Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

ABC News Breakfast Saturday 24 October

October 24, 2020


SUBJECTS: Federal Corruption Watchdog; ASIC scandal; Cartier watches; Western Sydney Airport Rorts, Stranded Australians, AFL Grand Final.

JOURNALIST: Let's now bring in our Polly panel and we are joined by Liberal MP Andrew Laming and we're also joined by Labor MP Andrew Giles. Welcome to you both, to the show. Andrew Giles, I want to start with you, but let's start with this ASIC story that came out yesterday. What does it say to you, when the head of the corporate watchdog, and his deputy, aren't able to follow the regulations that they're meant to implement?

ANDREW GILES, MEMBER FOR SCULLIN: Well, I'm shocked and I think all Australians should be shocked by this. These are people who are personally selected by the government for these critical corporate enforcement roles, and yet we're seeing - I mean staggered by this, $118,000 spent on tax advice by the taxpayer for Mr Shipton. This is absolutely extraordinary. What's even more extraordinary, though, is that it seems that this was reported by the ANAO, a body the government cut funding for back in August and the Treasurer himself seems to have known since September. This shows us that we desperately need a national integrity commission and the Treasurer has got to explain exactly what he knew and when.

JOURNALIST: And, to be fair, James Shipton, the ASIC chair, said that he will repay that money and believes he's acted properly and holds himself to the highest standard. Andrew Laming, if I can ask you here, the Prime Minister has put the public sector pretty much on notice after the chair of ASIC and the boss of Aussie Post stood aside over public sector expense scandals. Do you think there is a cultural problem at these organisations with respect to how they regard taxpayer dollars and how they spend them?

ANDREW LAMING, MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: Well, it's a long-term challenge in identifying what an appropriate salary structure is for these senior government-owned corporations, statutory authorities and the like. The argument has always been to attract people out of the private sector the salary has to be high. That's a very flawed argument. You'll get plenty of feigned indignation today from politicians but no government has ever taken this seriously. The solution is to bring in the salaries to a remuneration-type structure that everything operates under. It's hard to justify that any of these individuals should earn twice what a High Court justice earns. It needs to be brought into a structure. And honestly, any individual who has been telling people to drink more Pepsi and less Coke that can save Australia needing $3 million a year for a public position needs to stay in the private sector where they belong and continue slurping salary. But for people to work for the public sector, you have to operate under a structure - and I'm arguing the maximum should be a High Court justice or double that figure, not 10 times that figure.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Laming, if I could stay with that particular issue there, Prime Minister Morrison has said that he is open to reviewing public servant executive bonuses. Do you see this as lip service? When do you think we'll be able to see this review?

LAMING: Well, every government looks at it and fails to move on it because of the argument that to get the best people in, you've got to pay them accordingly. But what happens is that you may pay one individual a great sum of money that can be justified, but then subsequently, every other individual - retired politicians and premiers - just take that same salary, when it's absolutely not indicated for the role. It's upwardly sticky is the term we use. There has to be a solution and that is if you want to pay more than a High Court judge to anyone working in the public service, you go to the remuneration tribunal and the whole discussion is public and the public can either support or oppose it. Australians aren't shareholders, right? Because we can't sell our stocks in Australia. So we can't send any kind of signal and we're counting on governments of all persuasions to address it, but let's be honest, they never have. It's clearly a more complicated issue than just bellowing about a salary. But lets say if you want to work for the country in the public sector it has to be under a remuneration structure where everything else is under this structure and not these statutory authorities.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles, do you see this as just a remuneration problem? Because what we're also talking about here is $20,000 that has been spent on watches for executives and an exorbitant tax bill that was paid for by, in essence by taxpayers. How would Labor put these people, these government appointees under more scrutiny?

GILES: Well, yes, it has been an extraordinary period. And let's remember this is the government that's been in office for seven years, and I think that everything that Andrew has said has to be seen in that context. These cultures haven't developed overnight. What we really need - and let's be frank about this - Australians don't need a luxury watch to tell them it's time for a national anti-corruption watchdog. There are endemic issues here - the sale of land at the new Sydney Airport site, the $30 million more than it was valued at. The continuing scandals we've seen over sports rorts. There's something going on in this government that needs systemic action to address it. It's not just about watches. We've seen from the Prime Minister that he takes a zero-tolerance approach to Cartier watches but when it comes to the structural and systematic issues, he's nowhere to be seen. That's just not good enough. We know now that the Government has had its anti-corruption watchdog legislation ready since December last year. Why haven't we seen it? Why hasn't anything happened? These are vital questions that go to the heart of our democracy.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Laming, as Andrew Giles just touched on there, the Leppington Triangle, we had Joel Fitzgibbon out saying Christine Holgate is standing aside - the Aussie Post chief - but who is standing aside over the $27 million of taxpayers money paid for a $3 million block of land in Sydney, as we're finding out is allegedly a departmental decision. Should someone in the Government be stood aside over that while the investigation is going on?

LAMING: No, not really, because it doesn't affect their ability to do their job, but it must be investigated. I take a slightly different view to Andrew. These cases existed right through his Labor administration. They'll always exist in a civic democracy. You don't necessarily need a picnic of lawyers to sort this out. Self-evidently we're talking about this and Andrew was saying it was back in September. For the record, it's now October, right, so we're capable of getting this information out in the public domain, having an inquiry and I put to Andrew that the current structures can do this well. It doesn't mean simply because you create a new taxpayer-funded structure that suddenly the scandals go away. They continue, and at the moment, they continue to be investigated. And I've got no problem with the current path of investigation.

