: You're now using him as a defence witness.
DAVID FEENEY: You've had your go.
The Prime Minister has had to wade through this sleaze. It's designed and concocted to make her job harder but listen I think for those of us who have watched her over a sustained period manage this and everything else in government, she continues to bring enormous tenacity and aplomb to the job and I think ultimately that's winning through and we see that in the polls.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Mathias, will this continue to be pursued by the Opposition in Parliament this week?
MATHIAS CORMANN: As long as they're legitimate questions that we believe need to be answered by the Prime Minister, we will continue to pursue it.
DAVID FEENEY: There won't be any more questions.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Watch this space.
DAVID FEENEY: What’s that now, an innuendo that there's more to come?
MATHIAS CORMANN: As long as there are legitimate questions that we need to be answered by the Prime Minister, we will continue to ask questions. That's our job as the Opposition.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on to the announcements by the Defence Minister today. He announced a task force to deal with the hundreds of allegations, claims of abuse that have been raised from people from their time in the military. Mr Smith also gave an apology to those people to the Parliament.
EXCERPT: MINISTER FOR DEFENCE STEPHEN SMITH
To those men and women in the Australian Defence Force or the Department of Defence who have suffered sexual or other forms of abuse, on behalf of the government, I say sorry. You should never have experienced this abuse. Again, I say sorry.
EXCERPT: OPPOSITION DEFENCE PERSONNEL SPOKESPERSON STUART ROBERT
We deeply sympathise with and say sorry to those who've experienced abuse at the hands of those who were to be trusted with their leadership and their care. Theirs was a great betrayal.
LYNDAL CURTIS: This is something that unlike our last conversation has bipartisan support. David, what do you think the apology will mean to those people who were abused during their time in the Defence Force?
DAVID FEENEY: I hope they're words that provide some recognition for the fact that there was a betrayal of trust and that there is a recognition of that from government and from the institutions that ultimately were pledged to look after them and train them and educate them. So I think it's a signal moment and obviously the Minister's announcement had a lot of meat on the bones in terms of where to go from here, but I think that was an emblematic moment of government. Together with the Opposition, to give credit where credit is due, taking responsibility.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Mathias, these allegations stretch back decades. There's been the DLA Piper review into them and now a task force to handle them, which does have the ability to call a Royal Commission into more specific instances if it can. Is that an appropriate response?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Well, look, I mean the allegations and of course the claims that have been submitted go back to the early 1950s. Some horrendous stories have been documented. That sort of abuse of course is unacceptable. It should never have happened and we have offered today our strong and unqualified support for the government's actions so far and we will work closely with the government in terms of what the appropriate response is going to be moving forward.
LYNDAL CURTIS: David, how do you think the Defence Force will view the response that the Minister has outlined today? He didn't call a full-scale Royal Commission as the government did with allegations about child sexual abuse, but a task force that has the power to call Royal Commissions if it sees fit into more specific instances?
DAVID FEENEY: That's right. That's an important point, that those powers are able be called upon if the lack of them is seen to be a barrier. I'm confident that the powers exist to find out the truth and explore these matters as appropriate. And listen I think the ADF has been very, very clear and the ADF leadership has been brutally clear on these issues as soon as they came to the surface. They live and demand the highest standards from all of their people. They're very mindful of the responsibility they have as custodians of one ofAustralia's great institutions: the Australian Defence Force. And they will continue to be as they have been in recent times absolutely ruthless about rooting out this kind of behaviour. It is unacceptable and there is zero tolerance for it. And well I think when one looks at the speeches you have seen from the Chiefs of Services and the Chief of the Defence Force, no-one can make it plainer than they have themselves.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If I could ask you quickly an issue on asylum seekers, will the coalition still move to put in a private member's Bill on the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, even though it's unlikely to get the support of Parliament?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We absolutely will. This government is halfhearted about protecting our borders, since Labor weakened the strong border protection laws they inherited we've had more than 500 boats arrive here legally. More than 30,000 people. This government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into adopting offshore processing. They need to be forced into adopting the other parts of our successful policy framework.
DAVID FEENEY: You deserve bonus points for getting those key lines out.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But it won't be a Bill you will be supporting David?
DAVID FEENEY: As is the way with these things you have got to see the legislation before you make a decision.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that's all we have time for. Thank you very much for your time.
DAVID FEENEY: Thank you.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And thank you for joining Capital Hill. Please be with us at the same time tomorrow. Goodnight.