ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
SUBJECTS: Cladding, Newstart, Uighurs, Iran
JANE NORMAN, HOST: Daniel Andrews the Victorian Premier, thinks it a national issue, but Josh Frydenberg believes cladding is a state issue; it’s a failure of compliance and enforcement at a state level. As we mentioned earlier, it’s certainly not the end of the issue. We’ll have state and territory ministers meeting on Thursday, with Karen Andrews, the industry minister, and Daniel Andrews wants the issue of cladding and how the fix the hundreds of buildings affected by the issue on the agenda at the next COAG meeting. To get federal Labor’s view, I’m joined now from our Melbourne studios by the member for Wills, Peter Khalil. Thanks for joining us.
PETER KHALIL: Hi Jane, how are you?
NORMAN: Very well. Before we start, I have a video I have taken from your Facebook page, I want our viewers to see.
You have somehow met your namesake in the US, Peter Khalil for Congress.
KHALIL: That’s right Jane. He’s running for the third district in Washington State. That’s on the West Coast, where Seattle is. His name is Peter Khalil. It’s so weird because not only do we have the same migrant stories, we’ve got an Egyptian background, we come from similar parts of southern Egypt, Coptic background, and we’re both involved in centre left politics. He’s trying to win a seat in congress in the US, and I’m already a member of the House of Representatives here. It was great to talk to him, and it’s interesting how many of the issues are very similar, action on climate change, issues around social justice, and his electorate is very much bigger. They have 750,000 people.
NORMAN: Why did he get in contact with you? Was he looking for tips on campaigning?
KHALIL: We had a really good talk on his campaign. He has rural areas, urban areas around Seattle and Vancouver, the US Vancouver. We swapped notes on how we campaigned and how we reached our constituents. Because it’s such a crowded space in the media, in social media and traditional media now. It’s hard to get your message across. We talked a bit about that, a bit about US politics, I asked him who he thought which of the Democratic candidates may be the nomination for president.
NORMAN: Any hints?
KHALIL: He thinks Bernie Sanders or possibly Biden. I am not sure, I don’t think he knows. No-one knows. There’s 20 candidates, right?
NORMAN: If he wins, he’ll have an access into the US congress. So that would be great for you. Onto more serious domestic issues, I’m keen to get your thoughts today on the Victorian government’s $600 million package to help fix buildings affected by cladding. This is quite a big issue for your electorate, isn’t it?
KHALIL: It’s a welcome announcement by Daniel Andrews, the Victorian state government. In my local area, there are 173 buildings that are affected. The Victorian building authority found we were the most affected council area anywhere in Melbourne. So that commitment by Daniel Andrews is really really important. Daniel Andrews has asked the Federal Government and Scott Morrison to make a contribution to that package, to that fund. And I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison also calling on him to support the package. Because it affects thousands of Victorians. It’s a national issue. It should be above politics. Before the ink was dry on my signature to the letter, Karen Andrews came out and Josh Frydenberg came out and said, “We’re not an ATM, it’s not our problem” and washed their hands of it. I think that’s really irresponsible. Because it is a national issue. They can say they’re not an ATM, but they act like banks when they don’t cut deeming rates for over a year, like the banks won’t lessen their mortgage rates.
NORMAN: You firmly believe the Commonwealth should chip in. It would become a pretty expensive proposition wouldn’t it Peter Khalil? If Victoria is asking for money, why wouldn’t New South Wales, the ACT, South Australia?
KHALIL: Well, it’s a national issue, Jane. This issue, by the way, federally, Labor, we took to the last election a commitment to ban that kind of polythelene cladding that is so dangerous. We put forward heavy penalties for builders who use that kind of cladding. It needs to be addressed. There was a fire in Brunswick; we saw what happened, the tragedy at the Grenfell Tower in London. This is a national issue, it should be above politics. The federal government should play a role. When you talk about expense, the Victorian government has committed $300 million over five years. And Daniel Andrews…
NORMAN: Which taxpayers are paying for, through a building levy?
KHALIL: That’s right, partly. And the fact the Federal Government should be playing a role in making sure this issue is addressed. After all, it did have some responsibility at the federal level, as I mentioned, we need to make sure the imports are tightened up.
NORMAN: With your electorate, you say that 173 buildings are affected by this combustible cladding. Would they all be covered by this package of funds announced by Daniel Andrews?
KHALIL: I would hope so. I haven’t seen the details of the package. I have seen some of the headline reports around it, and I welcome it. There are grades of seriousness with buildings. There 173 affected in my electorate, but there’s 80 to 90 that are very serious, and I would expect they would take priority, because they\’re the most dangerous.
