Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Special Minister of State
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
Date: Monday, 25 November 2019
GERALDINE DOOGUE: When Federal Parliament resumes today, the scene will be set for a final showdown over two of the Government’s most contentious bills, repealing Medevac and punishing bad unions. But another issue, and it’s one for the ages, will loom large over the final sitting for the year, and that’s alleged political interference by China. In the latest explosive allegations, Beijing is accused of trying to install a Chinese agent in federal Parliament. ASIO says it’s taking the allegations seriously, after the man at the centre of the case, Bo Zhao, was found dead in what’s been described as suspicious circumstances. Mathias Cormann is the Finance Minister and the Leader of the Government in the Senate and I welcome him now. Good morning.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning Geraldine.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: The allegation Mr Cormann is that Chinese spies offered Bo Zhao, a member of the Liberal Party, one million dollars to contest the Melbourne seat of Chisholm. Was this an attempt to plant a Chinese spy in the Australian Government?
MATHIAS CORMANN: These are allegations that have been aired, as the Director-General of ASIO indicated in his statement last night, ASIO has been aware of these allegation and investigations are continuing. I am not in a position to make statements in relation to operational matters except to say that from the Government’s point of view, we do take these sorts of allegations very seriously. We have taken strong action as a Government to protect Australia from foreign interference and to protect our institutions. We have put in place the first Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator. We have, in the lead up to the last election, established the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce, which was led in the lead up to the election by the Australian Electoral Commission. We are taking effective action across a whole range of areas to protect Australia and Australia’s institutions from foreign interference. But in relation to these serious allegations, as ASIO has indicated, their work is continuing.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Will the Government consider lodging a protest with China?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I think we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. At this stage, there are allegations which are being investigated. We are not speculating as to where these investigations will lead. Let’s just let this take its proper and orderly course.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: These latest allegations are explosive, but they are separate from the case of Wang Li Qiang, a self-proclaimed Chinese agent making claims, seeking asylum in Australia. I think it will land pretty hard on Australians as they wake up to their breakfast. How concerned are you?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again … interrupted
GERALDINE DOOGUE: These are the first allegations of their kind in the world, so it’s all pretty fresh to try to grasp and to sort of work out, keep perspective on them.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is the important point. At this point, there are allegations and there are some claims being made by an individual that you have just referenced. These things have to be properly assessed. We can’t jump to premature conclusions before having gone through these proper processes.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: When you add this to the concerns surrounding, just thinking of the case of Bo Zhao, the man who was found dead, when you add this to the concerns surrounding the Liberal MP Gladys Liu during the election campaign because I think they were adjacent electorates, I think it’s legitimate to ask what is the Liberal Party doing to try to make sure that potential candidates do know Australian values and can’t even be considered in any shape or form to be agents of foreign governments?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I think you are quite inappropriately conflating unrelated issues here. I reject that in the strongest possible terms. I do not think there is any suggestion along the lines of what you have just suggested or implied in relation to the Member for Chisholm, Gladys Liu. In relation to matters that are reported today, I have gone through these several times now. These are matters that, appropriately, must be very thoroughly investigated. They are very serious allegations. I think it is important that we let those processes run their course.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: I mean, the whole issue with Wang Li Qiang, who claims to be the Chinese agent whose provided ASIO with a motherlode of inside intelligence supposedly on how China runs its espionage activities overseas including here in Australia. Clearly the question you’re going to face today is will he be granted political asylum?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, his claims and what he is putting forward and his request is being assessed through a proper process, as you would expect to happen. There are a whole range of matters in the public domain now. But I am not in a position to speculate on what will happen at the end of a proper process.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: At the same time, over the weekend we learned that Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, is moving at pace to deal with Chinese people about the Belt and Road initiative in Victoria. So there is so much conflicting impressions being given to the Australian people at the moment about appropriate and wise behaviour at the moment.
