SUBJECT/S: Senate Inquiry into Newman Government; Abbott Government’s unfair and disastrous Budget; Community harmony

CHRIS HAMMER: We’re joined now in the studio by Senator Scott Ryan, he’s a Victorian Liberal senator. He’s also the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education. And Michelle Rowland, Member for Greenway in Sydney’s west. Also Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism and Citizenship. Michelle Rowland, to you first. Why is Labor supporting this Senate inquiry into the Queensland Government?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: Chris, the Senate can control its own destiny as a house of review and it’s decided to set this up for the purpose of reviewing how Commonwealth money has been spent. So the Senate to set this up is entirely proper for it to determine that. And let’s remember this is not an issue that’s without precedent. We had a situation in 2007 when the Liberals were still in government, where they set up a similar review into the activities of the Queensland government. We had Tony Abbott in the Parliament yesterday saying that taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. The Senate will do an inquiry, it will do a report and the whole aim of Senate inquiries is to learn and to progress what is found in those reports. So if there’s nothing to hide I would certainly welcome it and I think that everyone else would too.

HAMMER: Senator Ryan?

SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Michelle there dodged the point when she talks about the Senate. Yesterday the Labor party joined with the crossbenchers to set up a witch-hunt which is unprecedented. There was one attempt of doing something like this in the past in the mid-1990s when Labor and the then-Democrats I believe joined to try and have an inquiry into the Kennett state government and eventually the enquiry wound itself up because it was unprecedented to have one level of government conducting an inquiry into another level of government through the parliament. Last week, Labor voted against this motion when the motion included the period of the Bligh Labor Government. Yesterday when their deal with the Greens and the Palmer United Party removed that clause, they jumped on board straight away. Labor jumped on board to break one of the oldest traditions which is that one level of government is to be independent of the other.

HAMMER: Michelle Rowland, this is a sovereign government – the Queensland government. What’s the Federal Government doing inquiring into another form of government?

ROWLAND: The Commonwealth makes grants to the states and has certain laws that impact on states and how states operate. This is about how the state government nonetheless is spending money in the state of Queensland.

HAMMER: Senator Lazarus, the chair of this committee, has said that allegations that the government has politicised the judiciary, the police force is trying to control the judiciary, that’s not about spending Commonwealth money. That’s not what he wants to investigate.

ROWLAND: When you look at the text of the actual terms of reference, when you look at the text of the actual setting up of this committee, I think you’ll find it’s something very different to what’s being reported there. Not entirely consistent with  what Senator Lazarus is saying.

HAMMER: So he’s wrong?

ROWLAND: He’s entitled to say what he would like it to look into, but the fact of the matter is this has been set up with a particular purpose. And can I just take issue with some of the comments that have been made about political witch hunts and doing deals. This was a government who said ‘no deals, no deals with Palmer’. Yet they’ve gone off and done countless deals with them already on all these issues. When a deal happens that doesn’t involve them and they’re not happy with, they scream blue murder.

RYAN: Hang on, there’s a key difference here. You mentioned elements of the terms of reference that refer to judicial appointments. That is a matter entirely within Queensland state responsibility. It’s a matter the Queensland state of electors have to make a decision on in March next year. There’s a veil here of attempted legitimacy put in place by the Labor party yesterday when they voted against the same motion last week. The only key difference being that this time it doesn’t include the period of the Bligh Labor Government.

HAMMER: Senator Ryan, this government’s been willing to break precedent itself in some of these royal commissions. Not only [inaudible] former Prime Ministers for Cabinet documents. Is it what’s good for the goose is good for gander?

RYAN: There’s a key difference. Firstly they are matters of inquiry into core Commonwealth responsibility. The Royal Commission into the home insulation scandal was an inquiry into how the Commonwealth ran a program that saw houses burn down, businesses go bust, hundreds of people lose their jobs and tragically four people die. That was an enquiry into the Commonwealth. This is a witch hunt.

HAMMER: Can I ask what we learnt from that Royal Commission that we didn’t already know?

