Sky News – AM Agenda

Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance and the Public Service
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia






Wentworth by-election, Minister Dutton, Budget repair

KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s go live to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Thanks for your time as always this Friday morning, Senator Cormann.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning.

KIERAN GILBERT: If the Prime Minister thought that Dave Sharma was the best candidate I guess, why didn’t he back him in the first place?

MATHIAS CORMANN: In the Liberal party pre-selections are a democratic process. No individual, no Prime Minister, no Minister, nobody determines who the candidates are other than the pre-selection delegates. Two hundred and one delegates in Wentworth, who listened to all of the presentations, were able to ask questions and were most directly in a position to form judgement on who the best candidate would be made a judgement that Dave Sharma is the best candidate. Congratulations to Dave. Welcome to the team as the Prime Minister says. It is now back to work onto winning the seat of Wentworth. It is great to see that Malcolm Turnbull as the Member for Wentworth over the last fourteen years has so strongly come out in support of Dave Sharma. That is extremely helpful in helping us to retain the seat at the by-election coming up.

KIERAN GILBERT: But Mr Morrison’s preferred candidate Katherine O’Regan she got less than ten per cent in the first round of votes there, in a seat that Mr Morrison had wanted a woman to contest.

MATHIAS CORMANN: I have never had a conversation with Scott Morrison about who his preferred candidate was. Scott Morrison did not have a vote on the pre-selection. He was not a pre-selection delegate. As the Prime Minister has indicated, he is keen to see more Liberal women in Parliament. All of us support him in that determination to achieve that into the future. We have had some very significant success in recent times on that front. This would have been another opportunity, but in the end it is always important to select the best candidate. The pre-selection delegates in Wentworth for the Liberal party made the judgement that Dave Sharma, out of the candidates who presented themselves, was the best candidate. It is now onto winning the seat of Wentworth for the Liberal party, retaining the seat of Wentworth for the Liberal party. As I say, I am very pleased that Malcolm Turnbull has come out so strongly in support of our Liberal candidate in Wentworth.

KIERAN GILBERT: So what is your view then in terms of how you deal with the Liberal party’s women problem? You need more women in the Parliament and yet you are not going to allow for quotas, how do you go about this? Do you have to set up a body specifically to pursue this?

MATHIAS CORMANN: We pursue every single opportunity. If you look at the Tasmanian Liberal Senate ticket, two out of the three candidates in winnable positions are women. The Senate ticket in Western Australia will be led by Linda Reynolds, a high quality, outstanding woman. We have got Amanda Stoker out of Queensland. We have got Georgina Downer re-preselected in the seat of Mayo. Right around Australia, we are pre-selecting outstanding women. We have to continue to take every opportunity. But in Wentworth, quite rightly, the pre-selection delegates were asked to make a judgement on who the best candidate was. They determined that the best candidate was Dave Sharma. We now all get behind helping him win. That is the job at hand.   

KIERAN GILBERT: Given that the Prime Minister’s preferred option, candidate received less than ten per cent, is that embarrassing for him?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No not at all. Again, I see these assertions as to who was who’s preferred candidate. In the end there were 201 Liberals in Wentworth who had the job of selecting who the Liberal candidate of Wentworth would be. We all understand the process. It is a democratic process in the Liberal party. Our candidates do not get chosen from on up high. That is how the process works. The pre-selectors in Wentworth did their job. They selected the candidate who in their judgement was the best candidate. Congratulations to Dave Sharma. It is now on to getting the job done and winning the seat of Wentworth at this by-election on 20 October.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, well he is no doubt a strong candidate Dave Sharma and performed well as ambassador. He could face a strong candidate in Kerryn Phelps in an independent capacity. But let’s move onto something you touched on and that was Malcolm Turnbull’s support for Dave Sharma, but not much support for Malcolm Turnbull this week for Peter Dutton your friend. What do you say to the former Prime Minister in relation to his message when it comes to Mr Dutton?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Malcolm has pursued this argument over the last few weeks, including the last few days of the last sitting week in the last sitting fortnight. As far as I am concerned there is no uncertainty in relation to Peter Dutton’s eligibility to sit in the Parliament. He received his own very unequivocal legal advice from a former Solicitor-General in David Bennett QC, who has a very strong track record in the High Court when it comes to section 44 cases. That was backed up by our current Solicitor-General. If the Labor party wants to continue to pursue this on partisan grounds, good luck to them. As far as I am concerned, the legal position is very clear. Mr Dutton is entirely eligible to sit in the Australian Parliament, as he has for the last seventeen years having won the seat of Dickson from the Labor party back in 2001.