NORMAN: The Commonwealth has ruled out just tipping money in, but I’m reminded in the ACT about the Mr Fluffy asbestos issue, the Commonwealth gave loans to the ACT government. Would that be a scenario you see working?
KHALIL: I think that everything should be on the table. My interest is to actually get an outcome and actually address this issue. It would be best if the Federal Government can make a commitment to the package. That Daniel Andrews has put together. I know they’ll discuss that at the COAG meeting and I think it’s pretty mean and nasty to within five minutes of the announcement say, “Sorry, we’re not interested.” Without even sitting down and having the conversation. Whether they go towards alternative measures like loans, that’s really up to the COAG discussions. I would hope the Federal Government sees a light and participates in making sure that thousands, hundreds of thousands of Australians, who live in these buildings that are, you know, susceptible to fire, through the cladding, that this issue is addressed. Because we’re talking about the safety of so many Australians.
NORMAN: Moving onto another issue that’s arisen this week, with the government’s deeming rate announcement that provided a bit of a boost to some pensioners, the attention has turned to the unemployment benefit. It hasn’t risen in real terms in 25 years; Labor has described this as inadequate. Should you join the campaign for an increase actually try to enact change through Parliament?
KHALIL: I said publicly I think that Newstart should be raised. I said this publicly over a year ago. I think it’s way too low. You heard many of our leadership group, the shadow ministers, talk about how it’s inadequate, that it’s too low, it’s difficult for people to live on. They’re going to be looking at this. We didn’t win the election, it would’ve been great if we did, we would be looking at the quantum of the increase in Newstart that could be afforded.
NORMAN: What kind of quantum do you think is reasonable here? Chris Richardson said $75 a week would be a $3 billion addition to the budget bottom line. Do you think that’s reasonable?
KHALIL: I heard ACOSS as well talk about $75. I am not an expert on this. I know there are serious questions about how much it will cost the budget over a period of time, into the forward estimates and so on. That’s for the number crunchers, the leadership team, to look at all the numbers. I think there’s a will there, on our side at least, to really look at this seriously. We obviously committed to having a look at the quantum if we were to win government. I think we need to do that policy work in opposition. Whether it’s $75 or $70, or $65, I’m not sure, but the numbers need to be crunched and they need to be looked at. We don’t know the answers to those questions at the moment. And there is that consideration, as you say, about the impact on the budget.
NORMAN: Does Labor need to be more forceful in this? Your leadership team describes it as inadequate, the ball is in the government’s court, that is completely fair, but we saw in the last Parliament Labor led on some policy issues and twisted the government’s arm and got some change. Is this something you want to see Labor take up as an issue?
KHALIL: As an opposition, we’ve been very forceful, very loud, articulating our positions on a whole range of issues, as we should be. Calling the government to account, holding them to account, that’s our role. We also need to be an alternative government to develop our own policies to put to the Australian people, that we did at the last election. We need to hold the government to account. I have banged on about the Newstart, but also about the pressure on pensioners, the cost of living pressures on them. It’s not a lot of money if you don’t have other assets. And they’re paying exorbitant amounts of council rates, the cost of living, utilities, gas prices, electricity prices, all of this. Looking at this as a whole there needs to be relief on pensioners. Whether it’s an increase in the pension, increases in Newstart, a lot of these issues need to be looked a little. They’re feeling under enormous pressure.
NORMAN: Is that something you have agreement with, from the leadership team, to have, you know, consideration of increases for things like the aged pension?
KHALIL: No, the leadership team is looking at all of our policies.
NORMAN: But you’d like to see the aged pension increased?
KHALIL: I’d like to see some relief for pensioners. It may not mean an increase in the pension, it may mean support around energy costs, utility bills and so on. It could mean support for the very high council rates they’re paying, because they’re asset wealthy but income poor. Their properties are such high value, because they may have bought it 50 years ago, and the value of council rates is determined by the value of the house. So you got these really older Australians who are just on a pension, and they’re paying 10% of their income on council rates. We need to look at these issues. It was the last time Labor was in government, the last time there was an increase in the pension. That was under the Gillard government. So we care about these people. We know they’re doing it tough. We got to do the work in opposition to actually look at all of these policies and see what can be afforded, what is affordable, what can be done, to actually provide some social justice for these people.
