SUBJECT/S: Parliamentary Entitlements Reform; Citizenship; Indigenous Recognition; Productivity Commission Draft Report into Workplace Relations



PETER VAN ONSELEN: Most MPs in Sydney drive to Canberra. I’m willing to bet that our next guest drives to Canberra because it’s just a pain in the backside to go through the process of actually checking in at the airport.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: And the number of times you fly to Canberra from Sydney and due to fog or weather, you sometimes get sent back to Sydney. So not exactly a positive experience but let’s bring in our next guest. Michelle Rowland, thank you for joining us.


VAN ONSELEN: Drive or fly?

ROWLAND: I fly. But I’ll tell you why I fly; because I actually fall asleep at the wheel. So I am the worst person to travel with when we go up to Coffs Harbour for holidays.

VAN ONSELEN: Let me say I’m glad you fly!

ROWLAND: It takes me probably longer flying than it does driving so that’s a hassle in itself.

VAN ONSELEN: I prefer to drive because you can talk on the phone the whole way. You’ll be surprised to know that.

KENEALLY: I am shocked to know. I’m shocked you answer your phone.

VAN ONSELEN: I don’t usually, not private numbers.

KENEALLY: Michelle Rowland, would you welcome Andrew Wilkie’s call for a review of all entitlement claims going back 5 years. Do you think that’s going to be useful in the process that we’re about to apparently have, or would you rather see the opportunity for MPs to contribute to the Prime Minister’s review of entitlements?

ROWLAND: I’m happy for a bit of both. We actually have our entitlements tabled on a regular basis. We get sent Monthly Management Reports.

KENEALLY: How often are they tabled?

ROWLAND: I think they’re tabled on a 6-monthly basis.

KENEALLY: Would perhaps tabling them more frequently…

ROWLAND: That could be something worth looking at, and you need to bear in mind too there’s a lot of Department of Finance administration that goes into this as well so you’d want to make sure that while you’re looking at transparency, it’s not actually becoming a cost burden to the taxpayer.

KENEALLY: Or indeed inaccurate, because Malcolm Turnbull talked about trying to make it more simplistic as well because it’s quite complex.

ROWLAND: It is, and like any other electorate office, I have someone almost full-time that just takes care of the paperwork around entitlements and that itself is a big job.

VAN ONSELEN: Yeah, that’s just ridiculous but necessary as you say. Can we go through a few things, I don’t want to target individuals because everyone does these things. I will ask you specifically about Burke at some point though. Just in a generic sense, in a review that looks at reform, I think it’s ridiculous that you’re allowed to tack on work and then go and watch the AFL grand final because you happen to like AFL or the tennis grand final. I think if you get some free tickets, half your luck, you’re an important person you get the tickets, but don’t then just do a bit of work on the side to justify being there. Do you agree that that just doesn’t pass the sniff test?

ROWLAND: I think it comes down to judgement as well. I think a lot of the time people if they have an event they want to go to and then they, even as Tony Abbott said that time, ‘oh I had to tack something on’.

KENEALLY: When he missed his party room meeting?

ROWLAND: Yeah, exactly. I think that is what riles community expectations. When I have to travel interstate as a Shadow Minister, I have to build up things around it so when I’m going I have a pretty full schedule. But I actually think the community has a right to question it as you say, but if it’s done within the rules then it’s within the rules.

VAN ONSELEN: I agree with that, but this is about whether the rules need to change. The Tony Burke example, it’s within the rules, no question about that. I just think, and Craig Laundy seemed to agree with this when I spoke to him a little bit earlier, I just think that flying your family is very understandable if you’re in Canberra, but I think you need to limit it to Canberra so it doesn’t become a rolling holiday around the country on the taxpayer.

ROWLAND: I’m not a minister, I never have been, but I suspect there are some ministers that do a lot of travelling as well. There are members of the government now and you see them in a different state every couple of days. And depending on their circumstances maybe they’re not seeing their families as much, and I think if you did a survey of people whose marriages have broken down in the parliament and we’ve seen it, it’s not an easy job, and I’m not saying that people who do jobs outside of parliament they don’t have stresses either.

VAN ONSELEN: If people’s marriages are breaking down, we don’t need the entitlements because we’ve already got them and -

KENEALLY: You’d need them more I’d say.

VAN ONSELEN: No, you’ve already got them and the marriages are breaking down. What are we arguing for more travel entitlements?

KENEALLY: Can I put this to you Peter, I mean, I don’t think your argument about an increase in salary is necessarily going to fly, do we have to accept that the cost of having people constantly moving around the country is that we are actually occasionally pay for their family to join them?

VAN ONSELEN: I just think if it’s outside of Canberra, guess what, other people in other professions have to travel for work. Department heads often have to travel with their minister, they don’t get their family to fly. My wife works at a major organisation, they don’t fly us around when she’s off which she constantly is. She’s on a board in WA and has to fly there regularly, we don’t get to fly with her and she flies economy.

