DAVID SPEERS: Scott Ryan, good afternoon to you. Thanks for joining us.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Good afternoon David.
SPEERS: So how will this independent authority overseeing MPs expenses work?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I should say, the Bill today is actually bringing in the recommendations of the review that was tabled last year that had 36 recommendations around, most importantly, having a single definition of what constitutes parliamentary business. I’ve got to say, the independent authority, which the Prime Minister announced, I think, on the 13th of January, the Parliament passed on about the 15th of February. This is actually building upon that and giving them the architecture, particularly to focus on travel, which has provoked a great deal of public comment.
SPEERS: So this is about the detail on how that authority will oversee expenses?
SENATOR RYAN: So what this does is there are half a dozen Acts of Parliament, regulations, grey areas, conventions – some of them date to before I was born, some of them date to before I could vote – and what we’re doing is providing a single definition of what constitutes parliamentary business. That will be what the authority can then provide rulings to MPs on if they ring up and say, ‘is this within the definition or is it not?’
SPEERS: So let’s get into it, what constitutes parliamentary business?
SENATOR RYAN: Parliamentary business is defined multiple ways. There are the responsibilities you have in Parliament – they are on legislation before Parliament, and they don’t just relate to your electorate because we all deal with legislation and that has national interest and national import. There are your electorate duties, as a Senator or a Member of the House of Representatives. There are official duties that you have when you’re an office holder, for example, Leader of the Opposition, Speaker of the House of Representatives. And then there are those issues where, for example, the leaders of our parliamentary parties are members of their national conference of their political party. So the Bill encompasses those four areas and the Minister will table a definition – that will be me – with more detail around that, but it refers to those four broad areas.
SPEERS: So the grey area that’s often seen a lot of understandable public anger has been things like party fundraisers. Does travel to a party fundraiser constitute parliamentary business, something the taxpayer should cover?
SENATOR RYAN: This is where, a couple of things, firstly, I don’t want to get into pre-empting work the authority is going to do about making such determinations. Importantly, there are two aspects in this legislation that overlay all of this. The first one is a dominant purpose test: what is the dominant purpose for your travel. Now if I happen to be in Sydney for a meeting of a committee or parliamentary work or ministerial work, if I did something in the afternoon that could be described as party political, I don’t think that would be a particular issue. As long as the dominant purpose, the real reason I was there, actually was parliamentary.
SPEERS: The authority, the independent authority, will decide what was the dominant purpose of the trip?
SENATOR RYAN: Well, what will happen is that we announced that in the short-term, we will move to quarterly reporting. When we get the IT systems, which are well over a decade old and still paper-based, upgraded and we’re doing a lot of work to ensure that doesn’t cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. The independent authority will publish those eventually monthly and that will allow people, like you David and our constituents, to say ‘well hang on, you went to Sydney, that was grand final day’.
SPEERS: So you’re going to leave it for the public to decide, essentially, what’s ok? Won’t the independent authority actually say, ‘wait, no you can’t take that trip’?
SENATOR RYAN: What will happen is that the independent authority is not going to individually oversee every trip a minister or Member of Parliament makes. It simply would not be feasible and would involve a massive expansion to the bureaucracy.
SPEERS: What’s it going to do then?
SENATOR RYAN: What it will do is provide advice, provide rulings and publish …
SPEERS: So what would the ruling be on a trip, if you were to go to Brisbane as a Victorian Senator for a party fundraiser up there for the LNP?
SENATOR RYAN: Look, I don’t want to get …
SPEERS: But why not? With respect, people want to see what’s ok and what’s not ok?
SENATOR RYAN: You ask me would I do that? I wouldn’t do that.
SPEERS: But it is technically possible for others to do that?
SENATOR RYAN: I don’t think the way you’ve described it would qualify, no.
SPEERS: Isn’t it black and white? Isn’t the whole point here to have some clarity around what can and can’t be done?
SENATOR RYAN: Yes, but the whole point is also to not have politicians deciding or making rulings themselves.
SPEERS: So who is making the ruling?
SENATOR RYAN: The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.
SPEERS: So they will say yes or no?
SENATOR RYAN: They will be able to provide rulings that are binding.
SPEERS: So when will they do this? You just said they won’t do it with every expense claim.
SENATOR RYAN: I don’t think it is feasible for people who might take 50 or 60 flights per year if you’re a shadow minister or minister, for every single trip to be approved. No one has suggested that. However, one of the things I’ve learnt in this role and also over my nearly nine years in Parliament, is that there is much greater scrutiny. When people have their material published on a monthly basis and things are on Facebook these days, everything is on the internet, sunlight is the best policeman.