NORMAN: I’m keen to ask you about a couple of overseas issues, drawing on your knowledge and expertise in foreign affairs. You would have seen the ABC Four Corners story on the Uighurs, the Muslims living in China, being detained into this re-education camps. What can Australia realistically do to put pressure on Beijing to release these people?
KHALIL: This is a deeply concerning issue, and it’s shared by many of my colleagues on all sides of politics. We support the government doing everything they can to directly raise these issues directly with the Chinese government. We’re looking at reports around some – one million Uyghurs – an ethnic minority in Xinjiang province, put in so-called re-education camps, some of them forced into working in factories as well, so there’s an issue around forced work, you know, and that’s something we have addressed too, and had been working on with respect to the modern slavery act we wanted to put in place when we put it to the last election. These are really concerning issues and of course we support the government raising this through the human rights council, with the United Nations, directly with China. It’s really, really disturbing. Now, China is a very important partner to Australia. We all know that. It’s economically a critical relationship, the trade, the commercial engagement, the cultural exchange that is growing, all very, very important. But that doesn’t mean when there’s issues like this, human rights issues, we shouldn’t disagree and speak up, and do as much as we can through the normal diplomatic channels and the normal – Penny Wong spoke about supporting the government.
NORMAN: You wouldn’t think of taking it further or going to economic sanctions, a pretty big move for Australia.
KHALIL: That’s a huge move. It’s something that some people are talking about. I think you want to go through the process of actually putting pressure on the Chinese government to actually meet their international obligations around human rights. And that can be done through the UN, it can be done through direct bilateral communication, you would hope, I would hope, our foreign minister is doing this right now, with her counterparts. I’m not sure if she is, but I hope they are doing this. And also from the broader international community, the sorts of pressure that can be put on. China wants to be a good international citizen. We want China to be a good international citizen. With that comes the responsibility to make sure that there aren’t these types of human rights violations that have been reported. This is an issue that is not just obviously with the Uyghurs, there are other Muslim ethnic minorities in China, there’s a whole issue around that. While we respect the sovereign integrity of China, that doesn’t mean we can\’t talk about human rights as an issue, on the international stage. Australia plays a role in that. Should play a role in that, as a good international citizen.
NORMAN: Just finally, the US is reportedly consider be asking allies to join some sort of military coalition in the Persian Gulf against any Iranian misconduct or aggression. You have spent some time in this part of the world, in your previous career, would this be a risky proposition for Australia to join such a military coalition?
KHALIL: Well, first of all, I will answer that question, but first of all, yes, it’s true, I knew a number of the people in the Obama administration who worked on the Iran deal, the diplomatic deal, that was joined in by all the European nations, much of the global community, working to certain extent. Some people were critics of it but it was working. In our national interest, we want to avoid confrontation. We want to avoid rising tensions, we want to avoid any conflict. That means outright conflict between the parties, but also accidental conflict. With the rising tensions you\’re seeing happening in the Gulf, vis-a-vis Iran, and some of the stuff going on in the Strait of Hormuz and so on, there’s a real possibility of accidental conflict occurring and escalating. We really want to bring that temperature down. I know the Europeans have called on the Iranians to reverse some of the steps they have taken in enriching uranium beyond the parameters of what they agreed to in the deal. The Iranians should do that. Yes, the US basically said this deal is not working so we’re tossing it out and slapped their own sanctions on it. That was a decision by the Trump administration. I would have hoped that the US administration would have stayed with the diplomatic deal that was in place. So I think this is a really dangerous time in international relations. I think all the parties, the Europeans, the Australians, and the others, are doing everything they can and again I assume our foreign minister is doing this, talking to her counterparts in the international community to try to de-escalate this, and the Iranians’s enrichment of uranium is reversed. That should be taken by Iran, they should do the right thing with respect to that, and we should be doing everything we can, talk to our US partners also to de-escalate that. I know it’s a tough job, with the Trump administration bogged down with all this other stuff. With respect to the coalition around this, it’s a serious, serious step to take, to be part of any military action going forward. And I would be really, really – having been in Iraq myself, and knowing what, what problems arose from that conflict, the strategic disaster that occurred, and all the knock-on effects in the region, it’s a very, very big call. We should never be rushing into war, we should always be trying diplomatic stages and steps first.
NORMAN: Unfortunately, we have run out of time. Thanks for joining us.
KHALIL: Thanks very much for having me.
NORMAN: That was the member for Wills, Victorian MP Peter Khalil there. Talking about a range of worldly issues. But on the cladding, he’s very much calling on the Commonwealth to rethink its decision and chip into this fund.