RYAN: What we learnt from the Royal Commission; I think we had a renewed focus upon how we do need to have better and clearer channels between the executive and the public service and we do need to make sure there’s clear accountability because clearly messages weren’t being passed up the chain as the previous Labor government put their head in the sands. They heard no evil, they saw no evil, they spoke no evil, yet houses were burning down and tragically four people lost their lives. That is profoundly different to what happened yesterday with… let’s go through what this committee has; it has five members, only one is from the Coalition. Only one. It describes the towns that have to be visited, it has a reporting date in the days leading up to the Queensland election. This is a vehicle for a political witch hunt and Labor have broken all conventions by supporting it. In the mid-1990s they realised the error of their ways when they tried to do it to the Kennett government, and hopefully they’ll come to the same conclusion this time.

HAMMER: Okay, well let’s move on to the Budget. The government is forecasting the Budget that it will reduce the deficit from this financial year to something like $48 billion to $30 billion. Can that still be achieved, Senator Ryan?

RYAN: We’re committed to the Budget estimates and the targets we outlined in May. There was a mid-year economic and fiscal outlook update which comes out roughly December of each year which provides an opportunity for the Treasury and the government to update the forecasts and to change parameters if policies have changed. For example with respect to any costs we might have provided for overseas actions. We remain committed to the task of cleaning up Labor’s budget mess. We were on an unsustainable path previously and they have made no suggestions to put us back on a sustainable path. Not only are they stopping us keeping our promises like we made the promise to get rid of the SchoolKids Bonus, they tried to stop us getting rid of the carbon tax and the mining tax. They’re stopping us from keeping the promises they made such as some of the funding change in higher education.

HAMMER: So if the core task is to achieve that repair of the Budget, rather than the individual measures, if some of the individual measures can’t be achieved – they simply can’t get through the Senate, GP co-payment, fuelling indexation etcetera; does that mean the government is obliged if it wants to meet those targets you say it’s committed to that it has to go to other measures, sort of a Plan B if you like?

RYAN: As the Treasurer outlined on ABC Radio this morning where we can get measures through the Senate, through the Parliament, we will take those measures and effectively bank them because are a step on the way to balancing the Budget. We will keep prosecuting the case for our other measures because we believe they are necessary to balance the Budget but also we do need to constantly look at the Budget, the spending profile, revenue profile, but particularly the rapid growth in spending that Labor left us with because that is where the Budget deficit has come from. The Budget deficit has come from unprecedented increases in Government spending because this Budget is more than a $100 billion a year bigger than the Howard Government’s last Budget.

HAMMER: So how can you achieve those Budget forecasts if one, you can’t get measures through the Senate and two, you don’t proposes alternatives before the end of the financial year?

RYAN: Well look let’s wait for the mid-year economic fiscal outlook update, I mean we don’t do monthly updates on this because the parameters do change but as we’ve seen over the last few months since the Senate changed, the Government’s commitment to negotiating in good faith with the crossbenchers has meant that we have had to compromise on some measures but we have got the substance of some of our key measures through.

HAMMER: So we could see new measures in the mid-year economic outlook?

RYAN: I think it would be surprising if you never see any new measures in MYEFO, I think that would be true for every year since MYEFO has been printed.

HAMMER: Okay Michelle Rowland do you believe the Government can achieve its Budget goals when it comes to that Budget bottom line?

ROWLAND: It’s interesting Chris because what we just heard right here was more ranting about how this is all Labor’s fault. I mean this is a budget that was handed down in May, we’re now in October, Australians rejected it – not in five months, but in five minutes for its unfairness. Now we hear talk about “Plan B”, we hear talk about different savings measures possibly being proposed. The reality is Chris that this is a Government that came in and said that the adults were now in charge and yet they’re finding excuses, even from the comments we just heard, as to why they’re not meeting their commitments on this front.

HAMMER: Do you disagree with their goal of achieving those budget savings?