SPEERS: I appreciate that transparency is important, but just to be clear on this, can an MP take a trip, they don’t have to check with the independent authority before doing so? They can take the trip, they can make the claim, they might suffer political embarrassment once the media gets hold of it, but they can still do it?
SENATOR RYAN: No, the authority has investigative powers and of course there is always the ability for parliamentary expenses authority to refer it to the authorities if there was an offence they believe was committed.
SPEERS: Would it be an offence to go to a party fundraiser? That’s my question. Is it going to be against the rules to go to a party fundraiser and charge the taxpayer?
SENATOR RYAN: If you’re asking me, would I jump on a plane to Brisbane this afternoon …
SPEERS: No, I’m asking what the rules are, not your judgement, is there a rule that says you can or can’t do it?
SENATOR RYAN: Members of Parliament right around Australia – I’m from inner suburban Melbourne – but there are people who have to travel a lot further to get here. There are people with different portfolio responsibilities. It is not possible to provide a prescriptive rule in every single circumstance.
SPEERS: But why not? Why not? Why not? The whole point of having an independent authority was to fix these problems, the grey areas, and yet you’re indicating here that the independent authority maybe will look at some of the claims.
SENATOR RYAN: I just don’t want to pre-empt the work of people who are independent of government here, David. They will be on a statutory basis from July 1.
SPEERS: What are they going to be doing? They can look at it, but is there a rule that says yes or no?
SENATOR RYAN: But that will be a decision with a definition that’s tabled, that will be a decision that they operate in. The definition does not say you can do that. But it will be a determination for the independent authority. I think it’s important that …
SPEERS: So will this be like case law? They’ll make a ruling, like a court would, and that will become the precedent?
SENATOR RYAN: That is my view of how it will operate.
SPEERS: This isn’t written into the legislation?
SENATOR RYAN: What we’re doing is we’ve got the dominant purpose test, we’ve got the value for money test. I provided you with an answer from before, if I was in Sydney for actual, genuine committee hearings or ministerial work, if I did something that could be described as party political in between or after them, I don’t think, personally, that would qualify as a breach and I don’t think it should. It’s not the dominant purpose of why I went to Sydney.
SPEERS: That’s fair enough. I’m just trying to clear up whether there is a clear set of rules so that MPs can know whether what they’re doing is against the rules or not.
SENATOR RYAN: We ask our Members of Parliament to vote on very serious pieces of legislation. We consider issues that, while I don’t mean to dismiss this, are of very, very grave national import and I think we have to have the principle that John Conde outlined, which was a definition that is clear; regular publication, because it …
SPEERS: So what’s the clear definition? Can an MP go to a party fundraiser in another city?
SENATOR RYAN: Again David, I don’t want to get into the hypotheticals. You’re asking me a question there that I don’t think it is fair I could answer and not be, shall we say, it could be misrepresented at some other point. The example I gave you, I don’t think is an unfair example.
SPEERS: Fair enough. The independent authority will then make a judgement on this and it’s a pretty important question – can an MP travel to another city for a party fundraiser and charge the taxpayer – they will make a ruling on that and that will be then the template for everyone?
SENATOR RYAN: So the rulings the authority will have the capacity to publish, and personally I think yes, that is exactly what will happen because if you’ve got a ruling that is exactly the same for you as for me – if we were both Members of Parliament – if one’s inside the rules and one’s outside the rules, that’s pretty black and white.
SPEERS: So once the ruling’s there, everyone has to abide by them?
SENATOR RYAN: Yes.
SPEERS: What about travelling to a sporting game? A football match?
SENATOR RYAN: Again David, I do not want to get into hypotheticals and let me give you a reason why. If I, with no relation to the sport portfolio, were invited to an event in Sydney or Brisbane, I would not go. I haven’t gone in the past. If I was there for work already, would I go, maybe? But I think it’s different if you are the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition or the Minister for Sport.
SPEERS: But see this is where it gets confusing. But what if you’re the Minister for Trade, or a Parliamentary Secretary? Steve Ciobo, your colleague, has argued very publicly that business organisations invite him to go to grand finals so he can have a conversation with the about important matters. You take a different view?
SENATOR RYAN: I think community expectations on that have changed. When I look back over the many, many years I’ve worked in this place and been elected, it is fair to say community expectations around events like that have dramatically changed.
SPEERS: Will this be cleared up by the authority? Will they make a ruling that says, ‘footy matches, you can’t charge the taxpayer’?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I can’t speak for what they will do, but they can do it.
SPEERS: They can and that will apply to everyone?
