Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
DAVID LIPSON: G’day there. Thanks for your company this morning. The Prime Minister is continuing to resist growing pressure for the Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop to step down from the role, after her now infamous helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong. There are claims several Ministers are privately describing her position as untenable after the matter was referred to Australian Federal Police. Police have in turn referred the matter back to the Department of Finance for an internal investigation. And the Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann joins me now from Perth. Good to speak to you again Minister. Thanks for your company.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good to be back
DAVID LIPSON: How will this investigation by the Department be handled?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Allegations of this nature are dealt with in accordance with a very long standing protocol. The Labor party knows this... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: Yeah, the Minchin Protocol.
MATHIAS CORMANN: It was the same protocol that was in place in the Rudd Government and the Gillard Government. It was the same protocol that was in place under much of the period of the Howard Government. Yesterday, Labor just tried to opportunistically politically exploit the situation, but they know how these matters are dealt with. This is dealt with the usual way with an assessment initially by the Department of Finance. More serious allegations can be dealt with and assessed by a departmental committee chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Finance. All of this is of course done at arms length from the political level of Government. That is the process that will be followed here.
DAVID LIPSON: So you’ll have no oversight over this, no involvement in the investigation yourself?
MATHIAS CORMANN: No and as I shouldn’t.
DAVID LIPSON: Okay, what about the actual claims itself, because that investigation, that inquiry internally is going to play out, but what do you think of this episode? Do you think as some of your colleagues do, that her position as Speaker is untenable?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don’t know where you get that assertion from. I certainly don’t agree with the assertion. From where I sit, Bronwyn Bishop is doing a very good job as Speaker. Clearly the Labor party has never liked Bronwyn Bishop. Tony Burke in particular has pursued her right from the word go in a very aggressive, partisan way. If you’re saying to me that the Labor party doesn’t like Bronwyn Bishop, well there is not really any news there.
DAVID LIPSON: No, no, no I’m not saying that. I’m saying that some of your colleagues according to News Corp papers today, have privately said that they think this matter is a distraction for the Government and as such the position of the Speaker is untenable.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m not a commentator on commentary. From where I sit, there is an issue that's being dealt with and dealt with in the usual... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: Okay, well not on the commentary then. What about the matter then? What about the matter itself? Joe Hockey says that this has a smell to it, it doesn’t pass the sniff test. Do you think that actually using a helicopter to fly 80 kilometres for a Liberal party fundraising function is reasonable?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The key here is that the Speaker has reimbursed the claim. As I’ve said earlier in the week, in a way to a certain degree, the system has actually worked the way it was designed to work. Members of Parliament have to travel as part of their job. It’s not the best part of the job, but we do have to travel. Any travel has to be done within the rules. There is, as part of the checks and balances, there is a system of public and regular reporting of any travel undertaken at taxpayers’ expense. There is significant scrutiny of any of the travel that we do undertake. The reason we’re having this conversation is because of the system of transparent and regular reporting of any travel that is undertaken at taxpayers’ expense as there should be.
DAVID LIPSON: But hang on, you’re saying the system is working and this is proof of that. Is it really a good system if in order for any politician to pay back an improper claim they have to be publicly shamed in the media. That is good for no one isn’t it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: All of us as Members of Parliament ought to comply with the rules. Every now and then mistakes are made and it is important that the system flushes that out and that there is corrective action. That is the whole purpose of having regular public reporting of travel undertaken by Members of Parliament, so that any such travel can be scrutinised. It is scrutinised and where ever there is a question mark, questions are asked. That is what happened on this occasion. Would it be preferable in 100 per cent of cases that ... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: This is part of the reason why most people don’t like politicians isn’t it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Would it be preferable that in 100 per cent of cases all Members of Parliament at all times comply with all of the rules as written down? Of course. But mistakes are made. The important thing is to ensure that where mistakes are made there is a process in place that ensures that any such mistakes are corrected. Since we came into Government, we have made various changes including imposing an additional penalty where reimbursements have to be made as a result of a mistake. That is part of providing the additional stick and incentive to comply with the rules as any effort to correct mistakes comes with an additional penalty.
DAVID LIPSON: You say it’s a mistake, but Bronwyn Bishop hasn’t really admitted that. She has paid the money back as you rightfully point out. But she is still insisting that this comes within her entitlements as Speaker. I mean, do you believe that’s right? Is the Speaker entitled to use taxpayer money to go to a Liberal party fundraiser?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, I’m not aware of all of the ins and outs of what the Speaker did in the context of that particular trip. As you know and as we have already discussed, there is now a process underway consistent with the Minchin Protocol, through the Department of Finance, where all of these matters are properly assessed. I’m not going to pre-empt what the outcome of that assessment process is going to be. It’s ... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: It’s pretty straight forward though isn’t it? I mean she used a helicopter to go to a Liberal party fundraiser. What’s not to understand?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don’t know what other diary commitments she had in and around that time. So I’m not going to get into something that I am essentially not aware of.
DAVID LIPSON: All of this, I mean, this is a distraction, it’s making also the Government and your role as Finance Minister harder, surely to justify your push for people to tighten the belt, end the age of entitlement, all those sorts of statements. This just really gets in the way of that doesn’t it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I would much rather be talking to you this morning about our plan to strengthen growth, create more jobs and to repair the Budget, which is something that we’ve been pursuing very effectively for some time. I would much rather talk about the issues that are important to the Australian people.
