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DATE: 2 May 2017

TITLE: Transcript AM Agenda - Sky News

TOPIC(S): Second Sydney airport, Australian Electoral Commission, higher education reforms, AFP announcement on metadata, Stronger Communities

TOM CONNELL: I’m joined now by frontbencher Scott Ryan. Thanks for your time today Scott Ryan. I appreciate this has just happened and I didn’t get you on for this purpose, so a bit of a question without notice, but does it raise the spectre of getting into some more good debt in the Budget if the Government funds the airport itself?

SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Well Tom, given you just announced it and I just saw it on the ticker here on the screen, I will leave comment to be made on that issue to the appropriate Minister, likely later today.

CONNELL: Presumably there is something though in the works? There has been a fair bit of discussion and reportage about the possibility of the Government going it alone.

SENATOR RYAN: Look Tom, given the news has just broken, I think it is much more appropriate to let the appropriate Minister make a comment later today without me jumping, all boots in, as the news breaks.

CONNELL: All right, fair enough. We will go to something in your area.

I want to play our viewers, first of all, some of Pauline Hanson last night. There has been a lot of talk about the plane that she has been using. There have been accusations that this plane has been donated to her party and that it wasn’t officially declared. She denied that. James Ashby has come out previously and said it was his plane. She was clarifying this last night on Andrew Bolt’s program on Sky News, she was saying that this plane isn’t actually James Ashby’s, but it is used by him. It is used by this developer. Let’s have a listen to Pauline Hanson explaining this last night, first of all.


So this plane is developer Bill McNee’s plane. He has not donated it, therefore One Nation doesn’t have to declare it, but they use it.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this as Special Minister of State, Scott Ryan. It’s got a lot of signage on it. Does this pass muster that it is simply used on occasion, quite a lot it seems, by James Ashby for the purposes of the One Nation party?

SENATOR RYAN: Well look, that’s the first time I’ve heard the comments in full. I’ve read the reports this morning, I didn’t see the program last night.

I have spoken to the Electoral Commissioner this morning, as I did the morning after the Four Corners report several weeks ago that also involved this issue of the plane.

The Electoral Commission undertakes these investigations independently of Government and independent of Parliament, that’s very, very important. The Electoral Commissioner undertakes ongoing investigations to ensure electoral disclosures around donations and other in-kind support are disclosed under the law. They will be having ongoing discussions about whether this party, and indeed all parties, meet their disclosure obligations. I understand the Electoral Commissioner will be looking at this matter today.

CONNELL: I understand you’ve got an independent report, but when you mention there in-kind support, presumably there is a line between nearly a favour and a donation? Even if the two parties just say ‘no, no there’s no donation’, there is a certain point at which the value kicks in? How does the delineation work?

SENATOR RYAN: So you need to declare cash and in-kind donations, the Electoral Act goes into a lot of detail on that. There have been different things said about this particular plane and I don’t want to step on the territory of the Electoral Commission. There is a good reason the Commission is independent of Government, independent of Parliament, independent of politicians. So I think we need to see what the Electoral Commissioner might have to say, if there is something to say, after they look at all these matters because so many different things have been said.

But last night, Tom, I have to say, I was particularly disappointed with the juvenile and attention-seeking comments on Twitter by Senator Dastyari, who can be said to have done nothing less than threaten the Electoral Commissioner by saying he should resign if he doesn’t get a particular investigative outcome. Quite frankly, the Electoral Commission is above that and the Labor Party should walk away from Senator Dastyari’s comments and he should apologise for them.

CONNELL: He tweeted that if Hanson walks away from this, the Electoral Commissioner needs to resign.

SENATOR RYAN: That’s an extraordinary comment and intervention, Tom, from a member of Bill Shorten’s front bench and from someone who, quite frankly, shoots off at the lip a little bit too much.

The Electoral Commission is independent of Parliament; it administers elections and donations laws and disclosures, and funding to political parties independently. And quite frankly to issue what is, effectively, a threat like that is below any Member of Parliament.

CONNELL: We will see how that goes but I suppose, essentially, from what you’re saying, you do agree this needs to be looked at closely; that Senator Hanson simply saying, ‘no, it was a donation, it is just being used’, that needs to be probed further?
SENATOR RYAN: What needs to be looked at, and I’m sure the Commissioner will – they do it in all cases of donations – is to determine the facts and apply the electoral law to those facts. Now the issue here seems to be that different things have been said in public by different people and the Electoral Commissioner will do – as always, as he does with all political parties – get to the bottom of the story and determine what the facts are.

CONNELL: Any concern at all that you might put Pauline Hanson off-side? She is very important to everything you want to pass in the Senate?

SENATOR RYAN: Well I’ve been always very careful about the Electoral Commission in my comments and indeed back in my time in Opposition, Tom.  I think an independent Electoral Commission that oversees elections, political funding and disclosure rules fairly and independently of political actors like myself, the Opposition or any other party is very important. It’s what holds our elections in good stead, it’s what sees them run very well. I’m careful with my language and Sam Dastyari should be too.

CONNELL: Have you had any contact with One Nation about this? Have they sort of said, ‘hey, don’t go too hard, remember the power we’ve got in the Senate’?

SENATOR RYAN: Not at all. I’ve never had anyone approach me along those lines about any portfolio I’ve administered.