ROWLAND: They set out and they promised that they would achieve savings. Labor has said that we will look at responsible savings measures on a case by case basis and we will do what is best for the people. The fact is that we will not support measures, however, which are unfair and which do not reduce the deficit and which actually are broken promises.

HAMMER: Do you believe it is possible, if you don’t agree with something like the GP Co-Payment or changes to higher education, but you support in principle repairing the Budget and getting it back to surplus eventually, do you believe that there are measures that you could potentially support?

ROWLAND: Well for a start I would suggest that this Government drop its unaffordable paid parental leave scheme, there’s a good start.

HAMMER: Okay, let’s move on. There are being calls to ban the burqa inside Parliament House for security reasons, Michelle Rowland you’re the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism, what do you make of these calls?

ROWLAND: The first thing that I would say Chris is that the language in this place matters, and I actually think that it is quite inappropriate – and I’ll say it upfront – I actually thought it was quite inappropriate for the Herald to feature the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff on the front page today with her comments about banning the burqa in Parliament House. I’ll tell you why. Firstly, this person is a staffer, if her comments want to be given any credence, then I suggest she nominate for Parliament and get 50,000 people to vote for her, then I might consider her point of view. But the main thing here Chris is the attempt to conflate national security issues with views that are either prejudiced or ill-informed which I find extremely concerning. I’ve seen reports that even in the last Government, we had Prime Minister Rudd who actually asked the question about whether the burqa was a national security issue raised by the agencies and from the reports I’ve seen is that it never was. Now Barry O’Farrell, when he was Premier of New South Wales, he dealt with this issue a couple of years ago with a minimum of fuss. The whole issue was about being able to identify people regardless of what headwear they were wearing to go into court, to go into places of high security etcetera. There was never an issue with Barry O’Farrell of this being prejudice. I don’t care whether you’ve got a motorcycle helmet, a balaclava or whatever, the issue is identification. That can be achieved and is widely achieved with a minimum of fuss.

HAMMER: So who is conflating national security with prejudice?

ROWLAND: I firstly think the fact that this Prime Minister has failed to put his foot down and draw a line in the sand on this issue, and is letting people like Mr Christensen and his friends go off on this merry frolic, and have Senator Bernardi actually proposing a review on the basis of security grounds. I think is incredibly concerning when you look at what is happening in the community. You see innocent people being assaulted, reports of innocent people being assaulted in the community. People having their children spat on because of the way they look. We say one thing in this place, we say one thing publicly, then we see other things being said by members of this Government. And I just think that a line needs to be drawn in the sand here to say that this isn’t, and should not be, about national security. This should simply be a matter that we don’t need to discuss, and if it is something concerning the identification of people, it happens already with a minimum of fuss, not the amount of discussion that’s happening at the moment.

HAMMER: Okay Scott Ryan, what’s your reaction to these allegations that your colleagues are conflating prejudice with security concerns?

RYAN: Let me start by, I thought I was going to agree with Michelle for a minute but I’ll have to withdraw from that, I think that the Fairfax article this morning did blow out of proportion what the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff said. When I read the full article, I read it as Peta Credlin making that exact point, if there is a security issue it will be considered. I thought that the headline, so to speak, did actually try to conflate the two, which was not reflected, in my view, in the report of what I understand of a conversation which I think has its own issues about staff conversations being reported. But can I just address a few things Michelle said there, my position in terms of the general community has been clear and I made the point here last week, I don’t believe that there should be a law banning a form of religious dress, I don’t believe this Commonwealth Parliament has the power to pass such a law. But on the other issue of where there is a security issue, I think Michelle’s got it wrong, I think the idea that we say to people “no, you can’t talk about these issues is actually one of the problems that the ‘left’ in Australia have created that leads to nasty debate. The way that these debates are addressed, and George Christensen and Cory Bernardi are my friends even though I happen to disagree with them on a couple of issues as everyone does with their friends, the way to address this is to actually have free flowing discussion. Nothing in that article that was said by Mr Christensen in my view was inappropriate to say even if someone could disagree with it. What Peta Credlin was doing was saying that if there is a security issue, that will be looked at and that refers to the identification issues Michelle said. But the idea that politicians or other people shouldn’t debate these things and should somehow supress those debates because we don’t find them pleasant is not the way to address them, we reach a consensus on issues by discussion.

