Interview - Republic; Indigenous Constitutional Recognition

17 March 2015

SUBJECT/S: Republic; Indigenous Constitutional Recognition; Liberals’ Unfair Budget; Childcare; Liberals’ cuts to pensions; Superannuation cuts; National Security; Press Freedom.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Bill Shorten joins us now from our Parliament House studio, welcome to RN Drive Mr Shorten.




KARVELAS: First to the Republic which you raised today, isn’t the Republic a bit of a distraction though, the Labor Party already supports constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. How many constitutional debates do you want running simultaneously?


SHORTEN: How long do you think we should keep borrowing another country’s monarch and keep calling that person the Head of our State? Before Australia Day, on the eve of Australia Day I gave a speech where I said in 2015, we’re ready as an independent nation to start talking about our future. Constitutional reform which trusts in Australian to be our Head of State is I think part of a constitutional renaissance of an independent nation proud of who we are and confident in our own identity.


KARVELAS: Okay accepting the Labor Party has a position which supports a Republic, which we accept and we understand you want a debate on, don’t you have to land the other constitutional discussion first, do you think they can really run at the same time?


SHORTEN: Well we do need to land the other constitutional change you’re referring to and that is a two century outstanding requirement that we recognise Indigenous Australians in our constitution. Our constitution, if we were writing it today, I think in its first sentence would include recognition and a reference to Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that’s if we were writing it today. Now it was written nearly 120 years ago plus when we didn’t have that recognition for Indigenous Australians, but we do now. So I do think that what’s important to regain momentum in recognition of Indigenous Australians is that for Tony Abbott and myself to meet with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders leaders in this country together, a gathering if you like, there’s been great work done by Parliamentary Committees chaired by and deputy chaired by Ken Wyatt, the Liberal member from Western Australia, and Senator Nova Peris, both proud Indigenous Australians. But momentum stalled –


KARVELAS: It has stalled but when you’re raising a referendum at the same time aren’t you just muddying the waters? Shouldn’t you just be arguing very strongly for more progress on Indigenous constitutional recognition which has been stalled since 2007 when it was first promised?


SHORTEN: Well I think this country is capable of recognising that we should have an Australian head of state and we should recognise our first Australians in the constitution. There’s no doubt that the recognition of first Australians in our constitutions is more advanced so if we’re going to do things in a sequence I agree with the implication of your question, lets deal with constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But I also think it is important that the Parliament that we debate issues including out national identity, the fact that we should have an Australian Head of State. What I would like to see though, adopting your sequence of events which is why not try and get on with constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians is that it has stalled.


I think Tony Abbott is genuinely interested in the betterment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Australians but I think there is a part of this party, and maybe we could loosely call them con-cons, constitutional conservatives, who will argue against any charges to our constitution whatsoever. Now I understand that he’s come through a period of leadership instability he may not want to offend the constitutional conservatives, so to get momentum building again I think he and I should jointly host a gathering in the Parliament with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders because I think they’re frustrated at the lack of progress.


KARVELAS: Do you have endorsement, Bill Shorten, from Aboriginal leaders for this kind of approach or is it an idea, or is it an idea to the likes of Noel Pearson, the Indigenous Congress, all the crucial groups and all the leaders who are crucial in this debate about doing it?


SHORTEN: I’ve had plenty of discussions with Indigenous leaders and of course I’ve worked with the Recognise movement which is co-sponsored by Tanya Hosch and Tim Gartrell, and I think there is a desire for a gathering. Pat Dodson said just that in an article in The Age on Sunday so I think it’s timely.


My whole background is bringing people together, I did it with the National Disability Insurance Scheme and I also did that when I was a union rep trying to make sure there was good harmony in Australian workplaces. The same process I think is useful here on constitutional change. People have to agree on what the problem is and I think there is a fair bit of agreement on that but we also need to do is, there’s been a lot of work done as you’ve said from 2007 onwards so what we need to do is I think we need to do is here the voices of Indigenous Australia and get some agreement on what the question is that we put in a referendum. How far should the question go, what’s the right balance, is it more than just symbolic change or not change of such a level that a scare campaign could be run against that.


But to do that we need Aboriginal Australia in the room. It can’t be decided by Tony Abbott or myself or other well-meaning people. Once we’ve got some degree of consensus from Indigenous Australia, and I don’t think that’s impossible to get, then we of course need to talk to everyone else and there there’s I think a role for national Elders to help work on the question. What is the question that we want Australians to agree on? What would the amendment to the constitution actually be?  Otherwise we’re tending to have a debate in generalities and I don’t think that’s helpful either.


