PATRICIA KARVELAS: My first guest tonight is the Special Minister of State Scott Ryan. Scott Ryan, welcome to the program.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Good evening, thanks for having me.
KARVELAS: What’s the Governmentís plan to deal with Tony Abbott?
SENATOR RYAN: Weíre just getting on with the job. I mean, Iíll be honest, it is never helpful when youíre talking about yourselves in politics, but weíre not going to be distracted from doing what we said we were going to do seven months ago at the election.
KARVELAS: Tony Abbottís former chief of staff Peta Credlin has written a piece today. She says Tony Abbott was attempting to, and Iím looking down at a specific quote, Ďhold the Liberal Party together in the face of a surge in One Nation supportí. Is that how you see it?
SENATOR RYAN: No.
KARVELAS: Why Not?
SENATOR RYAN: Weíve had this experience before. Iíve been involved in the Liberal Party for nearly 30 years and I remember being in Queensland for the state election that One Nation did well in. We have faced these challenges before and the way you deal with them is by actually indicating to voters that you are addressing their day-to-day concerns. You donít do it by talking about yourselves in politics, by talking about the Liberal Party. You do it by addressing the concerns voters have, which we are doing on energy prices, energy stability.
KARVELAS: Thatís what Tony Abbott, to be fair to Tony Abbott, he articulated a case, policy changes in fact, that would deliver for voters, thatís what he was doing. He would say he wasnít talking about the Liberal Party but about ideas that you should embrace like, for instance, cutting immigration to bring down housing prices, to make housing more affordable. Do you think that would happen if you embraced a policy like that?
SENATOR RYAN: There is study after study that indicates that housing prices, which are primarily an issue in Melbourne and Sydney Ė yes theyíre an issue in other cities as well, but primarily an issue in Melbourne and Sydney Ė are a product of land release, supply of new housing, zoning that prohibits medium density housing, theyíre the main drivers of the housing situation.
KARVELAS: So immigration isnít the issue?
SENATOR RYAN: I donít think a change to that, which wasnít reflected several years ago when we came to office in 2013, I donít think a change to that would have a dramatic impact on house prices at all.
KARVELAS: So immigration does not have a link to housing prices?
SENATOR RYAN: No, I said donít think it would have a dramatic impact. There is never a silver bullet to any problem in public policy. If these problems or challenges were easy to deal with then they would have been dealt with before. Thatís why theyíre challenges.
KARVELAS: But Iím wondering, do you think it is wrong to blame immigrants for housing prices and housing issues in cities?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I wouldnít agree with that characterisation.
KARVELAS: Which characterisation?
SENATOR RYAN: I didnít read anyone blaming immigrants for anything and I wouldnít agree with the way you characterised it there if someone did.
KARVELAS: If you cut immigration was Tony Abbottís suggestion.
SENATOR RYAN: Well that was different to the way you just put it, which was blaming immigrants, which I think is different. I donít think cutting immigration would have a substantial impact on housing price pressure where it exists, which is within the 20 kilometre rings of Melbourne and Sydney primarily.
KARVELAS: Is Tony Abbott right that youíre being abandoned by your conservative base? Is his thesis right?
SENATOR RYAN: No.
KARVELAS: But if you look at the polling. Newspoll comes out tomorrow Ö
SENATOR RYAN: Youíd know better than me, I donít Ö
KARVELAS: Iím not claiming to have seen the latest Newspoll but the last one was not pretty for the Government.
SENATOR RYAN: Iíve seen this story before. Iíve seen the challenge posed by One Nation to the Liberal Party and the Coalition before and we dealt with it then. We dealt with it by getting on with the job of government. We dealt with it by addressing peopleís concerns rather than having internecine political debates.
I wouldnít say thatís happening at all. Weíve got a challenging policy environment ranging from balancing the budget, which has much work to do because Labor constantly blocks our measure to do so in the Senate Ė that worries every Liberal voter, every National voter that Iíve met.
KARVELAS: How about Tony Abbottís idea that the Senate deadlock, that the Senate holding up lots of legislation, should be changed by a referendum. Is that something that perhaps, out of his ideas, is worth embracing?
SENATOR RYAN: Well look, the Senate can be frustrating, even to us Senators, but apart from the fact that I donít think that would have any prospect whatsoever of ever passing at a referendum, particularly now, I donít necessarily think it would be a good idea.
In the end, remember, the crossbenchers only matter in the Senate when the Opposition, the Labor Party in this case, is being irresponsible and stops us from implementing our election promises. Occasionally Ė I actually believe in checks and balances Ė I donít think the Australian people would vote for a Constitutional change to see the power of the Senate neutered and I particularly donít think the voters in the smaller states would do so. It isnít going to happen.
