Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Transcript: ABC News Breakfast Saturday 25 January

January 25, 2020



SUBJECTS: Sports Rorts; Ministerial standards; Bushfire aid response; Australia day.

JOURNALIST: It is time now for our Saturday political panel to discuss the pace of bushfire aid and what happens next in the sports rort affair. We are joined by Labor's Andrew Giles from Victoria, and the Liberal-National member for Bowman in Queensland, Andrew Laming. Thanks for being here. With two Andrews, I will have to be overly formal and call you misters.

Mr Laming, let's start with you; because the Prime Minister is expected to receive advice this weekend on whether Senator Bridget McKenzie breached ministerial standards. But, here is what we know, we know before last year’s election that she handed out sports grants for overtly political reasons and that she ignored the objective rankings that were given to her. We know that was a misuse of taxpayer’s money, should it matter if she technically breached ministerial guidelines and standards, when what she did was obviously dodgy?

ANDREW LAMING, MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: It is important ministerial standards are adhered to. That's why we have them in the first place. Both sides of politics sign up to them effectively and Australians expect that as well. Let's keep in mind, before this grant even existed, there were tiny little amounts for sporting clubs, there was no alternative for female sports players. This has delivered $750,000 into most of the electorates around Australia. I got within a few thousands of what would be expected, so huge areas have received exactly
what they desperately needed and they will potentially receive it get again if the grant continues. So sporting clubs are the winners, but we do need to look into the details as you have pointed out and that investigation is happening, and that’s how it should be.

JOURNALIST: Well it depends on which sporting club because if you weren't in the right electorate, you weren't a winner?

LAMING: Well, good luck at picking between two sporting clubs that don't have female change rooms. They will be applying, I would presume, in the next grant round if and when it occurs. I had one club miss out in my entire electorate, the rest of them are ready to get started and building. So there is a bigger picture here, taxpayer’s dollars well spent. But the allocation must be looked at and that is happening and Australians support that as well.

JOURNALIST: When you say good luck in competing between two applications, fortunately we don't have to do that because we have independent bodies to do it. The whole point is that we ignored those independent bodies.

LAMING: That is assuming the criteria are complete. I think it is hard to pick between electorates that may not have as many sporting clubs but larger once. Regional and rural ones will be seem to be getting more grants for smaller clubs, but they still will need the female changing rooms. It is very hard to weight between those. It is completely appropriate, as it has always happened in governments before this one that Ministers cast an eye over it to ensure that the delivery of that money is not only, according to the criteria, but the criteria haven't needed to change over time. And conditions do change over time and ministers of all ilk have made those decisions with grants and it is fine to look into it. Ultimately they know the results of their involvement will be in the public domain and they have to defend it.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles, should it be the minister's discretion? I mean that’s one of the things raised here, why should the Minister have the discretion, for example, in the third round of this particular project - 73% of projects given funding were not recommended by Sport Australia. Why shouldn’t Sport Australia have a right to choose, why is it the Minister?

ANDREW GILES, MEMBER FOR SCULLIN: Well this is extraordinary and appalling. Can I just say, Josh, that not a single dollar, not a single cent went to my electorate, a safe Labor electorate under this process and that's something I'm really angry about. It is fine for the Minister to have some discretion, because under our system, the Minister has to be responsible for these decisions, but this Minister isn't being responsible. She has to go. It is extraordinary and appalling that she remains a minister today.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles, why should the Minister have discretion? I don't really understand this. The whole point is you can outsource these decisions to experts. The experts bring back their recommendations; unless there is an exceptional circumstance, like a President pardoning a prisoner or something like that, why should the minister have discretion at all?

GILES: Well, it is how our democratic system works. Someone has to be responsible to the Australian people for the allocation of these funds. Now that should be based on advice and we've seen that these decisions weren't based on advice and there is no explanation has being given other than pure politics, politics which goes beyond the Minister as we read today in the Australian – to the Prime Minister's office. The Minister has to be responsible for these decisions. She won't take responsibility for it, so she has to be dismissed. But more than that and to go to your point really, we need a full parliamentary inquiry to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened here, because this goes beyond the individual decisions. This goes to the real question of how our system of government operates and at a time of great cynicism about that, Australians need to have confidence that these decisions are being made properly, that girls changing rooms are being constructed where they are needed, not just where people want to find some votes.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned responsibility there. Let's talk about the bigger responsibility here and we are all looking to leadership and leaders and a team need to lead and leaders are responsible for their team and their team's outcome and their team's performance, I suppose. I just want to point out the fact that when John Howard introduced the code of conduct for ministers, a number of Ministers had to resign because of conflict of interest. Andrew Laming, do you think the Prime Minister here needs to be held accountable and responsible for Bridget McKenzie's actions?

LAMING: Well, I need to better understand the accusations which are currently being considered and this is the grants to the shooting club. So, we just need to understand exactly whether there was a causal link here, whether it was just mere association with a club applying for money at the same time as they gave her a membership. MPs have literally dozens of memberships that we never use and it is fine to put a value on it and say there is a conflict. I've been a deputy patron of a shooting club for a decade, visited once and never shot a round. So we need to work out the material issues at play here. But, conflict of interest is vital and that's why we encourage representatives to disclose them. Once you disclose them, it is utterly clear, but if they are not disclosed then there is problem…

JOURNALIST: But that's not the question I'm asking, Mr Laming. The question is should the Prime Minister be held responsible for the then Sport Minister's actions?

