TUESDAY, 4 OCTOBER 2016
SUBJECTS: Malcolm Turnbull’s divisive $200 million plebiscite; banking Royal Commission; Australians arrested in Malaysia; indigenous affairs
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Welcome to the federal electorate of Sydney. It's such a pleasure to have our leader, Bill Shorten, here with us today. We've had a fantastic meeting with a number of organisations from the gay and lesbian community. From organisations that work with very young people, with teenagers, we've met with families who have same sex parents and their children, we've met with organisations like ACON and AFAO who have been involved with health issues for the gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, intersex communities for many years. And today, we are going to hear first of all from Bill and then we're going to hear a few words from Pat McGorry, who all of you know is of course a former Australian of the Year, a mental health practitioner, someone who is a preeminent voice on mental health in Australia. We will also hear from Geoff Thomas, whose a father with a gay son who talked about his experience as a father and his feelings about his family today. We will start with Bill first of all.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Thanks Tanya. It is great to be with Tanya Plibersek, who has been a long-time advocate for marriage equality and I want to thank all the people I have met with this morning to listen to their views about why they believe the marriage equality plebiscite is a bad idea.
The people I have met with in this most recent meeting are staunch supporters of marriage equality. But yet again, I have yet to hear an argument put forward by people who want marriage equality that they actually want to have a marriage plebiscite. Today, we have seen important experts come out in the national media and counsel against the plebiscite on the basis of the mental health harm a plebiscite will cause.
A $200 million plebiscite is a colossal waste of money. It will not bind Malcolm Turnbull's backbench, whatever the outcome, and furthermore the experts are making it really clear to me that there will be tremendous harm caused by a plebiscite, a divisive debate which will reignite some of the worst arguments of people who are opposed to gay Australians having equal rights. On top of this, I have had the privilege of listening to parents, listening to rainbow families and to people who say to us: "Bill we're prepared to wait for marriage equality because we don't want to see the plebiscite cause the harm and the waste which it will cause". Now I am looking forward, like you, to hearing from some of the people who have got very clear views on this and then we're happy to take questions on marriage equality and after that on other matters of the day and national politics.
DR PATRICK MCGORRY: Thank you Bill, thank you Tanya. Well I am here today because the mental health sector, in general, as you have seen from the statement from Mental Health Australia is solidly behind this issue. The reason is that LGBTIQ people have a five times increased risk of suicide and this is caused by discrimination and homophobia. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with people in the LGBTIQ community in terms of mental ill health or mental illness, but their experiences cause this increased risk.
In Head Space we see 13% of our presentations are LGBTIQ. So there is a safe place for young people to go at least and that has been supported by both sides of politics for which everyone should be very grateful. We know when these campaigns are held in the public domain, like in the US and in Ireland, the risk does goes up. There is evidence to support that, so this is a dangerous thing to be doing to actually give a free rein to this sort of debate. It will harm peoples' mental health there is no doubt about that. That is why we are here today to support this point of view.
Australia's capable of discussing these issues, we've been discussing them for a long time already and there is a very clear way forward for our country. And so, I am here to stand beside the people in this group today to say we shouldn't go down this track. Probably very many families have gay people in their families, I certainly have, even from a personal point of view, I just want to stand people the people here today and you will hear from Geoff in a minute who speaks very powerfully about this issue. Thank you for inviting me to be here today.
GEOFF THOMAS: My name is Geoff Thomas. I am a Vietnam veteran, a proud father of a gay son. When my son first came out to me, it was a shock. I didn't for a second expect my son was gay. The thing that hit me the most was that after having fought in Vietnam, my country sent me off to fight for a democracy that I believed in, I discovered that my son was not extended the same dignity, respect and equality before the law in his own country as other Australians. That motivated me to do something about it.
The plebiscite we are here to talk about, the plebiscite that in my view, is simply a mechanism by the hard right to deny, delay and disrupt the process of marriage equality. It will only serve those that oppose marriage equality. There is no benefit to my son or anybody else in the LGBTI community in having a plebiscite. John Howard changed, arbitrarily, the Marriage Act in 2004 and in doing so, he outcast my son and others socially and legally in their own country.
That was an appalling decision by Mr Howard at the time. It was a decision taken and made by the Parliament of Australia. They changed the Marriage Act by adding seven words. It took them a stroke of a pen almost to do it. The idea of other people - what he actually did, he enshrined prejudice into law in Australia. It is only going to take the Parliament to remove that obstacle to my son and others and I am imploring the ALP to vote no on this plebiscite. I am going to challenge the Parliament of this country to do the right thing by my son and other peoples’ sons and daughters. Do the job you were elected to, get on with it and allow my son and others the same dignity, respect and equality before the law as all other Australian citizens. Thank you.
SHORTEN: Thanks Geoff. Are there any questions on marriage equality and the plebiscite to begin with before we move onto other issues?
JOURNALIST: Can you refresh us on what Labor's position is?
