SUBJECTS: Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship, misuse of travel entitlements by Attorney-General George Brandis.



SUBJECTS: Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship, misuse of travel entitlements by Attorney-General George Brandis.


ALISON CARABINE: Chris Bowen, good morning.

CHRIS BOWEN: Good morning Ali.

CARABINE: Tony Abbott is Jakarta bound this morning. He says the dispute over asylum policies is but a passing irritant. How would you describe it?

BOWEN: I would describe it as a very serious threat to one of our most important bilateral relationships and the Prime Minister describing it as only a ‘passing irritant’ only makes it worse.

CARABINE: But how could that threat manifest itself?

BOWEN:  Well look, we’ll have to see but what is very clear is the Indonesia Government is of one mind of this and a very clear mind. And it’s not as if they only told the Liberal Party of this after they’re in office, they’ve been warning and we’ve been warning that this would be the case now ever since the Liberal Party readopted the policy of turning around boats on the high seas. And when you’ve got a regional problem you’ve got to deal with it in a regional way - that means working with your neighbours. Indonesia would be the first to say that this is a joint problem, which needs a joint response and they do that. But what they do say is given that these aren’t Indonesia asylum seekers these are people from around the world using Indonesia as a staging post and they want to cooperate with Australia but not have to problem foisted back on them entirely.

CARABINE: Tonight’s talks however, will cover a range of other topics, it won’t just focus on asylum seekers – economic and trade links, regional and global issues will also be thrashed out. Isn’t Tony Abbott right, the relationship, the bilateral relationship is much bigger than just the boats?

BOWEN:  Well I certainly think the relationship should be much bigger than this one issue. I think it should be less transactional and deeper. I think the relationship needs to be much deeper in terms of trade and investment and economic links and international students for example, one issue that needs a big focus. That is all true and that was the focus of the previous Government and would have continued as Kevin Rudd and I had outlined. But unfortunately all of those talks will be overshadowed by the ham-fisted approach of Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop in the last week. And all their focus will be on this very big problem in our bilateral relationship, which is all, all of the new Government’s making.

CARABINE: But how much sympathy should we have for the Indonesians considering these reports out of Jakarta that the Indonesian military was complacent in the people smuggling racket. Soldiers allegedly help transfer passengers to the boat that subsequently broke up off Java. Isn’t it a bit rich for the Indonesians to cry foul when we have here yet another example of Indonesia authorities allegedly conspiring with the people smugglers?

BOWEN:  Well in my experience Allie, the Indonesian Government at the most senior levels is very keen to crack down on any form of corruption on any form of illegal behaviour. And of course you are going to get these issues but it is important to work together to fix them. And when you have the relationship, the bilateral relationship under such pressure and tension that is less likely. So I’m not going to comment on those individual reports, you see those reports from time to time; they’re very, very serious. But you will see those reports and what’s important is how the Indonesia Government responds and in my experience they seem to respond very strongly.

CARABINE:  But if the Indonesian military was involved how much responsibility does Indonesia bear for those deaths at sea, at least 28 and maybe as many as 50 people.

BOWEN:  Well, I think as I said Allie, it’s a joint regional problem. These are people coming through Indonesia to get to Australia. So Indonesia won’t fix it alone, Australia won’t fix it alone. We will fix it if we all work together, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea. And that was the approach of the previous Government even though we had several obstacles put in our way; it continued to be our approach. This new Government seems to think that a couple of slogans like turning around the boats will stop the boats. We are now learning that it is nowhere near that simple as we warned it would be and the approach so far has simply to try to control the media cycle, hide the information, abolish the press releases, instead of stopping the boats.

CARABINE: Well, how does Tony Abbott resurrect the Indonesia relationship? Turning back the boats has become an article of faith for the Coalition; do you really expect the Prime Minister to dump it now? 

BOWEN: I expect him to put the national interest first and to do what it takes to achieve the policy goal that we all want of saving lives at sea but to do so in cooperation with our regional partners. Now it’s a matter for him is how he responds. He created this issue by his headstrong approach of turning boats around when we warned and many other people warned that it would be highly dangerous; it would risk lives on the high seas, and would risk one of our most important bilateral relationships. How he intends to deal with the problem that has been of his own creation is a matter for him.

CARABINE:   Chris Bowen, on the issue of George Brandis and his travel expenses, the Attorney-General has now repaid $1,683 in taxpayer funded entitlements he had claimed for attending the wedding of the former radio broadcaster Michael Smith. The money’s been handed back, isn’t that now the end of the matter?

BOWEN: No, it’s not. He’s handed the money back after being caught. This was claimed about two years’ ago and only once it got media attention did he decide to hand the money back after considerable pressure. And what’s even worse Ali, is that he hasn’t even admitted the error. The repayment of the money is a de-facto admission but he hasn’t had the good grace to say he got it wrong. In fact, to see the first law officer of the nation to claim that a friend’s wedding in which he reportedly quote unquote, ‘tore up the dance floor’, was a work related expense is pathetic and to make it worse Tony Abbott has asked him to write the new ministerial code of conduct.

How can you ask somebody who has breached the old ministerial code of conduct so flagrantly to write the new one? Tony Abbott should relieve him of that immediately.

CARABINE: George Brandis had said the expenses were incurred in attending a function which he still says, as you have pointed out, were primarily work-related. Doesn’t that mean that there is some ambiguity in the rules? Shouldn’t the rules be looked at?

BOWEN: Well, I’m happy to accept that there are some grey areas, I’m not happy to accept that this is one of them, Ali. This was a friends’ wedding. Now there are functions which can be a mixture of work and pleasure and there can be ambiguity but this is not one of them. He was not providing a speech on behalf of the Liberal Party or acting in his official capacity. It was a mate’s wedding. It’s open and shut, black and white, which ever term you choose to use, he breached the rules.

Now, he’s clearly one of the parliament’s now biggest hypocrites having tried to hold other people to a very high standard, a standard he’s failed to meet himself and to ask him, as Tony Abbott has done, to write the new ministerial code of conduct is a slap in the face to all of those who care about standards in public life.

CARABINE: Chris Bowen thanks very much for your time this morning.

BOWEN: Nice talking to you Ali. Cheers.


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