KENEALLY: My point is, those professions are usually paid quite a bit more than say your government minister.

VAN ONSELEN: Not always, a travelling salesperson for example. They’re away from home by definition, they’re not paid that much.

ROWLAND: I take your point. I was a commercial lawyer for 10 years, my husband is a partner in a law firm. Before we had our child and when I was working in that profession, I was flying overseas on a regular basis. He was living in Melbourne on a regular basis and we didn’t expect our employers to pay us to see each other every now and then, we just worked around it.

VAN ONSELEN: We’re ganging up on you now, Kristina Keneally.

ROWLAND: The nature of work these days means that people have mobile skills, they have to go where work is required. But I can tell you, I had a baby in the 43rd Parliament, I think that new parents should be perfectly entitled to bring their children with them.

VAN ONSELEN: I certainly agree with that.

ROWLAND: I have, over the years, I haven’t looked at it recently, but I have brought her less and less with me. Obviously I was breastfeeding for a year but I’ll tell you what really gets my goat on this whole thing, and I was questioned on another media outlet this morning. We now have questions coming into family reunion and that sort of entitlement which no one would disagree is valid, but this all stems because Bronwyn Bishop made a conscious decision to do what she did. And I don’t think we would be going down this path and questioning family reunion travel and I can tell you, Kristina I’m sure you’ll agree with me, it’s one of the main reasons why women say ‘yeah okay tell me why I should be in parliament, but do I really want to be away from my children, do I really want to make these choices?’ So I’m annoyed that this is where this argument has now gone. I’m all up for a review, for transparency, if you want to see more of that go ahead.

VAN ONSELEN: What you’re saying about travel to Canberra, I actually thought your family could go with you as many times as they want.

ROWLAND: No, it’s a limited amount of times but it depends too, which is why most of the time when I use it my husband will obviously come with me, because we want to maximise the entitlement. A lot of the time you do travel economy and you do that because most of the flights between Canberra and Sydney are on a Dash-8 anyway.

VAN ONSELEN: I would welcome every single parliamentary sitting week travel to Canberra the entitlement if you want to take your family, including kids in particular for working women, they can go every week. My issue is outside of Canberra, I think that’s where it becomes a junket because it’s potentially linked with a holiday.

KENEALLY: But that’s if your children are little.  That doesn’t work if they’re in school.

VAN ONSELEN: Sure, but there’s nothing you can do about that unless we talk about remote access parliament which isn’t a bad idea either.

KENEALLY: No, that might be a great idea.

VAN ONSELEN: There’d be less leadership changes because everyone would be sitting around on the backbench wondering about what they should be doing while they’re down there.

ROWLAND: We’ve had both sides recently talking about the need to increase women’s participation. We know the government has got a problem with it. I am of the fervent view that the more you talk about this and you start putting scrutiny on something that I think is very valid, the more you are going to put women off.

KENEALLY: I agree, there is a risk there absolutely. Can we move on to your portfolio, right now you are the Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism and Citizenship. The Parliamentary Joint Select Committee is looking at the amendment to the Citizenship Act that would strip dual nationals of their citizenship. We have constitutional experts saying that it’s likely to be challenged in the High Court. The Law Council of Australia has raised a number of concerns that it doesn’t follow the rule of law. Labor has given in-principle support to this legislation, are you having second thoughts seeing the comments that are coming through with this inquiry?

ROWLAND: We maintain in-principle support, that these provisions of the Citizenship Act need to be updated to account for phenomena such as Daesh. What we have always had a problem with is a government which firstly sought to divide Labor on the issue, tried to wedge us saying ‘you’re not tough enough’, even though from the start myself and Bill Shorten and many others were saying we agree with this in principle, we need to update it. In doing so they divided themselves, we saw damaging Cabinet leaks over the issue, time and again in Question Time we would ask ‘where’s the Bill, where’s the Bill?’ Finally it came out and despite the fact that Minister Dutton made claims that this was constitutionally sound, it was robust, we had prior to that Malcolm Turnbull intervening in the drafting process. Now we have these legal experts and George Williams I think said it was the most poorly drafted piece of legislation in this area that he’d seen and would be almost certain to fail a High Court challenge. I think it draws into serious question the competence of the Minister in this case, but whether or not they have given ample time and thought to the drafting process of something that is so important.

KENEALLY: The Chair of this committee is Dan Tehan who is also the person leading the charge to lobby the Prime Minister to have the legislation extended to sole citizens. Do you think this committee is going to come out with any sensible recommendations given his leadership of the committee or will Labor be looking at some of its own concerns and putting them forward in the Parliament?

