By Tanya Plibersek

18 June 2021



FRIDAY, 18 JUNE 2021

SUBJECTS: Peter Dutton’s personal attacks.

Well anyone in the game of politics is likely to be the subject of public scrutiny. And rightly so when you’re in a position of power, and often privilege as well. Just in the last few days, the Prime Minister’s personal relationship with alleged QAnon member, Tim Stewart, was comprehensively exposed by Four Corners. Considering the potential threat that QAnon adherents and their unfounded theories present to democratic systems all over the world, it’s only reasonable that the PM be subjected to such scrutiny. But what about when a person in power is in an ongoing relationship with another person who may have erred in their behaviour 40 years ago, and they’ve got an unblemished record ever since. Attacking such a person reeks of political opportunism and I think is simply unAustralian. 
As I understand it, in the past few days in the federal parliament the Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, led an offensive against Labor’s Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Education and Shadow Minister for Women. Now the relationship in question here: Plibersek’s marriage to Michael Coutts-Trotter, a former heroin user and dealer who spent time in gaol about 40 years ago for his misdemeanours. Nowadays he’s the head of the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, and is held out as a prime example of someone who has truly turned their life around. Joining me this morning to talk about this incident, Tanya Plibersek, good morning.
JONES: Wonderful to talk to you again. Now I know that this is a deeply personal issue and it hasn’t really been exposed much in the media but I think it needs to be. Can we first start by just talking a little more about the nature of the attack that you were subjected to?
PLIBERSEK: Oh look, it was just basically Peter Dutton yelling out across the Chamber at me and I don’t really know what made him go to this stuff but I suppose you’d have to ask him that. I just feel it’s a little bit sad that people have to degenerate to these sorts of personal attacks, not even on me really but the man I am married to.
JONES: It really does reek of political opportunism. This is an incident that happened 40 years ago. And I guess it defines the man that he is now in that he’s actually turned himself around. Bringing this up, and bringing up this type of dirt, really I think is unAustralian and it achieves nothing.
PLIBERSEK: The story is, Murray, that Michael as a teenager, when he was about sixteen, started using heroin. Like a lot of heroin addicts, he sold heroin to support his habit, and he got busted by the police in a conspiracy to import some heroin and quite rightly he went to gaol. He thinks that’s the right thing, I think it’s the right thing. He served several years in gaol. He went to a fantastic Salvation Army rehab that helped him get off heroin. He would probably be dead now if he hadn’t been caught by the police, and gone to rehab and then gone to gaol.
But he’s spent all of the rest of his life trying to make up for it. Doing the right thing - he’s a fantastic husband and father, he works really hard in the NSW public service, he’s worked for Labor and Liberal governments. It’s pretty bad form of Peter Dutton to have a go at someone who had this awful experience as a teenager, but the one good thing I take from it is every time someone hears Michael’s story, every time someone who’s got a kid who’s addicted to a drug, got a partner or brother or sister who is in the throes of addiction, when they hear this story they know that there can be hope at the end of the tunnel, light at the end of the tunnel.
JONES: He sounds like he’s really a stronger person from the path and what he’s been through ever since, so in a lot of ways we all take strength from having these difficult times and we grow so much as people. And we’re talking about somebody who was just so young. At the end of the day how does it reflect on you? I mean you didn’t fall in love with Michael, I should imagine, and have three kids with him because of his past.
PLIBERSEK: I can tell you it was quite a first date when he told me all this stuff. We met in our very early twenties, I was 20. He’d already done his time in gaol and so on, but he thought it was important to tell me on the first date. I was a bit surprised. I can tell you my mum and dad were a little bit surprised when I brought home this fellow and said I really like him but there’s something you should know.
I actually do think it’s made him a better person. I think he was selfish and behaved really badly when he was a drug addict, like a lot of drug addicts do.
JONES: Sure.
PLIBERSEK: Going to rehab and going to gaol, and going to a twelve step fellowship, narcotics anonymous, smacked it out of him and he needed to have it smacked out of him. But the experience has made him a better person who is dedicated to doing the right thing ever after. And it is a story that gives hope to people who’ve got family members who are drug addicts. You have to know that people can recover from addiction and can go on to lead productive lives.
JONES: And I think that’s something that we celebrate here in Australia. And that’s why I’m coming back to saying it’s very unAustralian to attack you, and of course indirectly Michael as a result, of something that we truly celebrate. I’ve got to add this too because I know there have been comments around the office, there’s a few people who have been listening to Kate Ellis’ audiobook ‘Sex, Lies and Question Time’ where you feature very strongly and I should imagine it’s echoes of that for you, I should imagine.
PLIBERSEK: It’s a fantastic book that Kate’s written and it does go to some of the personal attacks that get used in politics. Honestly I don’t care for myself, I’ve been around long enough, I’m big enough and tough enough to take care of myself. What I really worry about is these sorts of personal attacks turn people off getting involved in politics. And it’s not about me anymore, I want the next generation and the next generation to get involved, try and make the country that they love a little better by getting involved in politics.
JONES: You must be regarded as a threat certainly by some members there of the federal parliament if they think they need to stoop so low and have a go at you and your husband like this. Obviously it hasn’t been reported widely but at the end of the day  I think it’s important to get out there and to celebrate the important aspect of this story as well. There’s lots we could talk about, I should probably wrap up. The education system here in Australia - we’ve got some real concerns moving forward but we might leave that for another day.
PLIBERSEK: Well I’ll be up in Cairns in July, COVID permitting, so I’d love to come in and talk to you about schools and universities perhaps when I’m next in town.
JONES: Wonderful it’s always a pleasure to talk to you and I’m noting down in the diary that you’ll likely be here in July. Tanya Plibersek, she’s the Shadow Minister for Education and the Shadow Minister for Women. Thank you for your honesty this morning I really appreciate it.
PLIBERSEK: Always a pleasure Murray, thanks for having me.