Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
FRAN KELLY: With the Federal Parliament back for another sitting fortnight, the Turnbull Government’s priority will be legislating major reform bills covering media and higher education. But the Coalition’s preferred focus could be derailed by tomorrow’s challenge in the High Court against the postal ballot on same sex marriage. Not to mention of course Labor’s threats for Parliamentary havoc unless the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce steps down from Cabinet. Mathias Cormann is the Finance Minister. He joins us in our Parliament House studio. Mathias Cormann, welcome back to Breakfast.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning. Good to be back.
FRAN KELLY: The Government is all about getting on with the job, trying to pass key legislation, but how are you going to find the clear air that you so desperately need when Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash are still sitting in Cabinet and Labor has threatened to put the pressure on to make sure that they stop.
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are getting on with the job. We continue to implement the agenda that we took to the last election, to strengthen our economy and create more jobs and to ensure that our country is safe and secure. In relation to Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, they remain valid Members of the Parliament. As valid Members of the Parliament, they can continue to serve as Ministers. Something that seems to be forgotten by various people who are commenting on this, is that every Member of the Federal Parliament remains a valid Member of the Federal Parliament unless and until the High Court finds otherwise. Based on our clear legal advice, we are confident that the High Court will find that Barnaby, Fiona and others will remain as validly elected Members of Federal Parliament.
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but I put that to Tony Burke that there is this three month period of a Minister being legally able to sit there and make decisions. But Tony Burke’s point was well, Barnaby Joyce is likely to have been ineligible many, many years ago, from the time he entered the Parliament. That would mean that every decision, certainly made between now and when the Court rules is likely to be challenged.
MATHIAS CORMANN: You are now jumping ahead and making an assumption as to what the High Court would find. What ... interrupted
FRAN KELLY: No I am talking about managing risk.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Right now, Barnaby Joyce is a validly elected Member of Parliament, unless and until the High Court finds otherwise. If the High Court were to find otherwise all of the decisions that he and others have taken as Members of Parliament up until that time remain valid. That is the longstanding precedent. This is not a new situation. This is a situation ... interrupted
FRAN KELLY: Well it is not the views of several high profile Constitutional legal experts.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I do not think that that is right with all due respect. There is precedent for Members and Senators in the past, having been challenged in the High Court in various circumstances and all of the votes and proceedings that they have participated in, until such time as the High Court makes certain determinations are valid. There is not some proposition that determinations by Members of Parliament in the past somehow become invalid after the High Court makes certain decisions. In relation to Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, based on our advice, we are very confident that the High Court will find that they were validly elected and they are not in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution.
FRAN KELLY: You may be confident in that, but you can’t know. It is a risk. Malcolm Turnbull is going to be overseas briefly at the end of this week. Barnaby Joyce, who we know is a New Zealand citizen as well as an Australian citizen is sitting in our Parliament. He may be found to be ineligible we don’t know yet. Is it appropriate that someone that we know who is a dual citizen, should be acting as an Australian Prime Minister when the Prime Minister is away.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, I have to correct you. Barnaby Joyce is not a New Zealand citizen ... interrupted
FRAN KELLY: I beg your pardon, he was until two weeks ago.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is an important distinction, number one. Number two, as I have just indicated to you, right now, today, Barnaby Joyce, Fiona Nash, Matt Canavan and all of the Members and Senators that have been referred by Parliament to the High Court for their circumstances to be reviewed, they all remain valid Members of the Federal Parliament, unless and until such time as the High Court might find otherwise. Right now, all of them remain validly elected Members of the Australian Parliament.
FRAN KELLY: The Prime Minister had a message for Labor, that it is Labor’s problem, that it shouldn’t be disrupting the Parliament when big events are occurring, the gas prices are Labor’s problem. During that interview and since then, I have been getting a number of texts from listeners basically saying to the Prime Minister, look you have been in power for four years can we stop the blame game here and just get on with it. This tactic of blaming Labor now for the gas prices from the Gillard Government’s time, you must be hearing this from the public too. They don’t really like this. They want to just get on with governing and stop spending time blaming the other side. Do you get that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are getting on with governing. The Prime Minister and the Government is making decisions to put downward pressure on electricity prices and to ensure ... interrupted
FRAN KELLY: You are spending a lot of time pointing the finger at Labor at the moment.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The reality is, this is a comparative game. We are putting forward one approach. In the end people will have to make judgments on whether they prefer our approach or the alternative approach. So of course we have to compare and contrast what we are putting forward by way of putting downward pressure on electricity prices and making sure that our energy supplies are secure and reliable into the future. Labor’s approach, which by their own admission they knew would lead to higher electricity prices, by their own admission last week would lead to shortages …interrupted
FRAN KELLY: Yeah but we are talking 2012, Minister.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Last week, Mark Butler, the relevant Shadow Minister made an admission …interrupted
FRAN KELLY: This is exactly what the listeners are complaining about, exactly.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Fran I know you do not want to hear this, but after having denied for years that decisions that Labor made in Government would lead to higher electricity prices and less supply of gas into the domestic market, last week for the first time, Mark Butler finally admitted what they had denied for years. People across Australia deserve to know this. We will continue, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We will continue to take action to put downward pressure on electricity prices, but we are quite entitled to point out that Labor’s alternative approach pushed up electricity prices for households and for business across Australia.
