Television Interview, Today Show

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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11 August 2023

SUBJECTS: Hawaii bushfires; Voice to Parliament; Cheaper medicines; Gas prices; Cheng Lei; US-Australia relationship.

KARL STEFANOVIC, HOST: Emergency supplies and rescue teams are being deployed to Hawaii from across the United States, as deadly wildfires wreak havoc on the island of Maui. Let's bring in Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton this morning. Good morning, guys. Nice to see you. To you first of all, Richard, are we sending help to Hawaii yet?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well our Consul General in Hawaii, in Honolulu, has made an offer to Governor Green of Hawaii to provide assistance. We're obviously looking at what we can do that is useful. I think all Australians, when you look at the images that we've seen overnight from Maui, it brings back a lot of very difficult memories for us. Bushfires is something we know a lot about. We've experienced the pain and the suffering of that loss. And I know that Australians today will want to reach out to a part of the world that many Australians know very well.      

STEFANOVIC: Yeah, we’re very close to Hawaii, aren't we? It means a lot to us. All right, October 14, are we locked and loaded for the Voice?

MARLES: Well, we have said that we will take this to a referendum in the latter part of that year. Let's see what that date ultimately is.

STEFANOVIC: It's October 14 though, isn’t it?

MARLES: But we are very committed to seeing this referendum happen. This is a moment that can really unify the country.

STEFANOVIC: Have you got an exit strategy?

MARLES: Well, the strategy is to take this to the Australian people. That's what we promised we would do at the last election. That's what we are doing. And as I say, I think this is a moment where I believe there is a yearning across the Australian people to see our First Nations people recognised in the constitution. That's fair and that's right. And we're confident about how that will proceed. But what's important is that Australians be given a choice.

STEFANOVIC: Okay, Pete, you'd be hoping it goes deeper into the year, this referendum? It's given the Opposition the packer-whacker it desperately needed.

PETER DUTTON, OPPOSITION LEADER: Look, Karl, obviously, I think it'll be the 14 October. It's hard to get a straight answer out of the government, even on what the date will be in relation to the Voice. And I just think there are millions of Australians out there saying, look, we want to do the right thing by Indigenous Australians, we want better outcomes in schools and attendance rates and health outcomes and housing, employment, et cetera, but making the biggest change to our constitution in our country's history without the detail is something that causes a lot of Australians concern. And that's why I think, when the Prime Minister argues one thing to one audience and then changes his tunes to the next, I think a lot of people are saying, well, hang on, what's going on here? Why are they being so tricky?

STEFANOVIC: Has the PM been too transfixed by this while people's wallets burn?

MARLES: This is a commitment that we made at the last election, we're following through on that. And that's what you know, with this Government and with the Prime Minister, that he’ll honour his word. But we have been completely focused on cost of living issues. I mean, be it more affordable child care, the measures that we took at the end of last year, which were opposed by Peter, to put downward pressure on power bills, what we're doing now in terms of providing for cheaper medicines, we are looking at ways in which we can help household budgets because we get the pressure which is on Australian families. And it has been the focus of our Government.

STEFANOVIC: You must be worried about collateral damage if this doesn't get up.

MARLES: We are taking a decision to the Australian people. That's fundamentally what we are doing. And we're speaking to the conviction that we have about recognising our First Nations people in the constitution and actually doing so in the way that they want, by having a Voice to Parliament, so we can make a difference on all the issues that Peter mentioned.

STEFANOVIC: You're not worried at all about this not getting up and what happens next?

MARLES: What we're doing is fulfilling a promise that we made at the election and we're giving the Australian people a choice. And so, there's nothing that I'm worried about in respect of that. And I think trying to do something to close the persistent gap of social disadvantage between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians is something that Australians will want to see.

STEFANOVIC: All right, Peter, it's pretty hard to convince everyday Aussies that paying less for medicine is a bad thing. I'm still not entirely sure what your problem is.

