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Interview with Deb Knight, 2GB

20 November 2020

Interviewer: 
Deb Knight

Subject: Brereton Report into alleged war crimes, Australia-China tensions.

E&OE

DEB KNIGHT: Let’s look at the big stories of the week now with Energy Minister Angus Taylor, and Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon. I’m a bit confused as to what to call you, Joel, anymore. Last week you resigned as Opposition Agriculture and Resources Minister, and this week you’re quitting as leader of the right faction. What’s going on? What do I call you?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Just call me humble, Deb. [Laughter]

DEB KNIGHT: All that’s left is for you to join the crossbench and become independent.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: The handcuffs are off, Deb. The handcuffs are off. I feel free now to speak my mind without having anyone say, well, you know, when you speak, you represent the whole of the national right. I want to be free of that constraint and I plan to be pretty vocal.

DEB KNIGHT: Strap yourself in. Joel Fitzgibbon, no handcuffs applied. Alright, let’s get into it today. The Brereton Report is front and centre. The shocking report into alleged war crimes. The Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, he apologised to the Afghani people for the credible evidence of wrongdoings by Australian SAS and commandos. Angus, 19 have now been referred for criminal investigations - some are still serving in the military. Is that appropriate while these investigations are held?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, that’ll be dealt with appropriately by the ADF of course, but they are troubling allegations obviously. Look, we shouldn’t forget, Deb, that our ADF, our Defence Force has served our nation in Afghanistan over a long period with great sacrifice and distinction. We want to be proud of the ADF and that’s why these allegations that will be investigated are so concerning. But, you know, this is about protecting the ANZAC legend, not undermining it. That’s an absolutely crucial point. We’ve got to make sure we have great integrity in our ADF. This work needs to be done. It is important. They are very troubling allegations, and I have no doubt that the work that has to follow will be done well and in the right way. 

DEB KNIGHT: Absolutely, and that’s why, as you say, this rogue behaviour does need to be investigated. And if it is found to have been confirmed as war crimes, they must be held to account. Joel, you were Defence Minister between 2007 and 2009, and that’s when some of these war crimes are alleged to have occurred. The Defence Chief has said no one, all the way up the chain of command, will be immune from prosecution. Do you bear any responsibility here?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: I’m very happy to take some responsibility, Deb. I can think every Defence Minister should, and Angus Campbell, General Campbell has said: ‘Every person along that chain of command should take their share of responsibility as well’. Look, there are three groups of people who we have to be very concerned about here. The first of course is the victims and their families, and the Government is right to apologise and to consider compensation. The second group of course are those who allegedly perpetuated crimes, and they will have to take a very big dose of medicine as a result. They will pay dearly, including those of course who had coerced them to act in that way. But the third group of people, as Angus touched on, are the overwhelming majority of Special Forces soldiers, and indeed members of the ADF more generally who do nothing but serve their country, in the case of the Special Forces, put their lives on the line for our country, and we need to work very hard to ensure that the reputation of the regiment and the reputation of its members serving and past is protected and preserved.

DEB KNIGHT: And should this investigation extend beyond just Afghanistan? Members of the SAS and the commandos involved in this inquiry, in this Brereton Report have also served in Iraq and East Timor. Should these inquiries into the same units also extend beyond the period that the inquiry is covering?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: We certainly have to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we take these matters seriously. Where ever there’s a suggestion or a hint that something has gone wrong, yes, of course we need to investigate it. But there were special circumstances in Afghanistan - I’m not excusing the behaviour of anyone - but we did drive our diggers too hard. Rotations were too often too long. And of course, they were going into a terrible environment where their enemy played to no rules while our boys had to play to international, domestic, and of course, their rules of engagement. They often doubted that there was a plan to win, or indeed a strategic plan for the operation. And they often lacked the resources they required - medevacs for example, that made me very angry when I was Defence Minister to learn that medevacs weren't always available when our diggers needed them. So there’s very special circumstances in Afghanistan, and again, while I'm not excusing the behaviour of those that have acted unlawfully, I can understand how the culture emerged. We need to ensure that that never happens again.

DEB KNIGHT: And Angus, where does this leave whistle-blowers? Because it is these brave whistle-blowers who came forward and many of their careers have been destroyed and lives have been hit so hard from what they have come forward and told the investigators what they have witnessed. But you've got Army lawyer, David McBride, still facing prosecution for leaking the Afghan files. Should there be better protection for whistle-blowers?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, of course, this has come about because of whistle-blowers, and it’s important to point that out. So, in that sense, the Government has taken very seriously the allegations that’s been made. With respect to the prosecution of David McBride, that was a decision, an independent decision of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. And of course, given that that’s a matter for the CDPP, it’s not appropriate to- for the Attorney-General to intervene. And it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment.

DEB KNIGHT: Generally though, do you think that whistle-blowers have enough protection in this country?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I mean, the point is the whistle-blowers want an outcome, that’s why they’re whistle-blowers, and they’ve got it. And it’s important that there be appropriate treatment. But as I say, each case has to be treated on its own merits. You raised the David McBride case, and there’s not a lot more I can say about that at the moment.