KARVELAS: You were a senior figure in the Victorian Liberal Party, youíre also interested in the politics, as well as being a minister. Tomorrow Newspoll comes out, are you concerned that the infighting we saw over the weekend, which there is no other way to describe it in my view, that will reflect in the Newspoll result?
SENATOR RYAN: Iím not particularly worries about Newspoll results.
KARVELAS: Why did the Prime Minister base his entire leadership on failing Newspolls then?
SENATOR RYAN: I remember, nearly two decades ago, that the Howard-Costello Coalition government had some serious challenges, both before the 1998 election and then after with the implementation of the GST. But good government was recognised by people at the election. The only way government gets returned is by delivering on its promises and by delivering good government. Now I believe thatís what the Government is actually doing at the moment and thatís what we are going to maintain our focus on.
KARVELAS: So whatís the message to Tony Abbott? If he speaks out again, he will be denounced by his colleagues?
SENATOR RYAN: I donít denounce my colleagues, I never have, Iím not going to start.
KARVELAS: But thatís whatís happened in the last couple of days.
SENATOR RYAN: Well look, every member of the parliamentary party retains the freedom to speak out and every member of the parliamentary party attends our party room meetings Ė theyíve always been frank and fearless in their views towards me when Iíve said things or my performance and Iím sure that peer pressure from amongst colleagues is always a sense of wisdom, but it also keeps the Government focussed on peopleís problems, not political discussions.
KARVELAS: On your specific portfolio, political donations reform. There is a joint parliamentary inquiry looking into this, it will report by the end of the week. Do you expect a compromise deal? Something that Labor and the Coalition can agree on to ban political donations from overseas?
SENATOR RYAN: Well weíve had both the Prime Minister make his comments at the press club, weíve had the comments made by Bill Shorten and I commissioned this parliamentary inquiry last year, which will hopefully report by the end of the week, on foreign donations specifically. So I am optimistic we will be able to move on that.
But I might say there is a great deal of complexity around it. For example, do we mean a foreign-owned corporation in Australia? There are lots of foreign-owned corporations that employ tens of thousands of Australians that may or may not make political donations or contributions and I donít think Iíve seen a proposal that wants to ban that.
KARVELAS: So does that mean, for instance, if a company does have a lot of Australian workers they would be exempt from the rules?
SENATOR RYAN: No, I think weíve got to come up with a test that ensures that only people with legitimate economic and political interest in Australia are able to make contributions. Thatís my guiding principle. I might also say we do have to take into account High Court judgements on this in recent years with respect to NSW, but I am optimistic that the Electoral Matters committee will have some principles. Iíll find out at the end of the week and then Iíll continue the work Iím doing and approach the Labor Party.
KARVELAS: So could it be a critical number of Australian workers? Some sort of threshold issue there?
SENATOR RYAN: Look, I donít know if you could go down that path because you donít want to get into that. You could look at the source of funds, you could look at domestic revenues. Iím exploring the legal complexities at the moment.
KARVELAS: Has Labor indicated that they would like to have a majority report that they support?
SENATOR RYAN: One of the things I donít do is get involved in the committee. I asked them for this report. They will deliver it to the Parliament and to myself, hopefully, at the end of the week.
KARVELAS: But Iím sure you talk to your Labor colleagues. Are you getting the sense that they will move forward with the Government on this?
SENATOR RYAN: I get the sense, and Iím taking it at face value, the statements from the Labor Party that they are interested in moving on foreign donations, yes.
KARVELAS: Would there be exemptions for Australians living abroad?
SENATOR RYAN: Thatís one of the flaws with the bill that Bill Shorten introduced, which in my view was a bit of a stunt. It was the same bill they introduced several years ago but didnít bring to a vote when they were in government and they had the numbers in the Senate with the Greens. It actually had a figure in it that betrayed it was actually several years old, it wasnít up to date. But it did have a flaw, in my view, which is it would have effectively meant that a person living overseas on the Australian electoral role couldnít make a donation unless they had an Australian bank account and I donít know if that would pass muster constitutionally myself.
KARVELAS: Just on the special interest groups issue, groups like GetUp!, thatís really the sticking point between you and Labor. Is there any, sort of, compromise position that you could come to?