DUTTON: Well, Karl, we're certainly in favour of paying less for medicines and we support that. We support the 60 day dispensing. But as the Pharmacy Guild’s pointed out, they've got over 3,000 pharmacies across the country, they're the ones who are paying the bill, who are picking the bill up for it. It should be the Government that, if they want to make medicines cheaper, which we support, then it's a measure that should be funded. At the moment, the way the Government’s structured it, the pharmacists are going to have to pick up that and I don't think patients want that. We want, if it's possible to have a 60 day script, that's good, less visits to the doctor so that you can free up that service. Everyone agrees with that. But it's the pharmacists who are picking the cost of it up. And particularly in a lot of regional areas, they're talking about services being reduced, visits to aged care homes and doing minor procedures, et cetera, where there's no GP in town. So, I just think, again, it's another botched attempt by the Government at a policy which could have been delivered much more efficiently. And that's our concern in relation to it.

STEFANOVIC: Okay, in terms of compo, you're going to give the pharmacists anything?

MARLES: Let's be clear. This is a choice between Australian consumers or the pharmacist lobby. Pharmacies are doing okay, but at the end of the day, this is about making medicines cheaper. And what you just heard from Peter is where he always stands when it comes to cost of living issues, and that is against the Australian consumer. And we're seeing that again–

STEFANOVIC: An alarming story coming out of WA this morning, our gas workers are threatening strike action and the world gas prices, when they heard this, the markets, they absolutely skyrocketed. Now, there are warnings they'll try and kill free trade agreements with tariffs and protectionism. Are they running your party now?

MARLES: Well, obviously we want to see the industrial issues worked out between the unions and the employers in respect of this. We, as I've just said, have done everything we can to put downward pressure on power prices. But if we want to talk about industrial relations – in the last quarter, we saw 7,000 days lost in industrial action. In the last quarter of Peter's government, it was something like 128,000 days. It's like less than 10 per cent of the industrial action today that there was when the Liberals were in power. And that's because we actually believe in having workplaces where workers and employers get on with each other.

STEFANOVIC: Pete, just quickly on that one.

DUTTON: Well, the unions are back in charge. I mean, there's no question about that. And that's why they're extorting at the moment, the CFMEU in workplaces, and that's just the reality of a Labor government. They put a lot of support behind the union bosses, forget about the workers. And we don't want to see a disruption to gas supply, it'd be a disaster for domestic prices here, which are already high enough, and our trading partners would look at Australia as an unreliable partner and look elsewhere for those contracts.

STEFANOVIC: All right, just a couple of quick ones. Cheng Lei, is she getting out soon?

MARLES: Well look, we continue to advocate on behalf of Cheng Lei, excuse me. Tomorrow is a very sad anniversary, it's three years since Cheng Lei has been incarcerated.

STEFANOVIC: It feels like it's moving towards a resolution?

MARLES: Well, we will keep advocating on behalf of her to the Chinese government. We are very concerned about her circumstances, the means by which she has been incarcerated. It's really important there is a proper process here, but we continue to advocate at every opportunity on behalf of Cheng Lei.

STEFANOVIC: All right, one final one, and I think it's a lighter note. Again, I can get this badly wrong sometimes. Ambassador Kevin Rudd says–

DUTTON: We saw that the other night, Karl.

STEFANOVIC: Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa. It’s a timeless gag, Pete. You wouldn't know anything about it.

DUTTON: Keep going, keep going.

STEFANOVIC: All right, so Ambassador Kevin Rudd says he's happy to work with Trumpy if he gets back in next year, after calling Trumpy a traitor. I mean, you could sell tickets to their first meeting, Richard. Are you nervous about what's going to happen if Trumpy gets back in?

MARLES: Can you really call him Trumpy?

STEFANOVIC: I think we can.

MARLES: It'll be fine. It'll be absolutely fine. I mean, I'm kind of keen to be there, but it will be completely fine. Governments of both persuasions, you know the lines, work well across the Pacific.

STEFANOVIC: You just went to a higher register. “It’ll be fine”. Pete do you have confidence?

DUTTON: K Rudd's back in town and he's talking about burgers again – with a h – but he enjoys burgers without the h as well, so I don't know what's going on there. But anyway, good luck to him.

STEFANOVIC: All right, good to see you guys. Thanks so much.


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