SUBJECTS: Peter Dutton’s eligibility; Wagga Wagga by-election; Cost blowout of Liberals’ second-rate NBN; Labor’s NBN Service Guarantee.
GREG JENNETT: Well Michelle Rowland, it's already been a busy day. Thanks for finding time to come to our studio amid all these divisions. What is Labor trying to do in the House today?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: There are some very serious issues here, Greg, that go to the credibility of this government, but also the constitutional eligibility of Peter Dutton to be a Member of the House and indeed a Minister. But also serious questions as to his previous statements to the Parliament in regard to some of the affairs in his own portfolio.
JENNETT: Well let's break that down on the Peter Dutton question, because Tony Burke has been active on that this morning. Which are you pursuing him mostly on? A referral to the High Court or the other matter, you're saying here, a double mislead of the House. Which are you actually going after him on?
ROWLAND: I think it's fair to say that we have always favoured self-referral to the High Court. It is pretty clear today that Labor wouldn't have the necessary numbers in order to effect that. And Peter Dutton stood up a short while ago and made a statement that actually left more questions open than providing answers. So this is a very serious matter and we intend to pursue this.
JENNETT: Do you expect or are you trying to prevent this government running full term to whenever the Prime Minister may call the next election?
ROWLAND: The issue of this government not going to its full term really lies in its own hands. This is a government who chose to change Prime Minister yet again and the Australian people are still asking why. The events that we have seen over the last couple of weeks really point to the fact that they are the master of their own destiny here. We are seeking to have answers. Answers that the Australian public clearly want as well.
JENNETT: Just on the way the rules work and the way the numbers fall, we've had that tested and the government prevailed today. Do you see any scenario where somehow Labor secures a majority? I guess I'm asking there about floor crossing on any of these points that you're making.
ROWLAND: Well, this is up to people such as the crossbench, some of whom sat out previous divisions today but it's also up to members of the government itself. We know that the Deputy Speaker at least is sitting on the crossbench, which indicates he is making a principled statement in relation to his participation in this Parliament. Wait and see where this takes us.
JENNETT: Are you aware of any opprobrium that could attach to Labor if an unstable, or certainly an uncertain situations in this Parliament, the 45th, is upended and the government lost control of the House and the Governor General was called on to do certain things like call elections? I guess I'm asking is there an appetite that is just not there for this type of politics in the broader community right now?
ROWLAND: I think the community is seeking answers to what has gone on. I think this government has seriously underestimated the amount of anger that was out there in the community when democracy was effectively shut down in order for them to sort out their own leadership crisis.
JENNETT: So everyone's trying to measure that, this expression of public unease about what's happened. The only contest that we can really say ran in parallel with all of this was that state by-election in the NSW seat of Wagga Wagga. How much federal influence did you see in that result?
ROWLAND: Quite predictability, we've seen the Liberal Government blaming state issues. The state government appears to be at war with itself. Not only the Liberals blaming the Nats and so forth, so those retributions are occurring within the conservative parties.
JENNETT: But as you pull those numbers apart. I mean, they're big numbers. The vote splintered four ways basically. What do you as a seasoned analyst of these things take out of it as far as federal factors are concerned?
ROWLAND: There was definitely, and this was according to my sources on the ground, there was definitely what we call brand damage. We had people handing out for the Liberal candidate who couldn't bring themselves to say 'How to vote Liberal'. So clearly that's an issue with their brand which will be of great concern.
I think the more instructive point to take out of this is despite all of what's going on in Canberra, the Muppet Show that's going on here, all the issues that are going on with the Liberal state government, two things will always remain constant: elections are won with good candidates and good policies. And I think Labor had a good showing, a really good showing, in that by-election. It looks pretty much certain that the Independent will get up but, at the end of the night, the Liberals were coming third. Third in a seat that they have held for 60 years, a so-called ‘safe seat’.
JENNETT: Well that would be indicative of a landslide victory. If federal factors were crossing over into there and we get to a federal election early next year it's hard not to be complacent under those circumstances, isn't it, for Federal Labor?
ROWLAND: I think everyone needs to cool their jets, and by everyone I mean commentary as well as some of the noise that we're hearing around this and that's being compounded, I know, by the Newspoll that's come out today. But those two things will always remain constant - about having the best policies and the best candidates. And I can tell you: swings aren't uniform. This is going to be a very close federal election. By no means is anyone on my side of the Parliament complacent.
Indeed, Bill Shorten has made it very clear that we need to double our efforts in not only formulating policy but taking those out to the Australian people and that's exactly what we've been doing. Everything from university funding to the Tax Office and ensuring that small businesses are provided with greater relief if they have appeals, to installing a permanent gas export trigger. So in all of these areas we have been true to our word on developing policy, taking that to the Australian people and letting them decide.
JENNETT: Alright, can I just take you to some policy in your own area of communications. Somewhere in the hubbub of what's been happening around the Morrison Government here, came a new Corporate Plan from NBNCo and upwards goes the price once again on this project. It seems impervious to governance of the day, the price keeps blowing out. Can you give any assurance that it would be capped with you as Minister?
ROWLAND: Well, we very clearly had a policy when we were in government of $45 billion in peak funding, with a completion date of 2021. The reality is we are going to have to go through this forensically. This is the last Corporate Plan that will be delivered before the next federal election. It's nothing short of a disaster. Another $2 billion in cost blowouts. That means that it's now $22 billion over budget, 1.3 million premises are delayed further.
JENNETT: But you can't turn that backwards. I mean that's a cost blowout trajectory that continues. You can't reduce it can you?
ROWLAND: Well the reality is, this government, under Abbott, under Turnbull, and now under Morrison are sticking with technology decisions which have contributed immensely to this cost blowout, including HFC and including their reliance on copper. So all these things need to be very closely examined. We are well-advanced in formulating our response in this area and may remind viewers, we've already actually had an announcement on the consumer side with the announcement of our NBN Service Guarantee. Early last year we called for NBNCo, where it is feasible, instead of rolling out Fibre to the Node, to instead take it to the kerb, so as close as possible to the home. And now the economics of the NBN are clearly a mess.
JENNETT: Right. Just on the timeline of that, you're reviewing it, you're forming policy now but are you going to do what Malcolm Turnbull did which is examine it in government? Do a full sort of full diligence exercise and then reset. I guess I'm saying how set in stone is any policy you come up with now if you discover certain facts in government?
ROWLAND: Well as I said, we are well-advanced in formulating that at the moment and that will be released well in time for the next election. But I can tell you that we will not be making the mistakes that Malcolm Turnbull made because the guy who supposedly invented the internet has led us down this path of disaster and I think it is very telling that we're in 2018, the back half of it: we still don't have a digital economy strategy. We still don't have clear guidance on when the NBN will actually be finished under this government. It's pretty clear from these Corporate Plan results that its economics are going to get even worse and its timeframe will be blown out even further.
JENNETT: Alright. Well, we're not predicting a Shorten Government here, just exploring some hypotheticals with you. Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time and thinking today.
ROWLAND: My pleasure.