HAMMER: Can I just ask you, on the issue of Parliament House, there has been another issue in the past about people appearing in court where the jury can see their faces, but this is a security issue. People visiting Parliament House are scanned, they go through metal detectors, their goods are scanned so would it matter if they’re wearing a burqa or not? Would you feel unsafe?

RYAN: Well I think it applies to both people in the public and the non-public areas. So of course Parliament has the public area where everyone goes through scanning and in that public area there are guards. But as you know, particularly until recently with security being increased, the areas of Parliament once you’ve got behind the glass doors, where Parliament House works, where people like you and I both have offices, there’s a very different, much lower level of security.

HAMMER: But everyone except for MPs are still scanned.

RYAN: Yes they are still scanned, but as we saw, we did have an incident with Prime Minister Gillard where someone had got through security; they had actually been wandering through the private areas of the building for 40 minutes walked up within arm’s reach of the Prime Minister.

HAMMER: If I had wanted to breach that security though, like that gentleman did, I don’t think I’d try wearing a burqa.

RYAN: No, the point is, the issue is of security. I don’t think we can say that there’s no security issue, that’s why we’ve had to increase security recently in the building. This is a matter for the presiding officers, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House. They take advice from experts, they take advice from agencies. I am quite happy to defer to their judgement on these issues.

HAMMER: Michelle Rowland you made your point about conflating prejudice with security matters, is there any argument, any case where for purely security reasons, a burqa or some other headscarf or something should rightly be banned or removed at least temporarily.

ROWLAND: The temporary removal in order to enable identification is actually well documented. I actually took the time to go through some of the reforms that happened in New South Wales and what followed there, be it in courts, be it in other high security places. Protocols are very clearly established to happen with the minimum of fuss, but before I go on Chris I want to take issue with one thing the Senator said. This is not a matter of people who are just wanting to seek to conflate security and prejudicial issues, I really take issue with that here in Parliament House we have a Prime Minister and a leadership team talking about the need for inclusiveness and harmony. But one thing is said on certain issues, like section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; like the need to not fret about what people are wearing and yet we still have this wide-spread discussion here that is going even in contrast to what the Prime Minister is actually saying. That is why last week I said that it is time for the Prime Minister to put his foot down here, I honestly believe it is time for some real national leadership on this issue so that we don’t have situations where people are being abused or vilified simply because of their religion or what they are wearing.

RYAN: We have had national leadership, the Prime Minister and every member of this Government has made clear that this is not about any religious faith, that it is not about a culture, that this is about national security.

ROWLAND: Hang on, why?

RYAN: Let me finish Michelle, I’ve let you have a run. Let me finish. That leadership has indeed been shown. In fact over the last 6-8 weeks the Prime Minister has taken Australians in great detail through the potential level of risk that we are exposed to and I think that it’s the way he has conducted that discussion that mean that the tragic events of last Tuesday evening – when the two police were stabbed and the young man was shot – actually if that had come out of the blue and without that discussion taking place, I think that it would have actually been more shocking to the community. Unlike the Labor party, we can’t suppress statements of members of the Liberal Party, now happen to disagree with some of the things my colleagues say all of the time, as I’m sure you do, but there is no role for people to simply shut down debate. Because one of the ways we deal with issues like this is, and one of the ways we deal with challenges – and no one supports harassment in the streets, no one supports that sort of vilification, but it happens daily, it has happened before this, there are parts of Melbourne and Sydney where there is security provided to Jewish schools specifically because of the harassment that has taken place – no statement by a politician can stop that happening. What we’ve had is leadership to show the community that it’s not acceptable.

HAMMER: Senator Scott Ryan, Michelle Rowland, we’re going to have to leave it there but thank you so much.