E&OE TRANSCRIPT | SUBJECTS: Hotel Quarantine; National reconstruction; Science; Industrial Relations; Net zero emissions by 2050

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Richard Marles, welcome to the program.


SPEERS: The Chief Health Officer there says the current quarantine system is top-class. Do you agree?

MARLES: I think it has played a role. I think to suggest that there hasn’t been problems with it, as it’s gone through is to miss some pretty significant moments over the last 12 months, particularly here in Victoria. Look, I think that conversation you just had then with the panel was interesting, and what it highlights is the need that we have to be able to adapt to this, as we see new strains, particularly more contagious strains come through, and that’s why I think we do need to be looking at other quarantine options beyond our major cities. I can understand why state leaders are concerned about the idea that new strains are coming into the middle of our largest population centres and whether that makes sense.

SPEERS: Anthony Albanese seems to be going beyond that, though. He says – and we just heard it before, “It’s better to quarantine people away from large hotels in the capital cities.” So, is Labor’s position we should abandon using hotels in CBDs?

MARLES: No, it’s not about abandoning where we are at and not starting from scratch, as you were describing earlier, it’s about evolving from where we are now into what is the best system-

SPEERS: But evolving- just to be clear- away from capital cities, or keep using them?

MARLES: Well, there is a question of scale and there is a question of needing to use whatever assets and resources we already have. So, there is a practicality with that. If you could wave a magic wand, obviously it would be better if people were outside of our biggest population centres. Obviously, though, the reality is that a whole lot of the resource is there. But we make this point; back in August, Jane Halton said in her review that the Commonwealth Government commissioned, made the point that there need to be other facilities, other capacity, outside our major cities that the Commonwealth Government itself needs to put in place, and it hasn’t done that, it sat on that.

SPEERS: She did say, I have got the review here, the Halton Review says the Australian Government should consider a national facility for quarantine to be used for emergency situations.

MARLES: I think that’s what we are in.

SPEERS: Okay, so they are doubling the capacity of Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. What else should we be doing beyond that?

MARLES: But we’ve got tens of thousands of Australians who are seeking to come home, that the Prime Minister promised he would bring home by Christmas, who are still wanting to come home. That right there equals a need for which we need to have further capacity.

SPEERS: That’s what I’m trying to get to: What should the Government do?

MARLES: What the Government should do is dust off the Halton Review from last August and look at implementing it-

SPEERS: Sorry, just to be clear on this, Jane Halton, I’ve just read it out, she does refer to Howard Springs. She also does refer to the Learmonth RAAF Base, but as emergency options. What are you saying the Government needs to do right now?

MARLES: I think the Government needs to have a look the both of those options.

SPEERS: They are looking at Howard Springs.

MARLES: They are not looking at Learmonth. And it has taken a long time to get there, in terms of Howard Springs. But there is a much more fundamental point: the Government needs to actually assert itself in relation to an area of policy which is their constitutional responsibility and that is quarantine. I think one of the really marked aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, which we will look back on, is the degree to which the Government – the Federal Government – has been prepared to abrogate itself of responsibility when there have been moments of greatest crisis. That’s particularly the case in relation to quarantine. I think it goes to the case of our internal borders as well, which must have something to do with the Federal Government, and yet the Federal Government stands back and says, “This is all to do with the states.” So, the first thing we need to do is have the Federal Government actually stand up and take responsibility on-

SPEERS: Sorry, you mentioned borders. Are you saying the Commonwealth should stop the states from closing their borders?

MARLES: I’m saying that internal borders in this country have something to do with the Commonwealth.

SPEERS: What should they do?

MARLES: I think from day one the Commonwealth essentially reduced itself, or abrogated itself in terms of responsibility here, and just relegated itself to being on the sidelines-

SPEERS: But can they stop states from closing borders?

MARLES: They can part of the decision-making process. And to relegate themselves to the sidelines and to do what the Prime Minister and his Ministers have done throughout most of last year, and just stand sniping at state leaders in terms of how they’ve handled this issue, is something I don’t think you would have seen John Howard do, I don’t think you would have seen Bob Hawke do.

SPEERS: Are you saying the Labor states shouldn’t have shut their borders?

MARLES: This is not a comment about the way in which the states have handled this. I think the states have stood up admirably, in circumstances where the federal government has gone absolutely missing.