SENATOR RYAN: Iíve made it very clear that with foreign donations there is no point saying political parties canít accept foreign donations, but a campaigning group like GetUp! can. The Governmentís view will be that it has to apply to all political actors, all electoral actors, equally. Because if we are saying we donít want to have foreign influence on our electoral process, there is no point saying, Ďitís only the people handing out for a political party at a polling booth, but the people handing out for an interest group could have foreign moneyí, it has to be applied consistently and that is a key principle the Government will be taking forward.
KARVELAS: Just on the Omnibus Bill, the Government is obviously going to work again to try and get some support. Itís like herding cats, isnít it, youíve got Pauline Hanson now who thinks the extra two weeks of maternity leave is outrageous and that women are going to go and get pregnant for this. Do you think women would do that?
SENATOR RYAN: I donít think the extra two weeks of the paid parental leave scheme would do that. Iíve got two young children, I donít think anyone would do it for that, two weeks of paid parental leave.
KARVELAS: It seems unlikely.
SENATOR RYAN: But I havenít seen those comments, but thatís our job. Our job is to progress what legislation we can through the Senate.
KARVELAS: Is it hard though, when youíve got those kinds of positions in contrast with the Nick Xenophons?
SENATOR RYAN: Well the reason itís a challenge is because the Labor Party goes out screaming about the budget deficit and then blocks measures to address the budget deficit that they created. For example, with the NDIS, a critical social policy, there is between $4 and $6 billion of unfunded costs there. Now Christian Porter and Scott Morrison are trying to ensure that gap is filled so it doesnít increase the borrowing that are effectively taxes on future Australians, but the crossbenchers only matter, Patricia, because of Bill Shortenís irresponsibility. He doesnít wanted this budget deficit addressed.
KARVELAS: Just very quickly on another issue: penalty rates. The Governmentís entire narrative, particularly around energy prices is, cost of living, cost of living, cost of living. Youíve been really hammering this point.
On penalty rates, the poorest Australians Ė the poorest working Australians Ė are said to lose up to $6000 a year. How politically can you possibly sell that? Pretend on one side, weíre very interested in cost of living and how thatís effecting people, but here people will lose take home pay.
SENATOR RYAN: Firstly, I worked in supermarkets when I was younger, weíve all at some point had the benefit of working in a part-time job that had a casual rate or a penalty loading. The first point is that this is a process set up under Bill Shortenís laws with Bill Shortenís appointees and a report that he asked for.
KARVELAS: Sure, and thatís well known, but Iím talking about the political contradiction.
SENATOR RYAN: And this is critical, we are either going to have these decisions made by an independent umpire or theyíre going to be made by politicians.
KARVELAS: Do you accept though that the politics is difficult? To say on one hand Ďenergy prices, itís costing you too muchí to voters and then have other voters lose money?
SENATOR RYAN: The Fair Work Commission also made clear the implementation would be over several years in line with minimum wage increases, so that will partly protect, and also it is critical to make this point: penalty rates are not being eliminated, theyíre being changed.
KARVELAS: Theyíre being reduced.
SENATOR RYAN: Theyíre being changed by an independent umpire with Bill Shortenís appointees. The Liberal Party learned this lesson the hard way 10 years ago. You either have an independent umpire, which we will stand and defend, or you donít. This just goes to show the level of opportunism that Bill Shorten will sink to, in order to create this faux outrage like he did last week when he stood next to a person who subsequent reports identified wasnít affected by it.
KARVELAS: Last question Ė and weíre going to debate this in the issue tonight on this program in about 10 minutes from now Ė this issue of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Itís all going to happen this year, there will have to be certain decisions made, Indigenous Australians are being consulted right now, I know people out there doing the consultations who say Noel Pearsonís proposal of a representative body that the Parliament has to consult is really gaining traction. This may be the proposal that is ultimately put to the Parliament, is that something that you could live with?
SENATOR RYAN: The first thing Iíll say is letís wait to see what comes forward. But if we reflect on the history of referenda in this country, I think it is a great strength that the Constitution can only be changed by a vote of the people. All politicians can do is put up a proposal.
What I will say though is one of the challenges around this Ė and it happened with local government only a few years ago Ė is that the proponents of change tend to undervalue, or tend to forget that there may be people who are sceptical or opponents. In fact, most referenda have failed because they are too ambitious or in some ways they are too radical. I think there needs to be Ė after a proposal comes forward Ė an assessment of what the views of people who havenít been in that consultation might be. There will be reservations, Iíve met with Noel about this.
KARVELAS: And you are worried about this, arenít you?
SENATOR RYAN: I would describe myself as very sceptical about this idea. I understand it is intended well, but I think from a feasibility point of view, I would not view the prospects of a referendum to do that as particularly high.
KARVELAS: Scott Ryan thanks for coming in.