KIERAN GILBERT: It is difficult for you and the Prime Minister though to try and portray a united front when you see dispatches from Mr Turnbull but also comments from Julie Bishop yesterday that she will wait and see how she will vote. That does give some sort of motivation to Labor to seek a referral of Peter Dutton in the House of Representatives if they were to get Julie Bishop and other Liberals crossing the floor?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The Government is united. The Government has long gone back to work. We have been going back to work over the last two weeks to make Australia stronger, keep the economy strong, keep Australians safe and keep Australians together. We have not been getting distracted by any of this. Individual Members of Parliament, in particular Members of Parliament on the backbench prior to any vote assess what is in front of them and make judgements. That is what we do every single day. That is just business as usual. What I would say is that the House of Representatives did vote in relation to the eligibility of Peter Dutton, dealing with a motion by Labor seeking to refer him to the High Court. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop voted against the Labor motion to refer him to the High Court, because we are very firmly of the view that there is no issue to be resolved here. The position is very clear based on unequivocal legal advice, in particular from David Bennett QC, who arguably has been the most successful QC in front of the High Court in relation to section 44 matters in recent times.

KIERAN GILBERT: Indeed but you have got Julie Bishop saying that there needs to be clarity. And reports today by James Campbell in the Herald Sun that two other Liberals are willing to cross the floor as well. That would be a disaster.

MATHIAS CORMANN: There is legal clarity. I cannot speculate about anonymous reports. What I can say is that there is legal clarity, unequivocally legal clarity. If you are putting to me that there are political dynamics at play, let the Labor party initiate what they want to initiate. Let us see what the House of Representatives does. As far as I am concerned there is no question mark over Peter Dutton’s eligibility to sit in the Parliament as there has not been over the last seventeen years that he has been the Member for Dickson.

KIERAN GILBERT: And Mr Turnbull now in New York. He is not a Member of Parliament. Is it within his rights to be able to make these sorts of interventions or would you urge him to stop it?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Malcolm Turnbull is private citizen now. It is entirely up to him what he chooses to do from here.

KIERAN GILBERT: It is not helpful though is it, because you say the Government is united, it just does not look united.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Kieran, Malcolm Turnbull is no longer a Member of the Government. He is a private citizen in New York. I am not going to provide a running commentary on what he may or may not have to say from here on in.  

KIERAN GILBERT: Can you provide some response though to the comments of Frank Lowy, one of the most respected business figures in the country, gave a Lowy Institute lecture last night and said that it is just not acceptable for our democracy to have had five Prime Ministers in five years and democracy needs to be handled with care.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Democracy does need to be handled with care. Of course. But in the end you have to make judgements based on the circumstances you find yourself in about what puts you into the best possible position into the future. Sadly, again, I say it again, this is not something where there was some sort of plot or some sort of insurgency. This is a circumstance where the Prime Minister at the time decided to call a leadership spill, a surprise leadership spill in the party room, which led to a series of events, which meant that we had to make a judgement on how to resolve this properly into the future. That is what the party room did, we decided to elect Scott Morrison as our Leader and Josh Frydenberg as our Deputy Leader. We are now focused on doing the job that we were elected to do, keeping the economy strong, keeping Australians safe and keeping Australians together. That is what we are working on. If you look at the track record over the last five years of our Government, that is actually what matters. What matters is the fact that we inherited a weakening economy, rising unemployment and a rapidly deteriorating Budget position from Labor. We were able to turn that situation around with a stronger economy, much stronger jobs growth, a much lower unemployment rate than what had been anticipated and a much stronger Budget position moving forward than what we inherited. That ultimately is what matters to the Australian people, the fact that we can continue to sustainably fund the essential services they rely on, that we can continue to keep the economy strong, create more jobs and keep Australians safe.

