DOORSTOP INTERVIEW PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

SUBJECTS: Morrison Government in chaos; final sitting week of 2021; Omicron COVID variant; lack of purpose-built quarantine facilities; Religious Discrimination Bill; Morrison Government dragging its feet on federal anti-corruption body; social media trolls.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well we begin the last week of the sitting calendar, and the Government is in a complete mess. Last week we saw a number of Government senators cross the floor on the question of public health measures being implemented by the states. We saw the Government split on the question of the Religious Discrimination Bill. We saw a Government Member cross the floor in the House of Representatives over a debate around establishing a federal anti-corruption body. The Government lost two votes on the House of Representatives floor last week. The Liberals hate the Nationals, the Nationals hate each other. The Government is in a fight with itself on just about everything. It is a shambles and little wonder because Scott Morrison’s own colleagues have stopped taking his voice and his word seriously.

And while this is all happening, we are seeing middle Australia being increasingly placed under pressure. Income in average households, over the course of this year, have declined in real terms by $700. Over that same period, petrol prices have increased by $900. In my hometown of Geelong, rents have increased by $2000. Middle Australia is being squeezed and people are looking to a government to show character, to show leadership, to provide answers in this really difficult moment. And instead, all they’ve got is Scott Morrison and his Government, which is a complete rabble.

JOURNALIST: Should the states hold their nerve and stick to their reopening plans despite the threat of this new variant Omicron?

MARLES: Look, I can understand the sense of anxiety that people have around the country in relation to the Omicron variant. People have been magnificent all around Australia in getting vaccinated and dealing with the various restrictions in their lives over the course of this year, indeed over the course of the last two years. I think people need to take confidence in the health systems that we have in this country which have guided us through so far. No doubt the health experts are looking at this in every way. It has been right to close the border to southern Africa. And I just think people need to remain calm and have confidence in the health systems that are in place and take comfort in the really fantastic effort that people have engaged in so far in getting our vaccination level so high.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the current balance is right – the three days quarantine for international arrivals in New South Wales and Victoria, or do you think Australia should go further and reinstate the two weeks quarantine until we know more?

MARLES: Look, I think it’s really important that we are listening to our health experts in this moment. They’ve got us through this pandemic so far. We’ve done a lot of really hard yards over the last couple of years, our vaccination rates are now very high compared with the rest of the world, and people should take some confidence in that. I know that, you know, after all the work that’s been done, we’ve got Christmas on the horizon, and people are hoping to have a normal Christmas for the first time in a while. I think we just need to stay calm and listen to the medical advice.

JOURNALIST: People, especially with families living overseas, as we get closer to Christmas are going to be very nervous if this becomes more of an issue. Would you urge premiers, in Queensland and WA in particular, just to hold their nerve to give people a bit of confidence that they will be able to reunite their families for Christmas?

MARLES: Well, I think it’s important that governments are holding their nerve, but I think the states have done really well throughout the pandemic is the truth. They’ve been acting every single day to keep their citizens safe, and they’ve done a great job in that. And in doing that, they’ve been listening to the health advice, which is what we’ve got to focus on right now, and take some comfort and confidence in the fact that we’ve got vaccination rates which are really high. People have done the right thing, that’s going to hold the country in good stead.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there’s any appetite to return to, you know, lockdowns and border closures after everything we’ve been through over the past two years? And given we’re so highly vaccinated if this variant is shown to not be vaccine-resistant, why do you think we should change any of the settings that are currently in place?

MARLES: Well again, we just need to be listening to the medical advice here. It’s early days, people are still learning about this variant. But the country has done the right thing in getting vaccinated in high numbers, and people should take confidence from that. And it’s just really important at this moment that everyone stays calm, that we listen to the medical advice as people around the world come to terms with what this variant is and how it operates. And then we just need to make the best decisions from there.

JOURNALIST: Has Labor settled on its position on the Religious Discrimination Bill?

MARLES: Well what we have said in relation to the Religious Discrimination Bill is that we want to work with the Government on delivering a bill which prevents discrimination on the basis of religion, we’ve been saying that for some time now. And we’ve been working with the Government and putting forward constructive ideas around this for a long time. The bill’s now been introduced into the Parliament at last, and what’s important now is that there is a proper inquiry process, and that’s what we’re saying should happen.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it should pass before the next election?

