John Blaxland on The Secret Cold War - The Official History of ASIO

October 25, 2016

In the third volume of The Official History of ASIO series, historians Dr John Blaxland and Dr Rhys Crawley examine the organisation’s role in the years leading to the end of the Cold War.

Blaxland tells Michelle Grattan that this is a story about looking at Australia in the ‘70s and '80s “through the glasses of an ASIO officer or an ASIO agent”.

During the period covered in the book, Blaxland says the Soviet Union was so active in Australia the work of ASIO was not sufficient to cover their activity.

“Effectively, ASIO found itself dealing with a grown Soviet presence and a proliferation of Soviet Bloc consulates and diplomatic presences that were simply beyond it. They weren’t resourced to monitor them all. And so we now know that while ASIO was doing what it could, it was in a position where it was simply outpaced. They did not have the number of officers and agents in place to monitor the incredible growth in the number of diplomats-cum-spies operating in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere,” he says.

In this final volume, which was preceded by The Protest Years and The Spy Catchers, Blaxland and Crawley draw upon ASIO archives and interviews with former spies to piece together a history of one of Australia’s most secretive institutions.

Music credit: “The Spirit of Russian Love” by Zinaida Troika, covered by Kosta on the Free Music Archive.


Stirling Griff and Skye Kakoschke-Moore on life in the Senate

October 18, 2016

Nick Xenophon’s two new Senate colleagues, Stirling Griff and Skye Kakoschke-Moore, are no strangers to the political process, having both worked with Xenophon behind the scenes.

In a joint interview, they tell Michelle Grattan about their contrasting experiences in becoming politicians. Kakoschke-Moore says she has had the benefit of being around Xenophon for nearly six years. “So I understand the way he operates,” she says.

Working as a Xenophon adviser, she learnt the ropes of the Senate. “It is so rule-driven and so procedure-driven that I have a great deal of sympathy for people coming into this who have had no exposure at all to the inner workings of Senate procedure.”

Stirling Griff, on the other hand, has had a “huge learning curve”.

“I’m following behind Skye like she’s the mother hen and I imagine I’ll be doing that really for another few more weeks,” he says.

With the government’s industrial relations legislation before the parliament, the Nick Xenophon Team is looking for some amendments.

“Particularly in relation to the building code and requiring building projects, to the greatest extent possible, to use Australian goods and services. So we’ll be looking at the bills closely but we’ll also be keeping an open mind to amendments,” Kakoschke-Moore says.

The pair are dismissive of any move by senator David Leyonhjelm to push for concessions on gun laws in exchange for passage of the industrial relations bills.

“They’re not related and we don’t want to play those games,” Griff says.


Tanya Plibersek on marriage equality and education funding

October 17, 2016

In the wake of Labor’s rejection of the proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite, speculation has fallen on whether Labor will maintain their planned policy of enforcing a binding vote on marriage equality after the next election. Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek tells Michelle Grattan she doesn’t think the issue will come up at the party’s next national conference.

“I know that the Liberals are trying to whip up some notion that this will be reexamined at the next national conference. I don’t hear anybody in the Labor Party calling for this to be reopened at the next national conference,” she says.

Plibersek, who is Labor’s spokesperson for education, says the government needs to properly fund the university sector.

“When it comes to undergraduate students in particular I’m very concerned about where this government is headed. You only need to look at the United States to see university degrees that cost an arm and a leg, hang a debt sentence around the neck of students and in many cases don’t even have the pay-off of leading to higher paid jobs,” she says.

“So I think we need to be careful about loading students up with debts that really become a burden for them. … You’re talking about students at the same time in their lives as they’re finishing university, they’re often establishing relationships or families, they’re looking to buy a house. It comes at a very difficult time and the inter-generational effects of the type of debt that this government is proposing for students I think has broader social consequences than just being a disincentive to education for many people.”

Plibersek also defends Labor’s criticism of Education Minister Simon Birmingham for raising the possibility of cutting funding to wealthy private schools.

