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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


August 15, 2016

SUBJECT/S: Royal Commission into Banks; Census; Nauru.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Shadow Employment spokesperson for the Labor Party. Thanks so much for your company as well as your patience, as your somewhat tardy Leader finally got to the microphone, 45 minutes late. But we won’t attack him on that!

I want to ask you though about the banks. And this is me actually nodding my cap to Bill Shorten – you guys are killing the Government on this! You’re absolutely killing the Government. They look terrible in the context of the way this has become an us and them thing between the banks and the people, and I can’t see where Malcolm Turnbull goes on this. Here’s my question though Brendan O’Connor. Yesterday, on Sunday Agenda Stephen Conroy said he would like to see when Government returns or when Parliament returns I should say, you guys in the lower House move for a Parliamentary motion in support of, or legislation in support of, a Royal Commission. I know it’s normally an Executive decision, but a parliamentary-induced if I can put it that way, Royal Commission into the banks. You just might get there because all of those Coalition individuals on the backbench who have had their own concerns about the banks, and expressed their support for a Royal Commission. What do you reckon? Are you up for that? Is momentum building for Labor to do exactly that when Parliament returns?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well good afternoon to both of you. Look, you said Malcolm is on the wrong side of this or at least seems to be having difficulty defending his position. That’s because his position is wrong. All he has to do in order to have this matter be dealt with properly and for him I guess to get some support for his position, is to accept Labor’s proposition. That is, there are some serious scandals that go back now many years in our financial services industry. There are questions about the culture. There are questions about the efficacy and capability of our regulators to deal with the sector. This is a Government that has had two Royal Commissions. It’s now called a third. I can’t see why it can’t have a fourth Royal Commission into such an important matter. That would be the best way for Malcolm Turnbull to have this matter move forward.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: It sounds like you’re saying Brendan O’Connor that the Prime Minister has until Parliament resumes to get his act together and call a Royal Commission himself. Or face perhaps a motion on the floor of the Parliament. Looking at the numbers, it does seem like it would be a real test of the backbencher’s confidence in Turnbull and also their determination to stand up for their publicly stated positions in support of a Royal Commission.        

VAN ONSELEN: And Turnbull would be dead, buried and cremated if he lost, politically speaking, if he lost a vote in the lower House on this issue and Labor pushed it. Would you push it? Do you think you should push it as a parliamentary vote, Brendan O’Connor, even though it is normally the Executive that does Royal Commissions?

O’CONNOR: Well I think we should test it in the Parliament. I certainly think this is a matter of national importance. It’s in the public interest. It’s something we campaigned on. And I don’t really believe that the public are behind Malcolm Turnbull or his Government in stopping a Commission, an Executive inquiry if you like, into this sector. We do know there are some very forceful advocates in the Coalition, in particular, the Nationals - Senator ‘Wacka’ Williams and others have been advocating for a Royal Commission for some time. So we know there are very sympathetic members of the Government who support Labor’s view. We do believe that Malcolm Turnbull is doing himself no favours standing in the way of this request. Standing in the way of a proper examination, an inquiry, into the sector. The easiest thing for him to do now is instead of just defending the indefensible, is to come on board and support Labor. If he doesn’t, then I guess the Parliament is there to test our proposition.

KENEALLY: Ok Brendan O’Connor, we’ve only got a few minutes left in the program thanks to Bill Shorten’s long winded and late arrival!

O’CONNOR: Can’t blame you for that! (Laughs).

KENEALLY: You were also on time and we do acknowledge that. Let me ask you this though. Your portfolio, workplace relations, depends heavily on good data, the ABS. Looking at the Census debacle, what do you reckon? Do you think the Government should re-do the Census?

O’CONNOR: Well let’s see if they can have people adequately participate over the next couple of weeks. I mean, clearly his has been a disaster for the Government and a disaster for government agencies that rely so heavily upon information collated every five years. Now of course, it does matter the extent to which people do participate from this point on. I’m not aware of the proportion of people that have decided to fill their Census in online, Kristina. I don’t know the results of that. But it would be a terrible thing to think that we’ve wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and not got any proper analysis on the current state of a number of areas of the nation. I mean, that’s why it’s so important. So much money, billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money is dedicated quite often, predicated upon information gathered through the Census. So I would hope they could do something with this. But there needs to be an examination of the ABS generally, and the role of the ministers, and that’s why I think it’s important that they are examined in any Senate inquiry that we might have to investigate what happened.