FRAN KELLY: It is twelve past eight on Breakfast, our guest is the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Let’s chew some gum now, another distraction for the Government is same sex marriage. It is only a distraction in the sense that the High Court will hear two challenges tomorrow, relating to your allocation of $122 million to fund the postal survey. You as the Finance Minister. What advice did you receive that showed that taking that money from what is known as the Advance for the Finance Minister was on solid legal and constitutional grounds?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am very confident that what I did as Finance Minister is on solid legal and constitutional grounds …interrupted
FRAN KELLY: So you sought advice and you got that clear advice?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Indeed. The Advance to the Finance Minister is a longstanding arrangement that has been in place in various forms since Federation. Labor in government over a six year period used the advance to the Finance Minister on 32 occasions …interrupted
FRAN KELLY: There is no doubt you have the right to do it. It is about when you do it. Michael Keating who served six years as Secretary of the Finance Department has written that the expenditure is ‘entirely inappropriate and the Government is ignoring all conventions about proper procedure.
MATHIAS CORMANN: With all due respect to Michael Keating, I disagree with him. I believe he is wrong. Section 10 of the Appropriations Act 2017-18 is very explicit. The Parliament gave me the power to make the decisions that I have made in circumstances where there is an unforeseen, urgent item of expenditure and because the Government had not made a decision by the time of the Budget to give Australians a say on same sex marriage through an Australian Bureau of Statistics postal survey, clearly the expenditure was unforeseen. It became urgent because we want to achieve an outcome by 15 November. This is entirely a matter that goes to my judgement as Finance Minister as to whether certain expenditure is urgent and unforeseen. I would argue that it was.
FRAN KELLY: Let’s go to another issue now, Minister. Your own home state of WA is adding to the Government’s problems I would suggest. A motion passed by the Liberal party State Conference yesterday called for Western Australia to secede from the rest of the Commonwealth. Now …interrupted
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is quite wrong.
FRAN KELLY: It is quite wrong?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is quite wrong. It is quite interesting how media miss when there is a material change to what is on the table. So the original proposal was a motion to call for Western Australia to secede. The motion that was adopted was quite different. In fact, that proposal for Western Australia to secede was rejected. Western Australia will continue to remain as an important Member State of our Federation for forever. What was passed was a motion which sets up a committee to explore more financial independence for Western Australia from the Commonwealth …interrupted
FRAN KELLY: So something short of secession, but financial independence?
MATHIAS CORMANN: To explore more financial independence from the Commonwealth is something that we would encourage all State and Territories governments to do. These are the sorts of conversations that we as the Federal Government have pursued with all State and Territory governments in the past. We think it is entirely sensible for States to continue to explore ways to become more financially independent from the Commonwealth. The best way to do it is to strengthen growth in their respective economies and to pursue their own source revenues.
FRAN KELLY: Well the fury is around the GST distribution. Malcolm Turnbull at the State conference on the weekend that the State carve up would rebalance in a few years time. Correct me if I am wrong again, but I understand the WA Libs are planning a High Court challenge over this.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The State Leader of the Liberal party has said that that is something they are currently exploring. He was quite explicit in saying that they had not actually made a decision, whether or not …interrupted
FRAN KELLY: Will you try and head this off? Labor is promising a $1.6 billion infrastructure fund if it is Government to make up for some of the shortfall. Would you match that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Actually, Labor decided not to do anything about reforming GST sharing arrangements. They copied the Turnbull Government’s Federal top up payments to Western Australia, which we have been making for three years. They made an additional promise without being able to say where the money would come from. You have to remember Wayne Swan promised Western Australia in 2010 to provide a $2 billion infrastructure fund to Western Australia. It never happened. This is just another empty Bill Shorten promise that people in Western Australia know they cannot trust. But fundamentally, Bill Shorten made very clear that a Labor Government would not do anything to reform GST sharing arrangements structurally moving forward.
FRAN KELLY: Mathias Cormann thank you very much for joining us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.