LAMING: Well, the entire Government is responsible for the actions of the government and they are currently investigating exactly what has happened in these grants and in particular conflict of interest. Typically it would go to the minister. The minister would be responsible because they are in charge of the portfolio.

JOURNALIST: Mr Giles, would you agree that it is the minister and perhaps not the Prime Minister that should be held responsible?

GILES: Well, the minister is responsible for her decisions. The Prime Minister is responsible for the government, and our Prime Minister Mr Morrison loves talking about "my Government" using the first person singular. He is responsible for upholding the standards of ministerial conduct. Ultimately all of this comes down to him. The Minister has not taken the right decision and resigned. So he has to take responsibility for her conduct, and for maintaining the basic standards of Australian democracy, as John Howard did, as Paul Keating did when Ros Kelly resigned.

JOURNALIST: Let's move onto our second story which is the pace of aid to bushfire-affected communities, because now a second New South Wales minister has expressed frustration at the length of time that some charities are taking to distribute millions of dollars in bushfire aid. I spoke on the radio to Andrew Constance, the Transport Minister of New South Wales last week and he expressed his frustration now the New South Wales Emergency Services Minister David Elliott has chimed in as well. Does there need to be some kind of federal oversight of how cash gets doled out by charities in these circumstances? I will let you take that first Andrew Giles.

GILES: One of the things we have been calling for, for some time, is for a coordinated response to this. An approach that we have suggested strongly is the case management approach which we think would be the best way to get funds flowing quickly. What we've seen in response to these disasters has been extraordinary generosity on the part of Australians, but there is now a real concern and seemingly a basis for it that the funds that are being donated aren't flowing as quickly as possible. Now we understand there are complexities here and that's why we need clearer, national coordination, something that Labor has been calling for, for quite some time.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Laming?

LAMING: Look, I think on the face of it, national coordination sounds wonderful and case management as well. Look, I highly rate these organisations. The enemy here is scamming and fraud, and they are extremely sensitive about that. One bad story can destroy the reputation of an NGO. That's why they are very cautious. They are very capable, but this is a complex crisis. So it does require I think we will find, when we go to COAG in March, there will be more coordination; I think Andrew makes a very good point. Ultimately, I want to make this super clear, most of these people have lost everything, most are in motel. Most of them are being provided with vouchers from NGOs or government. The really expensive work of rebuilding is something that is weeks away. The notion that we are already buying houses for people is to completely misunderstand rehabilitation and reconstruction. So those large amounts of money are rightly where they should be in a bank account. We would all like money yesterday ok, but in reality most of the big expensive decisions are yet to be made. Most of these people in these terrible circumstances are being fully cared for. To build a home will take a year of planning, and that's not going to be leading to money being paid within days of losing your home. This will be a much slower process and that's why most of the money is still tucked away where it should be, being properly controlled by the NGOs involved.

JOURNALIST: Because the bushfires have hit the headlines, a lot of aid has now been released for bushfire-affected farmers, but now we are hearing that farmers affected by the drought are piping up and saying they have been forgotten. Andrew Laming, you are in an area which has had much drought. Is that what you're hearing?

LAMING: Look, there is a real tension here between the ongoing chronic drought challenge and this acute bushfire response. Up here, we are lucky, slightly different weather conditions, typically 90% of the fires in Queensland are under control at the time, so we’ve had a lucky year. So we have groups collecting specifically for farmers who have displaced in response to bushfire. So this is quite right, luckily we've seen a sprinkling of rain coming that we've been waiting for, since November, but you are right, we are weighing up acute and chronic here. And those who are suffering from drought are no less worthy. Effectively we will have a hierarchy. Who has lost their home? Who has lost their contents? Who has lost their vehicles? Who has lost their ability to run an income into the household? And they are addressed in that order, regardless of the nature of the crisis.

JOURNALIST: Lastly it is Australia Day tomorrow, and rather than to encourage you to speak in boring political platitudes. I wonder if you want to reflect on our perception of Australia Day and our perception of Australia and what we are proud about this country has maybe changed over the course of your lifetime, Andrew Giles what will you be thinking about tomorrow?

GILES: I will be thinking primarily about the 120 new citizens who I’ll be welcoming at the City of Whittlesea and making sure that the day is a special day for them. But I’ll be reflecting also, on the fact, in my adult lifetime, the day has changed a lot. It is a much bigger celebration. I’d like to think in future years it could be a time for reflection not just on the country we are, but on the country we can be, and us, in particular, to get better at listening to the concerns of First Nations Australians and making sure that they feel that they can be part fully in celebrating our national day.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Laming, what are you thinking about tomorrow?

LAMING: Well Andrew, I think that was a lovely response. I think exactly the same. It is effectively a much bigger, a much more complex celebration. Australia is changing faster than it ever has before. We may well need an Australia week. Keeping Australia Day, but in the days leading up to Australia day, recognising this complexity that most other countries don't have. We need to recognise our indigenous environment; our native animals potentially on another day potentially a veterans day, some other countries have, potentially having an Indigenous day to be chosen by Indigenous Australians – leading ultimately to the unification, the forging of a national spirit on January 26th.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles and Andrew Laming, thank you so much for joining us.

GILES: Great to be with you.

LAMING: Thank you.