Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

 

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil, great to be with you.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time.

Now you promised stable government, week one of the Parliament has ended in farce with the Government losing control of the House, first time in 50 years. It makes the Government look like a rabble, how do you answer the argument, if you can’t run the parliament you can’t run the country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’re getting on with governing Neil and we introduced 26 bills into the Parliament this week, important bills that will go to delivering on our election commitments. Protecting the volunteers of the CFA in Victoria, bringing the budget back into balance, ensuring that we restore the rule of law to the construction industry, that’s what we’ve been doing.

NEIL MITCHELL:

But it was farce yesterday wasn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

The Labor Party, contrary to everything Mr Shorten said – you remember, Bill Shorten said he was going to be a different type of Opposition leader, he was going to be constructive, he was going to be substantive, he was going to deal with the big issues, he was going to reach across the aisle to me and seek to solve Australia’s problems – and what he has done is played essentially schoolboy tricks and stunts in the Parliament.

Yes, a number of our members who should not have left the building, left the building. They did the wrong thing, they know they did the wrong thing. I’ve read the Riot Act to them. Their colleagues will all read the Riot Act to them, they’ll get the Riot Act read to them more often than just about anyone could imagine. But at the end of the day these were procedural votes. These were not substantive issues, this was all about stunts and games and puts completely to one side, the undertakings Bill Shorten gave about being constructive and being a committed Opposition leader.

NEIL MITCHELL:

But Prime Minister the point remains you’re supposedly in control of the House, you went within one vote of getting a royal commission into the banks.

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s not right Neil, with respect frankly -

NEIL MITCHELL:

Alright well you’ve certainly at the very least been severely embarrassed by this. If you can’t run the Parliament in week one, how the hell can we expect you to run the country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we are running the country. We are in government and we are in power - we’re in office and we’re in power – we are getting on with the job of delivering on our legislation. We do have a majority in the House of Representatives. The only reason Labor won those procedural votes last night was because a number of the Coalition members had left the building when they should not have left the building.

NEIL MITCHELL:

How did that happen? Who is in charge of that, is it Christopher Pyne?

PRIME MINISTER:

They’re in charge of themselves, two of them were Cabinet Ministers and one of them was a Minister. They’re grown-ups, they’re experienced parliamentarians. They knew that they should not have left and they left early because they thought they’d get away with it. They’ve been caught out, they’ve been embarrassed, they’ve been humiliated, they’ve been excoriated. It won’t happen again.

NEIL MITCHELL:

They knew that they shouldn’t go and they thought they’d get away with it?

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s absolutely, that must be -

NEIL MITCHELL:

But who are they?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think all the names are in the press, but there are a couple, three Ministers and a number of backbenchers.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Yeah and the Ministers were?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is Peter Dutton, there was Christian Porter, Michael Keenan who has been on the radio this morning. There are a number of others, but I think –

NEIL MITCHELL:

But it gets to the point with them, if they think they can sneak out and get away with it, how do we trust them with portfolios? How do we trust them to say: “hang on, we want you working for us not sneaking out the door.”

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look Neil I’m not defending their conduct. Right, but let me just put this into context. At 4:30 on a Thursday the adjournment debate begins and that is a debate that the House now adjourn. That’s a formality and what it really is, is an opportunity for Members to make five minute speeches each, generally about their own electorates.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

That goes on for half an hour and then at five o’clock the motion is agreed to on the voices and everyone goes home. What has happened in previous parliaments, the practice has obviously developed, it’s a bad practice – but people have felt “oh well, after 4:30 it’s all over bar the shouting, I’m not giving an adjournment speech, I can go and get home or get to some other official engagement.”

NEIL MITCHELL:

But you’ve got a majority of one.

PRIME MINISTER:

Exactly but you see what happens – and I’ve seen this, I ‘ve seen this stunt tried, played before right, this is why people leaving did the wrong thing - what happens is that a five o’clock, the Opposition, when the vote is put that the House to now adjourn, the Opposition calls for a division and if you don’t have enough numbers there, the House does not adjourn and the debate continues. That’s exactly what they did.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Who did it previously?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look I can’t recall, it was done certainly –

NEIL MITCHELL:

Was it your side?

Well I’m sure both sides have done it previously. I can recall it in previous Parliaments but I can’t remember the exact details.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I think that’s the point, Bill Shorten, you can have a go at Bill Shorten but the fact is he’s exposed something within the Government.

PRIME MINISTER:

He has, he’s –

NEIL MITCHELL:

Something relevant to the people of Australia, which is the lack of organisation and a lack of commitment at the very least.

