Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
ANNELISE NIELSEN: We’re joined live now by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann from beautiful Perth, Western Australia. Mathias Cormann, thank you for your time. Firstly, can I get your response to the latest from the ICAC hearings? Apart from Sam Dastyari getting in a bit of trouble with his bike, it’s certainly alarming what we’re seeing coming out of these hearings.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Look pretty extraordinary revelations. Obviously those processes are taking their course, but the thought of any political party accepting $100,000 in cash in a bag, I certainly think most Australians would have thought that that was not happening in Australia these days. That is pretty extraordinary. Obviously, prohibited donations in cash on the face of it to mask where the cash came from, it is pretty bad, pretty extraordinary.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Absolutely. It certainly only came to light because of the New South Wales ICAC. Do you think this bolsters the calls for a federal ICAC? There could be similar things happening at a federal level that we don’t know about.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I do not believe so. Obviously we are committed to strengthening our integrity framework. We do have a very significant framework already in place to fight any corruption, to ensure any corruption is appropriately addressed. We have already indicated that we will be strengthening that framework further and the Attorney-General at the right time will be making relevant announcements.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: If I can turn to a speech you gave to the Sydney Institute about the state of the Australian economy, you had some choice words for Labor about their perhaps socialist policies that might have lost them the election. Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers has said why are you still talking about Labor? You should be talking about growing the economy. Do you think that’s fair enough that you shouldn’t be still harping on about why Labor lost?
MATHIAS CORMANN: A substantial part of the speech is about how we are building a stronger economy, creating more jobs and ensuring Australians today and in the future have the best possible opportunity to get ahead. I go into some detail through our very comprehensive plan, including our tax reform agenda, delivering $300 billion in income tax relief for hardworking families, our ambitious infrastructure agenda, our ambitious free trade agenda, our ambitious deregulation agenda, our plan to bring electricity prices down. So there is a lot about our plan to build a stronger economy. But I believe that it is in Labor’s interest, and I believe the country’s interest, for Labor to understand why the Australian people have rejected them at the last election. Because in the end, unless Labor understands why they failed, that Australians do not support the politics of envy, do not support class welfare, do not support this sort of high taxing agenda that they took to the last election, well then the country might be faced with this again in the future. I think it is absolutely fair and reasonable that in a democracy where there are contrasting agendas being put in front of the Australian people, that there is a discussion about their comparative impact. Our plan of supporting free enterprise, reward for effort, encouraging people to stretch themselves, lower taxes, smaller government. This is designed to build a stronger economy with more jobs, lower unemployment and higher wages over time, whereas Labor’s alternative agenda at the last election was really all designed about increasing taxes on the economy. An anti-business, higher taxes, politics of envy agenda which would have made the country weaker and poorer. It is important for us to continue to engage in that conversation and it is important for Australians that Labor understands, accepts and acts on why they lost so that in the future Australians are not faced with that sort of agenda again.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: You have recently travelled to Papua New Guinea where you met with senior officials there. Papua New Guinea has asked for an increase in funding in the form of transferring aid directly into their budget, allowing them to spend it how they see fit and it’s coupled with the threat that if we don’t give them the money, they’re going to turn to China and that will increase the superpower’s influence just to our north. What did you make of Papua New Guinea’s request?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We had some very good meetings in Papua New Guinea on Monday and Tuesday as part of the 27th Ministerial Forum between Australia and Papua New Guinea. That happens every year. So we have a long-standing friendship and relationship with Papua New Guinea. We talked through the various issues where we can support each other, including of course some of the economic and fiscal challenges that Papua New Guinea is facing at the moment. It is important to remember that while Papua New Guinea does face some economic and fiscal challenges, they also have a lot of exciting opportunities as a trading nation. There are some significant resource projects that could be getting underway, which would of course help boost their revenue base to deal with some of the expenditure challenges they are dealing with. What we have said to Papua New Guinea is that we are not considering redirecting aid funding into budget support, but what we are prepared to consider and what our officials now are working on, is to explore options on how we might be able to provide bridging finance to support their fiscal requirements in 2019 and 2020 and also to support their efforts to reform state-owned enterprises, which are seeking to refinance some of their higher interest loans over the next few months. These are things now that officials on both sides will work through, assessing, doing the technical work, sharing the information, making sure that both governments have some informed options in front of them about next steps.