In Conversation: Melissa Parke full transcript

Melissa Parke visiting a local school with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. AAP/Rebecca Le May

Geoffrey Robinson: We’re here for The Conversation. Melissa, you’ve got an interesting career background working in the legal sector of the international human rights law. That’s perhaps very different from the Labor MPs today, and has been criticised before. You’ve been a member of Parliament for five years. What has been the best aspect and what perhaps has been worst aspect of this career change for you?

Melissa Parke: I don’t really think of it as a career change. For me, public service is vocational. I have always been drawn to helping people in need, who are at a serious disadvantage, who have experienced some sort of injustice and involved in improving frameworks that deliver assistance and support justice. And, there’s a clear line that runs in my work as a community centre lawyer, as a United Nation’s lawyer and Parliamentary representative.

As I said in my first speech in Parliament, I think that being a Parliamentary representative is about service. That’s obviously in two parts, there’s service to your electorate, being representative to your community, providing assistance and information in hundreds of large and small ways. But, it’s also about service to a set of ideals and principles that guide your approach to good government and good policy. My principles I believe are Labor principles, probably more specifically, Labor left principles. I believe government plays a critical role in regulating a market economy and delivering equality, equity and justice: the things that markets don’t provide, or often ignore or work against.

I think a healthy society is one that shares and has stewardship over essential public goods like education, health, environment and key public infrastructure. I think that public office is public trust as discussed yesterday at Melbourne University Integrity Government Conference.

Public officials hold their office in trust for the community and are accountable and should be transparent about that to the community. And, I’m a humanitarian and think we share this earth and that our conduct across national boundaries and customs should reflect our recognition of the common dignity and worth of all human beings and that conduct should apply to the treatment of all living creatures.

So, that sort of philosophy I have taken throughout my time in Parliament and through my work in committees and the issues that I have taken up. The most frustrating aspect of being in Parliament is that you are bombarded literally everyday with hundreds of worthy causes and to decide which ones you are going to focus on is the hard part. There are so many good causes but you are only one person. Obviously, you have the assistance of staff and volunteers but there’s only so much in the end of the day you can achieve. You really need to focus your efforts.

And, I have had to focus on a few key things like animal welfare, particularly live exports, gene patents, marine conservation, good government particularly whistle blower protection, and Australia as a good global citizen and the promotion of human rights.

Geoffrey Robinson: Those are certainly causes that you have been supporting and advocating. Are there times when you feel that being a member of parliament makes it difficult to advocate for those causes, or do you actually see it as a potentially valuable platform to be doing so?

Melissa Parke: I think being in parliament is an extraordinary privilege and opportunity to advocate for good causes. It really is. You have access to ministers and even in opposition you still have more access to ministers than you would do as a member of the public. And you have a platform in the Parliament to speak about things and you have access to media. I haven’t actually gotten into the Twitter verse. I was hoping it was a passing phase.

Geoffrey Robinson: I fear not.

Melissa Parke: I fear not too. My New Year’s resolution is to start engaging with Twitter. I haven’t done it yet.

Geoffrey Robinson: It has many advantages and some time cost as well. Following on that point, on the role of being a member in Parliament, there’s obviously been a lot of discussion, a constantly increasing discussion about internal structures and operations of the Labor party.

One issue that has come up, that has been raised by Doug Cameron and other people is the party’s current structure of binding caucus votes and the requirements of Labor MPs and limited and specific range of circumstances to voters caucus decides. It actually makes Labor quite different example from the British Labor party, where there is more of a tradition of open internal descent. Are you sympathetic towards those such as Doug Cameron and other for those who have argued for a greater degree of relaxed caucus discipline?

Melissa Parke: Given that I am one of those often speaking out on issues, I do unsurprisingly agree with those that are saying that. The fact is that we do have examples such as the British Labor Party and the Liberal Party here where you can speak out and you can still be part of the team. We’re not a bunch of robots. I mean, it’s a democratic party. Where there’s a diversity of opinion, I think one should be free to express it.

