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Shadow Minister for Science and the Arts

Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy

Manager of Opposition Business in the House



SBS News in Depth

20 October 2023

ANNA HENDERSON: Firstly Paul Fletcher, thanks for joining me.

PAUL FLETCHER: Good to be with you.

ANNA HENDERSON: Can I take you in the first instance to the situation in the Middle East? Yesterday we heard from a Labor frontbencher, Ed Husic, he is concerned about the potential for the people of Gaza to be collateral damage. Do you share his concerns?

PAUL FLETCHER: What we saw two Saturdays ago was an appalling terrorist attack which led to some 1,500 Israelis being killed. Many of them civilians, unarmed men, women, and children. Many others have been injured, many have been abducted and are now being held prisoner by Hamas in Gaza. This was an appalling attack and an appalling disregard for human life. Of course, Israel has a right to defend itself, Israel has been making every effort to provide advance warning to civilians in the Gaza Strip of where it intends to operate. And of course, it is important that civilian life be respected to the maximum extent possible. Ultimately these are matters for Hamas.

Hamas is a violent, thuggish terrorist organisation, it is effectively the government in Gaza. Sadly it has a track record of using violence, of using Palestinian civilians as human shields and it is notorious for doing things like throwing dissenters, people it disagrees with, alive from tall buildings. So this violent terrorist organisation has carried out an appalling attack and Israel has an absolute right to defend itself. Of course, as a multi-party democracy, Israel shares values with Australia and consistent with those values Israel is making every effort to minimise the impact on civilians including by providing advance warning to civilians as to areas that they should leave. But ultimately this is a matter for Hamas, this violent terrorist organisation and many Palestinians are the victims of this organisation just as sadly some 1,500 Israelis and many others have been victims of Hamas.

ANNA HENDERSON: Appreciating everything that you have said which I think the government absolutely has said publicly, similar sentiments have been raised. But do you hold any concerns now with Israel talking about invasion of Gaza and the scale of the retaliation that, as I said, the people of Gaza will end up being collateral damage?

PAUL FLETCHER: The point I make is that Israel is a parliamentary democracy committed to values that are very similar to the values that underpin Australia's parliamentary democracy. Israel's civilians have been attacked without warning and the Israeli government has an absolute right to self-defence and to restore order and the government of Israel certainly has my support and the Coalition's support in doing that. Indeed, as Peter Dutton has said, we believe that it would have been appropriate for the Prime Minister to offer to visit Tel Aviv and demonstrate Australia's support for Israel on the way to his visit to Washington.

ANNA HENDERSON:The Prime Minister has demonstrated that support in Parliament. We know that other world leaders have, of course, travelled there at this point in time but in reality, we are a middle power. What useful purpose would be served by our leader travelling into that war zone at this point in time in your view?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, Australia has a strong and consistent record of supporting Israel including, for example, in votes in the United Nations where Australia is often one of only a few countries that is prepared to side with Israel. Israel is the only multi-party democracy in the Middle East. It's a country with which Australia has strong ties, including many people-to-people ties and at this hour of need for Israel, it would be an appropriate gesture for the Prime Minister to be visiting Israel to demonstrate Australia's strong support for the democratically elected government of Israel to take the steps it needs to take to defend itself and its people. Let's remember that Israel is a multi-party democracy including some 20% of Israelis are Arab Israelis. There are Arab Israelis in the Knesset, in the Parliament and the democratic values that Israel embodies are amongst the values being attacked by the murderous, autocratic, terrorist thugs of Hamas.

ANNA HENDERSON: We're looking at a massive population coming out of the Palestinian territories if they can in fact leave. Would you support any additional visa measures, emergency visa measures by the Australian government to help in some way provide safe haven to the Palestinian civilians who have been caught up in this?

PAUL FLETCHER: Look, I'll leave comments on those matters to the Leader of the Opposition, to the shadow Foreign Minister, but I'd simply say that Australia has always been a responsible participant in international affairs and I'm sure that we will continue to be a responsible participant in relation to this issue.