PRIME MINISTER:

What he has exposed is among a number of our colleagues, a degree of complacency that was obviously unwarranted. Complacency is never warranted, but particularly unwarranted in these circumstances. The parliamentary tactic that Labor used is – I would say – best described as an oldie but a goodie. It’s been around a long time. People that have been in the Parliament for a long time, like a number of those who did leave early should have known that and they should have known not to go.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Did Christopher Pyne who is the Leader of the House know they were going?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no, Christopher has made it very clear that he gave nobody permission to leave. In fact if you think about it, this is the problem; clearly there are a number of people that didn’t think about it, because if you think about it, you could have a majority substantially bigger than we have and it would still be extremely dangerous to do this. That is why the rule is, you do not leave prior to the House adjourning unless you have express permission from the Whip to do so.

Typically if you went to the Whip, the Whip would say: “Okay you’ve got to get home early, I’ll ring the Opposition Whip and see if I can get a pair”.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER:

But they did not do the right thing, so they’ve embarrassed themselves, they’ve embarrassed the Government. But it’s a good lesson…

NEIL MITCHELL:

And it won’t happen again?

PRIME MINISTER:

It will not happen again.

NEIL MITCHELL:

And will you dock their pay?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m not in a position to do that. But I think the free character analysis they will get from their colleagues will be very character building, put it that way.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Other issues, are you comfortable with multi-millions of dollars being donated to Liberal and Labor parties and individuals by Chinese interests?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s a broad question, I think we need to look at the whole question of campaign finance, particularly in the context of the last election. I expect the Joint Standing Committee on electoral matters to do that. I just want to come however to the point of Senator Sam Dastyari…

NEIL MITCHELL:

Sorry just before you do that, look there’s almost two million dollars to the Coalition, four million dollars to Labor over a number of years. They call it soft diplomacy, it looks like a form of attempting to buy favours it looks like a form of legalised bribery. Is it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I wouldn’t use that word. You’ve got to remember that a number of these donations have been made by - you talk about Chinese interests - some of these Chinese donors are Australian citizens. So even if you were to –

NEIL MITCHELL:

With close links to the Chinese Government.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that may well be so but this is why it is an area that has got to be approached thoughtfully and in a detailed way. Because you could say for example, that no donations should be made to political parties other than by people on the Australian electoral roll, Australian citizens for the most part. But that would not outlaw donations from people that may have some connections with a foreign government who are Australian citizens. So how then do you deal with the questions of connection?

But the issue with Dastyari, Neil, is completely different. This was not a donation to the Labor Party. This was a grant, a gift of money to him. This is like getting somebody to pay your electricity bill or your gas bill, or your tax bill. He owed money to the Government for an excess of spending on travel over his entitlements. This is a well-paid senator. This is a man that has lambasted banks, lambasted businesses, tried to be the great champion of freedom and honesty and openness and condemned corruption everywhere. And what did he do? Did he put his hand in his pocket like anyone else would do and pay the bill? No. He used his influence as a Senator to get that $1600 from a Chinese donor which as you’ve said, has associations and connections with the Chinese Government. Then at the same time as this was going on, he took a completely different approach to the South China Sea issue, both to the Australian Government and the Opposition and said that he supported China’s claims in the South China Sea and that Australia should support it.

Now he has got to explain why this is not cash for comment.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I agree. I agree entirely.

PRIME MINISTER:

He’s got to explain that.

NEIL MITCHELL:

But have you had a look in your own cupboard to make sure there is no skeletons? Not you personally but the Party? Have you looked in your own cupboards to make sure there is no similar skeletons, because I look at the amount of money being handed over here and the number of trips taken, free trips taken to China by Members of Parliament and I think if you talk about the sniff test, it smells.

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil, I can well understand concerns about it. It is something, these are all issues that will be carefully reviewed but I have to tell you Dastyari’s position is unique. Look, there are cases where politicians, examples where politicians receive gifts of clothing for example, some politicians have been able to persuade tailors and supporters to buy their clothes for them. Again, you would have to ask why politicians can’t pay for their own clothing –

NEIL MITCHELL:

Well that is true but this is different.

PRIME MINISTER:

But what Dastyari did was extraordinary. So how do we know? What sort of precedent does this set? What does this say to other Australians who are not as well paid as politicians, who are struggling to pay their utility bills?

NEIL MITCHELL:

That’s it. We need to get a much tougher system in the way you all get money and free trips and even donations, political donations.