ROWLAND: I think one of two options is going to happen here. We’re going to have the committee in a bipartisan matter take on the criticisms that have been made, and bear in mind these academics are the legal experts. I don’t think anyone doubts that they are well informed. So they either take on board those concerns and they are reflected in drafting amendments or they press on and they try to wedge Labor even more. That would be extremely ill-advised in my view, to do the latter.

VAN ONSELEN: They’re saying  that the Solicitor General says it’s okay.

ROWLAND: The Solicitor General may well say it’s okay but the whole point of these hearings is that we get concerns from experts and it wouldn’t be –

VAN ONSELEN: But Labor did the same thing in government with the Malaysia Solution.

ROWLAND: Indeed, and that was challenged. And so that is the risk that is run by any government putting forward legislation which will be challenged as it goes to something so fundamental as the right of citizenship.

VAN ONSELEN: My point though is that this just happens every time. You had the Labor Party do it over the Malaysia Solution, I remember interviewing minister at the time and they were saying ‘well we’ve got the Solicitor General’s tick of approval’, but what about these legal experts, what do you know – it gets knocked on the head. Now the whole thing is happening on the other side, this is why viewers I think just throw their hands up to say both sides of politics do it when they’re there and both sides criticise it when they’re not there.

ROWLAND: I think the difference in this case is this is a government which has clearly sought to wedge Labor on the issue of national security and by all this chest beating we’ve seen on this matter trying to make Labor be perceived as being soft on terrorism, I think that focus has really detracted this government from making sure they have the best Bill being brought into the parliament. Bear in mind, they were talking about this for something like a year prior to that. If you can’t get it right in that time, then what are you here for.

KENALLY: Can I ask about another area that somewhat touches on your portfolio in terms of multiculturalism and that is the Prime Minister’s decision to not fund the consultation that Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson were seeking in terms of the referendum, the proposed referendum. Were you surprised by that decision by the PM?

ROWLAND: I am surprised and it’s disappointing. You only get one shot at these referenda and we’ve got a history of them failing in this country far more than they succeed. Considering that there is bipartisan support to have recognition of our First Peoples in the Constitution, one would have thought these are eminent people putting forward this suggestion and they are obviously extremely disappointed.

KENEALLY: The Prime Minister seemed to be concerned it would be divisive in the community to have an Indigenous only consultation process to bring forward a proposal. There may well be some validity to that concern.

ROWLAND: I think that when you have indigenous leaders saying ‘this is what we need in order to progress this’, then I think to dismiss it out of hand is the wrong way to go. By and large, people would be very willing to listen to what indigenous concerns are in the first place. This is an issue which is long overdue for being addressed and if we only get one chance to make it right, if the whole point of asking the community what they need, if the whole point is getting suggestions for them, then again you’ve got to wonder what are we here for? Are we all on the same page with getting recognition?

VAN ONSELEN: Just a workplace relations question if I can. Yesterday we saw the Productivity Commission draft report, Labor reacted, so did the government, the government wanted to be very clear we’re not doing this this side of the next election. We don’t know if they’ll take any of those recommendations to the next election or not. The Labor Party went after it straight away saying here we go again, another reincarnation of WorkChoices. Isn’t it frustrating in politics that it’s become what it’s become? Both sides do it, Tony Abbott was better than anyone at running a scare campaign in Opposition. You could argue he’s still doing it in government, but this is the same. This on the IR front is the Labor version of the scare campaign. We’re not talking about WorkChoices here, we’re talking about people from ACOSS right through have talked about a reasonable discussion that we need to have depending on where we end.

ROWLAND: I’m all up for a reasonable discussion that has to be evidence-based. Just to give you some examples in the IR space, how much have we heard over the years and this was even in the early 2000s, when we had the Liberals saying unfair dismissal will lead to mass unemployment, job losses, it will have all these negative effects. And I don’t think there has been any evidence to show that that’s the case.

KENEALLY: Indeed the report actually said that it’s not a dysfunctional system at all.

ROWLAND: Indeed, so I think the public expects and we should always, I think, have an evidentiary basis but it really does concern me, I don’t understand the evidence base for saying you’ve got one category of people who do certain jobs and they are worthy of penalty rates, but other people who work different jobs are worth a different one.

VAN ONSELEN: The theory is that the industry requires it. I know we want some evidence to support all of that that’s more rigorous and quantitative but that’s the theory, the theory is that firefighters are different because it’s a state funded thing, hospitality is an industry that otherwise might close or sections of it would close.

ROWLAND: That’s interesting because the hospitality sector is one that’s booming. Not that I get out that much on the weekend but you try to get into some leading restaurants or cafes on the weekend you’ve got to have a booking. So again, I would like to see the evidence for that.

VAN ONSELEN: Next time you’re interstate and bringing the family with you, pop into one of these cafes.

ROWLAND: Living it up.

KENEALLY: Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for joining us.

ROWLAND: It’s a pleasure.