Geoffrey Robinson: Following on from that, from the viewpoint of being an activist and concerned backbench, what do you think are the sorts of issues that create the most angst at moment within the Federal and Labor backbench?

Melissa Parke: The one that springs to mind is the issue of Newstart, the inadequacy of that allowance has been a big issue for many of us. It is a key issue for Labor. We have always been the party that support the most vulnerable in our community. And clearly, Newstart is not providing an adequate level of support for people. I think the measures we’ve taken to help people get back into the work force are really good. But I don’t think we can take away or keep that safety net at such a low level or it will no longer be a safety net at some point. Obviously, animal welfare has been an increasing issue for Labor. I’m very heartened by the fact that the Labor party has moved a long way over the last couple of years on the issue. In 2009, for the first time, we had a paragraph on animal welfare inserted in the national Labor platform and then last year, at the 2011 conference, a furthering of that commitment through a unanimous resolution that Labor would establish an independent office on animal welfare at the Federal level. This is in recognition of the fact that the department of agriculture has an inherent conflict of interest of carrying out its function of promoting the interests of primary producers and at the same time, supposedly safeguarding animal welfare. When we saw the suspension of live export to Indonesia happened last year, it was farmers who were complaining that the minister had the conflict of interest. I think it would assist the minister not to have that conflict of interest. It is for the same reason that we don’t make the minister of resources the minister for the environment as there is that conflict of interest.

Obviously, asylum seekers and refugees is a big one for the Labor and for the caucus. Like my predecessor, Carmen Lawrence, I believe in with working within the Labor party in that regard and there’s an active group in the Labor party – Labor for refugees - working on that. I’m not very happy with where the government is on this issue. That’s an understatement. It’s not a secret. I hope we can get back to a principled position. I don’t think that’s where are now. That’s probably because the polling has been going in a particular direction for some time now, since John Howard did so well out of this issue back in 2001. The majority of the Australian community see this as a problem and want the government to do something. Sadly, it’s been politicised. It’s a political football. I don’t think either side has covered themselves with glory in this matter. I would like to see some leadership on this issue but I don’t think it’s going to happen soon.

Geoffrey Robinson Yes, I lived in Northcote in 2001 and can attest to that in terms of people’s views on the ground.

Melissa Parke: I was in Kosovo in 2001. And, my UN colleagues in Kosovo in 2001, and in Gaza in 2003 when Australia went to war in Iraq, my colleagues were all saying “Hello? What is Australia doing?” So, it’s a terrible and shameful part of our history. That’s one of the reasons why I came back to Australia to stand for parliament. I was so appalled with what was happening to the country and what we were doing. It is frustrating and depressing. I would not put Labor in the same camp as John Howard’s policies but I don’t think we’re far enough from them. We haven’t adopted temporary protection visas and we haven’t instigated detention debt and those things. We haven’t said we’re going to turn the boats. I think we’re a long way from those actions. But, I think we’ve gone further from this issue than we should have, frankly.

Geoffrey Robinson: Following on from that, your personal background could be categorised very much as traditional legal liberalism, the Labor party would have seen that associated with Evatt and Lionel, even a lot with aspect of policies of Whitlam government, as you’ve seen in the high court and under Anthony Mason, you’ve supported issues such as human rights legislation, which has been consistent with that kind of political tradition. But perhaps, what we’ve seen in the asylum seeker debate, there are a lot of later politicians have been suspicious of an discourse of human rights. Many are fearful that it’s not something that engages with the community. In terms of advancing that issue, political and community scepticism can be challenged by a kind of effective support base?

Melissa Parke: It’s a matter of how it is framed. Australians are uncomfortable with the language of human rights, even though Labor politicians of the past have been influential in framing that language in the UN and in our policies. I think that John Howard did a lot of damage to the image of human rights in conjuring up images of latté sipping, chardonnay drinking and elitist socialist types.

Geoffrey Robinson: We are in the epicentre of that right now (here in inner Melbourne).

