PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator Scott Ryan, Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet, welcome.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Good evening Patricia, thanks for having me.
KARVELAS: So, let’s just start with foreign affairs, it’s the biggest story in the world and certainly our country, the Trump phone call and the refugee deal has been dominating headlines. The President has labelled one of our Government’s policies as ‘dumb’. His senior staff can’t even get our Prime Minister’s name right. You must be feeling like the relationship isn’t in the kind of shape you want it to be?
SENATOR RYAN: Well it wouldn’t surprise you, Patricia, that I don’t enjoy it when people from other countries comment on my domestic politics and I’m not going to comment on American domestic politics.
The US relationship is so wide ranging and so deep – it runs across business, academia, government – and I think that it will remain as strong as it always has.
KARVELAS: There are reports that a staffer from the Prime Minister’s office has been suspended after posting a picture of themselves on Facebook wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Tuck Frump’ – I’ve got to say that very slowly in case I say that wrong. Exactly why have they been suspended?
SENATOR RYAN: Look, I’m aware of the story, I wasn’t aware of the t-shirt, I know there has been a staff member suspended with a post on social media.
Look, I don’t want to comment on the specific details because I actually don’t know. What I will say more generically though, is that, when people work in politics it is a sensitive work environment. It is a sensitive work environment partly because your professional colleagues draw attention to what people post on social media. So without making an observation on that, other than the facts as you outlined them, it is just something that all staff need to keep in mind.
KARVELAS: OK, but suspending a staff member for doing this, is this not what you need to be in newspapers, online during a difficult time for the US relationship? That someone in the Prime Minister’s office wants to get an anti-Trump t-shirt?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I think, first of all, it is a junior administrative position, it is not a senior position, a policy position, or a position, for example, that deals with the media. I don’t think it is fair to characterise the US relationship in the way you did either.
KARVELAS: Well it is someone who works in the Prime Minister’s office.
SENATOR RYAN: I think the US relationship with Australia, we have seen, even with the coverage of Australia in the US media in the past few days, is deep, wide ranging and long standing. It is of such breadth and such great importance to both countries. I don’t think there is any reflection upon that whatsoever.
KARVELAS: Do you wish President Trump didn’t tweet so much?
SENATOR RYAN: I’ll tell you Patricia, the one thing I’m not going to make observations on, in this environment or any other, is the domestic politics of another country.
We don’t enjoy it ... [interrupted]
KARVELAS: It’s not helpful though is it? It is not helpful to have this kind of diplomacy via Twitter. You’ve got to concede it’s unhelpful.
SENATOR RYAN: I think Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has shown the most mature approach, which is to put Australian interests first and not provide a running commentary on the domestic politics of another country.
We don’t enjoy it when another country provides observations on our domestic policies. I don’t think any Australians enjoy it. Why would I do that, as a minister, to another country?
KARVELAS: Sure, but most Australians would very much agree that it is very unhelpful to run a country, run a foreign policy like this on Twitter, so they would expect that you would probably reflect that.
SENATOR RYAN: I disagree. I think most Australians don’t want the Prime Minister or his ministers to provide a running commentary on the actions of another government about how they run their country.
KARVELAS: I want to get to what’s happening next week. It is the first week back for the year in Parliament. You’re a senator, what can you tell me about what will be the priority in terms of the legislative agenda? Will the business tax cuts be high up?
SENATOR RYAN: Well the determination about the legislative agenda is usually made at the beginning of the week. We have that. The Prime Minister also made clear, in his press club address earlier this week, that we are very keen to move on the changes to childcare and Family Tax Benefits to support people, and particularly women, to be able to afford to go back to work and childcare.
We have a number of priorities in my area with relation to politicians’ work expenses, which attracted some negative comment over the summer break. I think it will be a very busy first week, but I think in terms of what is brought forward first in the Senate, that decision is usually made when Parliament starts on Tuesday, closer to then.
KARVELAS: Nick Xenophon spoke to Fran Kelly a couple of days ago and said he wasn’t convinced of the full business tax cuts. Does that mean you’ll split the bill so you can get the first tranche through?
SENATOR RYAN: Let’s wait and see.
KARVELAS: But that would be something that makes sense? That’s how you negotiate isn’t it?
SENATOR RYAN: I don’t want to publically negotiate. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we are about getting results. Just in the second half of last year we got more legislation through the Senate than in the previous three years. So I think the Senate has proven itself to be workable, along with the approach of the Government in negotiation. But one of the things we’ve done is to not negotiate publically, but to do it privately.