KIERAN GILBERT: But you know that instability in a political level has ramifications in terms of business certainty and business investment. The tricky thing here for the Government is that the economy is going well and the MYEFO, the mid-year budget update looks like it is going to be much, much better than first anticipated. So, you have got a bit of wind in the sails in that sense and you cannot distance yourself too much from the Turnbull leadership because that was a big part of the way that you got there. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Kieran, the thing is because we are so committed to stability and certainty we had to deal with the situation that emerged. If we had not dealt with it in that sitting week a couple of weeks ago, we would have had debilitating instability for weeks and possibly months to come. We would have ended up in a completely irretrievable, chaotic position. Anybody who thinks that if we had left Canberra two weeks ago and everything would have been fine is a bit naïve quite frankly. I spent three years working really, really hard, bending over backwards to help Malcolm Turnbull unite the Liberal party behind his leadership. I think that anybody who knows anything about the last three years knows that I have worked incredibly hard to help ensure that we had the most stable, united Government and the most united party possible behind Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. But in the end, when things were brought to a head by him and when certain realities were crystallised as a result of that ballot in the party room a few weeks ago, the position became irretrievable. The position had to be resolved, in the interests of the country, in the interests of the Government and the interests of the Liberal Party. That is what was done and we are now moving forward. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, before we move forward and wrap up on just one other issue I want to ask you about. Why has the Government, why has the Prime Minister struggled to explain the change of leadership? He has been asked repeatedly this week and really has not been forth coming on it.

MATHIAS CORMANN: The thing is I do not believe he has struggled at all. All of us have clearly spelled out that the reason there is a change of leadership is because the Liberal Party party room decided to elect a new Leader. The Leader at the time, the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had lost the confidence of a majority of the party room. We decided to elect a new leader. That is why there is a new Prime Minister. I understand that the media and commentators and analysts and all sorts of people want us to continue to dissect the weeds of all of this, but the decision that we have made is that our job is to move forward to get on with it, to get back to work for the Australian people, to keep the economy strong, to keep Australians safe and to keep Australians together. To do everything we can to build an even stronger Australia into the future. That is what we are doing.

KIERAN GILBERT: It is the anniversary of the Lehmann Brothers collapse, which sparked the Global Financial Crisis. The former Prime Minister Mr Rudd writes in the Financial Review, how we staved off the GFC, he talks about the stimulus programs and the bank guarantee, the deposit guarantee and inter-bank lending and various other measures. Coming up later this half hour after the break, I am going to be joined by the former Treasurer Wayne Swan to get his view on the Government’s response to the GFC. Do you give the then Labor Government any credit for avoiding a recession in that crisis Finance Minister?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No. If any Government deserves any credit it is the Howard Government who left behind a very strong economy and a very strong Budget position. Australia went into the GFC in a very different economic and fiscal circumstance than most other countries around the world. We had very strong demand for our resources, very high terms of trade, very high prices for our key commodity exports like iron ore and coal, in particular on the back of demand out of China. The excessive fiscal stimulus and the spending on thing like pink batts and overpriced school halls actually is what forced the Reserve Bank in Australia to lift interest rates from uniquely in the western world, from three percent to four and three quarter per cent in the wake of Labor’s excessive spending, which combined with high terms of trade, pushed up the value of the Australian dollar, which made the non-mining parts of the Australian economy less competitive internationally. The end result of Labor’s mismanagement of the economy and Labor’s mismanagement of the Budget over their six years in Government is the reason why they left behind a weakening economy, rising unemployment and rapidly deteriorating Budget position when they lost Government in 2013. They made a challenging situation more difficult, including up to this day for Australia as a result of bad decisions in spending money, excessive money badly.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister we are out of time I have to take a break and talk to Wayne Swan. We will get his response to you on that. Thank you, we will talk to you next week.


Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, Perth