DAVID LIPSON: You know, and you mentioned before I suppose, just finally on this, before I do move on to those matters, that you believe she’s been a good Speaker. There have been claims that have emerged and this has been around for some time, of her being a biased Speaker. Do you think, I know you’re in the other chamber, but from what you’ve seen, that she is fair, considering I suppose, that she’s kicked out some three hundred or so more Labor members, three hundred of them and only a handful of those on your benches.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am in the Senate. She is the Speaker in the House of Representatives. But let me just say from experience having been in Opposition for six years myself, it is not unusual for the Opposition to be the more rowdy side of the Parliament, given the Opposition’s job to hold the Government of the day to account. I suspect that you will find that was the case when we were in Opposition. I guess it is now the case now that Labor is in Opposition. From where I sit I think that Bronwyn Bishop is doing a very good job.
DAVID LIPSON: Let’s look at some meatier matters, the GST, reports in The Courier Mail today that the Government is looking towards lowering the threshold for the GST to kick in for online goods. Currently it is $1000, will you lower that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: As we have said all the way through, any change to the GST will only be pursued if it has the unanimous support of all of the State and Territory Governments. There is a process underway. As I understand it, not all of the States are on board just yet. But if there was a broad consensus in the Federal Parliament and unanimous support from the State and Territory governments, then that is something that we would progress, yes.
DAVID LIPSON: Is that support getting closer do you think?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There has been a level of conversation in recent months. Clearly the circumstances in the economy have changed with a significant increase in the level of online shopping including and in particular from overseas. So there are conversations underway, but ultimately it will be a matter for the Treasurers, when they meet as part of their regular Treasurers meeting, to sort out.
DAVID LIPSON: Early modelling on this matter suggested that lowering the threshold to $20, would raise $500 million but it would cost some $2 billion to process. Is that still the case? Is that your understanding?
MATHIAS CORMANN: These are the sorts of matters that have to be worked through. I am not going to pre-empt what may or may not be the decision in terms of the level of threshold, if there is a changed threshold. Suffice to say that any change will only be pursued if there is unanimous support from all of the State and Territory Governments. When it comes to .... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: Just on that, WA Premier Colin Barnett, your West Australian colleague in some way says, that he wouldn’t even contemplate a change to the GST unless his State received 50 cents in every dollar it paid. Do you agree with that approach?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Western Australia for some time has raised issues in relation to GST sharing arrangements and as the Premier for Western Australia it is appropriate for Colin Barnett to represent the interests and views on behalf of the Western Australian community. There is a Leader’s retreat which is coming up in the next week or so, which was flagged after the most recent COAG meeting, where the issue of the GST was discussed and this is one of the issues that will be further pursued as part of that Leader’s retreat.
DAVID LIPSON: Is it fair do you reckon, do you think that WA should get 50 cents back in every dollar?
MATHIAS CORMANN: What we have said earlier in the year is that the circumstance where WA’s share of the GST, or for that matter the share of GST for any State, falls below 30 cents in the dollar, that that is an issue that needs to be addressed. There was a conversation about that at COAG, and at COAG there was agreement that there would be a further discussion during this Leader’s retreat including a discussion about the ... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: I’m just asking for your opinion though as a West Australian.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I was about to say... interrupted
DAVID LIPSON: Apologies.
MATHIAS CORMANN: ... and the agreement reached at COAG was that there would be a further discussion at this Leader’s retreat including of the proposition of a potential floor at 50 cents in the dollar. I’m not going to pre-empt what comes out of the Leader’s retreat. You say as a West Australian Senator, yes I am a West Australian Senator, but I am also a member of a national Government. As a member of a national Government you need to consider all of the legitimate and respective perspectives from States right across Australia and then make a decision in the national interest.
DAVID LIPSON: Yeah, because we’ve seen, and this just demonstrates how hard it is to get significant political and economic reform through, especially at this time. We saw Catherine Livingstone this week, the head of the BCA, the President, suggest that we are a new low in the nation’s political leadership when it comes to economic reform. What do you think of those comments?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I disagree with her. Since we’ve been in Government for the last two years we have been very ambitious in pursuing important economic reform. Our focus has been on improving our international competitiveness, on reducing the cost of doing business in Australia. That’s why we got rid of the carbon tax and the mining tax. That’s why we’ve reduced red tape costs for business by more than $2 billion dollars a year. That’s why we are pursuing a very ambitious free trade agreement to improve market access for Australian business to some of our key markets like Korea, Japan and China. That is why we are rolling out a record infrastructure investment program, focussed on improving our productivity. Sometimes people who make these sorts of comments are disappointed because we are not pursuing a particular reform idea they support. In relation to some of these issues that have been on the table in recent days, we make no apologies for our opposition to the reintroduction of the carbon tax. We know Labor wants to bring the carbon tax back, but we happen to believe that that would be bad for our economy and will not do anything to help the environment. We will not be making changes to negative gearing because we believe that abolishing negative gearing would push up the cost of rental accommodation, which is not something that is desirable. So reform so called, is not something that you pursue unless it makes things better and that is what we are focussed on.
DAVID LIPSON: Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann we’ll have to leave it there, thanks for talking to us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.