DEB KNIGHT: Alright. Well, let’s go onto the issue of China because it’s getting even more heated. China releasing this laundry list; 14 grievances against Australia. Their Foreign Ministry spokesperson has also made a veiled threat referring to our Five Eyes intelligence grouping with countries including the UK and the US. And he’s said: “Whether it’s Five Eyes or ten eyes, they’ll be left with no eyes.” Angus, how do we mend relations with a country that seems hell-bent on bringing us down?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we stick by our principles and we continually reach out and seek to work with them on those economic cooperation opportunities that are good for both us and for China. That’s the approach we’ve got to continue to take. Obviously, this is a tough time right now and we’ve had this recent breach of the joint declaration which is the one country, two systems agreement. And we’ve joined with other countries in saying that’s unacceptable. We have to do that. We have to stick by our principles at all times. But we are always ready and willing to work with China on those joint economic opportunities, which are important to both countries.

DEB KNIGHT: Well, there’s a lot at stake here. $20 billion in trade. And Joel, China, they’re now threatening to attack our human rights record if we keep criticising theirs.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Can I just very quickly say, Deb, that I said I was prepared to take my share of responsibility on Afghanistan, but you'll recall that I made a big fuss in those NATO meetings at the time, complaining about the lack of a strategic plan, the pathway to success, and those resources. And I can't believe that after that when they were getting to their fifth and sixth rotation, a minister or someone didn’t ask the question isn’t this going to end in tears? Sending these guys back so regularly? But look, what China is doing in Hong Kong is unacceptable. It's a breach of the agreement which goes out to 2047, I think. So, I think, important for Australia we need to have a more independent voice. I don't think we should be necessarily joining with the Anglosphere and grouping together against an Asian nation. I think we should stand proud, ourselves, speak more independently and of course on every occasion, defend those values which are so close to our heart. And of course, they are all underpinned by the democratic model.

DEB KNIGHT: But what do you mean by we shouldn't be joining up together? What, we should be part of the Five Eyes grouping?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: No, the Five Eyes grouping is a very, very important understanding and an arrangement critical to our national security. But it moves in mysterious ways and it's better seen and not heard. I don't understand why we're using it as a vehicle to criticise China. I think we're big enough, ugly enough to do that just on our own.

DEB KNIGHT: We're certainly getting them riled up by standing up to them at least. And hopefully we can ensure that we can get some smoother relations because as we know, there is so much at stake for our farmers and our producers with so much, $20 billion of trade, being impacted here. Now, I want to talk to the HILDA report, the latest report looking at happiness and wellbeing. And you and I, Angus, are the unhappiest age group, apparently, according to the HILDA group. [Laughter] And Joel, you're on your way towards happiness. But I reckon we can pinpoint exactly when you reach peak happiness. I reckon it was 10:07am of Tuesday last week when you announced you were going to the backbench. Would that be peak happiness for Joel Fitzgibbon?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Even happier today, Deb, because I’m no longer considered a factional leader, I'm considered a thought or a policy leader, and that makes me very happy. But I know what's going on here - by the time you get to 45, you start to look like your parents. And that's pretty distressing. But by the time you get to 54 – and Angus doesn’t know this as well as me as I’m four years ahead of him – you start to come to terms with that. In fact, you start to talk proud of it, and you get happier again. So don’t worry Angus, you’ll get through it.

ANGUS TAYLOR: [Laughs] Well, I’m 54, Joel. I’m right on the cusp it seems.

DEB KNIGHT: What’s the key to happiness for you, Angus?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Look, it’s the usual things. I mean, a loving wife and family for me, exercise regularly. Being in Government though, I’ve got to say, is good. And Joel understands that. But I think, you know, you talk about Joel's happiness, I think you're right, he's never been happier. He looks cock-a-hoop at the moment.

DEB KNIGHT: Yes.

ANGUS TAYLOR: But I think it's because he's about to have a tilt at the leadership.

DEB KNIGHT: Oh, could that be the case, Joel?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: That was just cruel of Angus to mention exercise, which I don’t get enough of. And government-

DEB KNIGHT: [Laughs] Which you don’t get enough of.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Which I’ve only seen for six of my 25 years in the Parliament. So, that was a real kick in the guts, Angus. I thought you were better than that, mate.

[Laughter]

DEB KNIGHT: Yes, but well deflected. Leadership, Joel, tilts?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Thought and policy leader, remember. That’s what I want to be. I want to put labour back in the Labor Party and make us more competitive.

DEB KNIGHT: Alright, well, good on you fellas. Any tilt at the hair dye too from either of you over the years? Because I know you’ve embraced a bit of the sprinkling of the salt and pepper, but any thoughts about using a bit of the dye to help things along?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Not from me. But I’ve got to say, I’m seeing more and more grey every day.

DEB KNIGHT: You wouldn’t have done the dye, Joel, you’ve got the salt and pepper going on?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Deb, I’ve had to give up my shadow ministerial allowance so I can’t afford.

DEB KNIGHT:  [Laughs] Alright fellas, you have a good weekend. Always good to talk. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Cheers.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Cheers.

DEB KNIGHT: There they are. Angus Taylor and Joel Fitzgibbon.

ENDS