KARVELAS: On RN Drive my guest is Bill Shorten, the Federal Opposition leader and our number on RN Drive if you’d like to text us on any of the conversations we’re having, particularly this one with Bill Shorten, is 0418 226 576, that’s 0418 226 576. Let’s get to some specific reforms on the table. The childcare families package is currently being developed by the Government. Scott Morrison told Sky News this afternoon that he was talking to the Opposition about the policy direction here, do you support a means tested childcare subsidy given you’ve made fairness a theme should millionaires really be getting subsidies? Isn’t it an area ripe for major reform?


SHORTEN: Well when Labor was in office, and of course you’ve got a lot background covering these matters when you were writing at The Australian so you know a lot about this, but you’d be aware that when Labor was in office we did introduce a range of means testing to help sure that scarce government welfare was properly targeted –


KARVELAS: You did, but the one area you didn’t touch was childcare benefits. Now I understand there’s a workforce participation reason for that but at the higher end, I’m talking millionaires getting $7,500 a child, surely, surely that needs some reform?


SHORTEN: Well when you put it that millionaires would be getting a government subsidy like that I can see your point. We’ve agreed to sit down with Scott Morrison and talk though their ideas. There’s been a Productivity Commission report come down, so we’ll engage in meaningful discussion with the Government. But, I know the Government says there all interested in working with the Opposition at the moment, which is a good development, but in their last Budget they did make a range of very significant cuts to childcare and the Government hasn’t really be able to explain to us what they’re doing about all of those cuts.


KARVELAS: How about on CPI, MATWE that the difference between indexation, you seem to think it’s okay to have family payments indexed to a lower growth, but not on pensions. What is the difference if families, particularly at the lower end, are seeing these eroding payments, on the back of Labor reforms, but you don’t think that the pension should also be brought under control as the governments trying to do?


SHORTEN: Well we made reform in terms of the pensions to make sure that our indexation we thought reflected the cost of living or the basket of goods which the pensioners rely upon. So we believe that the changes that the Government has made will mean effectively that people, by delinking them from wage movements which they have been linked with for a long time, we think the Government is effectively reducing the rate of increase of the pension  and we think that is the problem –


KARVELAS: Sure, but there is movement isn’t there Bill Shorten, they say they want to have a three yearly look at this, today Scott Morrison has talked in the language if incremental reform rather than this massive reform which they were originally going for. Given you could see yourself as Prime Minister in 18 months or longer that’s, you’re going to inherit a pretty troubled budget unless you work with the Government on some key reforms. Aren’t you risking making the same mistakes Tony Abbott made and not working with the Government on major reform areas to take control of the Budget?


SHORTEN: Well first of all we aren’t conducting ourselves the way Tony Abbott conducted himself in opposition. We have supported changes in the Budget that the Government’s proposed to the value of more than $20 billion. Secondly we have proposed that the Government could look at extra support for the Government budget position by taxing multinationals who are forum shopping or using loopholes in our existing law. So I don’t accept the assumption behind your question that we’re just simply being Dr No who was pioneered by Tony Abbott –


KARVELAS: There has been a lot of, a lot of nos from your side, surely you’d concede that there’s been a lot of ‘no’ action from the Opposition?


SHORTEN: You’ve got to be fair here. The Government’s Budget was such a shocker that there were a lot of things which, there’s no way we could agree to.


KARVELAS: Okay, so moderating one area, that’s pension reform, they’ve clearly moved to moderate.


SHORTEN: You say they’ve clearly moved to moderate but what’s actually changed from their position?


KARVELAS: Every three years they want to take a look at it so there is a built in mechanism to watch the growth of the pension, while actually making it more sustainable, there is an alternative vision now.


SHORTEN: You’re giving them more credit now that I think the facts deserve. What I would say to you is if they want to make the Age Pension more sustainable they should unfreeze the superannuation increases. See one way to take pressure off the Age Pension isn’t by cutting the pension, it’s by ensuring that over time, over the long run by increasing superannuation 12 per cent as Labor would do,  then you’ve got people who will have less reliance on the pension.


So this is a Government, if you like, where the left hand contradicts the right hand. They freeze superannuation not once, but now three times. Before the election they said they’d freeze it for a period of time, then at the Budget they said they’d prolong the freeze on increasing superannuation then in September when they did a deal with Clive palmer they said they’d freeze the superannuation at 9.5 per cent until 2021. How on earth do we relieve pressure on the Age Pension when we’re freezing superannuation?


KARVELAS: On RN Drive my guest is Bill Shorten, the Federal Opposition leader and a few of you have tweeted asking what’s this text number?  It’s this, 0418 226 576, that’s 0418 226 576. Let’s move to these metadata laws currently before the parliament. The Greens spokesman Scott Ludlam says instead of Labor stepping up as the party of opposition, you’ve thrown Tony Abbott a mass surveillance lifeline. What’s your response to that?