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Is that a concern that China might come to the table and step in with that cash?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have a long-standing and established relationship and obviously we appreciate that Papua New Guinea is engaging with us in relation to these matters. We will do what we can appropriately do, to support their efforts to get their budget back into a stronger, more sustainable position, but also to ensure that Papua New Guinea is in the strongest possible position to seize the economic growth opportunities in front of them. You have to remember, Papua New Guinea and Australia, we are in the same neighbourhood. We are in the part of the world where most of the global economic growth will continue to be generated for decades to come. So there is a lot of opportunity and Papua New Guinea has got access to significant natural resources like we do. It is a matter of making sure they are sensibly exploited and that the product is sold in a way that delivers an economic benefit and dividend to their population and, indeed, helps to underpin their fiscal position over the medium to long term. These are all things we are working through with them as close and long-standing friends and obviously close partners.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: When it comes to religious freedoms, the draft legislation that was released yesterday, it was well received by many within religious groups, but some are concerned that some of those protections don’t go quite far enough, including the Australian Christian Lobby’s concern that there’s not enough protections for cases like Israel Folau’s, that that wouldn’t be allowed to happen again. What are your thoughts on whether that particular aspect needs to be bolstered?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I strongly support the draft legislation that Christian Porter has put forward. I strongly argued for the position that he has put forward internally. I think that he has achieved the right balance. Having said that, it is an exposure draft. It is now going to go through a comprehensive process of consultation right around the country. Everyone and anyone who has a view will be able to share that view and to the extent that there are legitimate issues that are identified that still need to be addressed, that opportunity is there. But as a starting position and as an opening document, I think that the exposure draft that Christian Porter has come up with is an outstanding piece of work and he has achieved the right balance.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: And just finally, we have a key committee meeting here in Canberra later this morning. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will be speaking about the roles that Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop took on post-parliamentary life, including whether there is any kind of conflict, especially with Christopher Pyne’s role as a defence adviser when he was the Defence Minister. Do you think that even if they are cleared of issues that this passes the pub test with your normal Australian?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Obviously all ministers are required to comply with the Statement of Ministerial Standards and the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson has reviewed the facts, has spoken to Mr Pyne and Ms Bishop and has come back with a conclusion and a finding that there was no breach of the Statement of Ministerial Standards. So I take that at face value. It is a matter of objectively assessing the facts. Just because the Labor Party says that there is an issue does not mean there is an issue when they obviously take a partisan perspective. I think it was important that there was an independent review of the facts and what had happened. Martin Parkinson did that and he will be available to the Senate committee as you say today to answer any questions that Senators might have.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Do you think there needs to be any kind of change to those ministerial standards to, even if this instance doesn’t breach, to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again because we have seen public outcry about it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I disagree. I think we have to be very careful that we do not make it so difficult for Australians to contribute and provide public service through the political process by making it completely impossible to do anything on the other side. You have to remember, appropriately, changes were made back in 2004 to parliamentary superannuation arrangements, which means in line with community standards there is no defined benefit pension available to members of parliament on the other side. Members of parliament when they leave parliament do have to work. They do have to work in a way that is, if they have been ministers, consistent with the Statement of Ministerial Standards. They are not allowed to lobby other ministers and senior officials for 18 months. They are not allowed to use information that they have gained, that is not publicly available, in the course of the performance of their ministerial functions. That is entirely appropriate. But if we make it completely impossible for members of parliament to earn a living after they leave parliament, you will find that you will find it harder and harder to attract talented people to choose the profession of politics.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, thank you for joining us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.