Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance and the Public Service
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
KIERAN GILBERT: Mathias Cormann joins us now, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Finance Minister. Minister, thanks so much for your time. Given Peter Dutton has warned this committee that the intelligence agencies are fearful, privately raising concerns about the risk of copycat attacks over Christmas, will the Government lift the terror alert level?
MATHIAS CORMANN: These are not judgements for me to make on your program here this morning. What I can say to you in relation to encryption messaging is that it is a serious problem for law enforcement agencies, including as indicated by police in Melbourne in the context of the terrorism related arrests earlier this week. So what we are wanting to ensure in relation to terrorism offences and some very serious other offences in relation to serious child sexual abuse and the like, that police and in relation to terrorism, ASIO is enabled to do its job. We are getting to a period where there is heightened risk and we have to make sure that our law enforcement agencies have got all of the tools available to them that we can provide.
LAURA JAYES: Why are intelligence agencies making these warnings privately? Don’t we all deserve to know?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Every Australian would expect intelligence agencies to provide advice to the Government of the day in relation to matters that need to be addressed as we all work to keep the Australian community safe.
KIERAN GILBERT: But then Peter Dutton is passing it on to this committee and now it is on the front page of The Australian. Is that the way it should work? In terms of divulging that advice you get.
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is the democratic process at work. There is a piece of legislation which has been in the Parliament for some time. The Government, based on advice, is of the view that passage of this legislation should be accelerated and the Minister has written to the appropriate Parliamentary Committee along those lines. That is just democracy at work I would have thought.
LAURA JAYES: Are these warnings being put to Cabinet and the leadership group as well, because if these warnings from ASIO are that serious about an attack, the increased risk of an attack over Christmas, should the Government be looking at other measures, not just these encryption laws?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are constantly looking at measures required to ensure that the Australian community is as safe as we can possibly make it. It is something that we are always focused on. Over the last two or three years we have passed some significant law reform in this space. We have also announced changes to the Australian Citizenship Act in order to more effectively deal with any dual citizen Australians who have been engaged in terrorism or foreign fighting activity. We are always focused on ensuring that our laws are fit for purpose and enable our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to do their job to the best of their ability.
KIERAN GILBERT: When it comes to the encryption laws, obviously there needs to be a balance achieved doesn’t there, between giving those agencies the powers they need but also protecting the rights of everyday citizens and their own freedoms. Surely.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Indeed. We agree. We would argue that in the laws that we have put forward to the Parliament that balance is appropriately achieved. It is a problem though, when terrorists and serious offenders are able to operate completely beyond the reach of law enforcement, that is an unacceptable level of risk and exposure in terms of the Australian community. There have to be circumstances in which police and other law enforcement agencies can appropriately pierce through that.
LAURA JAYES: Do you have any concerns about these processes being expedited though?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am very keen, like Minister Dutton is, to ensure that it is expedited and that we are able to deal with this important legislation this upcoming sitting fortnight.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at the other issues of the day, Labor party’s energy plan, it has been endorsed by various players in the sector, happy that there is some certainty as opposed to the Government’s approach.
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are on the side of consumers, on the side of families and business. There is no question that Labor’s approach to energy will lead to higher electricity prices, which will harm the economy, put jobs at risk and be bad for families’ cost of living. You have to remember, the fifty per cent renewable energy target for example is the same target that the South Australian Labor Government pursued in South Australia. They were not able to keep the lights on in the end. Our policy framework, our policy approach provides certainty, but it also ensures that we bring prices down and provide reliable energy supplies into the future.
LAURA JAYES: The battery plan that Labor put forward yesterday is very similar to the Liberal State government’s plan in South Australia. So if it is good enough for Steven Marshall, why can’t it be good enough for Bill Shorten?
MATHIAS CORMANN: You look at the history of the sorts of schemes that Bill Shorten and Labor were involved in during their last six years in Government, from pink batts which put houses on fire to overpriced school halls, cash for clunkers, you name it. The way that Labor has put forward this scheme, it would require about $10,000 of contribution from individual Australian families wanting to access it. That is not a way to bring down the cost of electricity for families. Families struggling with the cost of electricity do not just have a lazy $10,000 sitting on the bedside table. What we are putting forward and what we are implementing is an agenda that genuinely brings down electricity prices moving forward, but also does so in a way that guarantees stable supplies of energy into the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, but not keeping everyone happy, certainly not your normal constituency either in the business community. The Business Council of Australia has used a submission to Treasury, slamming your idea of possible divestiture of these energy companies, or divestment of these companies. Declaring that it exacerbates sovereign risk, interferes with market outcomes and it would also discourage investment potentially.