PRIME MINISTER:

The issue of political donations and campaign finance generally is a very complex one. Now there are powerful arguments, for example to say that donations to political parties should only be made by Australians on the electoral roll. Fair enough and I think that’s a powerful argument. So you would eliminate companies, you’d eliminate unions.

The difficulty you face is however - and you’d eliminate foreigners obviously - the difficulty you face though, is that increasingly political campaigns are not being waged by political parties, but by unions, by groups like Getup. See the trade unions themselves directly spent in this last campaign, as much, if not more money, on my estimation, as the Labor party did themselves. So if you limit donations to political parties, but leave third parties, you know, it could be a corporation, it could be a corporate association, it could be a union, to spend then the system is even less balanced than it is now.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Do you know Minshen Zhu, Mr Minshen Zhu from the Top Education Institute who was involved in the Dastyari incident?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I believe I have met him at a Chinese community event but I can’t say that I know him.

NEIL MITCHELL:

You don’t recall that, you don’t recall meeting him?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t recall him personally. I wouldn’t – I don’t recall the encounter but I have seen photographs, there have been photographs of me with him. But of course nowadays in the world of the iPhone there are photographs of me with just about everybody.

NEIL MITCHELL:

If I could ask you about something else, Peter - the budget emergency - Peter Costello says you’ve got to think of new ways to deal with that. You are running out of shots. He talks about tax policy, industrial relations, trade. He makes a fair point; interest rates can’t get much lower but they are not stimulating enough. Is he right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I do think we’ve got to look at new approaches yes, and we are doing that. We set out an economic plan, a budget repair plan in the budget that Scott Morrison delivered and we are taking that through the Parliament now. The challenge for us is obviously securing the support of the Senate.

We are reaching out to the crossbench, obviously to the Labor Party and the Greens and we will assess the progress of that legislation, that proposed legislation, after it is been dealt with by the new Senate.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Okay the ABCC, the industrial action in working hours lost have been reported today. Would your Commission – if you were to get it through – would it stop that? Would it reduce industrial disputes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely. When it was last in operation it did Neil, there’s no question about that. The Building and Construction Commission reduced disputation in the construction sector, it improved productivity, it improved cost, it lowered costs. Because you know this, your listeners in Melbourne know this better than just about anybody in Australia; the lawlessness of the CFMEU, the inability of the law to actually prevail in that sector, because of those unions, has seen an extraordinary explosion in the cost - well over 30 per cent - of the additional cost of union jobs, in infrastructure, big apartments, office buildings, roads, bridges, hospitals, schools.

We know the ABCC worked when it was last there. The Labor Party - Bill Shorten was the Minister -abolished it. We want to put it back and we’ve got a mandate from the people to do that.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, you’re heading off to the G20 summit in China at the weekend. When you’re in China, will you at any stage talk to them about Chinese investment and ability to purchase in this country, given what’s happened with the network in New South Wales and the Kidman cattle farm? Will they -

PRIME MINISTER:

It may well be raised Neil. But can I just say that the Chinese absolutely respect and understand that we have the total sovereign right to determine who invests in Australia and the terms on what they invest. I have never taken a backwards step, the fact is that it’s entirely our decision.

Look they can complain, they can say we would like you to have given us consent to invest in that or this or something else, that’s fine. They decide who invest in China we decide who invests in Australia.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister thank you for your time. Just finally, do you reckon you’ll last three years in this government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I have no doubt that at the next election I will lead the Government to the next election in 2019 election.

NEIL MITCHELL:

No I don’t mean you personally I mean the Government, because after what happened last night in the Parliament and Labor is saying the Government won’t last three years, are you confident you can?

PRIME MINISTER:

Very confident. There is no doubt last night was embarrassing, there’s no doubt it was a wake-up call in fact in some respects it was good to have got it in the first week. I’m very disappointed that members left when they shouldn’t’ve left but it will not happen again.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Okay I lied, this is the last question, have you ever nodded off in Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

Have I nodded off in parliament?

NEIL MITCHELL:

Derryn Hinch has.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you know - how much time have we got? Let me tell you a story about nodding off.

I remember a barrister once was telling me that a mutual friend was working too hard and was very tired. I said: “Why do you say that? He said: “Well I was in court with him the other day and he nodded off”. I said: “Really, what was going on when he nodded off?” He said: “I was addressing the jury.”

NEIL MITCHELL:

So have you every dozed off in Parliament? No.

PRIME MINISTER:

The fact is when people nod off, its often a judgement on the quality of the performance. So the performers shouldn’t complain.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time.