ANNA HENDERSON: You've just been to Taiwan, the security situation internationally at the moment is obviously incredibly volatile, wars between Russia and Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East, what do you think is the likelihood that China might choose some kind of military capitalisation at this point?

PAUL FLETCHER: As is well known, we've seen regular instances, for example, of Chinese aircraft going into the Taiwanese air zone. That being said, there is significant trade between Taiwan and China. If you look at, for example, the production of silicon chips or semiconductors, Taiwan is a global leader. Companies like TSMC and UMC have a leadership position globally in the manufacture of silicon chips. We had the opportunity to visit UMC on the trip I took recently to Taiwan. And the point, therefore, is that there is significant economic integration between Taiwan and China. A lot of those semiconductors then get shipped to China and are assembled into a range of electronic devices. And indeed, one of the other companies we visited, Honhai, is the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer. And they have quite a number of plants in mainland China, as well as in Taiwan and in other locations around the world. So there is a significant degree of economic integration there. And that is one factor that bears upon the incentives to maintain stability.

Secondly, what the opposition wants to see is a secure, stable, peaceful Indo-Pacific. Taiwan has an important role. It's a vigorous democracy. It has been for 30 years or more. There's an election coming up in January next year. It was a privilege for those of us on this cross-party delegation who visited Taiwan to meet President Tsai Ing-wen. She's coming to the end of her second term.
It was also interesting to learn that many of the hottest issues in the election are in fact domestic political issues, such as the cost of housing. So while naturally we tend to view Taiwan through a national security or geostrategic security lens, first and foremost it was very interesting to get a sense of the local politics. What's also important, of course, is that Taiwan is a significant destination for Australian exports, particularly coal and natural gas. And so the economic relations there are very important to Australia, as well as, of course, the general importance of a vigorous democracy being able to exist peacefully.


ANNA HENDERSON: And what was the message from Taiwan's side to your delegation in the knowledge that the Prime Minister will soon visit China and meet with President Xi about how Australia should be bolstering its support for Taiwan and any messages that they would like conveyed to the Chinese leadership?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, I think the principal message from those we met was that they value the relationship with Australia. They value the economic relationship. They certainly see Australia as an important and dependable supplier of energy. They also value the support for a fellow democracy. And for example, Taiwan is a member of APEC, as Australia is, as China is, and as many other nations are. The Taiwanese government understands that Australia has a one-China policy and that our diplomatic recognition is of the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party is the government of that nation. But nevertheless, we have longstanding, friendly ties with Taiwan. It's a pretty regular occurrence for there to be parliamentary delegations from Australia
to Taiwan. And indeed, the current Prime Minister, Albanese, when he was in opposition, visited Taiwan on one of those delegations.

ANNA HENDERSON: Can I take you briefly to your role in the House, Paul Fletcher? During the week, the continuing calls from the Coalition's side to see a royal commission into child abuse in remote Indigenous communities. What evidence does the opposition have to explain why that inquiry should be held?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, the facts are very clear that in a number of remote Indigenous communities, there is a very serious and systemic problem of children being sexually abused -

