Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
CHRIS UHLMANN: I am joined in the studio by Mathias Cormann, who is of course the Finance Minister and has been a foot soldier for the Prime Minister over the last several weeks and indefatigable in his defence, but 61-39 is hardly a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister by his own troops?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The result is what it is. It is a clear indication that the Prime Minister continues to enjoy the support of his party room. What is important though ...interrupted
CHRIS UHLMANN: Barely.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I disagree. You would remember that back in 2009 Tony Abbott won the leadership of the Liberal party by one vote and he led the most successful team in Opposition arguably in the history of the Commonwealth. So this is a stronger result than back then. But, it does involve a clear message from the backbench that the backbench expects the Government to do better. That is the Prime Minister, but also the rest of the Cabinet and the rest of the Ministry.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Tony Abbott said himself he now has to perform. That would indicate to the rest of Australia that the lease he has on the Prime Minister’s job is not indefinite. In fact, what he got today was a little bit more time today in order to lift the Government’s stakes. Isn’t that message out of today?
MATHIAS CORMANN: None of us are in these jobs forever. What we have decided today is to continue with the leadership team of Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, which took us successfully to the last election. Given the hard yards, given the hard work that Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop did in the lead up to the last election, getting us from Opposition into Government, the party clearly decided that they had earned the opportunity to turn the situation around that we currently find ourselves in. The best way to do so is for us to pull together and be the strong and united force that made us so successful in the past and to implement our plan for a stronger, more prosperous economy.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Can you explain to us how just 16 months into Government after a thumping majority you can find yourself in a position today where you are bartering for the Prime Minister’s life?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We would rather if we hadn't ended up in this situation. We are where we are. The key is to do the best we can moving forward. I believe that Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, working closely with the Cabinet and the whole party room and party organisation can turn the situation around. The best way to turn this situation around is to focus on the job again exclusively that we were elected to do, to strengthen the economy, create more jobs, help families and to maintain our national security.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Is the Prime Minister's tenure now time limited if he does not perform?
MATHIAS CORMANN: All of our tenure is time limited... interrupted
CHRIS UHLMANN: Is that a yes?
MATHIAS CORMANN: None of us are here forever... interrupted
CHRIS UHLMANN: Before the end of the year?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I believe that the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop will take us to the next election.
CHRIS UHLMANN: You’re certain of that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I believe they will.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And if they fail to perform and they lead the Liberal Party to a thumping defeat?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The key now is for all of us to perform better. The key now is for all of us to do the best we can to put Australia on a strong foundation for the future. We have been in this situation before. Back in March 2001 on a two party preferred basis, the Coalition vote was actually slightly worse than what it is now and John Howard was able to turn that situation around in less than a year.
CHRIS UHLMANN: To paraphrase a famous saying, I saw John Howard as Prime Minister, you saw John Howard as Prime Minister. Tony Abbott is no John Howard.
MATHIAS CORMANN: People have written Tony Abbott off many times before and generally when Tony Abbott faces a challenge he comes back better and stronger. I am very confident that Tony Abbott will come back better and stronger for the experience that he and all of us have gone through over this past week.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Now we have seen policy changes. Can I run some of them by you? Can you tell us where we now stand on Australia’s submarine policy? What is going to happen with that tender?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I saw you interview with the Prime Minister yesterday and he explained that very clearly to you then. Our policy is as it was before and that is what we want to procure the best possible submarines at the best possible price for the best possible defence and national security outcome for Australia.
CHRIS UHLMANN: An open tender?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We will be going through a proper process and as the Prime Minister indicated to you yesterday, that means going through a competitive evaluation process.
CHRIS UHLMANN: No one has heard that term, competitive evaluation process. What does that mean? Will that be done in public, is it done through the NSC, how does that work?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Government will be determining the process and how it works. At the moment, no decision has actually been made in relation to the procurement of the next generation of submarines. Those announcements will be made when the Government is in a position to make those specific announcements. The important point here to note though, this is not a procurement of office supplies. This is not a procurement of food or drink supplies... interrupted
CHRIS UHLMANN: No, and yesterday as a bargaining chip the Prime Minister put this on the table. We hadn't heard about this process by the way before yesterday, so we are trying to work out what it means.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don’t agree with the characterisation that the Prime Minister put this on the table as a bargaining chip. What has happened over the last few days as you would have expected in the circumstances we were in is that the Prime Minister had conversations with all of his colleagues and in the course of those conversations explained the attitude and the approach of the Government on a whole range of issues that were important to individual Members and Senators.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Do you know if the Prime Minister was in contact with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe because the agreement on the Japanese subs was struck essentially between their two offices. So did he alert the Japanese to what was going on?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not aware of the ins and outs of who the Prime Minister spoke to over the last few days. What I can say is there is an error in your assertion there. No decision has been made in relation to the procurement of the next generation of submarines. There is a proper process to be gone through. We were always going to go through a proper process and that was always going to involve a competitive evaluation of the various potential options on the table.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Co-payments, what is happening there?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, our policy commitment remains and that is that we want to protect Medicare for the long-term. We want to ensure that vulnerable patients, pensioners, concession card holders, children continue to have the benefit of bulk billing arrangements. But we also think that to ensure that all Australians can have timely and affordable access to quality health care that is also affordable for taxpayers, that we need to pursue policies that ensure that those of us who can afford to make a small contribution towards the cost of a medical service when we access that service do so. Now the specifics in how that is going to work are currently being worked through by the Minister for Health. She is consulting with the medical profession and other stakeholders and we will have more to say about that in the near future.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Mathias Cormann, I know you have worked very hard in trying to rein in Commonwealth finances. You make the quite solid argument that they are out of control and need to be reined in. But the message we seem to be getting now from the Government is that we have done the hard things we’re going to have to do, this year we’ll be giving goodies to household budgets. How can the Australian Budget afford that given that you know it is not sustainable now?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is not quite what we have been saying. Clearly we inherited a very challenging Budget situation. Last year in the Budget and the Prime Minister has made that point today, we were very ambitious. It was a very bold Budget. Arguably we tried to bite off more than we could chew. Now what the focus is going to be this year, the focus this year is going to be on growth, on jobs, on helping families. This involves repairing the Budget, the Federal Budget, in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of the household budget. Now last year we did actually do a range of things that were good for the household budget. Getting rid of the carbon tax was good for the household budget. It left your average household better off to the tune of $550 a year. This year we are very mindful of the fact that in last year’s Budget, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that we were too ambitious in pursuing too many reforms in one go.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Mathias Cormann, finally, briefly, you hope to put this behind you today. You have been indefatigable in defending the Prime Minister, been just about everywhere in his defence. Are you certain that you’re not going to be back in one or two months' time doing the same thing?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are putting this behind us. The vote today will put it behind us. All of us are now pulling together and focusing on the job that we were elected to do and that is to put Australia on a stronger foundation for the future.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Mathias Cormann, thank you.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to be here.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Mathias Cormann, the Finance Minister who has absolutely been everywhere and one thing you can say for certain on a day when a lot of people feel they’ve been misled is that Mathias Cormann has said exactly the same thing on air that he has been saying off air which is becoming a rarer thing in public life and something we should welcome.