JOURNALIST: Alright. We want to change topics now and talk about the Prime Minister yesterday saying that he wants the 20,000 or so Aussies who are stranded overseas to be repatriated back to Australia by Christmas. Andrew Giles, if I could start with you, you're in Victoria of course, you're just easing out of restrictions at the moment. But before the pandemic happened, Melbourne was an international travel hub. For the repatriation to successfully happen, for this deadline to happen by Christmas, Melbourne would have to open up again. Are you confident that Melbourne will have their operations in place? Particularly their quarantine operations strengthened and in place to take on these repatriated Australians?

GILES: Well, Fauziah, firstly, what I should say is welcome home to 149 Australians who have been stranded for too long and I understand have made it to Darwin in the last day. But I've got to disagree with the premise of the question on two levels. Firstly, we found out this week it's actually 32,000 Australians who are presently stranded. And, of course, quarantine is fundamentally, and constitutionally a matter for our national government. We heard a lot early in the pandemic from the Prime Minister about National Cabinet and how we would all work together to get through this but, of course, we had the last meeting - apart from yesterday's - the one before that of the National Cabinet cancelled by the Prime Minister because apparently there's no way in Queensland he could communicate with his colleagues in the states
and territories. What we need is a plan to get every Australian home. That's got to be led by the national government. And frankly, what we've seen from the national government in this area is too little and too late. We could have seen the quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth facility, opened up earlier. We could have seen flights chartered. We could have seen action taken that would have prevented so many of my constituents who have made several trips to airports overseas with young children only not to get home. Australian citizens are entitled to so much more than what they have got from the Australian government through this pandemic.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Laming, could the Federal Government have opened up Howard Springs earlier? Put on more repatriation flights to get Australians home?

LAMING: Well, I've got some sympathy for Andrew's point. Back in August, it had already been four weeks where the states had effectively got together, seen that 27% of arrivals into Australia via Tullamarine were not happening and instead of being federalists and helping out Victoria, the other states slapped in these bizarre and world-unique caps and that's caused the entire problem. I need to remind Andrew that while the Northern Territory may well not be a state, we don't control Howard Springs. That's the NT Government. They've been the good guys in this, so has South Australia and so has Gladys Berejiklian taking 1,000 people a day to support Victoria. Can I tell you who the bad guys are? It's WA and Queensland and the puerile closing of their borders and shutting down their airports has been the core of this problem, two states not playing ball when a Labor mate in Victoria was in trouble. And we needed way more from Annastacia Palaszczuk long before this. So in answer to your
question, yes, the Feds may well have to move in but they just don't have the people and the boots on the ground. They have to basically, I mean the defence bases aren't there to be used for that purpose. Howard Springs is - it's run by the Northern Territory Government. 3,000 units in there, only 1,000 of them being used by migrant agricultural workers, so it was our only chance and the PM has been forced to take it and it is two months it too late. But it's better than nothing. It’s also holding up our skilled visas coming in and it's holding up our international students. So the states' belligerence here - happy to take JobKeeper but crushing our economy on the way through - is what will treble the overall cost of COVID to Australia.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Laming, just on the point of Queensland keeping their borders shut for now, the Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, says that she is acting on the advice of her Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, and this is also why she seems to be leading in the polls in the lead-up to the Queensland elections.

LAMING: And that's right. And if you close off your little slice of paradise in Australia to the rest of the world, you'll always get a bump in the polls. But this is now increasingly a discredited CHO who presided over decisions that led to the death of a baby, to refusing people travelling across a border to a funeral until there was so much public reaction that they allowed her to travel in full PPE. There were so many ways to figure this out. But what's happened here is the Premier has decided to close borders, who has gone to her CHO, who is now an appendage of the Australian Labor Party, and said, "If I close the borders is that inconsistent with medical advice?" And we've got a compliant CHO who has been in the job too long - says she doesn't see it against medical advice and then the Premier says it's medical advice. How do we have eight different forms of medical advice across the country? It's because CHOs are too often in the palms of their Premier masters.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles we probably need your response to that. Do you see that Annastacia Palaszczuk has played politics with the borders?

GILES: Far from it. We should be careful in attacking the motives of highly qualified public servants particularly in a pandemic when it is so important that we maintain trust and confidence in decision making. So I'm disappointed in Andrew's characterisation of the decisions and the advice of the Queensland health officer. Annastasia Palaszczuk has done an extraordinary job in keeping Queenslanders safe. That's widely recognised not just in Queensland, but around the country.

JOURNALIST: Before we go, it would be remiss not to ask who your AFL and NRL tips are for today?

GILES: As a Victorian, I hope the Vixens win in the netball becomes a three-peat with the Storm tomorrow and of course it is an all-Victorian footy final. I was on your show last year and backed in Richmond, but Geelong can provide the fairytale finish tonight.


LAMING: I agree with Andrew. As an outer-metro MP, it could be the year of the Bogan, go the Cats and Panthers. If Cameron Smith would just bloody retire and give all the other teams a chance, I might quietly egg on the Storm.

JOURNALIST: He’s been chaired off, so the photo is in the book anyway…

LAMING: I won’t believe it until it’s a wheelchair.

JOURNALIST: Thanks very much.