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Interview with Deb Knight, 2GB

13 November 2020

Interviewer: 
Deb Knight

Subject: Inquiry into alleged war crimes, Labor Party frontbench, Federal Parliament, Ministerial code of conduct

E&OE

DEB KNIGHT: And it has been a huge week in politics. Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor joins us now, along with former shadow minister for agriculture and resources, Joel Fitzgibbon, who is now a humble backbencher. Fellas, thanks for joining us.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: G’day, team.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks for having me, Deb.

DEB KNIGHT: Now, Joel, what a week for you, hey? You’re now buying into this special investigator and independent oversight panel that was set up by the PM in response to the Brereton report. He announced that yesterday into alleged war crimes. You were once Defence Minister, Joel. Is there a cultural problem in the Defence Force?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Why do I get to go first this week?

[Laughter]

DEB KNIGHT: Why do you think, my friend?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Look, to the extent, there could be a cultural problem, and obviously, that is a challenge. We all have to take responsibility, not just our troopers on the ground, but of course all those up the chain of command, and right into the Office of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet because culture comes from the top. And certainly, if anyone has broken the law, or worked outside the rules of engagement and the international law, then they have to be made, to be held accountable to that. No question about that. That is an important message for the international community as well. But you do have to understand that we knock these guys down and build them back up as warriors. We teach them to be able to kill without too much conscience. We send them into very, very dangerous situations with poor strategic planning often, and sometimes under-resourced. They know the prospects of winning are slight and you can expect them to find themselves in challenging situations. So let’s let the process, let us go through the whole process and see where it takes us. But I just make an appeal to people not to generalise and to understand that if people have done the wrong thing, they’ll need to be held responsible for it. But there are very, very serious mitigating circumstances here. These people go into the most dangerous parts of the world to keep us safe.

DEB KNIGHT: Were the deployments too long?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: They were too long. The rotations were too many. I made many complaints at NATO meetings about the dysfunction of the overall strategy. Our boys aren’t stupid. They know the prospects of success are poor. They risk their lives capturing prisoners, or did risk their lives capturing prisoners, only to see them wandering free some time later. The same people who had almost shot them before they captured them. And of course, a lack of resourcing, and playing to rules, both the rules of engagement and international law, against an enemy which plays to no rules whatsoever.

DEB KNIGHT: Now, Angus, the Prime Minister did warn yesterday that this report will be disturbing, it will be confronting for all Australians. Basically, getting us prepared for what will be unveiled and what action could be taken, saying that there was no door that will be left unopened, that action could go well all the way to the top in terms of prosecutions. But has this process, has it been too long and too drawn out, because there are obviously big concerns about the impact this is going to have on veterans and soldiers?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, and understandably so. Look, obviously, Deb, the matters raised in the inquiry they need to be assessed properly. Obviously, there's been very serious allegations but where they’re substantiated, they do need to be prosecuted. At what level? Whatever level in the hierarchy, as Joel rightly points out. But look, the other point I'd make here is that the ADF has served our nation in Afghanistan and elsewhere over prolonged periods with great sacrifice and distinction. And we are rightly proud of the ADF and that part is well-deserved.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Here, here.

ANGUS TAYLOR: And I know Joel agrees with that. And in fact, I think that was the essence of his point, that we do need to respect the enormously important role that ADF personnel play in keeping our country safe and keeping all of us safe.

DEB KNIGHT: Absolutely. But even our own SAS, retired and serving, concede that if there are rogue operators, to ensure that that integrity is sustained and maintained, that you can't have a few tarnish the lot.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, that's right. Well, I mean it's important that we have continued confidence in the ADF, and that's why where allegations are substantiated, they will need to be prosecuted. That's the nature of this. But as I say, it's important that the respect for our ADF remain for good reason, because of the important role they play. 

DEB KNIGHT: Now, Joel-

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Can I just very quickly say on that. It's also important that when they deploy, they know they have the support of their local communities, and that is why, as Angus says, we need to restore any loss of respect in the service.

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah, an important point to make, and well made too. Now, Joel, you’ve never been backwards in coming forwards with your views. But you say you've quit the frontbench because you've been restrained, unhappy with the way that the Labor leadership is going, particularly on the issue of climate and energy policy. So what's the truth here? You said it was your decision to stand down from the front bench. Others say Albo forced your hand. Which one is it?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Oh, it was absolutely my decision, Deb. No one asked me to go or put any pressure on me to go. I told Albo-

DEB KNIGHT: It had nothing to do with the stand-up row that you had with Albo?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: It might have brought the timing forward just a little bit, to be honest with you. It seemed like the right time to go rather than in December which had been my intention anyway. But look, Albo has said he’d like to talk me into staying. There was no pressure whatsoever. I’ve spent the last 18 months helping to rebuild the party, put it on what I would call a better path both in policy and political terms, making the prospect of winning an election much better which is the most important thing of all because there are millions of Australians out there hoping to get a Labor government from time to time when we haven’t delivered very well or very often. So-

DEB KNIGHT: But if you don't agree with the Labor leadership, why don't you just stand as an independent?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, this is a representative democracy, Deb. The Labor Party is the biggest party in the country. It represents a very diverse group of people. A very, very diverse group of people. And I think a contest of ideas within the party makes for a vibrant party.

