SUBJECTS: Morrison Government playing politics with national security; character test; ASIO; national security.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Labor’s Deputy Leader, Richard Marles has sat through that for a couple of days now this week and he joins us for the first time in our new look afternoon briefing studio for the year. Richard Marles, thanks for the dash from the parliament. Now, why don’t we work through this immigration character test. That is a weapon that has been loaded and the Government brings it into the house tomorrow, we’re told. What is Labor’s position?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well actually, I think the way in which you have characterised the question kind of gets to the point here, because the Government is much more interested in having a fight about this than actually trying to fix an issue. I mean, the first point to make is that the character test has been relied upon by this government and indeed previous governments to see the deportation of thousands of people who have engaged in criminal activity. We are happy to work with the Government if there is an issue around the character test and if it needs to be made fit for purpose going forward. But we’ve reached out to the Government about that-

JENNETT: Okay, do you think there are grounds? Is there any case that you are aware of- that they have put to you or publicly- that says it’s going too slowly, judges are circumventing it, it’s not working as effectively as it could?

MARLES: Well frankly Greg, we hear new things every day. And we’ve tried to reach out to three Immigration Ministers in respect of this. The Shadow Immigration Minister has written to the current Immigration Minister to offer to have the opportunity of sitting down, understanding what is the problem that they are seeking to solve and to work with the Government to fix that problem. But, you know, the Government is not interested in a fix here, what the Government is interested in is having a fight, as you quite rightly put it; it is about loading a gun. And so, what they have been doing in the House of Representatives is to try and have a fight about a really critical issue rather than actually solve problem, if there is one there to be solved.

JENNETT: And that word, ‘wedge’ which we heard so much last week, in the context of religious discrimination is being bandied around again, here-

MARLES: But let me be clear about that; I mean, it’s not a wedge. I mean, we are really clear about the importance of borders, we are really clear about the importance of our immigration system, and the critical role that the character test plays in respect of it. Deporting people who are of bad character is fundamentally important, and we absolutely support that. And if there is an issue with the character test, which requires fixing, so that it be fit for purpose going forward, well then the government should be sitting down with us and working that through.

JENNETT: And so the position of your caucus, I think, at its meeting today was that you’d be prepared to the word was, negotiate. They’re saying this is a take it or leave it proposition. So already, we’ve got a standoff. What do you do tactically, as you count down the days, tomorrow’s Wednesday, then there’s Thursday and we don’t return till budget week; are you running the clock down?

MARLES: Well, it’s not a matter of running the clock down. Again, this is a government which is fixated on the politics of all of these issues. I mean, we come to the parliament with sincerity to legislate in manners which solve problems for the Australian community. And if there’s a problem here in relation to the character test, then we’re really happy to sit down with the government, and understand exactly what the problem is they are trying to solve and to work with them in solving it. And we stand ready to do exactly that.

JENNETT: In what sort of time period because it could really-

MARLES: Well that is a matter for the government.

JENNETT: If there is a problem, I don’t know, it could be an urgent problem, and it might be one that requires this to be pushed through on the voices tomorrow, and then given to the Senate on Budget day, for instance. Are you up for all of those things?

MARLES: Yeah, absolutely, in this sense, Greg; if the government are coming to us and saying there is a really urgent problem, and they need legislation right now, we’re happy to have that conversation with them, as we have done in the past, and actually facilitated legislation really quickly, when the government has legitimately identified urgent issues. But, you know, they’ve been sitting on this piece of legislation for years, years.-

JENNETT: Yes. Two and a half, at least.

MARLES: And it’s the same as what we saw with the religious discrimination bill, you know, four years, they’d been committed to getting a bill through the parliament, and here they are at a stroke of midnight, trying to get something through at the last minute and it characterises the fact that this is all about playing politics. And it is not about trying to solve problems for the nation.

JENNETT: Just finally, on this issue, because we do need to move on. You’ve got some negotiating power here, if they are as eager as they say they are to get this past, do you want to set a deadline? When would you like this case to be presented to you? If the bill is being tabled tomorrow, you’d want to, I assume tonight? Is that a demand you’re prepared to make?

MARLES: So, they are the government. They are the ones who have identified, one assumes, some issue in relation to the character test. It’s actually for them to come to us and to talk about the need to get something resolved. And if there is an urgent need, we’re happy to sit down with them urgently. But I’d repeat; they’ve been sitting on this for a couple of years. They’ve not certainly not been acting with urgency. I think what they’ve been doing is combing through whatever bills they’ve got lined up to see what they can try and weaponize to make- to play politics rather than solve problems for the Australian community.

