SUBJECTS: Chinese Laser Attack; Scott Morrison Playing Politics With National Security; Russia and Ukraine; Religious Discrimination Bill; Australia Post Bonuses; 2022 Federal Election.

HOST, ANDREW CLENNELL: Joining me now is Labor's communication spokeswoman Michelle Rowland. Michelle, thanks for joining me. First of all, I wanted to ask about the Chinese laser attack. What's your reaction to this?

SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS, MICHELLE ROWLAND: It's deeply concerning. Defence has chosen its words carefully using terms such as “unprofessional” and “unsafe”. And let's be clear, this isn't some juvenile aiming a laser at a commercial aircraft. This was a military grade laser. So that is deeply concerning. Labor, we'll be seeking a briefing from Defence on this matter. But unfortunately, it comes at a time when China's presence and its actions are continuing to cause concern right across the region and globally as well.

CLENNELL: If that wasn't enough, Russia and Ukraine, fears of a war.

ROWLAND: Indeed, and the word "imminent" seems to be the one being thrown around this morning, which again, is deeply concerning. But what appears quite clear is that the foreign policy of Russia in this case is being driven by the personality of Mr. Putin, what he sees is a position of strength or of leverage. In the meantime, one just prays that the people of Ukraine aren't going to be collateral damage in all of this.

CLENNELL: Now, traditionally, in times of war that strengthens the government's electoral position. Are you concerned about that, in the lead up to the election?

ROWLAND: I don't think that this is a matter where I'm examining this, or Labor is examining this, through that lens. This is deeply concerning for human beings and for the Ukrainian-Australian community right here now of which there is a substantial number. As you also point out, however, it does appear to be having some flow-on effects. To be driving in this morning and to see prices around the $2 mark for petrol, it really does go to an issue of cost of living that's affecting people's budgets in a very real way.

CLENNELL: And what do you make of the rhetoric of the Government around the national security issue the past week seeking to portray them as stronger than Labor?

ROWLAND: Well, one thing I know is this: this would not have been embarked upon without it being very carefully examined in focus groups and outcomes-focused itself. So there's clearly a reason for this. It might not be apparent to everyone. The fact is that it's being talked about. But the clear message that I would send to the Australian people is, we were told very early on for example, a couple of years ago when violent extremism was front of mind for everyone. And the way to counter violent extremism, as our security agencies told us, was not through ostracising our communities, but by bringing people together. One of the great strengths of Australia has always been our bipartisanship when it comes to times of crisis and when it comes to times of national security. It is so disappointing therefore, that Scott Morrison has chosen to undermine that bipartisanship. That has been one of our great strengths, and it should not be compromised.

CLENNELL: By playing small target though, does Anthony Albanese open the way to these sorts of attacks and attempts to define him?

ROWLAND: I dispute the conclusion that we are small target. We've released a suite of policies. Let's be very clear. The policy for example, that we took on climate change and announced at the beginning of December was the most comprehensive, well-costed and well-received policy that we've had. We've had, in my own space, we've had policies on the NBN, childcare, and there'll be more to come. So I don't accept the characterisation that it has been small target. But I do note that this Government is doing anything it can in anything other than those spaces in order to get air time. 

CLENNELL: Well one of the reasons the Government feels that can attack Labor on national security is Anthony Albanese is from the left faction, you're obviously from the right faction. How confident are you that if a Labor Government is elected, it wouldn't drift to the left? 

ROWLAND: Anthony Albanese is very much is someone who would govern from the centre. He is someone who is a patriot, and someone who is deeply concerned with the security of this country and understands that the primary obligation of a Prime Minister is to keep Australians safe. He has been Deputy Prime Minister of this country. He would have been in countless national security meetings. There would be no question about his ability to put Australia first in every circumstance.

CLENNELL: Okay. In your portfolio, these bonuses to Australia Post executives revealed last week, an average of $170,000. You've contrasted this with the treatment of Christine Holgate over the Cartier watches?

ROWLAND: Certainly. What I think here is most concerning is that in around late 2020, when we had Scott Morrison effectively sacking Ms Holgate on the floor of Parliament for that amount of money, and then promising there would be restraint imposed upon Government Business Enterprises. Now we have bonuses, not salaries, but bonuses that are in the vicinity of double what the average Australian makes a year. And these are highly remunerated executives on $300,000 or $400,000. So throwing around taxpayers’ money like it's confetti, by no means is acceptable. And I think it points to this serious problem within the Government of not treating taxpayers’ money with respect, despite everything that's gone on with Australia Post and everything that's gone on also with NBN bonuses. 

CLENNELL: Alright. Well, the PM hoping to weaponise, it seems, the issue of religious freedom at the election in seats like yours and Chris Bowen's. Do you feel this has been neutralised? Are you happy with Labor's stance? Are you confident this can't be used against you at the election?

ROWLAND: I have no doubt that Scott Morrison has wargamed this. It is a deeply politicised issue for him. And I think the fact that we had those cabinet leaks displaying horsetrading over religious freedom, when it came to the integrity commission bill. This was not something that could be traded off in my view. This was a definite promise that he made to Australians some three years ago, and a specific promise on protecting all children during the Wentworth by-election. So, he clearly ran out of time here. Whether that's deliberate or not, I do not know. If he chooses to, again, go out, weaponise religion for the sake of votes, that is a matter for him. But I've no doubt that this is something that he has completely based on focus groups and will utilize accordingly.

CLENNELL: Is it a concern for you though? Or do you think it won’t matter for your seat? 

ROWLAND: It is always a concern when you are very well aware and understand the way in which it was weaponised in 2019. We took a lot of lessons from that, Andrew. Some of them, I have said on the public record on many occasions were valid. I think our tone was wrong through that. I think we did not fully appreciate the chilling effect that many people of faith, not just Christian faith, but a number of other faiths as well. Again, representing a very diverse community, you understand that people have these very strong views, they want to be listened to, and they want to be respected. I think respect was the key term. That's what Labor took out of 2019. Over the past three years, we have really been working hard in a number of different channels, not only at the local level, but also through the interventions of Anthony Albanese himself to really get a grip on this issue, which brought us to where we were in the last sitting fortnight where we voted for the bill.

CLENNELL: Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time.