Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
SANDY ALOISI: Federal Parliament resumes today. And with just three sitting weeks left this year, the Government is facing an uphill battle to get key legislation through the Senate. To look at the challenges ahead for the Government we are joined by the Finance Minister and Deputy Senate Leader, Mathias Cormann. He is speaking here to Marius Benson.
MARIUS BENSON: Mathias Cormann, Good morning.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning, Marius.
MARIUS BENSON: Now you have two Senators, one ex Senator Bob Day and one Senator Rod Culleton being referred to the High Court to determine their standing in the Senate. Is this the first order of business in the Senate today?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is what we will be dealing with first thing this morning, yes.
MARIUS BENSON: And is that a vote or just procedural?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It will ultimately be a vote. But given the indications that we were given here in particular by Labor, I don’t think that the outcome of that vote is in any doubt.
MARIUS BENSON: Rod Culleton has said he won’t participate in votes, but he’s said some contradictory things, were he to vote with the Government accept his vote for legislation or would you absent one of your own members.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Rod Culleton has said, as far as I understand it, that he will not be voting on any contentious legislation. So I assume that is the way he will be doing it. Government Senators will be voting in support of Government legislation.
MARIUS BENSON: Bob Day has gone. You have been dealing with him in the Senate though since the election, clearly. But your Finance Department has been asking questions about his financial arrangements with the Commonwealth over his office lease since 2014. Were you aware of those questions that touched on his eligibility to even be in the Senate?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is not right. Back in 2014 there was no lease. Back in 2014 certain issues were raised given then Senator Day’s proposal as to where he wanted to establish his office. The lease which was signed in relation to that property was only signed once he had provided satisfactory evidence that he had disposed of any interest in the property and was subject to various conditions that were imposed by former Special Minister of State, Ronaldson that there would be no net cost to the Commonwealth. I became aware for the first time of the arrangements and the issues surrounding this when I became acting Special Minister of State on the 29thof December 2015. Because there were issues that emerged as we were reviewing various issues no rent was ever paid.
MARIUS BENSON: But given that questions about his eligibility are substantial enough to have him now leave the Senate and have the High Court determine his standing previously and the standing of the future position of that Senate position. Was it wrong to be dealing with him in the Senate given that you were aware of all those questions?
MATHIAS CORMANN: No. It is not up to the Government to determine the eligibility or the position of a Senator in the Senate. Only the High Court can make such a determination. What changed from the Government’s point of view was when on the 27th of October we received advice from an eminent independent legal expert that the lease which had been entered into on the 1st of December 2015 in itself and without rental payments actually constituted in his opinion a breach of section 44 of the constitution. That is a matter that came before the Government on the 27th of October and the Government acted swiftly and put the information to the President of the Senate. We will be initiating a referral to the High Court this morning for the High Court to finally settle the constitutional position in relation to this.
MARIUS BENSON: But you were benefiting from his vote at a when he was in a deep grey area.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don’t believe that Senator Day’s vote made any difference in any of the legislation that came before the Senate since the last election.
MARIUS BENSON: You are looking to delay consideration of the ABCC, the building industry watchdog bill because of the Prime Minister saying ‘we will bring it in when we believe there is a majority’. That was the centrepiece of your whole double d tactics at the July election. Doesn’t reflect very well on the tactics does it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I completely disagree with your assertion that we are proposing to delay. We are doing what we always do in the circumstances. We are working with crossbench Senators. You have to remember this is a new Senate crossbench, compared to the one that was in place before the last election. We are working with the Senate crossbench in relation to the ABCC legislation, explaining why we believe it is important to bring the Australian Building and Construction Commission back, to bring down the cost of construction, to deal with lawlessness on building sites around Australia. It is self evident that only once we have gone through that work and once we believe we have majority support in the Senate for that very important proposal will we proceed. We would like to do that sooner rather than later and certainly as soon as possible.
MARIUS BENSON: 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Tony Abbott abandoned plans to change that back in 2014 I think. There are reports that the Government is reviving it. Are you going to revisit 18C?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We don’t have plans to amend Section 18C, but there is a proposal to have an inquiry through the Human Rights Committee of the Parliament. We are attracted by that proposition because it will give a structured opportunity for people with views on all sides of that debate to properly put their views forward and for them to be considered.
MARIUS BENSON: No point in having an inquiry if you don’t have an open mind about changing 18C though. There is no point in inquiring into something that will not change.
MATHIAS CORMANN: There is a difference between having an open mind depending on what the outcome of the inquiry is and having specific plans. The point I am making is that the Government does not have any specific plans to amend section 18C, but we are considering a proposal to hold an inquiry. That is a matter of public record and I am personally attracted to the proposition of an inquiry because it will facilitate fleshing out all of the arguments on both sides of the argument.
MARIUS BENSON: So the door is open on changing 18C?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There door is open on having an inquiry to consider the issues.
MARIUS BENSON: I will leave it there, Mathias Cormann thank you very much.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.