KENEALLY: Look, I have no doubt there will be that type of Senate inquiry. There will be that close look. And you’re right about participation. But participation isn’t the only issue here. There is also the accuracy of the data. This is a circumstance where for the day we were supposed to be recording the snapshot of the day, the Census website was down. You couldn’t fill the form in online. People have died. People have had babies. People have moved overseas. The amount of things that happened in those 48 hours. Will people accurately remember, recall and report on the data when they finally do fill that form in? I just wonder, are there going to be statisticians who are willing to rely on this data going forward?

O’CONNOR: That’s a very important point. To what extent has the process now been tainted by this delay? I’d like to hear more about what adverse effect has arisen as a result of the problems. And whether in fact the extent and nature of the problems are so great as to trash the results. That would be an awful thing. A waste of taxpayer’s money. And a lack of confidence I believe in not only the agency but in the Government by the people of Australia. Not a good start for this Government.

VAN ONSELEN: What do you think about the ABS’s panicked decision to take down the website, prematurely and in panic? And also, from what I’ve read on this, trying to cover that fact up by suggesting there was a cyber-attack which actually ended up not being the case? Surely heads have to roll at the ABS over that?

O’CONNOR: Again, we need a proper examination of this Peter. I have to say if, as has been reported, that there has been some invention, some contrivance of attacks by foreign states or others overseas as the reason for why things crashed and that was a complete contrivance, then that is very serious and I think the consequences would be dire for anyone who was involved in that betrayal of trust. So I agree with you, that is a very significant matter. That is why it’s important we examine and understand exactly what happened here. It seems to me that they were not prepared because of the inundation of people going online, it couldn’t carry the weight of that and there are people that have to be held responsible. Not just public servants there are Minister too who made decisions both in terms of funding and other arrangements who at least have to front up and explain their role in this. Ultimately politicians are accountable for the conduct of agencies.

KENEALLY: Well let me ask you this then as we look down the barrel of Parliament in a weeks and a bit time. We’ve got an inquiry potentially into the census, we’ll have potentially a motion on a Royal Commission on banking. What about Nauru? We’ve seen Senator Dastyari out there, your Labor colleague, firmly arguing that we need to have a very good look at what is happening in Nauru, that Australia is not, he believes, the type of nation where we accept that cruelty to children is an appropriate measure for us to take in terms of protecting our borders. With the data that has come in to the public real, do you believe we need to have some type of inquiry into Nauru?

O’CONNOR: I think we do have to look at this Kristina. However strong and firm we are in relation to these matters, we need to have public confidence that these matters are being dealt with in a humane way, treating people with dignity, however little that sometimes can seem to be. There are such serious allegations and the scale of the allegations are so great, we do need to examine this to determine whether these allegations are entirely true or not. Even if a proportion of them are true then that is serious. It is correct too that when Labor was involved in supporting, which was subsequently endorsed at national conference, the process of having offshore processing, we always envisaged, and this is at the tail end of our last time in government when I was Minister for Immigration, we always knew we had to dedicate our efforts to establish settlement opportunities for these people if they were not going to settle in Australia. In the last three years, very little if anything has been done successfully to cater for that because the true mental anguish that occurs even when people are being treated at least reasonably and adequately is the anguish that accompanies a person that is in detention indefinitely. I think that has been a major problem in the last three years. If we were re-elected in 2013 and had failed to attend to that, we would have been criticised and rightly so.

What Bill Shorten is saying to the government is, ‘Look I don’t want anyone to come to this issue with righteousness, because it’s such a difficult area, but let’s then examine this matter together and see if we can get past the partisan nature, the nature Tony Abbott just recently talked about in his failure to support the Malaysian arrangement, and let’s see whether we can firstly examine the allegations here but also work together to try and find settlement solutions for people who appear to have been detained indefinitely in offshore  centres. That has to happen.

We can’t go back to the idea that Tony Abbott confessed about in the last two days. My fear back then was he didn’t oppose the Malaysian arrangement because he thought it wouldn’t work. He opposed it because he was scared that it would. That’s a terrible indictment on an Opposition that was so partisan and were willing to have the stakes so high that they were willing to risk the lives of people to score political points. He’s made a very serious admission that maybe that was the wrong thing to do. Let’s use that example and say this is not a place where we should be scoring political points but also working together to look after the people that are in our care but also work to resolve the longer term issues of finding destination countries for people who are genuinely determined to be refugees, who should not be left to languish indefinitely in any centre.

VAN ONSELEN: Brendan O’Connor, we appreciate you finding the time to join us today, thanks for being on To The Point.

O’CONNOR: Thanks very much.