SPEERS: I’m just a little confused. You are saying the Commonwealth should have done what?

MARLES: I think the Commonwealth should have been part of the decision-making process in relation to borders from day one.

SPEERS: To do what, though? How would that have improved or changed the course of the last 12 months?

MARLES: Well, I think we would have had much greater consistency in relation to this. And Andrew made the point before which I thought was a really good point, you’ve seen some very important steps taken in relation to the Queensland Government in relation to Brisbane, the West Australian Government in relation to Perth in the last few weeks. It is in a sense the kind of secondary reactions, as Andrew was describing earlier, which need to have some consistency around the country, but what’s clear here in relation to all of it, you don’t get a consistent national approach to this. There is not a consistent national approach to what a hotspot is.

SPEERS: Well, it’s not and that’s-

MARLES: Because the Federal Government has not asserted itself in relation to this issue.

SPEERS: What does “assert itself” mean though? Sorry to dwell on this, but you say the Commonwealth hasn’t done enough, to do what? To stop the states closing borders.

MARLES: To make itself part of the decision-making process, in relation to our internal borders- but not just our internal borders. National Cabinet- but not just our internal borders, questions of quarantine. The consistent point here, David, is this: for all the boasting that the Prime Minister does about how much an advance it is in terms of our federalism that he has renamed COAG as the National Cabinet, the truth of the matter is when the states have disagreed, the ability of this Prime Minister to get consistency at a national level across the states has been essentially zero. He has gone missing when the going has got tough, and in crises before, what you’ve actually seen is national governments which have led within our federation. This is a government which has gone missing. Part of the reconstruction of this country post this crisis is reconstructing the role of the Federal Government within our federation.

SPEERS: Well, let’s talk about this. Because you’ve now taken the portfolio area of National Reconstruction, as well as Employment, Skills, Small Business and Science. National reconstruction, it really does have a postwar ring to it. It sounds serious. Should we expect major policies to reconstruct the nation?

MARLES: I’m glad you refer to that period of time. I mean, we obviously need to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Everyone across the political spectrum says that. But it presents an opportunity for the nation to re-imagine Australia in a way that we probably haven’t had since the end of the Second World War. Now, back then, the predecessor of mine, as the member for Corio, John Dedman was the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction. At its heart, really, which is coming out of this crisis, we need to be something better than what we were going into this crisis.

SPEERS: Things like the Snowy Hydro Scheme, the Australian National University. What I’m getting to is, are you looking at that scale of reconstructing the nation?

MARLES: I think what we’re looking at is dealing with those areas where COVID-19 has exposed real problems within the Australian economy. I mean, the most obvious is that we don’t make things in Australia now in anything like the way that we did back in 2013. We’ve seen a very significant deindustrialisation of our economy. Now, modern economies around the world, and where lies modernity, lies prosperity, lies good, long-term, secure jobs. We’ve seen us slip down the technological ladder in respect of that. We need to be rebuilding our industry. And in order to do that, I think we’ve got to have a completely different view of technology and of science within our economy, but frankly within our society than we’ve ever had before, and we’re very keen to have that conversation.

SPEERS: But how does that translate into policy? What sort of reform are you going to be looking at? You talked about reconstructing the way our federation works a moment ago. Are you talking about reforming federation?

MARLES: We’re talking about restoring the Federal Government’s role within the federation, in that instance. But in terms of our economy, I think we do need to be rebuilding industry-

SPEERS: So, tax reform?

MARLES: No, no, look, modern economies around the world have industry as a part of them. We are one of the worst commercialisers of public research in the OECD. That’s to say our ability to translate our public research science into jobs is as poor as any country in the OECD. We need to change.

SPEERS: But governments have spoken about this for years. What are you suggesting needs to change?

MARLES: Well, actually, I don’t think they’ve spoken much about. I don’t think that’s a stat which appears much in the national discourse course.

SPEERS: What are you going to do about it?

MARLES: I don’t have all the answers to that question, but the starting point is that I want to have that conversation, I want to make that the stat that we are focused on. And the fact, David, that we are seeing less students pursue science, that we don’t value science in our economy, we don’t see it through an economic prism and we don’t value it within our society.

SPEERS: So beyond commercialising science and getting more students to take on-

MARLES: That’s the heart of the problem.

SPEERS: When it comes to reconstructing the nation though, can we expect bold reform on tax, industrial relations, energy, federation?