Melissa Parke: I understand that. But I think, what the National Human Rights Consultation led by Frank Brennan showed, as they went all around the country: once you’ve explained to people what it means to have human rights, people support it. It’s a matter of explaining it and putting it in a language they understand. If you put it into examples such as where an elderly couple have lived their entire lives together and they go to a nursing home. They are told that they can’t stay together. Is that right? Of course, that’s not right. That’s terrible. Should you be able to have that right asserted against the decision of the institution? Of course you should be able to. Well, that’s a human right. If you express it in that sort of way, people get it. People with disabilities, should they have a right to go on holiday and access places in the same way as other people are able to do normal things? Of course people say: yes. They say, we already have those rights. But actually, no, we don’t. People don’t understand that. So I’m suggesting the reframing of issues not in terms of rights but in terms of a fair go. The language that’s already accepted widely in Australia offers a fair go. This is the sort of thing that resonates with people more and gets them to that understanding. And also, we need to explain to people that they don’t have the rights they think they have.

Geoffrey Robinson: One of the major human rights issues that have been raised in Australia is marriage equality campaign. Obviously, you’ve been a strong supporter of it. Recently, there’s been a breakthrough in that area in the United States in terms of level of support and in terms of people being willing to turn out to vote in support for marriage quality. Are there any lessons that you could see that could be drawn from the successes of the American campaign for marriage equality campaign in Australia? And, where do you see this potentially going in the future?

Melissa Parke: There’s been a change I think in the last few years of Australians accepting. Everybody knows someone who is gay whether it’s a family member or friends. It’s just about, again, it’s using this language of egalitarianism, a fair go. And, there’s an inclination for Australians not to interfere or put their nose in other people’s business. It’s a very Australian thing I think. That’s the kind of thing that will help people move towards accepting this issue. Actually, I think most people already accept it. It is the political class that hasn’t accepted it.

Geoffrey Robinson: Why do you think it’s the political class, and probably in this case the Labor political class, presumably it would have to be the Labor government that need to implement such a program, have been so resistant?

Melissa Parke: That’s a good question. There are ethnic communities where you find strong resistance to accepting gay marriage and a lot of particularly Labor members depend on the votes of the ethnic communities. I think that’s been a principal reason. I’m in Fremantle. There are a lot of Catholics in my electorate. I’ve had many presentations made to me about the importance of preserving traditional marriage. But I think, people accept if you explain in a reasoned principled way that its about equality. You may have a debate with them. They may not agree with you in the end. But they accept that you have a right to your view as they have a right to theirs. I have never had a hostile reaction in my community even from those who disagree with me in this issue.

Geoffrey Robinson: Following on from that question perhaps on community attitudes and the Australian ideal on leaving people alone doing their own thing and having that autonomy, indigenous affairs has been a longstanding topic of concern for the Australian left or the ALP generally and left community, do you think it’s true that in the recent years there’s been a turn back to a neo-paternalist approach on the (?), the Coalition government and Labor government? Is that a fair diagnosis; is that a problem or an evitable response to potential difficulties to how indigenous policies were conceived?

Melissa Parke: The first thing to say is that it’s an extraordinarily difficult area of policy. Ministers go into it with the best of intentions. I have not been engaged in this area on the ground but what I can see is that departments work in silos: education, housing, employment all doing their own thing and without really working together or in consultation with the communities. I think the silos need to be broken down. The overwhelming sentiment that has been expressed by the indigenous communities is their desire to be consulted, their desire to learn about what is going to happen to them, and to have some say in it. From the reaction we are getting to the Stronger Futures Legislation, that’s the overwhelming thing we are hearing. Indigenous communities don’t feel they’ve been consulted adequately. They say they haven’t agreed to what is being imposed on them. The human rights committee will be doing an inquiry into that early next year.

Geoffrey Robinson: You’ve got this past background being involved in international human rights law in a variety of locations. What sort of conclusions would you draw from your own experiences in the current conflicts in Syria, current conflicts in Israel-Palestine?

Melissa Parke: Let’s leave Syria aside for a moment. I worked in Gaza for two and a half years. I have a strong sense of the power imbalance that exists over there.

