PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Scott Ryan joins us live from Melbourne. There is a lot to talk about in your portfolio area when it comes to things like entitlements, even, dare I say, donations, but we will get to that in a moment.
I’ve got to get your reaction, I know you’re not going to want to comment on the phone conversation and you’re probably not privy to what did or didn’t transpire on that phone conversation between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, but if true, what’s been reported, and we spoke directly to the journalist taking us through some of the details from his report. If true, what on earth does that say about the Australia-US alliance? Not to mention how rocky this deal is, that was originally struck with the Barack Obama administration?
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Well look Peter, your first instinct was correct. I’m aware of the report. I haven’t read it, I did hear part of your coverage coming into the studio just then, but I’m not going to make observations or comments on a news report in a foreign country.
VAN ONSELEN: Should an Australian prime minister put up with being berated by a US president?
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Peter, we can spend a lot of time on this or move onto my portfolio. I’m not going to be providing comment on news reports in other countries. I’m aware of what’s been broadcast over the last 10 minutes or so. You were right when you said I wasn’t privy to a conversation. If I was, I wouldn’t make observations or comments on it and I’m definitely not going to make a comment on a foreign news report.
VAN ONSELEN: Let me just ask this as a generic question: should long-term, close allies treat each other with respect?
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Well, Peter, I’m going to say that’s your third attempt and given the context of your coverage this afternoon …
VAN ONSELEN: [Laughs] It’s a generic question Senator.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: … I know what you’re talking about. I know you’re saying it is a generic question, but I think it is fair to say, the context in which you are asking it is not. I am not going to make comments or observations on reports in foreign countries about conversations I wasn’t present for.
VAN ONSELEN: Let’s move on. We are going to go around in circles if we don’t move on, I can tell Senator.
Let’s talk about something that is in your purview; Australia’s largest ever political donation days out from one of the closest elections in Australian political history, the Prime Minister donating to himself. It is not illegal, it’s within the rules, the disclosure provisions are appropriate as well, but it’s not a good look.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: I don’t know the timing of it, but the Prime Minister was transparent about it, he announced it on national television last night. That’s transparent, that’s open.
VAN ONSELEN: Eventually. We first heard about this 200 days ago though, it could have been managed better than that. We heard time-and-time-again from the PM that he wasn’t going to move outside what his requirement was technically around disclosure and then, all of a sudden, it popped out last night. He must have changed his mind and this was becoming a bit of a sore for him.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: As opposed to Bill Shorten who forgot for seven years and had to answer a question under oath about donations he received from workers, paid a lot less at his union, who were funding his campaign director in 2007. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced and was completely open about it last night.
VAN ONSELEN: What do you make though, of the impression, we have donation laws that don’t have a maximum, so anyone is free to donate – as an organisation or an individual – up to whatever level they choose? And the point has been made on your side of politics that the union movement massively bankrolls the Labor Party, we know that.
Bill Shorten is an ex-union official, his union has massively, over the past few years, bankrolled the Labor Party, but a Prime Minister making a donation to his political party, in tightened polls and a difficult environment, there are going to be a lot of voters, not just partisans who dislike your side of politics, there are going to be a lot of voters that make the accusation that the PM bought himself an election that he otherwise might have lost.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: No, there will be some activists who try and deflect attention from the fact that there was $26 million of union donations and union campaign spending on behalf of the Labor Party and the left and the Greens and other groups they support in Australian politics. Whereas, the Prime Minister’s made the point, his was his own donation, his own money, he paid tax on that money. All that money that goes through union movements, remember that’s not covered by tax.
On top of that, when the Prime Minister made a decision, to use his phrase, to put his money where his mouth was, tens of thousands of workers who choose to join a union, often very low paid, don’t have a choice as to whether the factional hacks seeking Labor preselection, who run their unions, then hand over millions of dollars to the Labor Party, or run campaigns in the millions of dollars to support the election of their mates, who have been preselected and then one day when they get preselected. There is, in one case here, a person who has made a significant contribution to their own cause, announced it on television and been transparent, and on the other side, hundreds of thousands of Australians who get no choice whatsoever about whether the funds they pay to a union movement are used to support the campaigns of the factional hacks and heads of some of those unions, and their own preselections.
VAN ONSELEN: On that, would you, as the Special Minister of State, as part of a Government that has made the point you just made repeatedly, not just in the context of the here and now, but for years, would you like to see political donations reforms and push hard to stop exactly what you’re describing?
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: I made the most comprehensive reference to the Electoral Matters committee last year. In the first week of March it has been asked to report to myself and the Parliament on the issue of foreign donations. Over the course of the year, it has also been asked to undertake a comprehensive look at the political funding system, including donations and including examples in other countries.
The High Court [rulings] and political principles are to protect political freedom of speech, but as the Prime Minister said yesterday, he is interested in this. This is something he was honest about last night and, quite frankly, I’m still at a bit of a loss as to why a lot in the media seem to give the fact that the unions spent $26 million of other people’s money on political campaigning for the Labor Party and the Greens, doesn’t seem to attract the attention of one person making a significant donation to their own campaign.
VAN ONSELEN: Just finally Senator, I know you’ve got to run, but yesterday’s National Press Club address by the Prime Minister was widely touted as an important reset for him to start 2017. We are talking about this conversation with Donald Trump, we are talking about the largest political donation in the history of this country from the Prime Minister, how’s the reset gone?
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: The Government’s getting on with the job. I’ve done a lot of work over the course of the past month on reforming parliamentarians’ expenses and ensuring there is more transparency and that we rebuild public trust in that process with the announcement the Prime Minister made.
Josh Frydenberg is getting on with actually trying to ensure Australians have energy that is affordable and secure.
Events are always an important element of politics, but we will get on with the job. We will talk to the public about the issues we think are important to them in fulfilling the promises we took to the election and I’ll let others make assessments on questions like that.
VAN ONSELEN: And sorry, just one very quick one in your portfolio area: the word ‘entitlements’, which people don’t like, the Prime Minister has made clear he doesn’t like, will that be stricken to any reference once we’re done and dusted here when it comes to parliamentary expenses?
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Work on that is already well under way and I think changing the word is changing the culture. We are also making sure there is more reporting and transparency about it when we move to monthly reporting, we are also changing some of the rules. But I also think that particular word – entitlements – which has been around for decades, well before I came into Parliament, it is fair to say that that characterises it in a way that I don’t think builds public trust. It needs to be like expenses when you’re at work and you need to be able to justify them and that’s the path we are heading down in the first half of this year.
VAN ONSELEN: Senator Scott Ryan, appreciate you joining us on News Day.