ANNA HENDERSON: Which communities are they, Paul Fletcher? Which ones did you want to highlight?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, it's well known that there is an issue in a number of remote Indigenous communities of children being sexually abused. And if this were to be happening in the cities, it would be front page of the newspapers. What Peter Dutton has been saying, what Senator Jacinta Price, the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians has been saying is, we've been calling for this royal commission for a significant period of time. We want to see children, wherever they are, including in remote Indigenous communities, enjoy safety and security in their childhood, rather than being in a position where you're frightened to go home because of what might happen to you at night. And so that's the reason we've been consistently making this call. We've been encouraging the government to join with us on a bipartisan basis. And we made this call again this week, the Leader of the Opposition made this call in parliament this week, as we sought to gain clarity from Prime Minister Albanese as to what the way forward is in the government's view in relation to matters of Indigenous policy following the voice, as his proposal being rejected by the Australian people by more than 60% of the Australian people. Mr Albanese has repeatedly said before the election and since that he is committed to voice, to treaty, to truth, truth telling. So we've been asking questions this week about what the plan is now in relation to a Makarrata Commission. Does that continue to be the government's policy? Does there continue to be a plan to have a treaty and the payment of reparations? It's been difficult to get clarity from Mr Albanese. Last Sunday, Richard Miles, the Deputy Prime Minister, said that the Albanese government remained fully committed to implementing all aspects of the Uluru Statement from the heart in full, including voice, treaty, truth. But this week in parliament, both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have walked away from that position. And the best we've heard from the Prime Minister is that he's not going to say anything about what their policies are until he's had the chance to consult with Indigenous leaders. So I think the Australian people would want to know what are the government's policies when it comes to Indigenous Australians. I think every Australian recognises that Indigenous Australians in significant number suffer disadvantage compared to the broader community and we want to see an effective plan to deal with that. And so it's only appropriate that the opposition would be asking the Prime Minister for details of what the next steps of the plan are, now that it's become clear that the Australian people have not supported the voice.

ANNA HENDERSON: You didn't name any individual Indigenous communities and your answer to me, I just wanted to put to you that dozens of Indigenous representative groups, including the Coalition of Peaks and the body representing Indigenous children's rights in Australia, have today put out a statement. They say there is not one shred of evidence to support this idea that there is more evidence of child sexual abuse in remote Indigenous communities than in the broader Australian population. So as a member of the Liberal Frontbench, have you been presented with, or have you asked for those sort of figures to back up these claims, which of course do have a huge impact on remote Indigenous communities, when they read back and are perceived through the lens of child sexual abuse occurring there?

PAUL FLETCHER: I don't think the issue here is in factual dispute and that is why we have consistently been calling for this Royal Commission, why the Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton has been calling for it, why Senator Jacinta Price, who of course comes from Alice Springs, is Indigenous herself and is speaking from personal experience, as are others like Warren Mundine speaking about their knowledge of some of the social challenges that are present in remote Indigenous communities and some of the steps we need to take to understand the scale of the problem and to get on with what needs to be done to fix it. That is why we're calling for a Royal Commission and that's why we repeated the call this week.

ANNA HENDERSON: Now the former Leader of the Liberal Party Tony Abbott has today written that he doesn't think it's necessary to fly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags next to the Australian flag at sort of major government events and he's questioned whether it is appropriate to keep using the acknowledgement of country so prevalent as it is used now. Do you agree with him that the Australian Government and Australian corporate world needs to rethink the way it's elevating Indigenous culture in these instances?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well Tony of course is a strong and passionate advocate and always makes a strong case. What I would say though is that we had a specific question that faced the Australian people on Saturday and we came together democratically as a nation to reach a decision and let's celebrate the fact that we do resolve these issues through democratic processes in Australia. What is very clear to me from speaking to my constituents and I'm very confident that in my electorate of Bradfield this view is a pretty representative one, there is very strong support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and of course that's one of the tragedies here, a missed opportunity for another moment of national unity as we had in 1967 because if the Prime Minister had framed the question appropriately around constitutional recognition I think there would have been overwhelming support. I think there's also a wide acceptance that there is a disadvantage suffered by many Indigenous Australians and of course Tony Abbott when he was Prime Minister made this a real focus of his Prime Ministership, he took his cabinet to the Northern Territory and spent several days in remote locations so that members of cabinet and other officials travelling with them could personally see what the circumstances were on the ground. So Tony Abbott has a strong record of fighting to improve the situation of Indigenous Australians who are suffering disadvantage and the Coalition is absolutely committed to the continuing
work we need to do as a nation to close the gap, to deal with the disadvantage that is evidenced in things like infant mortality statistics, life expectancy, percentage of people of Aboriginal background who complete high school or get a trade or go to university compared to the broader population, health outcomes and so on. There is plenty more work we need to do and that is what certainly in the Coalition we continue to be very focused on and that's why we've been pressing the Albanese government
this week to understand what their plan is now that the option they presented to the Australian people of the Voice is an option the Australian people have chosen not to accept.