MATHIAS CORMANN: There is always a level of vested interest in the context of these sorts of debates and the Government has made very clear that this is not something that we would want to pursue. It is a last resort measure. When it is all said and done, we are on the side of consumers and business when it comes to electricity prices … interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: Well not business, clearly not business.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Business is not one homogenous group that has one opinion. The opinion of business depends on the position they are in at any one particular point in time, Kieran. What I would put to you is that in Australia we do need to ensure that electricity prices come down. That is what we are doing. What we have put forward is a very comprehensive plan, but which includes as a last resort measure. Should there not be a better response voluntarily by relevant electricity providers, then there is a last resort measure there that would ultimately help bring electricity prices down. That is our focus.
LAURA JAYES: The BCA represents hundreds of businesses in Australia and they say that this plan is ad hoc and extreme. So are you carving out those hundreds of businesses, who are you listening to?
MATHIAS CORMANN: They do not actually represent hundreds of businesses. I think I was at a dinner with the BCA earlier in week and I think they explained that their membership was about 132 businesses. But leaving that to one side, the BCA is a very important organisation and they represent a very important voice. But in the end we have to form our own judgements having taken on board all the different inputs. But whatever way you look at it, Mark Butler has let the cat out of the bag. As Labor did last time, they want to bring back a carbon tax. A carbon tax combined with a fifty per cent renewable energy target and a 45 per cent emissions reduction target will drive up electricity prices compared to where they are now. It would mean there would be less investment in the economy overall, that economic growth would be lower, that unemployment would rise, that people would earn less and pay more. Earn less and pay more for their electricity … interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. The Victorian election tomorrow. Daniel Andrews well ahead according to the two major polls out today on the eve of the election. Do you accept some Federal responsibility for this in the sense that the Liberal leadership change certainly appears to have hurt Matthew Guy’s efforts there?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I can see that you want to declare the result of the Victorian election here this morning before people even have gone to the polling booth which … interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: Not quite. Not quite.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Matthew Guy and his team have worked very hard. They will be campaigning for every single vote between now and six o’clock tomorrow night. Under Daniel Andrews Victoria has become the highest taxing state in Australia. They have put forward an agenda which will see Victorian debt double, which means more taxes for Victorian families today and into the future. We are urging every Victorian to think very carefully about whether they want to encourage and support Labor to drive taxes up further or whether they want to return to sound economic and fiscal management which will put Victoria on the strongest possible foundation and trajectory for the future.
LAURA JAYES: Minister, Kelly O’Dwyer announced a multi-million dollar flexible paid parental leave package this week. Why didn’t that plan go through Cabinet, or the ERC?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It did.
LAURA JAYES: My information is that it didn’t. So this was ticked off?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Of course it was. It went through all of the normal processes. Let me say that Kelly O’Dwyer as the Minister has taken her women’s economic statement through the Expenditure Review Committee on a number of occasions. It was very carefully considered and it went through the usual process. I am not quite sure what you are talking about there.
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright you have been clear on that response to the finances of that. What about your reaction to the Building and Construction Commissioner this morning, Steve McBurney, we had him on today. He says he is not lobbying to keep the watchdog in place in the event that Labor wins next year, but he is clearly making the case that for their record and his record as commissioner of the building watchdog, saying they have brought 34 cases before the courts and of those 30 of them relate to the construction union.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Australian Building and Construction Commission does an incredibly important job and he does a very good job. About ten per cent of our workforce work in the building and construction sector. Very important for our economy and for our community that we have compliance with the law across the building and construction industry. That is important for productivity. It is important in terms of keeping the cost of construction competitive. Under our period in Government over the last five years the level of industrial disputation has dropped by about 60 per cent. The ABCC has been … interrupted
KIERAN GILBERT: Are the safety standards being maintained as well? Because that is the concern that the union raises.
MATHIAS CORMANN: You point me to any evidence. This is just one of the things that the unions, as you say, try to use in order to try to justify breaking the law across building sites around Australia. I am not aware of any evidence along those lines.
LAURA JAYES: Okay, Mathias Cormann, we do know that Labor wants to dismantle this. It will take some time to dismantle it wouldn’t it, if indeed Labor was in government after the next election.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Bill Shorten will be a wholly owned subsidiary of the CFMEU. He will not be acting in the public interest. He will be acting in the vested interest of unions like the CFMEU. Militant unions who will drive up the cost of construction, who will weaken our economy. A weaker economy will mean less opportunity for families around Australia to get ahead. Let us be very clear about it, if Bill Shorten was elected Prime Minister, he will be taking his riding instructions from the CFMEU, doing what they want in their interests, not even in workers’ interests, in the CFMEU’s interests.
KIERAN GILBERT: Mathias Cormann, we appreciate your time. We will talk to you next week. Thanks for that.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.