Geoffrey Robinson Would you say that’s an understanding or sympathy?

Melissa Parke: I would say it’s an understanding. And having that understanding, I have sympathy. If you go there with an open mind like I did, I didn’t go there as a scholar of Middle Eastern studies with a preconceived view. I came straight from the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo to Gaza and not knowing a lot about it. I came into Gaza and there was a bombing campaign underway by Israel. It was a good introduction to it. When you look at who’s got the power, and what’s the best hope for advancing peace, I think it’s a two-state solution. I think Israel would benefit from having a responsible neighbour that has to be accountable for its actions. Palestinians like all other human beings have a right to a state and a national identity. Israel’s right to exist is not in question but Palestinians have not had a state. I think after all this time they are entitled to one. What’s more, the international community and Australia in particular have indicated their support for a two-state solution for a long time. I think that it’s time to bring it about. The peace that exists now is greater than the peace that existed during the time of the conflict in Northern Ireland and a settlement was reached in that case. You should not let extremist decide these things. There should be a decision that we’re going to do this. The issues are not complicated. Everybody knows the issues. There’s no doubt about the issues. And, there’s no doubt about the solution. The Geneva Accord in 2003 done between prominent Israelis and Palestinians that put forward a perfectly workable solution. It’s all there to be done. It’s just that the political will is missing.

Geoffrey Robinson: After Australia’s recent policy shift on the subject of Palestinian representation and the United Nations, what sort of role could you see an Australian Government playing into the future in terms of encouraging this shift on one or both sides as required in terms of a peaceful and just solution?

Melissa Parke: I’ve been very encouraged by Minister Carr’s public interventions on the subject. I think Australia can play a constructive role as a middle power, that has always been engaged in the Middle East in terms of peace keeping, since the the beginning of the United Nations, since Doc Evatt chaired the United Nations Palestine Commission. We have a good history of being constructive in the region and I think we should continue to do that, in a balanced way.

Geoffrey Robinson: Do you think we’re seen as an honest broker, or do you think we are too closely aligned to the US to play that role?

Melissa Parke: I think that this vote where we abstained was highly significant, that the international community recognised and in particular those who otherwise might have been annoyed like the Arab and Muslim countries recognised the significance of that abstention and have applauded it. So I think that it bodes well for our seat on the security council and it bodes well for our membership of the leadership troika of the G20, which is coming up, where we can play a big role in helping to eliminate global poverty and addressing the issue of food security. What’s not commonly understood is that most of the world’s poorest people actually live in G20 nations like China, India, Indonesia, to a lesser extent South Africa and Brazil.

That’s where we can make a big difference and we have the expertise in that area of food security. On the UN security council I think the UN arms trade treaty is going to be an area where we can continue to play a big leadership role because coffee is more regulated globally than the trade in small arms, which is preposterous, and it’s doing so much damage to women and children in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think this is an area we can play a really constructive role in, among others.

So too the Responsibility To Protect doctrine which Gareth Evans as part of the International Crisis Group promoted and continues to promote and which was adopted by the UN Security Council, I think back in 2005, is a principle that applies in the Syrian context. But it seems the international community is a little reluctant to go there so soon after Libya. It was designed to deal with an intractability within the UN where some countries may block action, so that there would still be a responsibility to protect civilians in those situations. In my view, this is a doctrine that we should continue to support when we are on the security council.

Geoffrey Robinson: And you would have seen the Libyan intervention then as a largely successful application of that principle?

Melissa Parke: Well there’s commentary that says it went too far and I haven’t had enough exposure to all the detail to know if that’s the case, but I think the principle of protecting civilians was correct.

Geoffrey Robinson: Would you view the original NATO intervention in Kosovo a similar light then, perhaps as justifiable on those principles?

Melissa Parke: That’s certainly how it’s being portrayed now, in hindsight, it’s being portrayed as an example of the responsibility to protect doctrine in evolution. I think the issues were a bit more complicated.