MARLES: I’m not exactly sure when the next election is, so it’s hard to answer that question, given how late the bill has been introduced relative to a potential federal election. I think we need to be dealing with the bill on its own terms now. And it does require a proper parliamentary inquiry process, it’s been referred to a committee, and we’re seeking for that to occur now.

JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten has raised some concerns around medi-hotels [inaudible] the virus coming out, do you share his concerns? Do we need to be doing more?

MARLES: To?

JOURNALIST: Medi-hotels, [inaudible].

MARLES: Hotel quarantine?

JOURNALIST: Yeah.

MARLES: Yeah, sorry. Again, we need to be listening to the best medical advice in relation to this, in respect of what quarantine measures are put in place. I mean, look, one thing is obvious here – is we would be better served if we had fit for purpose quarantine facilities in this country. And that’s a point that the Government was advised to pursue last year, more than 12 months ago. We really don’t have that in Australia right now. We would be in a better situation if that were up and running. But in terms of how we now react to this, given the situation we’re in, we just need to be listening to the medical experts.

JOURNALIST: Why won’t Labor support the Government’s legislation for a national integrity commission? Isn’t it better to get something in place, you know, and wouldn’t just backing in that just ensure that something actually moves forward?

MARLES: I think this is a pathetic attempt on the part of the Government to literally blame anyone they can find. The idea that the failure to implement a national anti-corruption commission is now Labor’s fault frankly beggars belief. I mean, they committed to doing this three years ago. And our expectation is that they would be putting into the Parliament a credible proposition for a federal anti-corruption body. The exposure draft, the proposition that they have in the public domain now, has been slammed by the experts. It doesn’t have teeth. That’s their issue. That’s the Government’s failure to put to the Parliament a serious proposition about establishing an anti-corruption commission. One thing we’ve made clear is that if we were to be elected to government next year, that’s what we would do. We would put in place an anti-corruption body which had teeth, which was serious. And that’s what the Government promised they were going to do three years ago, they should be doing that now.

JOURNALIST: Just on the proposed social media laws, cracking down on online abuse and trolls. Are you concerned – well, first of all, what are your thoughts on the principle of cracking down on online bullying, online trolls? But also, do you believe there to be any implications for free speech if social media companies are obliged to hand over the details of people who are either anonymous, or just have their own name and face on there?

MARLES: All good questions. So the answer to that is we support, in principle, the thrust behind cracking down on trolls on social media, and to crack down on bullying on social media. Obviously, that’s a worthy objective, we should be moving down that path. It’s important though that we understand what’s being proposed here. Because there could be a whole lot of unintended consequences in whatever legislation is put before the Parliament. So once again, what we need to see from the Government here is what they intend to do. To actually put the proposition in front of the Parliament so that we can scrutinise it properly, make sure that the worthy aim that it’s pursuing is successful, but doing so in a way which doesn’t create any unintended consequences. But this is a Government which has always been big on talk, it has been pretty weak on delivery. And I fear that that’s what we’re seeing play out once again with this proposition.

JOURNALIST: Would you like to see a bill this week?

MARLES: Well, I mean, the Government has raised it, we would like to see action in this space. But most importantly, it’s one thing to go out there and talk about an idea. If you’re the Government, the idea is you govern, and they should be presenting a proposition to the Parliament that we can properly scrutinise so that we can make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences, and that it does achieve the aim that it set out to pursue.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it’s reasonable for taxpayers to foot the bill for defamation action against these publishers? That’s part of the plan that’s in place, that taxpayers would foot the bill if an individual launches defamation action against these publishers of social media comments.

MARLES: Well again, I think before answering that what we want to see is what is the actual proposition that’s being put here and what’s the rationale for it.

JOURNALIST: Do you support at Senate inquiry into this bill, like the Greens have called for?

MARLES: Into?

JOURNALIST: Into this social media bill.

MARLES: What we would like to see is the actual proposition, and I think it is important that there is proper scrutiny of the proposition to make sure that there is not unintended consequences as a result.

ENDS

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