SHORTEN: Labor's going to have a Caucus meeting in the first week back of Parliament, which is next week, and we will finalise our position at that Caucus meeting. I think everyone knows my own instinct. My instinct is that a plebiscite is an abdication of responsibility. We live in a representative democracy where parliaments and politicians are tasked to uphold the laws and debate changes to the law.
It is weak to just contract out of your responsibilities on one matter. Why is it that gay people in Australia should be subjected to a different law making process to all other Australians? So, we will have the debate, I have certainly been out consulting, I don't think Malcolm Turnbull has done that, he hasn't met with too many of the anti-marriage plebiscite groups. I am hearing from both sides of the argument but I have to say, there hasn't been an effective answer from Mr Turnbull or Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison or Cory Bernardi to justify a shocking waste of over $200 million, to justify compelling 15 million Australians, many of whom actually are not that interested in this topic, to compulsorily attend to vote upon other peoples' relationships and be fined $52 plus if they don't turn up to vote and then that decision will not compulsorily bind all members of the Government.
And I think there can be no doubt from talking to the mental health experts, talking to parents, talking to people from the LGBTIQ community that there will be heightened discrimination and emotional upheaval and turmoil and worse if we have a divisive debate across Australia until February of next year. We will approach a final decision, I will keep talking to people as my colleagues have, but really, what is the case to waste $200 million, to compel every Australian to vote and be fined if they don't but you can't compel Mr Turnbull's backbench to accept the outcome? And I think, probably most importantly, to put a proportion of our population through a discriminatory process of rulemaking which doesn't apply to anyone else. Fundamentally, why should some Australians have the legitimacy of their relationship voted upon by everyone else?
JOURNALIST: If the plebiscite is binding, would Labor support it?
SHORTEN: Well first of all let's see if the plebiscite gets up. I think the best way to have marriage equality is just to get on with it. The overwhelming mood I pick up in the nation is why don't we just get on with it? Everyone knows the Parliament meets for 19 weeks of the year, for four days of each of those 19 weeks. I think people increasingly ask themselves why is Mr Turnbull so weak to change his long held views, hostage to the right wing of the Liberal Party, not compromise? The compromise isn't whether or not you vote for the plebiscite or not. The compromise is how you best get to marriage equality. Having a vote in Parliament saves the taxpayer money, it allows all the points of views to be put. but it does avoid, I think, creating a nationally divisive debate. We don't want to go down the path of where when the issues get too hard, Mr Turnbull and his team just give up.
JOURNALIST: When the Caucus room meets, will you decide that if a plebiscite is binding, you will vote for it?
SHORTEN: Well first of all, that question assumes that the Caucus will decide to have the plebiscite. We were going to take the plebiscite question first. But I think your question goes to the heart of the contradiction. It has been argued by constitutional experts that binding every Member of Parliament via plebiscite can't be enforced. So what Mr Turnbull is doing is he is giving us a process which actually, whilst we can compel every Australian to vote, you can't compel every MP, unless they choose to voluntarily be compelled to accept the result. What a colossal waste of money. Really? Labor doesn't want or expect every MP to have to vote one way or the other. We aren't asking every Liberal MP to vote in favour of marriage equality. But really, I think Liberal MPs have to say why aren't they allowed to at least have a free vote in the Parliament next week.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about banking, Mr Shorten?
SHORTEN: Yeah sure. They might have views on the banks. Most Australians do.
JOURNALIST: Do you welcome the Treasurer's announcement clamping down on market manipulation by the banks?
SHORTEN: Well, this is the fifth reform that the Government's proposed to deal with a problem in banking which they keep telling us doesn't exist. I think that the Government, whilst we will certainly look carefully at this and increasing penalties on bad behaviour by our banks is certainly what Labor believes in, but really, you've got to ask yourself the question: why is it that the Turnbull Government will do everything it can to avoid a Royal Commission into our banks and financial services industry?
This announcement, coincidentally timed on the day of this weak committee, set up by a weak Prime Minister to talk to the banks. There is no accident that the Government wants to look like it is acting tough. The fact of the matter is, the focus is this week is you've got bank CEOs coming down to talk to a weak committee which has no power to make the banks do anything. The fact of the matter is this banking parliamentary discussion, which Malcolm Turnbull's commissioned, is designed to learn as little as possible and do even less about changing anything.
What the banks hope, what Malcolm Turnbull and the big four banks hope is they make this announcement today, the Government makes this announcement, they have this committee hearing and then by the weekend, Malcolm Turnbull and the big banks hope back to business as usual, nothing to see here. They move on conducting themselves in the way they have been conducting themselves for a very long time.
JOURNALIST: But won't a Royal Commission delay any outcome of any changes and reforms? Won't this special inquiry be faster to make reform?
SHORTEN: Well, the question assumes this special inquiry will do anything at all. Does anyone think that by Friday the banks are going to start challenging the way they remunerate the big CEOs, where they get rewarded on profits rather than people? Does anyone think that there's going to be any change to the pathology in the industry which sees scandal after scandal? This argument that somehow once you have a royal commission, nothing else can happen, is a fiction dreamed up by a Government who doesn't want to have the king of all inquiries which is a royal commission.