“It’s a distraction. Is he really going to take money off schools? Is he prepared to tell you which schools and how much money? And this is a smokescreen. He would love us to be having the old sectarian fights: state against state, independent verus public, versus Catholic, and frankly none of that matters. What matters is that we properly fund our schools system and they’re not going to do that.”


Mark Dreyfus on George Brandis’ solicitor-general controversy

October 13, 2016

A contentious move by Attorney-General George Brandis to restrict access to legal advice from the solicitor-general is continuing to raise controversy and questions about its legal validity. Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus tells Michelle Grattan that he sees this as “the most extraordinary power grab by the Attorney-General in the history of the office”.

“We already know that he’s held up requests. Why? I can’t say, but the deputy secretary of the department giving evidence to the Senate committee last week said that one of the requests had taken 10 days.

"Now very often it’s urgent that you get legal advice. It’s never before been the position that secretaries of commonwealth departments, other ministers, the prime minister, the governor-general have been told that the written consent of the attorney-general is necessary before they get the advice of the solicitor-general,” he says.

The solicitor-general has to be the primary source of advice on the most important matters of the government, Dreyfus says.

“I’m not for a moment suggesting that in a complex, large government with 168,000 Australian public servants that every single legal question that the government comes into contact with has to go to the solicitor-general. Clearly that at a practical level couldn’t be the case but matters like the plebiscite bill, which the parliament is now dealing with, or the prorogation of parliament that occurred earlier this year or the citizenship bill - they are matters that the government should go to the solicitor-general [with] first.”

On the question of whether Labor should stick with its planned policy of enforcing a binding vote on marriage equality after the next election, Dreyfus says he thinks it is a “human rights matter”.

“That’s my own view and I argued in favour and voted in favour of the binding vote and that would remain my position…and lets see if it’s the position that would give difficulty because by the time of the next Labor conference, this matter may well have been dealt with in the parliament.”

Music credit: “Storytime” by Dlay on the Free Music Archive


Simon Birmingham on the new VET loan scheme

October 4, 2016
A new vocational education and training student loan scheme will aim at putting a stop to rorting by dodgy private colleges. Education Minister Simon Birmingham tells Michelle Grattan the new scheme is being built from the ground up. 

"First and foremost, [there will be] strong barriers to entry for the types of vocational education providers who can offer loans as part of it," he says. 

The reforms will see the number of courses available drop from than 800 to "somewhere around the 300 or 400 mark", Birmingham says. "There are a range of different areas that have been subsidised over recent years - but certainly very odd areas - such as Chinese veterinary medicine, will no longer make the cut. A number of I guess lifestyle-type courses is the best way to define some of them."  

Birmingham also talks on his negotiations for a new school funding agreement, and says he will soon announce a new higher education policy to start in 2018.  

Music credit: "Natural", by Dlay on the Free Music Archive

Scott Ryan on the same-sex marriage plebiscite and political donations

September 28, 2016

Monday’s government-Labor meeting over the proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite ended in a stalemate. But Special Minister of State Scott Ryan tells Michelle Grattan the government has made it very clear it will consider in “good faith” any proposal that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party bring forward.

“The meeting was an opportunity for them - even if they didn’t have the power to make formal suggestions - to actually say ‘these are the terms upon we want to come back to you in a week or two’,” he says.

Ryan gives no encouragement to the view that if the plebsicite legislation is defeated, the government could move to a parliamentary vote. “The government’s position I think, and we’ve done this on a number of issues, is to stick with the policy we took to the election.”

Having launched a parliamentary inquiry into electoral matters, which will include an examination of political donation rules, Ryan says he has no problem with corporate donations “in principle”.

“I’m not going to participate or support any measure that seeks to create an unfair playing field in political donations or political participation and the ludicrous position of the Greens to ban corporations that make a profit but allow unions and non-profit corporations to make political contributions is an example of that.”

Following much debate about the impact of Labor’s so-called “Mediscare” campaign on the outcome of this year’s election, Ryan says he would require a lot of convincing to go down the path of further regulating political speech, through truth in advertising measures.