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have to keep some of these things separate. Australia has an interest in having a positive and constructive relationship with China. We will continue to work to have the best possible relationship with China moving forward. However, if there are instances of inappropriate behaviour, or from time to time, if and when issues arise, these need to be confronted and need to be addressed, they need to be dealt with. That is what we do as a sovereign nation. I think today as people read the news, it is important that we do not get ahead of ourselves. It is important that we do allow proper processes and proper assessments to take their course. At this stage, allegations have been made. They are serious allegations. But by the same token they need to be properly worked through before we reach conclusive judgements.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Would you hazard any guess at how long that might take so that people do start to feel that they can get a real handle on it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is not something that I am in a position to answer one way or the other. I am sure that it will be dealt with as quickly and as swiftly as possible and it will take as long as necessary. I do not think I can be more helpful than that.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Okay, look, there’s a lot to cover here because I’d like to move onto PNG if I could. Over the weekend, the Government quietly announced it would give Papua New Guinea a $442 million loan to help get its budget into shape. It had first asked Beijing for assistance. How much was the decision, Mr Cormann, to help driven by the imperative to keep China out of the region?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It is completely unrelated. We have a longstanding relationship with Papua New Guinea. It is in our national interest for Papua New Guinea to have a stable fiscal system and fiscal outlook and as strong and stable an economy as possible. We have been engaged with Papua New Guinea in relation to these matters for some time. They put a particular request to us in the context of an economic reform agenda being pursued by the Marape Government. We are pleased that we are able to help a friend and neighbour in a way that is not going to impose costs on Australian taxpayers.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: But they initially wanted $1.5 billion from Australia and haven’t we consistently declined to provide direct budget support to PNG because we were afraid of it never ending? So what’s changed?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are not providing direct budget support in the traditional sense. We are not providing a grant to Papua New Guinea. We are providing support in a way that we believe is respectful of the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea. We are providing a loan which will help Papua New Guinea through some transitional issues as they are pursuing economic and fiscal reforms that will help put them on a stronger and more sustainable fiscal and economic trajectory for the future. That is what we are pleased to do as a friend and neighbour and in the context of economic reforms being pursued by the Marape Government.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: They’ve got $11 billion in public debt, it chews up 30 per cent of their GDP, and it owes about $580 million, which is about 25 per cent of external debt. Will we get our money back ever? Does that matter?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It does matter. Yes we believe we will. Papua New Guinea does have some very exciting economic growth opportunities coming up in the foreseeable future. In the context of the reform agenda being pursued, we are confident that the Papua New Guinean economy and their fiscal position will strengthen into the future.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: I’d like to move to the Medevac situation. With Parliament resuming for its final fortnight, the Government is very keen to repeal the Medevac laws. Jacqui Lambie will have the casting valet and the Prime Minister will be meeting her today. What will it take to get her over the line?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is not a question that I can answer. That is a question for Jacqui. From our point of view, it is very important that the Medevac legislation is repealed. Labor, in the lead up to the last election, forced legislation through the Parliament that essentially outsourced our migration system and a key feature of our national security arrangements to advocates who happen to also be doctors. Medical transfers were available before that legislation. They will be available after the legislation has been repealed, but subject to more appropriate safeguards. The current arrangements are putting our national security arrangements at risk and that is something that we will put to the Senate this week for the Senate to finally deal with.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: That will certainly be a matter for debate today. The other legislation of note and the last question I have with you is the union-busting Ensuring Integrity bill. It will come down again to Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson on the crossbench. You’re the Government’s main negotiator. Have you landed their votes?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, we never comment publicly. We let crossbench Senators talk for themselves. But let me say that Centre Alliance and One Nation, in particular, have engaged very constructively with the Government in relation to that legislation. The efforts in relation to those negotiations were led by Christian Porter as the responsible Minister in this area. Again, this is about making sure that we put our economy and jobs on the best possible trajectory for the future. The continued lawlessness from some organisations is imposing a cost on the economy, it is costing jobs … interrupted
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Lawlessness like 23 million breaches by Westpac?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Westpac will be pursued with the appropriate and significant penalties. What has been proven to be the case in relation to parts of the union movement is that continued court imposed fines have not had any impact whatsoever and lawlessness continues. In relation to Westpac, of course the full force of the law should come down on an organisation like that that has been guilty of breaches to that extent. I think they will be.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: You will have a very interesting week. Thank you, Mathias Cormann, for joining us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.