Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining us now, the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann from Perth. Minister thanks for your time. The former Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said overnight that the Ausgrid decision he believes reflects domestic political pressure and what he has described as the witches brew of xenophobia and economic nationalism that we have seen emerge in the Senate in the wake of the election. Not national security. What is your response to that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: He is completely wrong and ignorant of the facts. The Treasurer went through a very thorough process as is his responsibility under our foreign investment review framework. The reality is Australia does need foreign investment for our future economic development as we have in the past, and for our future economic success. But it is always important to assess any foreign investment proposals, in particular when they relate to key infrastructure servicing business and government, to ensure that any such proposal is not contrary to the national interest. The Treasurer formed a preliminary view. The two proposals in front of the Government, these proponents now have the opportunity to provide submissions into how the identified risks to our national security could be mitigated. The process continues in the usual and ordinary way.
KIERAN GILBERT: But how can they respond if they don’t know the risks. The Treasurer says that he hasn’t even been able to share the national security concerns explicitly with the Australian public. One would presume he hasn’t given the exact details either to the bidders. Has he?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There has been extensive consultation. This process runs in the usual way. It is not a political decision making process. It is a very ... interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: So they do know. They are aware of it.
MATHIAS CORMANN: This process has run in the usual way. There has been extensive consultation with the NSW Government. Appropriate information has been provided to the bidders. They have a week to provide further information. After that the Treasurer will make his final decision. The important point here is, this has got nothing to do with the country of origin of the proponents. Whatever country of origin these particular foreign investment proposals would have come from, the reality is Ausgrid is a key power and communications piece of infrastructure providing important and essential services to business and to government. This was always going to be a very important assessment process. The Treasurer is fulfilling his responsibilities under the relevant legislation.
KIERAN GILBERT: So if it was an American company or a British company the same decision would have been made.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is as I understand it. The facts of this matter and the risks involved are a matter for the Treasurer to assess. He has got all of the information in front of him. He is assisted by the Foreign Investment Review Board. The important point here is that this is business as usual. But we have to remind ourselves, we are talking here about a very important piece of key power and communications infrastructure. This is what the Australian people would expect us to do. That is what the Government is doing.
KIERAN GILBERT: So Pauline Hanson and that sort of view of the world in terms of economic nationalism and xenophobia isn’t having an impact already on Government policy.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is a ridiculous proposition.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, put by Bob Carr.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is what I am saying. Bob Carr is ignorant of the facts. He is wrong. He should know better than make such ridiculous statements, quite frankly. The Foreign Investment Review Board, which advises the Treasurer, assesses these sorts of proposals very thoroughly in a non-political fashion. The only consideration here is whether a particular foreign investment proposal is or isn’t contrary to the national interest.
KIERAN GILBERT: Now the Chinese have reacted, well certainly the Hong Kong based company asking why us given they’ve got various interests in Australia, many interests in Australia already. Not the least of which the power industry in South Australia. Gas industry as well in Australia. Why is Ausgrid different to all of those?
MATHIAS CORMANN: As I say, Ausgrid is a particularly important piece of power and communications infrastructure. As I understand it, it goes to the way the transaction was structured and proposed. It goes to the specific national security concerns that were identified through the process. This is a preliminary view. There is now an opportunity for the proponents to make further submissions. That process now is to take its course.
KIERAN GILBERT: But the Treasurer seemed to indicate that they didn’t have much of a chance to mitigate against the national security concerns. He seemed to be playing down the prospect of them being able to do that in the week given them.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is not quite what the Treasurer said. What the Treasurer said is that we haven’t, or the Treasurer hasn’t, been able to identify ways to mitigate relevant risks that have been identified so far, and there has been an extensive process... interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: So they could still do it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There is now a process to take place. We are not going to pre-empt what the outcome will be because we don’t know what will be in those submissions.
KIERAN GILBERT: Your colleague Christopher Pyne seemed to confirm this morning that it was elements within Australia that disrupted the Census with that DDoS earlier in the week, Disruption of Service of the Census website. Is that true? Is that what the Government is being told now? That it was elements within Australia, not overseas as the chief statistician seemed to say earlier in the week?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Earlier in the week there was a massive failure. It was the ABS which decided to take down the Census website. There is now a review which will take place by the Government’s cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon. I am not going to pre-empt the findings of that review. As I understand it, there was some abnormal traffic that was detected in the network and the ABS in an abundance of caution decided to take down the website on the night. This was a massive failure that impacted on every Australian household, including myself. This will have to be properly and dispassionately assessed to ensure that we know exactly what happened.
KIERAN GILBERT: But it seems Mr Pyne has confirmed it was Australian elements, it wasn’t a foreign adversary or foreign hackers as it was expected initially, that it was Australian elements. And he would know as Defence Industry Minister, he would receive briefings from the Australian Signals Directorate. He seems to have confirmed that this morning.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not going to speak for Christopher Pyne. Christopher Pyne is able to speak for himself. In my area of portfolio responsibility, I don’t have line of sight in relation to the matters that you are raising.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask you about the result in the Senate now. Because it was a double dissolution election it needs to be decided which Senators will serve a six year term and which Senators will only serve a three year term and be up for re-election at the normal half Senate election next time we go to the polls. How will the Government decide that? Will the major parties simply gang up against the crossbenchers here to lock in the six year terms and leave the three years for Pauline Hanson and co?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is not a decision for the Government. This is a decision for the Senate. The Constitution requires for the Senate after a double dissolution election to split Senators elected in the States in half, to determine which Senators sit for the longer six year period and which Senators sit for a three year period. That has happened on seven occasions before since federation. On each occasion the way this has been settled is on the basis of the order in which individual Senators were elected to the Senate in their respective States. So twelve Senators are elected in every State. Under the methodology used on every occasion so far, the first six Senators elected would get six years, whoever they are and whichever party they represent. The last six, the bottom six out of the twelve Senators elected ... interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: Well they are mostly the minor parties aren’t they? The last six? That means the major parties lock in the six years.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don’t think that is right in an absolute sense. I think you will find that there is a variation between individual states. For example, I think that the Nick Xenophon Team would have at least one, if not two Senators elected in the top six using the traditional method. The important point is, this is a function of how many votes and how many preferences you are able to attract. If you are elected in the first six out of twelve, then it stands to reason that you were elected earlier and as such you qualify for the longer period.
KIERAN GILBERT: Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann appreciate your time, thank you.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.