JENNETT: All right, let’s see what the next move is on that one. Let’s go now to ASIO and attempts, unsuccessful we’re told to infiltrate political parties. Originally no names, no pack drill, there was great sensitivity around this. Into that arena steps Labor’s Kimberly Kitching, using parliamentary privilege and names a wealthy Chinese businessman. Public reporting now says that it does in fact relate to the Labor Party. Was she helpful to your own side of politics by doing as she did?

MARLES: Well look, I’m not going to go into the question of individuals. I mean, you’ve played the clip that you did. I think the-

JENNETT: But you can’t accuse the government of weaponizing national security when some on your own side, are naming names. You know, maybe in the interest of transparency, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is at odds with Anthony Albanese’s approach, which was to deal with this privately as much as he could with Mike Burgess.

MARLES: Ultimately, you know, Senator Kitching can speak for herself. But I think the point is that last week, we did see an attempt to politicise this issue. What became clear, and you played the clip in relation to the conversations which did take place between Anthony Albanese and the Director-General of ASIO, Mike Burgess, was that there were no concerns about any Labor candidates at this election. Now that is the critical point that needs to be made because there’s a whole lot of smoke being spread at the end of last week by the government around that question. What is absolutely clear is that there are no concerns from a ASIO’s point of view. And that could not have been made clearer in the conversation that Anthony Albanese reported that he had with the Director-General, but what could not have been made more clear by the Director-General himself last night.

JENNETT: So, in your mind is at the end of the matter, as long as ASIO’s defences are holding, as long as it is detecting and thwarting these infiltration attempts, and all the public reporting says it was on Labor, you’re satisfied with that? You don’t need any further form of investigation, or the naming of individuals?

MARLES: Well, I think ASIO is a fantastic agency. It obviously needs to be not brought into the political fray, but it is doing a great job in keeping Australian safe, so, that certainly is a large part of it. Not for a moment do, you know, I want to be sanguine about the threat that political interference represents. And that’s why, you know, we’re very seized of it. And to be fair, you know, I think we’ve been working closely with the government in relation to that. It’s very important that our democratic institutions are robust and are maintained. And I actually think they are.

JENNETT: But as a matter of principle, I know you’ve looked at these national security issues and agencies for a long time yourself, where is the line between transparency getting on the record that which can be stated by a Senator or an MP? Or keeping it all at arm’s length as Mike Burgess appears to lean towards doing?

MARLES: It’s a good question. And it’s a really difficult question to answer-

JENNETT: It goes to the essence of Kimberly Kitching’s actions here, so obviously motivated by a belief that it is better that names be named.

MARLES: I mean, there are a whole lot of- sometimes there are a whole lot of consequences about matters being put into the public domain, where it is better that it is not. Where the ability for our agencies to act, to have space to keep us safe is maximised by the by virtue of, you know, those matters not being made public. Obviously, transparency, and the sort of the public glare, the antiseptic of the public glare is also really important as well. So, it’s a difficult balancing act, and I wouldn’t suggest it’s anything other than that. I do think we need to take what the Director-General’s at face value- I think we need to take his position at face value. And he made that clear.

JENNETT: Because you can see where this is going, if that practice continued that Senators or MPs who were privy to sensitive security information, bounded further ahead than the ASIO Director-General himself is prepared to go. That is not acting in solidarity on these foreign interference attempts, is it? Could it be undermining national security apparatus?

MARLES: Well, again, you know, historically, there’s been close cooperation actually, between the major parties in relation to these matters. And I think there’s been a great deal of maturity about the degree to which matters are put in the public domain or not, from the point of view of where the national interest lies. Now, last week, you know, I think we were listening to Ministers refer to confidential briefings and trying to put them into the political fray- I actually don’t think that helped things at all. I think it’s really important that the kind of bipartisanship that we’ve seen around this is maintained, and that there is an absolute sanctity around making sure that our national security agencies such as ASIO are kept out of the political fray.

JENNETT: So, the leadership of your party, no question of discipline or any sanction against Senator Kitching?

MARLES: No, but again, we come back to the fundamental point here; you know, last week, accusations were being made effectively about Labor in this space. The Director-General of ASIO, could not have been clearer. The Leader of the Opposition is being regularly briefed by him. And he has made it absolutely clear that there are no issues in relation to any of the Labor candidates at this election.

JENNETT: And you don’t think there’s any vulnerability there at all, in light of the accumulated knowledge that we now have, since the Director-General’s threat assessment was made public last week?

MARLES: I don’t think that there are any issues in relation to Labor candidates- that is what has been made clear by this exchange. I think it’s really important that all parties of government, obviously including us, but the government itself as well, are vigilant in relation to this. It is really important that we don’t have political interference from foreign entities when it comes to our democracy, that is central to making sure that our democracy remains robust and it does.

JENNETT: Yep, it’s sensitive and important stuff, and no doubt with two sitting days left in the week, we may yet hear some more of it bandied around in the House. Richard Marles, Labor’s Deputy Leader, thanks for joining us.


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