SENATOR RYAN: Again, let’s be honest here, if, for example, it’s a sporting event and you’re the Shadow Minister for Sport or you’re the Leader of the Opposition or the Prime Minister, I actually think that’s a bit different than if you’re me, who has no relationship to the sports portfolio. If you’re chair of the parliamentary committee that covers sport …
SPEERS: Yeah sure, but if you’re a backbencher and they make a ruling on a backbencher saying ‘you can’t charge the taxpayer to go to the footy’, that will apply to all backbenchers?
SENATOR RYAN: Again, David, this is where it is important to be clear that there are different sorts of responsibilities here. If, for example, as someone put to me once, someone was flying through a city because that was the way they got home because they literally had to make a connecting flight, I don’t think that’s the same as someone getting on that plane for the purpose. What was the dominant purpose of your travel? That’s why we’ve put that in here, that’s why we’ve put a value for money test in here as well.
SPEERS: The thing that gets right up the nose of a lot of taxpayers is when someone will tack on a little bit of official business.
SENATOR RYAN: What is the dominant purpose for your travel and that is critical, it’s in the legislation.
SPEERS: What’s happening with foreign donations Minister, just finally? You’ve indicated you want to see them banned, where is that up to?
SENATOR RYAN: We are also introducing another piece of legislation this week that flows from the Electoral Matters Committee’s report from December clarifying and updating the electoral authorisations laws. At the moment there are some inconsistencies, for example something that is streamed is not subject to the same authorisation requirements as something on television. That was tabled in December. We have just finished that legislation and that will be coming forward in the next couple of days.
We have commenced work now on the foreign donations issue, because that was tabled a couple of weeks ago.
SPEERS: Do you want to ban them?
SENATOR RYAN: Yeah, I do, and I want to look at how, but I’m disappointed because the Labor Party walked away from what Bill Shorten said
SPEERS: You thought they were on board with …
SENATOR RYAN: Well Bill Shorten had said that, but the Labor members on the Electoral Matters Committee did not. It goes to this point: if we are going to have a foreign donations ban for political parties, it’s got to be for activist groups who seek to influence elections as well. We can’t have one how-to-vote card at a polling booth paid for by foreign donations and another one, just because it is a political party, handed out by someone …
SPEERS: So foreign donations to GetUp! have to be banned as well?
SENATOR RYAN: I don’t want to get to a situation where we have massive regulation of political parties and massive interest group funding that’s not covered. That’s what happens in the United States at the moment.
SPEERS: Can I just ask you finally, what’s the concern about foreign donations? That they could influence party policy?
SENATOR RYAN: I think it’s fair to say there is broader community concern about foreign donations.
SPEERS: What’s your concern?
SENATOR RYAN: My concern about it reflects that of the community. We want to make sure that those who influence Australian elections have an interest in their outcome, a direct interest in their outcome. That’s why I’ve been very careful, and in fact the High Court has said, corporations with an interest in Australia, they aren’t necessarily someone we could unilaterally ban. It’s a very tricky Constitutional area. Historically, car manufacturers have employed tens of thousands of people, but they’re foreign owned. I don’t think anyone thinks that is necessarily …
SPEERS: Is there a view that a political party might be unduly influenced by a foreign source?
SENATOR RYAN: That’s not my view. I think the interest is in ensuring those that get involved and contribute to Australian politics through financial politics are actually groups that are affected by and have an interest in the outcome.
SPEERS: But, surely it matters more what the political party in Australia does with that money? Is it influencing a position on a policy?
SENATOR RYAN: Not in my experience at all. I’ve been involved in the Liberal Party for 28 years and I’ve never seen that. At the same time, the people who impact how people vote are not just political parties. We put up candidates and yes, we do get public support for that, but you go to any polling booth, or you see the ads broadcast on TV and you see activist groups, of all types, trying to influence a vote.
SPEERS: But my point is it doesn’t matter what the motive is of the foreign donor, if the political party is squeaky clean – as you say – and not influenced by the money it doesn’t matter what the motive is of the Chinese donor, or whoever it is.
SENATOR RYAN: Well I think political parties in Australia aren’t, as a general rule. That’s not my experience of 27 years.
SPEERS: So why do you need to ban the donations?
SENATOR RYAN: Because we only allow Australian citizens to vote – or Australia permanent residents from before 1984 from the UK. We say you’ve got to be a citizen to vote and we are reflecting that in the idea that you need to have an interest in the Australian electoral system and be affected by its outcome to contribute to it. I think that is pretty consistent.
SPEERS: Special Minister of State Senator Scott Ryan, I appreciate you explaining it all to us.