Doorstop: Sydney - Labor’s positive plan to close the Indigenous justice gap; Syria; Mal Brough

19 November 2015





SUBJECT/S: Labor’s positive plan to close the Indigenous justice gap; Syria; Mal Brough; Entitlements; Darwin Port; S.Kidman &Co

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Before I talk about our announcement in terms of Closing the Gap and a justice target for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, I'd just like to record our pleasure that the French security forces have been able to make arrests overnight and clamp down and bring the perpetrators of the terrible terrorist incident to justice.

Terrorist organisations should realise that the civilised world is combined to catch and bring to justice the evil perpetrators of the terrible events in Paris, and indeed what they're doing in Syria and northern Iraq. I'm very confident that just as we see the redoubled French efforts to bring people to justice, that Australia's security forces are equally on their game and doing everything they can to ensure that Australians are safe both home and abroad.

Turning to the announcement that Labor made yesterday, it is long overdue in this country to have a justice target in terms of closing the gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous. It is dreadful, it is a national humiliation, that a young Aboriginal man is more likely to go to jail than to go to university. It is shocking that Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to experience family violence than non-Aboriginal Australian women. It is shocking that Aboriginal women are 11 times more likely to die from family violence than non-Aboriginal Australian women. We need to change the justice system in this country. We need to close the gap. It is not right that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who comprise between 2 and 3 per cent of our national population make up a much larger proportion of our prison population.

I think in 2015 that some people say that we're on top of a lot of the social challenges in Australia and a lot of the justice issues in Australia. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are experiencing the legal system. It is very, very important that this nation looks into the mirror and says it is not good enough what we see, in term of the fact that we need to have more prevention, less crime and less incarceration.

Labor's committing to providing more resources and making it a first order national issue that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders shouldn't be processed in the legal system in the way they are, it's a dysfunctional legal system and justice denied to some Australians is justice denied to all Australians. Happy to take questions on this and other matters.

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, would Labor be prepared to accept some sort of power sharing deal in Syria between the Shia and the Sunni Muslims which could also see Bashar Al-Assad remain in power at least at an interim level?

SHORTEN: The conflict in Syria is very deep, very complex and there's a lot of deep enmities, sectarian or religious rivalries overlaid by the rise of these terrorist organisations such as ISIL or Daesh. I do not believe that long-term peace in Syria can be guaranteed while Assad, the butcher, remains in control. Now I understand that in transition arrangements some compromises may have to be made in the short term, but what I am completely convinced of is that if Assad was to remain in charge of Syria then there is no prospect for any stability and peace for the millions of people who live in Syria and there's very little chance for the millions of Syrian refugees wanting to return to Syria whilst Assad remains in control.

JOURNALIST: So - this is what Malcolm Turnbull seems to be pushing, while he is overseas, talks of some sort of interim deal. So you would back an interim deal but you would eventually want to see Assad gone?

SHORTEN: Syria and the conflict in that region has its roots going back not just in years but in decades and beyond. There are deep-seeded hatreds by people of different religious faiths within Syria. You have a dictatorship in charge. Long before even ISIS rose to make their evil contribution to that part of the world, there has been atrocities committed by the Syrian Government against the Syrian population. There can be no lasting peace if you keep the butcher Assad in power. I do understand that some countries have a preference for Assad; being Russia and perhaps Iran. But what I also understand is that you are not going to get long-term peace, you are not going to get stability, you're not going to have people thinking they can live safe lives in Syria or indeed refugees to return whilst he remains in power in the long term. But I understand that in the transition that really you need to work with the nations of the region. Long-term solutions are going to require the regions - the nations in that region taking majority if not complete control about the processes. The history of western intervention in that part of the world has not been a very satisfactory experiment; it hasn't delivered the outcomes I think that people hope. The only way you are going to get peace in the Middle East is when the nations of the Middle East and the peoples in the Middle East take control of their own future.

JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten, the first nation’s disability network went to the United Nations last week to push for those prisoners who are unable to plead due to mental illness. He'd like to see that, and this is Damian McGrath, who'd like to see that as a part of COAG and having a universal bit of legislation to support those prisoners who shouldn't be in prison. In particular the Indigenous people with disabilities, what are your thoughts on that?


SHORTEN:  You’re right, there is a higher than national average proportion of Indigenous Australians with a mental illness or cognitive impairment and they're basically being slotted in jail, because there's no pathway to noncustodial sentences and there's very little in the way of support for people with disabilities. Labor in 2013 proposed that by 2020, 90 per cent of our Indigenous population should have access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It is not right that our prison system is becoming the sort of accommodation, the venue of last resort when people have got challenging behaviours or indeed have got challenges which do not make them criminal. The real challenge in terms of our legal system and it's at the heart of your question, is why is it that we see much higher rates of custodial sentences being awarded to people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background than not of that background? There is no doubt in my mind that the system in communities, the legal system despite all the good work of magistrates, police, community legal service representatives is seeing that it's almost become a processing, the justice system has become a processing sausage factory where the conclusion is that more Indigenous Australians get put there - it becomes almost a riot of passage. It's a dysfunctional justice system for our communities. Justice denied to these people is really the toleration of injustice everywhere. It doesn't have to be this way.


JOURNALIST: Is it something though that could be taken at the COAG meeting?


SHORTEN: Yes, I've said that if a Labor Government was elected after the next election, the whole debate about justice targets would be at the first COAG meeting we have - Council of Australian Governments. There have been some success stories and I congratulate the New South Wales Government working with the community of Burke, where two years ago it was written that if Burke was a country it would be one of the most dangerous places in the world. The community there said enough is enough. 18 different organisations came together, they said let's work on it and congratulations to the New South Wales State Government for working with them and they've seen significant improvements. What we want to do is take those sort of examples, put them on the COAG agenda at the first meeting. You know, there's elections aren't going to be won or lost by what happens to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our prison system, but the sort of nation that we want our kids to admire, the sort of nation we want strangers who come to Australia to see who we are, means that we cannot sweep this problem of ridiculous rates of incarceration for one group of Australians, our first Australians, we can't sweep it under the carpet.


JOURNALIST: In your speech last night in Melbourne, you spoke about the referendum and the current Prime Minister's inability, if you like, to see that push forward. What are your thoughts there in terms of the referendum council?


SHORTEN: Well I think it's now time to announce a referendum council. I think it should be equally balanced between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It should be equally balanced between men and women. I am concerned, though, that on the one hand I think there is a deep reservoir of goodwill for constitutional recognition of our first Australians in the constitution, but it needs to be more than just a piece of poetry stapled to the front page on the Constitution. It needs to be more than just a minimalist sort of reference to Indigenous Australians. We need to change our Constitution in meaningful ways and I really respect the mounting concern, cynicism of a lot of Indigenous Australians who say well what else is going to happen along with this constitutional recognition? What's the post-constitutional recognition settlement with Indigenous Australians going to look like? That's why we're putting the justice target on the map. As I say, it's an uncomfortable, difficult matter to have a look at our prison system and say are people in there who really shouldn't be in there? But this nation has to be able to do tough things and what's happening is completely wrong. So along with constitutional recognition, we want the Government to announce with myself as soon as possible the membership of that council. We need to understand there's now, I think, a level of frustration within Indigenous Australia that if all it's going to be is a talkfest well that really isn't good enough.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, can I just ask you about Mal Brough. He says he's received a visit by the AFP over Peter Slipper's diary. Is it a good look for the police to be raiding the office of a senior government minister?


SHORTEN: No, it's not. The position of Mal Brough is he's Minister for State. That's a minister responsible for government integrity. He and Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy need to come out and spell out their role working with James Ashby in bringing down the former Speaker, Peter Slipper. I think Australians do deserve to find out what happened here. It's not a good look and I think what they need to do is just really spell out their involvement, what was their role and when that happens, then I think people will be satisfied.