ANNA HENDERSON: But do you think that the acknowledgement of country should continue as prevalently as it does and that the three flags at official events is the right way to go?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well look, Tony Abbott is certainly absolutely free to be putting those views and clearly there will be a range of views on these issues. I certainly think it's healthy to be considering different approaches but the point I'd make is that the question that Australians were asked to deal with last Saturday was did they support the Voice as a particular mechanism to deal with what we all acknowledge is the issue of disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal Australians as evidenced in the Closing the Gap statistics and that is I think where the focus needs to be in terms of what the Albanese government comes forward and says is its plan and that's what we've been pressing the government for more information on in Parliament this week. But it's also very much the focus of the approach from the Coalition and Senator Price, Senator Jacinta Price is our spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Kerrynne Liddle another coalition Senator who is Indigenous will be taking on the work of examining policies in relation to policy for Indigenous Australians and we've also called for an audit of the spending in this area because we want to see it directed more effectively. We know a lot of money gets spent but what we also know is in many cases that money is not spent as effectively as it could be and that is evident from the Closing the Gap statistics, the fact that we are seeing higher infant mortality amongst Aboriginal babies than amongst the broader population. We are seeing lower rates of Aboriginal students finishing high school or getting a trade or going to university as compared to the broader population. So we need to have a clear focus on how we address these issues.The government put forward the notion of a voice, the Australian people have decided that they don't support that but the task remains for the government and certainly for the Liberal and National parties should we come into government in the future to address and continue to work towards solving the challenge of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders facing disadvantage compared to the broader community.

ANNA HENDERSON: What was the breakdown of the referendum vote in your electorate?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well in the electorate of Bradfield on the most recent numbers about 51.37% of people voted yes and about 48, a bit over 48% voted no, so pretty line ball. Interestingly if you look at say the same sex marriage plebiscite only a few years ago Bradfield voted 60.6% yes so quite a significant disparity. I think that probably is a reflection of the fact that the yes campaign was not run very effectively, the messaging wasn't very clear and I think the same factors that caused the overall result across the nation to be as it was were factors that underpinned the result in Bradfield being considerably lower than might have been expected if you looked at for example the same sex marriage plebiscite result or indeed going back to 1999 in Bradfield where the vote in favour of a republic was 55.6% -

ANNA HENDERSON: How did you vote?

PAUL FLETCHER: I've consistently taken the position that my vote is a decision that I make just as everyone on the 17.6 million Australians made their choice. Where I was distinctive compared to the majority of Australians was of course that I had a vote in the parliament and in the parliament I voted yes for the referendum to proceed so the Australian people could then make their choice.

ANNA HENDERSON: Do you feel for those Indigenous leaders who for their whole working lives and for many decades have tried to see the betterment of Indigenous affairs in this country for the most disadvantaged group in our community?

PAUL FLETCHER: Of course I recognise the impact on Indigenous leaders who threw their heart and soul into this campaign recognising of course there are Indigenous leaders on both sides of this issue but for those who threw their heart and soul into securing a particular outcome of course it has an emotional impact when you don't get the result you're looking for. Look politics and the democratic process can be demanding and what I want to see is as many people as possible participating in the democratic process recognising that that sometimes comes at personal cost and we've heard stories from people on both sides of this referendum about things like receiving personal abuse, being trolled and so on. None of that should happen, sadly sometimes it does. So while I recognise that the Australian people have given a very clear decision, I want to acknowledge the work of people on both sides of this issue who poured their heart and soul into it, who travelled around the country, spent a lot of time away from family and friends and that's always a tough and demanding process and clearly if you've been arguing for a particular outcome and you get the opposite outcome that's pretty tough as well and I think just about every politician knows the feeling of having pushed for a particular outcome and getting the opposite one.

ANNA HENDERSON: We'll leave it there Paul Fletcher and look forward to speaking to you again. Thank you.

PAUL FLETCHER: Thanks indeed.