Geoffrey Robinson: You’re obviously someone who, I think the first time you ran for Parliament was in 1996, so to a degree you were one of the Generation X who came to political maturities during the Hawke and Keating years, which are often seen now as being the great example of a successful Labor government. But from the view of your own experience, at the time, what were the things that pleased you about what Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were doing, but were there any things their Governments were doing that you were, as a traditional Labor voter, unhappy about?

Melissa Parke: I would say that what inspired me most about Labor, we had obviously the Curtain and Chiefly legacy, but for me it was the Whitlam Government era that inspired me, particularly the social, legal and cultural reforms that occurred, some of which were shown in the documentary on Lionel Murphy - “Mr Neal is entitled to be an agitator.” I remember seeing that documentary about him and just thinking, wow, what an extraordinary list of achievements.

The Whitlam Government, I think, is not given enough credit for the changes it made to this country and we seem to have elevated the Hawke and Keating period as the high point for Labor governments, because of the reforms to the economy, and they were very good reforms, of course they were, particularly the introduction of superannuation. I think having a strong economy is essential but it’s not the end, it’s the means to an end, which is providing opportunities to every person to be able to realise their full potential. Hawke’s medicare and environmental legacies and Keating’s native title reforms were fantastic achievements.

Geoffrey Robinson: It was the Keating Government that started mandatory detention of asylum seekers, wasn’t it?

Melissa Parke: Yes, and I wouldn’t have agreed with that at the time.

Geoffrey Robinson: If you read Neil Blewitt’s diary of cabinet it seems to be done in a fit of absent mindedness, without people really aware of what they were potentially signing themselves up for. But that’s often the way these decisions come about. I think you can probably say for a lot of progressive, young Australians, and judging by my students, the Green’s are probably the default party that excites them the most, that they’ll attend fundraisers for and things like that. How can Labor potentially win back or stake a claim for the allegiance of that coming generation of young people now who perhaps think as you did when you were a younger person in the eighties and nineties?

Just to give that a bit of context we are actually in a green seat now, which was the blue chip, or red chip, Labor seat for a hundred years, and your seat of Fremantle would also be considered one of the absolute red chip Labor seats, but I believe your state equivalent was a Green, then certain events transpired and is now an independent Green, but just to give that same question some context, do you feel under threat from the Greens?

Melissa Parke: No I don’t. I think the Greens are not our enemies, I know that some Labor people may disagree with that but I don’t think they are. They’re another left party, another progressive party and we have many values and objectives in common, but there are areas where we differ. But the main difference is that we are a party of Government and the Greens manifestly are not.

And I also think that if you took people through all the things that the Labor Government has achieved they would agree that they were good things, that they have been good things. So if you just look at this Government as opposed to past Labor governments, we’ve got the platform for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and for mental and dental health and aged care reform, is anyone going to disagree with that? We’ve got a paid parental leave scheme, national broadband network, a price on carbon, the largest investment in renewable energy in Australia’s history, the largest capital investment in schools, in local government and public transport infrastructure in Australian Government history, we’ve got Australia’s standing as a good international citizen. We’ve significantly increased our foreign aid commitments, we’ve got a seat at the G20 and a seat at the UN security council, we’re devoting millions of dollars to empowering women in the Pacific, we have removed discrimination against same sex couples in more than eighty Commonwealth laws, we have apologised to Indigenous Australians, the trebling of the tax-free threshold, social housing reforms, we have abolished the ability of the States to reintroduce the death penalty.

There’s so many things that we have achieved that if you took those to the young people that you’re talking about, and said “what do you think?” They’d probably think that was fantastic, but say we’d like to go a bit further in this area, but you also have to look at what’s actually achievable in government. From being in government, what I’ve realised in my five years is that while bad things seem to happen really quickly in politics, good things take time, and that change is often incremental. I’ve seen that with issues like animal welfare. There are a whole lot of things I wanted to see happen but they’re going really slowly. Still, they are happening and that gives me great hope.

The other point is that you have to take the community with you, and that’s something I think the Greens are not doing. I mean they appeal to a certain section of the community, but you can’t say it’s the majority of Australians and I think if you’re going to draw a lesson from the United States, as you were referring to earlier, you might look at, and some other politicians have said this recently, you need to be focussed on the centre of Australia and not on the edges.