MARLES: I think Australians want stability and they want security, given the white-knuckle ride of the past 12 months-

SPEERS: So that means, don’t expect too much reform.

MARLES: I think the other point to make is that we understood at the 2019 election that our agenda was far too broad and the sense of being able to get across a narrative-

SPEERS: Will you take less to the next election?

MARLES: We are not going to do what we did in 2019-

SPEERS: That’s hardly reconstructing the nation, is it?

MARLES: No. But what we are about is returning certainty to people’s lives. And right now I think people feel a great sense of anxiety about the future and what that certainty involves. At its heart, is jobs. What we have seen in our economy is jobs become much less secure, much less well paid, I should say, in the sense of wage stagnation is a feature of our economy and it would seem a design feature of our economy, given the former Finance Minister’s comments, than we’ve ever seen before-

SPEERS: A couple of quick ones on that-

MARLES: That we need to change. And part of it is about rebuilding our industry. You will see very significant steps in relation to that. You look at our child care policy, that is actually about giving families certainty. So, policies which are aimed at making people’s lives more certain, more secure, giving people a greater sense of confidence about their future is where we’re at.

SPEERS: The Government at the moment is trying to reform industrial relations, they’ve put forward a raft of changes, some of them go to things Labor has been talking about for a while- helping casuals become permanent, dealing with wage theft and so on. Why is Labor taking a blanket approach of opposing the whole lot?

MARLES: Because ultimately it doesn’t come up to the plate. In terms of the issues that we seek to pursue, as you say, getting greater permanency with the workplace, it doesn’t get there, but most significantly it seeks to undermine the fundamental safety net within our workplace relations laws and that’s the better off test-

SPEERS: Well, you could oppose that element and try and improve the others, couldn’t you?

MARLES: Yes, but the Government in the middle of last year heralded the idea that it was going to engage in this great new consensus and put everyone in the same room and work something out. They’ve done none of that. Where we’ve got to now is a proposition before the Parliament which seeks to remove the fundamental safety net.

SPEERS: Sure, but as I say, you can oppose one element and still support others or work on others.

MARLES: This is a fundamental point. The better off test, the idea that when you go out and engage in bargaining, you seek to bargain up, that you get to a place where people are better is being removed or being suspended for a significant period of time. Now, the government will say that that’s okay, you need employees’ consent here and employers don’t mean to do anything bad here. We’ve seen in the last week Helloworld go out there and ask its employees to take five-figure pay cuts in respect of their pay.

SPEERS: But just on that, that’s under the existing law.

MARLES: Of course.

SPEERS: Labor’s industrial relations framework.

MARLES: Well, that’s what they are seeking- it demonstrates their intent right now, but where does it go?

SPEERS: But hang on-

MARLES: Where does it go, David, when we actually then have reforms which remove the test-

SPEERS: Helloworld are using your laws?

MARLES: Well, right now there is at least some protection and some hope for the workers in that situation, but the better off test removed, that kind of behaviour will be licenced. And that is the fundamental point that we object to.

SPEERS: A couple of other things: the Prime Minister seems to be inching towards a commitment to net zero by 2050 target for emissions. He hasn’t quite got there, of course.

MARLES: Inching, I think, is the word there.

SPEERS: There is some speculation that they will carve out agriculture, though, as New Zealand have done. What do you think about that?

MARLES: I’m not sure what we saw, to be frank, from the Prime Minister this week, and who knows what they ultimately do here. Paris ought to require countries to be committing to carbon neutrality by the middle of the century-

SPEERS: That has to include agriculture?

MARLES: Well, we’ve got to get to carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. That’s what-

SPEERS: Including agriculture?

MARLES: Well across the economy. That’s what Paris requires. And that’s the commitment we have made- and we have made, Labor has made a commitment. We didn’t hear that from the Government this week. I’m not sure what we heard from the Prime Minister, it might have been a hope, an aspiration. Inching might- is the word, but what we did not here hear is a commitment. And the reason for that is because fundamentally their party room is profoundly divided on the core issue here. Do you accept the fundamental science in relation to climate change? Do you have intent to have meaningful action on climate change? Now, that’s a place of unanimity for Labor. For the Government, they are utterly divided on that fundamental question, which is why you can’t get a straight answer from the Prime Minister in respect of this.

SPEERS: Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles, thank you.

MARLES: Thanks, David.


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