SHORTEN: There’s nothing in terms of national security and metadata which the Greens would support so I don’t mind what they say but let’s be realistic. They’re not going to agree to anything so they leave it to Labor to reform and improve the Government’s proposition, which in fact goes to what you were saying earlier ‘Labor’s been too negative’.  What we are trying to do is on one hand make sure that the security and police agencies have the powers they need to keep people safe but not diminish our civil liberties and that’s where we’ve had a lot of success. Now a lot of it’s been done in committee work, it’s not as glamourous as speeches in the Parliament, it’s really through work –


KARVELAS: But let me put this to you; let’s move from the Greens because you have you positon about the Greens. Now your own Senator and own backbench, Doug Cameron is less than enthusiastic about this law and says if there’s an increase in powers there should be a commensurate increase in parliamentary oversight. Do you agree with him and what will you do to make sure that happens?


SHORTEN: Senator Cameron and plenty of people are concerned about the need to be perpetually watchful against big brother, you know, the Orwellian image of people accessing one’s private communications and Labor and I personally hold dear the principle of protecting people’s privacy. And what we’re able to explain to Senator Cameron and others and some of the people on the committee was this is the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security who spent an immense amount of time working on this, were able to explain that whilst there are committees with oversight in the United States and the UK, our parliamentary committee has proportionally had much greater success at moderating governments initial legislation. I think we just see a little bit of history here Senator Ludlam doesn’t acknowledge. Malcolm Turnbull introduced –


KARVELAS: But how about your own backbench? They’re saying there was also complaints in your caucus there wasn’t enough consultation on this. Is this your version of a captain’s pick?


SHORTEN: Not at all and back in October, and this is the necessary bit of history which I’ll try and give you as quickly as possible, the legislation was introduced by Malcom Turnbull in October. It was a shell of legislation, it wasn’t well thought out. Labor since then insisted upon a committee process which allowed both in-camera and public submissions to be made, because of Labor’s stand 204, 205 submissions have been made.


Because of what Labor was able to do we’ve looked at the initial Government legislation and made north of 30 significant changes which go to some of the concerns which people legitimately raise. Greater oversight, greater resources for the Ombudsman and we’ve drawn a line in the sand over press freedom. That matter’s not finally resolved, the Government’s very unhappy with Labor and the Prime Minister wrote to me expressing his disappointment and disagreement with me but we are determined to get the balance right. Now the discussion I have with a lot of constituents and values which I share is the internet is changing certainties about privacy, about how we collect data, very rapidly, the rules are struggling to catch up. What we are able to do here for the first time is provide some regulatory codification of people’s rights as well as –


KARVELAS: What about further protection that media organisations are demanding, that journalists and organisations are allowed to contest a warrant? Will you try and beef up the powers, the journalist’s rights to protect their sources more than you’ve already agreed to with the Government?


SHORTEN: Well this is the point I was making beforehand. We haven’t reached a final agreement with the Government –


KARVELAS: So can I get from you that’s the sort of direction you’ll be moving in to ensure that organisations are allowed to contest a warrant?


SHORTEN: Well let me just explain what’s happening and hopefully when I explain it that will answer your question to your satisfaction. I wrote to the Prime Minster as late as Sunday and I said clearly the issues around press freedom haven’t been resolved and we reserve the right to move amendments to protect journalists and journalist’s sources. On Monday I got a letter back from the Prime Minster, I can’t pretend he was, you could tell from the letter he wasn’t happy with our position but he accepted what we were saying about the need for warrants. I then subsequently had discussions with the Prime Minister this morning and he wants us to agree to an amendment, we said we need to see the amendment, as of now I haven’t seen what they’re proposing. So the question you’re asking about a warrants system which would see that the security agencies would have to have a case to make before they accessed a journalist’s metadata, we’ve insisted upon that standard but the matter isn’t resolved. I haven’t seen the latest position that the Government’s put.


But what I can say to you, and obviously to thousands of people who are interested in maintaining press freedoms, is it’s Labor’s stand which has triggered the Government into a different position. But what we’re also committed to doing is making sure that, you know, it was some pretty compelling evidence given by the police as well about some of the other changes they wanted. It was metadata and the ability to access it which allowed the terrible, terrible case in part of Jill Meagher and the death and murder of Jill Meagher, to help, be resolved. So I am conscious of getting the balance right. People who are worried about their personal liberties, it is Labor which is amending the laws and doing what we should do but for other people who are nervous about public safety we also understand our obligation in that quarter and we will keep doing what we’re doing, without fanfare.  Without a whole lot of self-promotion we will just keep making sure we get the balance right.


KARVELAS: Bill Shorten there’s a zillion more things I want to talk to you about, I’m very aware I’ve taken a lot of your time,  so you need to come back on and talk to me about those zillions of issues. Bill Shorten, thank you so much for joining us on RN Drive.


SHORTEN: It’s lovely to talk to you Patricia, have a nice evening.


KARVELAS: You too.