CONNELL: OK, we might move to higher education reform, which was announced, obviously, overnight. I’m interested what you make of how you’re going to sell this reform because we’ve spoken to the Group of Eight today. They say this is all about cumulative cuts over the last six years. Is the public ready for a smaller cut to higher education?

SENATOR RYAN: I think what the Minister announced last night was a very balanced and well-targeted reform package. It ensures that the system is sustainable – there has been quite substantial growth over the last decade in higher education numbers and funding – and in a tight budgetary environment dealing with Labor’s debt legacy, that needs to be made sustainable. There is a small, just under eight per cent increase, in the impost on students, but at the same time, we’ve maintained that core principle of university funding: you do not have to find a dollar upfront to go to university, you can defer the cost. On top of that, there is also a lowering of the threshold to a level that is much higher than in New Zealand, for example, which has copied parts of our system around student loans, to ensure the system is financially sustainable for taxpayers. If you look over the last decade, you still see an extraordinary increase in the amount of funding that goes to higher education in Australia. It is a very well-balanced and well-targeted package the Minister has brought to bear.

CONNELL: You mention New Zealand, their Prime Minister already reacting angrily to their citizens being cut-off from being able to access loans, essentially HECS loans. Is it going to cause another rift between the two countries?

SENATOR RYAN: I haven’t seen those comments Tom so I probably won’t weigh into an international matter without seeing the full context.

CONNELL: Fair enough, on what is happening generally though. You mention it is well funded, as I said, the Group of Eight has already come out and said this is about the cumulative effect. Under Labor and also under the Coalition, they’re having to live with less, what this will mean they have to do now is basically have bigger classes, the courses won’t be as good, are you denying that? The efficiency dividend, you’ve got to do more with less, don’t you?

SENATOR RYAN: As Simon Birmingham has outlined, the funding to universities has actually gone up. The funding to universities has increased quite substantially over and above the increase in student numbers and so they’ve actually done quite well over the last decade during this expansion.

I’ve worked at a university Tom, they’re large organisations. There is no organisation that big that efficiencies can’t be found in anywhere in the public or private sector in Australia.

CONNELL: Any indication of how the Senate will treat the changes this time around?

SENATOR RYAN: I’ve learnt not to predict the Senate, Tom, despite being a member of it. As I said, I think Simon Birmingham here has struck a very good balance between protecting access, protecting equity, but at the same time, ensuring funding goes to support better performance by universities – that does benefit students – and that students who can contribute a little bit more, only after they’ve got a job, only after they’re earning money, can actually make the system more sustainable for future generations.

CONNELL: Just want to get you on another couple of matters: first of all, metadata and this story coming out last week that proper process wasn’t followed with the AFP accessing a journalist’s metadata. Where do you stand broadly on this? Should authorities be able to access a journalist’s information if it appears to be nothing more than chasing after a leak?

SENATOR RYAN: It is a grave matter and I think the gravity of it was signalled by the Federal Police making it public the way they did. I note that the Attorney General, who is responsible for this part of the law, made the observation that the changes put in place that drastically reduce the number of agencies that can access metadata without a warranty also inserted the provisions that provide some protection to journalists.

This is an important matter and I understand the Federal Police are taking it seriously with their referral.

CONNELL: They are, but they were emphasising more about the process. I’m taking a step back and you could say that this could have happened before the changes as well, but now there is more of a focus on it. Should this be used to pursue mere leaks if the leaks don’t come with a security threat of some sort, is that the sort of thing we, as a society, want to be doing?

SENATOR RYAN: There is always a balance to be struck, Tom, to be honest. Cabinet government depends on confidentiality, and at the same time, Ministers need to be able to develop proposals that are developed in confidence with experts and their officials. At the same time, I particularly and all my colleagues, value an open and free media. These changes that were put in place, I think a couple of years ago now, were put in place after a lot of consultation and that particular protection was put in place for journalist that has meant the apparent breach that was committed, has been brought to public attention. I think that transparency in itself is a very important signal.

CONNELL: Where is the balance then? Is it that some leaks can be pursued, all leaks can be pursued, where should it sit?

SENATOR RYAN: Those decisions are often made by those pursuing an investigation. We have operational independence of our police force, we have an independent Director of Public Prosecution, personally I’m always in favour of transparency, but that also needs to be undertaken with responsibility and with discretion.

CONNELL: But the Government still has to give that direction, or perhaps consider the laws of how it should work? I understand that once it is in place it is up to the authorities and the judiciary, but I’m asking you where you think that balance actually should be in pursuing leaks?

SENATOR RYAN: I don’t think there is a simple answer Tom, to be honest. I don’t think there can be a simple, one sentence answer to that question because we’re dealing with any area where I think you would concede, security of consideration of certain matters needs to be absolute. But at the same time, there are other matters, while inconvenient to politicians and others, we’ve all been the victim of them, they make our job more difficult, but they’re not as gravely serious. At the same time, one needs to protect a Cabinet government process, that is at its core, dependent on the confidential and frank discussions that can be held between ministers …

CONNELL: Just very quickly, all right, fair enough, just very quickly, Stronger Communities, a $45 million program, in this current Budget environment, basically handouts to electorates, should that continue?

SENATOR RYAN: Well with a week to go Tom, I don’t think it would be surprising to say, I am not going to be commenting on any Budget matters.

CONNELL: Not surprised, slightly disappointed, but always appreciative of your time. Scott Ryan, chat next time.


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