Now I tend towards the left, that’s for sure, but I’m realistic enough to know if you’re going to want to be the government of the country then you need to be appealing to a broader sector of the community than just to the left. You need to appeal to the decency and common sense of the majority of the country.

Geoffrey Robinson: Being a woman in politics, from my mind as a political journalist the defining moment of the year and the defining moment of the term was Julia’s speech to Tony Abbott where she laid out the sexism and the misogyny. One, as a woman in politics, is that something you’ve encountered in federal politics? The flip side of that is, is there not a danger by making that speech that Julia has really bought gender to the forefront in politics? And there was very clearly a strategy buy your side of politics to paint Abbott in a certain way. Do you think there’s a danger, though it might be a short term win, that we’ve let a certain genie out of the bottle here?

Melissa Parke: No, because I think gender was always an issue as soon as Julia became Prime Minister. I think gender was up there and we saw it very clearly in the carbon tax accusations from Tony Abbott and that wild bunch of people who were campaigning outside of Parliament House with their signs. So I think what the Prime Minister did was name it, that it was there, that it’s always been there.

Geoffrey Robinson: I actually spend a lot of time in Western Australia, and at one level I’m amazed in that apart from the fact that they play the same kind of footy we play in Melbourne and you can use the same currency, you could nearly be in a different country. The weather, the outlook, the politics, the way people engage with the world in many regards. However, having sat here listening to you, you could very easily win an inner-city Melbourne or Sydney seat with your unite left politics. How do you see Western Australia’s relationship with the rest of Australia, especially in terms of the mining boom and so on and also through the lens of yourself as someone who is quite on the left and holds what could be described as the elitist metropolitan views that a certain side of politics tries to attribute to inner-city Melbourne and Sydney latte sippers?

Melissa Parke: To some degree Western Australia is self-contained and self-sufficient and doesn’t tend to think about the rest of the country. The eastern states are the “Eastern States” and there’s a certain independent streak in Western Australians, and politically you’d have to say its fairly conservative apart from a couple of pockets. Fremantle is a pocket of progressive thinking and so is north and east Perth and the bohemian or agrarian socialist parts of the south west. I grew up on a farm in the South West.My family were Labor supporters, and were the only Labor supporters in the town at that stage.

I’m proud to be West Australian. It’s a beautiful state. The South West is the most biodiverse region in the world, so it has a lot of natural beauty, and the marine parks decision that was made by the Federal Government was immensely popular, with that popularity evidenced by the state Premier announcing a lot of state marine parks this year as well, so it’s become one of those mainstream issues, I think people are appreciating the environment more. We’re getting more and more people coming from overseas and interstate, so I’m hopeful that we will continue to be a place of arrival and a multicultural outward-looking place and that perhaps the conservative streak might evolve. I think at its base the conservatism is essentially an expression of independence and being far away from and different to the rest of the country.

There certainly is a feeling that the rest of the country is dependent and relying on Western Australia without giving enough back, and you do see that when it comes to parliamentary sessions and committee travel, there’s not a lot of consideration given for those who have to travel a long distance. I’m not just talking about Western Australia, but also Tasmania or the Northern Territory, they’re just not taken into account. There is a very strong Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and sometimes Brisbane centric view of Australia that exists.

Geoffrey Robinson: Many of my friends think Western Australia they have Great White Sharks and iron ore mines, but after that I don’t really know. Do you think that’s still prevalent, and does Western Australia still suffer from that east coast centrism in Australia?

Melissa Parke: There is a thriving art scene developing in Western Australia in terms of theatre, art, writing,and classical and rock music: we’ve got John Butler living in Fremantle! There’s an enormous amount going on culturally, we just had the Fremantle Heritage Festival and the Margaret River Gourmet Food Festival, so I think a lot is happening. Tourists are starting to come and tell others about Western Australia, to the South West and also to Ningaloo, and the Kimberly.