“My personal view is that I require a lot of convincing because in politics, unlike in say commercial transactions where we do have consumer law that protects people from misleading conduct, politics is a lot more about opinion and interpretation of fact, so I think we need to be careful to not have a system that would end up in people needing more lawyers to argue the case of whether something is true or not. That would distract from the fact that this is a political contest.”


Politics podcast: Peter Jennings on Turnbull’s trip to the US

September 16, 2016

At next week’s UN General Assembly, Malcolm Turnbull will be among many leaders responding to the large movements of refugees and migrants across the world. Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, tells Michelle Grattan that the purpose of Barack Obama’s meeting is to get other countries to accept more refugees through legal channels.

“I don’t think he’s going to make much headway because at the moment the Europeans are closing their doors rather than opening them. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see significant pledges of new aid and Australia will probably be doing the same thing at that meeting,” he says.

While Turnbull is in the US, he will take part in a dialogue on cyber security. Jennings, who is head of one of the think tanks sponsoring the talks, says the idea is to see if they can find ways to more effectively link business into a discussion about cyber security, including on issues like counter-radicalisation.

“I think what the hope is is that we’ll see closer Australia-US cooperation emerging not only in government but also between business entities as well.”

Music credit: “Ebani”, by Dlay on the Free Music Archive


Don Watson on the rise of Trump

September 13, 2016

Earlier this year, Australian writer Don Watson visited the United States, observing the race for president. Rather than examine the “rust belt” or “down-at-heel” cities, Watson chose America’s heartland.

“I found in Wisconsin many of the underlying themes of this election. And that sort of Gothic quality of the United States where everything has a very deep and often dark story behind it.”

Watson tells Michelle Grattan that what is happening in the United States now has “something to do with the religion of neoliberalism and the really nasty tactics of the Republican Party since Reagan”.

“We ought to be careful I think that we don’t go the same way. Certainly inequality is increasing here and we have seen the revival of Hansonism and we know that Australia is prone to bouts of xenophobia and even of racism,” he says.


Eric Abetz on the conservatives in the Liberal Party

September 1, 2016

In the first sitting of the new parliament, conservatives within the government have muscled a proposed amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act onto the agenda. Senator Eric Abetz, a strong advocate for change, tells Michelle Grattan that he doubts it will be dealt with this year.

“It will be introduced and then I think it would make sense for it to go through the normal processes. It may well go to a Senate committee, things of that nature. So how it transpires - no timetable has been set but we did want to put it up there on the agenda so it could be dealt with in due course,” he says.

“We would hope that in the period of a three-year parliament, we can chew gum and walk at the same time and that there will be time set aside for what is a very minimalist amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act to remove the words offend and insult.”

Abetz, a former leader of the government in the upper house and a minister in the Abbott government, remains resentful of being banished by Turnbull to the backbench and still harbours frontbench ambitions.

“Chances are there’s still some ministerial capacity left within myself. Senator David Bushby, who’s the chief government whip in the Senate - clearly ministerial capacity as well. So I think it’s a disappointment that the prime minister did not see fit to appoint somebody from Tasmania for the frontbench when, if I might say, there is ministerial talent available from Tasmania.”

“I would like to be able to serve on the frontbench again but as I’ve said many a time - I got into politics to serve, not to ‘succeed’, in inverted commas. But of course if you can be on the frontbench you can make a good and positive contribution.”


Fred Smith on The Dust of Uruzgan

August 30, 2016

Fred Smith is no ordinary Australian diplomat. In postings served in the Uruzgan Province of Afghanistan, he built relationships with tribal leaders while continuing his side-career as a folk musician.

Smith, who has written about his experiences in a book, The Dust of Uruzgan, tells Michelle Grattan for the first three or four months he stashed his guitar under the bed.

“You know, I wanted to be taken seriously as a political officer and not seen as a folk singer. But eventually as I became more comfortable on the base, I got the guitar out and started writing songs and put together bands … and of course there wasn’t much going on on a Saturday night in Tarin Kowt so a lot of people would come,” he says.

“Then they would hear me singing stories about things that had happened a couple of weeks beforehand and it resonated, you know. And that’s sort of in the very finite emotional and intellectual information economy of that base. It opened up doors and built a sense of community.”