DEB KNIGHT: And in terms of the division in your parties, do you really think that you're going to come together here? The division runs very deep on climate policy. Some agree with you wholeheartedly. Others completely against it. I’m thinking of a couple of Marks here – Mark Butler, Mark Dreyfus. But Albo has come out today saying Mark Butler is not going anywhere.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, I'm as concerned with division or otherwise than I am with policy.

DEB KNIGHT: Should he go as the climate change spokesperson?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, yeah, I believe so. But I said that's a matter for Albo. And I say that without any disrespect, but he’s been our salesperson in that area for the last seven years. It hasn't turned out very well for us and I think we need a fresh face.

DEB KNIGHT: Angus, was this the right move do you reckon for Joel to make if he wants to try and make a difference to the party to do it from the backbench?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, good on Joel for standing up for blue-collar workers. And, you know, I think what he said this week has been extremely important. But the fact of the matter is right now, we are seeing the heart and soul-

JOEL FITZGIBBON: It was a good start, Deb.

DEB KNIGHT: There’s always a however.

JOEL FITZGIBBON:  [Laughs]

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, the however is actually backing in what is really going on here, which is what we are seeing a battle for the heart and soul of the Labor Party, whether its future is focussed on blue collar workers or a degree of ideological zealotry. And Joel’s taken a position on that, which I happen to agree with, for Australia. It’s there for Labor to decide where Labor wants to go. But, you know, this is a very, very important debate. Joel, I think is enjoying his newfound freedom by the sound of things but beneath that is this very serious debate. And we do believe that these industries across regional Australia and outer suburbs in manufacturing, agriculture as well, of course, that those industries do need the support of all Australians and that we shouldn't be putting in place policies that are going to hurt them. And I know Joel agrees with that.

DEB KNIGHT: Hand on heart, Joel, is this a ploy for you to either make a bid for the leadership, or to try and get someone else in there instead of Albo?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: No Deb. I just want to put labour back into the Labor Party.

DEB KNIGHT: Alright. The blue-collar worker. Well, we’ll see what unfolds over the coming days, weeks and months ahead. Angus, I want to ask you too obviously, the Four Corners report into the culture within the Liberal Party this week, looking very closely at the treatment of women and in particular affairs that two of your colleagues reportedly had with staffers. I mean, affairs between consenting adults, that's not my concern. But there's an inherent power imbalance, isn't there, when staff members are in relationships with their boss? And there is a real concern too, about security with ministers perhaps being compromised.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, look, to your first point, it is important that everyone should feel safe in the workplace and that everyone should have proper channels where they can deal with an issue, when they are uncomfortable-

DEB KNIGHT: Do they have that though, under the existing employment rules in federal parliament?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Of course, the rules have changed. And that change was made a couple of years ago and the Prime Minister has backed that in strongly. And I note that Albo, after running around for a couple of days on this not knowing what Labor's policy is has now backed it in for the Labor Party - that's a good thing.

DEB KNIGHT: But there’s no real HR department though, is there, for staffers?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Can I just say though, on the two ministers, I do want to make this point: they have issued statements - they've actually rejected some of those allegations made - and I refer you to those. But there is no allegation that they breached-

DEB KNIGHT: Well, Alan Tudge has acknowledged the affair and he's apologised.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Sure, sure. But there's no allegation that they've breached the code of conduct in this. And the rules have changed, and it's important now everyone adhere to those. And it is important that everyone should feel safe in their workplace.

DEB KNIGHT: But the fact that there's no real HR department for government staffers. It's very internal. It's overlooked by the Department of Finance. It's not like what happens in the corporate world. Surely that needs to be looked at?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Look, I think the reality is there are channels now open for people to go and deal with these issues. And we've been acutely conscious of it in the last couple of years since that rule change was made. And I think it's probably true of the Labor Party as well. And that's why I say, it is important that everyone should feel safe in the workplace and should feel safe to go to higher authorities and say there is a problem.

DEB KNIGHT: And do you think, Joel, that Labor has changed its rules enough that you are creating a safe workplace?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: No, I think you are right, Deb. There’s got to be an independent process. You know, you can't, if a young woman has been offended or worse, it’s not much good going to the party leader. They need to be able to go somewhere independent. You made the point, HR. There is an agency or department, they’re called MOPS, that pays us and signs our staff contracts, et cetera. And you know, a young woman who has been inappropriately dealt with should be able to go to them and lodge her report and seek guidance and counsel or any necessary advice. I mean, the leader of each political party obviously has some interest or could potentially have an interest in making it go away, so that his or her junior minister, senior minister, isn’t going to become the media story. So, there's got to be an independent process.

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah. Fellas, it’s World Kindness Day today, so I'm sending you a smile and a kind gesture. And next time I see you in person, I might even shout you a coffee, you never know your luck.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: What a beer or glass of wine, Deb? That’s pretty modest – gee whiz.

DEB KNIGHT: [Laughs] Oh, no, right, exactly? Okay, I’ll splurge.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: As long as it’s in the afternoon.

ANGUS TAYLOR: You’ve probably earned a beer this week, Joel.

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah, exactly. It’s always midday somewhere, alright.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: You’ve just revealed my deep secret, Angus.

DEB KNIGHT: [Laughs] Have a good weekend.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: How surprised people will be?

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah, exactly. Thank you fellas. We’ll talk to you next week.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks Deb.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Bye.