I think that Malcolm Turnbull needs to stop prevaricating, stop resisting the will of the people who want to have a royal commission into the numerous scandals which have gone on. A royal commission has powers of investigation to look behind the CEOs, to get to all the documentation, all the information which will bring long delayed justice to literally tens of thousands of Australians who have been ripped off. Malcolm Turnbull knows that a royal commission has the capacity to conduct and get to the bottom and the heart of matters, to look at case studies of scandals, to understand what needs to be done to make sure that we have got the best possible system.
I don't accept Malcolm Turnbull's argument that the only way you can have a financially viable banking industry is to have one immune from the scrutiny of a royal commission. And consumers aren't buying that either.
JOURNALIST: Aside from a royal commission, what are you prepared to do inside or outside of the Parliament to improve the sector?
SHORTEN: Well in our time, we have made plenty of reforms to financial planning and we will be up for working with the Government on improvements to our financial services industry. Our opposition MPs will be attending the inquiry and no doubt asking questions on behalf of victims. But the fact of the matter is that when you have an issue in this country of sufficient seriousness, nothing less than a royal commission will do. Why do you think the banks are resisting a royal commission so much? Everyone knows that if you are going to have a real inquiry, it has got to be properly resourced. A royal commission has resources which no other form of inquiry has. A royal commission has powers to look through the actions, to look through the legal wall of protection which the Government and banks want to put up. A royal commission will get to the bottom and heart of matters.
Anyone who has spoken to the tens of thousands of victims knows that the current system isn't working well. There are literally thousands of our fellow Australians who have lost their money – small businesses, people who have been seduced into ridiculous financial arrangements – and then they're left holding the financial wherewithal after the banks and financial planners have moved on.
There is a real challenge in this country to make sure that not only is our banking sector profitable but it is actually prioritising the needs of consumers. Going back to the old fashioned values of service.
A lot of Australians are greatly concerned about the direction of our financial services industry and a royal commission, to put not too finer point, is the best form of inquiry.
JOURNALIST: A royal commission is expensive though. Isn't it better for the Government to take action by toughening up financial laws?
SHORTEN: Well first of all, a marriage equality plebiscite is more expensive than a royal commission, isn't it?
Secondly, when we look at the cost to Australians, I don't think that short-changing seeking justice is necessarily going to help avoid future problems. Labor's been up for financial law reform in the past but I have to say that, you know, we've gone down the path of trying to fix individual problem after individual problem. We've gone down the path of improving the way which financial planners, the standards they have or the way they treat customers. We've gone down the path of making individual reforms but we still keep getting repeated financial scandals .The latest of which, of course, is the debate which ASIC is investigating about bank rate rigging. Now, to simply hope that business as usual is going to change the problems would be a triumph of hope over experience. No, I think the time's come that we have a look at the underlying basis of the way in which the financial services and the big banks are treating their customers. I think only then will the people who've been ripped off have a sense that their experience that someone has listened to them. And only then can we perhaps rule a line under the page and make sure that we have a financial services sector, a big banking sector, which is more responsive to the needs of everyday Australians.
JOURNALIST: On another issue, Jack Walker's antics in Malaysia - is this an acceptable behaviour from a Cabinet Minister's staffer?
SHORTEN: Well, I have to say, leaving politics aside, it's incredibly serious when an Australian gets arrested overseas. I'm not about to jeopardise an already complex situation by making further commentary on it. It's most important that these people get through the processes which are currently underway and I don't think inflamed debate from Australian politicians is what their families or they need and I certainly won't do that.
JOURNALIST: Is there a lesson Australians need to learn out of this?
SHORTEN: Well I suspect there may be lessons but let's get these people through their time in the Malaysian justice system. I suspect they're learning one right now.
JOURNALIST: What would you do if it was your staffer involved in an incident like this?
SHORTEN: That's a good question. Again, why don't we just get these people through it. When an Australian gets arrested overseas it's a serious matter. The Malaysian justice system won't be a good experience, I suspect, for these people. So I'd rather that they just sort out their issues and they don't need anyone else contributing to their predicament they're in right now.
JOURNALIST: Is Labor backing the Prime Minister's plan for roundtable talks on suicide in WA's Kimberley region?
SHORTEN: Yes, I think that's an important step, absolutely.
Perhaps one more question.
JOURNALIST: As Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, what's your reaction to yet another police shooting of an Indigenous man in Broome last night?
SHORTEN: It's a concerning situation. Again, the police will have their processes and the young man's family will have their legal representation. So I'm not going to comment specifically on that matter.
I do think we've got a problem in our custodial system, in our justice system, where Indigenous Australians are disproportionately represented in the jails of Australia. Now, that doesn't go specifically to the specifics of that matter in Broome. But let's call it as it is: your skin colour should not be a predictor of whether or not you go to jail in Australia. We don't have enough non-custodial paths to make sure that we're not seeing a disproportionate number of our young black people ending up in jail.