JOURNALIST: Should Brough step down while this investigation is going on?


SHORTEN: I don't know about that. I think what he just needs to do is sometimes in politics we can overcomplicate issues, can't we? Just tell us what happened. Tell us what happened.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, in regards to federal travel entitlements, you've spent more than $23,000 on family travel in the second half of last year. Should taxpayers be footing this bill and and should this particular entitlement be overhauled?


SHORTEN: There's about three points in your question. First of all, with my own entitlements, I'm more than confident they're above board and I'd appreciate your question is not saying anything other than that.  In terms of the bigger issue of entitlements, we did see the furor earlier this year with Bronwyn Bishop and the helicopter. Tony Abbott responded, we were supportive of the response to bring in respected elders to have a look at the current travel entitlement system and to see if it lines up with community expectations. I, like all Australians, want to make sure that the entitlement system matches community expectations and I await with interest the findings of the report.


JOURNALIST: Does the family reunion allowance pass the infamous sniff test?


SHORTEN: I think it has so far but I think if this review has different views then we'll look at it and probably implement it. Again I make this clear; when it comes to entitlements, the community does have a legitimate right to ensure that the standards being applied are consistent with community expectations. I'm more than confident when you look at the calibre of the people doing the review including former Speaker Harry Jenkins amongst others, that balance will be achieved. If there's need to update well then it should be.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, I'd just like to ask you about the sale of Darwin Port. Is it embarrassing that the US President Barack Obama has reportedly chided the PM on the lease deal with the Port of Darwin?


SHORTEN: Yeah, that was pretty remarkable, wasn't it? I just want to make sure that this Government doesn't still have its training wheels on. What happens is you've got a new Treasurer, a new Prime Minister. What they need to do is to have a consistent application Foreign Investment Review Board procedures. I noticed on the sale of the Kidman properties they've gone through a process, they've been very clear on that - that's fair enough, I can see that. What does concern me is when it comes to other matters they're not consistent. Business and investors, be they foreign or domestic, want consistency. I think it is remarkable if the US president has made those comments. I also think that they need to explain clearly the processes for the long-term lease of the Darwin Port, I think there is community concern. It doesn't seem to be going away as your questions reflected. I do think they need to explain did they follow the same procedures here.


I also want to make another point about foreign investment more generally. When it comes to the National Party and farms, this Government's all over foreign investment and you know, they're very diligent and they're on their guard against foreign investment, but when it comes to admitting people into Australia with temporary work rights visa holders, this Government is basically asleep at the wheel. We've seen the 7-Eleven scandal, we've seen their unwillingness to improve compliance regimes to make sure that foreign trades people come into Australia meet Australian occupational licenses. So this is a Government with double standards. When it comes to some matters, when it's in their political interest, they move really fast but be it the apparently clumsy handling of the Port of Darwin or indeed, their lack of interest in Australian jobs, then this Government is, I think, a lot more disappointing.


JOURNALIST: On the Kidman sale, do you welcome the fact the Government has blocked it?


SHORTEN: I look at the process, it was a big parcel of land. I think it's 1.3 per cent of land, 2.5 per cent of agricultural land. Now, personally I had concerns. It's a big issue but that's why we have a Foreign Investment Review Board process. The thing this Government needs to be careful what message it sends to foreign investors. On the one hand, they say Australia's open for business, that's a fair point. But on the other hand we're seeing issues they're handling getting mired in politics from the Kidman land to the Port of Darwin to the way they handle the fact there's 800,000 people with temporary work rights in Australia, 800,000. And the compliance regime really is they'll only do anything once there's a problem. We've got hundreds of thousands of people unemployed. I think this Government has a lot of rhetoric about foreign investment and trade, but when it comes to checking some of the detail as it affects Australian jobs and Australian land, they're a lot more inconsistent.