SUBJECTS: Ukraine; Scott Morrison’s desperation; national security; Strengthening the Character Test.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well let me start by saying that whilst there may be some hopeful news overnight in relation to Ukraine, it’s important that we’re cautious about that. There’s obviously a long way to ago. What matters is the principle that the global community must stand with Ukraine in support of its sovereignty, and it’s territorial integrity. This is a very significant moment for the world, and it’s very important that the global community stands with Ukraine.

I’d also like to make comment about the reports that we’ve seen in the papers today, where defence experts are really calling out the government in relation to its attempt to politicise the whole question of national security. National Security has fundamentally been a bipartisan issue in Australian politics, that reflects a reality in the positions that the party of governments hold in relation to national security, there is bipartisanship, fundamentally. But it’s also very much in the national interest that national security is an issue which is above the political fray. And what we’ve seen with the Prime Minister and the government desperately seeking to use national security as an issue in the election, given its failures in so many other areas of governance, it is not only desperate, but it is very much not in Australia’s national interest. And fundamentally, it actually undermines our national security. Now, Scott Morrison rather than trying to beat up differences on national security, which don’t exist, ought to focus on doing his job in relation to the pandemic, in respect of cost of living, in relation to dealing with the crisis that we see in our aged care system. Instead, what we’ve got, is an act of desperation from a very desperate Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Richard, what do you make of ‘The Global Times’ editorial endorsing Anthony Albanese and Labor over Scott Morrison?

MARLES: Look, you’re going to see commentary from around the world in the lead up to the election. And frankly, it’s not something we can control. I am indifferent to it, is the answer. What matters is that we have clear voices in respect of national security in this country. And Labor’s has been that, both in terms of having the courage to articulate Australia’s national interest when it differs from Chinese action, which we’ve done in many instances and that includes right now in terms of China’s failure to give its support to Ukraine and China’s failure to condemn Russia. But it’s also been the case with issues around the South China Sea, it’s been the case in terms of calling out human rights abuses in China. Labor has been very clear on all of that, we will continue to be clear on all of that. And it’s really important that in our politics, that is a matter of bipartisanship.

JOURNALIST: But it’s not helpful, and it does feed into the government’s narrative that Labor is trying to appease China.

MARLES: Well, I think using words like that, don’t help. I mean, there’s no evidence of that at all. In fact, when you look at what Labor has said in relation to China, nothing could be further from the truth. But the government uses words of those kinds to try and beat up an issue which doesn’t exist. And the reason for doing that is because it’s completely desperate. It’s doing that because of it’s failure in relation to the pandemic, it’s failure in relation to rolling out vaccines in a timely way, it’s failure in respect of rapid energy tests, its failure in terms of dealing with the aged care crisis. This is a pathetic attempt to distract from its own failures. And it’s an attempt which has been called out by defence experts today, which is very much not in Australia’s national interest.

JOURNALIST: In 2019, you said that Australia should embrace closer military cooperation with China and you said talk of a new Cold War was silly and ignorant, do you still feel that way?

MARLES: Well, I think it’s really important, as I’ve said, that we have the courage to speak out against Chinese action when it differs from our national interest. And we have done that, and I was doing that at that time as well. The South China Sea, being an example of that. I mean, we’ve been very clear in our concern about what China has done there. Let me make this clear; China is seeking to shape the world around it in a way that it has never done before. And what that means is that it presents challenges to us that we in turn haven’t faced before. It’s why it is right to say; we deal with the most difficult set of strategic circumstances that we have, since any time since the end of the Second World War. It’s really important that we have a clear voice in respect of that and that we do build the strategic space to have the courage to speak to our national interest when it differs from Chinese action.

JOURNALIST: Is talk of a new Cold War silly and ignorant?

MARLES: I think it is really important that we have a clear voice in respect of a relationship, which obviously matters. You know, China is our largest trading partner, there’s a lot of interaction with China- we’ve got to handle it very carefully. But part of the care of doing that is to make sure that we are speaking out strongly when Chinese action differs from our national interest. And we have done that consistently and unequivocally.

JOURNALIST: Today, the federal government is going to put forward this character test or changes to the character test. Has Labor had any consideration as to whether they’ll support that strengthening of that bill?

MARLES: Well let me be clear, when the government sought to strengthen the character test, back in 2013-14, when I was the Shadow Minister, we worked with the government in the strengthening of the character test, which is a really important tool in terms of our border security, in terms of our visa and immigration system, and it’s been used extensively since then, as it was actually before then, in that moment in time as well. Now, if there is an issue today with the character test, if there is a sense in which it’s not fit for purpose, if there’s a problem that the government wants to solve, we are really happy to sit down with the government and solve that. And indeed, Kristina Keneally, our Shadow Minister has been reaching out to the government to do exactly that. But the truth of the matter is, the government is not responding to us because they’re not interested in fixing problems here. They’re interested in having a fight. They want to have a fight about this as they want to have a fight about national security because they want to distract as much as possible from their own failures in relation to so many other areas of governance. Now, that is not in the national interest. If there are problems with the character test, let’s fix them. Let’s not have a fight about them. But that’s what this government is trying to do at every turn.

JOURNALIST: So will the government be voting? And a lot of legal and human rights experts have been saying that the character changes could cause women and children also for their visas to be cancelled if they’re linked to their partner’s visa, if their visa has been cancelled on, for example, like an AVO, or a date rape, as was mentioned yesterday, that these women and children could also be booted out of the country. Is that a concern?

MARLES: Come back to the fundamental here. The character test is important. We understand that and we have worked with the government in strengthening it in the past. If there is a problem with it, we are really willing to sit down with them and fix it. And that’s what the government should do. It should respond to our call. It should sit down with us. It should articulate what the issue is that they’re trying to resolve. And then we can all get on and resolve it.



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