We believe the whole Enterprise Tax Plan needs to get through to make Australia more competitive and, in fact, keep our competitive position. But we also accept the reality of the Senate and if you need to negotiate, you undertake that.
KARVELAS: Let’s get to your specific portfolio issues. The Government is going to set up an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, the Prime Minister says expenses will be reported monthly and will be more transparent. What will we, as taxpayers, be able to see and where?
SENATOR RYAN: So you can currently see, pretty much almost every transaction I, for example, as a Member of Parliament, a Victorian Senator, take: where I fly, the dates that I fly, when I use cars etc. How much it costs my office to run in the sense of phone bills and car bills and office utilities.
Currently it’s in a PDF format, to use IT jargon, and it’s not easily searchable. That reflects that a lot of the IT that is used to put this together is a decade old.
To move to a more monthly reporting that would be in a more searchable, observable format requires a back-end upgrade, which will take some time, but the Prime Minister has made clear this is a priority.
I will say, however, that compared to other countries, and particularly compared to our state parliaments, we disclose what our federal Members of Parliament spend money on and how they go about it to quite an extraordinary degree. I think that’s a good thing. We are going to take it further and make it monthly, not just twice a year.
KARVELAS: If you’re just tuning in, the Special Minister of State Scott Ryan is my guest. 0418 226 576 is the number you can text on. You can also tweet us using the hashtag RN Drive.
What will the consequences be for politicians who get it wrong? Who are not adhering to the rule, who are, as we’ve seen Sussan Ley recently and Bronwyn Bishop, who were just exploiting the rules in the most blatant, unsatisfactory way to taxpayers?
Well without agreeing necessarily with your characterisation of it there ...
Well they both were sacked so I’m assuming you do agree that did the wrong thing.
SENATOR RYAN: There are two issues here Patricia, and I think both issues are equally important. There is the issue of it being within the rules and then there is the issue of meeting community expectations. I think what has changed over the last few years is that, what used to be in the rules met community expectations and they have changed, in my view. That is reflected in what the Prime Minister has said over the last couple of weeks. So more regular disclosure changes the culture around thinking, around is this a legitimate expenditure of taxpayers’ funds?
There was a review, which was tabled last year, which I’ve been working on for the last six months to bring into legislation, which would have a new series of tests for when you can incur travel expenditure. The truth is, it is when Members of Parliament have travelled that tends to have provoked public concern and media interest. We have been focussing very much on that.
We want our Members of Parliament to travel. This is not Washington, where everyone moves to Washington to live with their family. We have Members of Parliament travelling from Cairns, from Darwin, from Broome, from Barcaldine to Canberra every second week with their staff. We need to make sure those costs reflect scarcity of taxpayers’ funds and that taxpayers are content, or happy, with the purpose for which they travel when they are not just going to Canberra.
KARVELAS: So are you prepared to crack down on the family reunion scheme? That scheme is very contentious, where all of a sudden you say, ‘I really need to get myself to Cairns with the family and I need a special meeting in Cairns’ and all of a sudden the entire family can come with to Cairns. Now I would love to take my family to Cairns too, but I have to pay for it.
SENATOR RYAN: So that is one of the changes recommended last year, which we are moving on, so family reunion travel. It is mainly to Canberra, and it would no longer be business class, it would effectively be calculated on an economy class basis. We are continuing to look at whether or not there need to be further changes made or not. I will say however, that some of my colleagues spend an extraordinary amount of time in Canberra, particularly from far-flung places.
They will stay there on the weekend rather than spend a day travelling there and a day travelling back and I don’t think it is entirely unreasonable to have their family join them in Canberra if they’re there for a three or four week stretch.
KARVELAS: But they shouldn’t be able to join them in, you know, lovely locations, like the Gold Coast?
SENATOR RYAN: For example, I think on one occasion there was either a presidential or royal visit to one of our capital cities that wasn’t Canberra. I know that if Members of Parliament, who were invited in an official capacity to a reception, if they were to take their spouse or partner, who was also invited, that is just something I want to look at. But the point you make about the family holidays, specifically, are already prohibited, and quite frankly, any MP who did it now would be dragged over the coals. It gets reported so people would know about it.
KARVELAS: If you’re reforming expenses to restore the faith of the electorate, why not do the same with political donations? Why not make those monthly? Why not lower the disclosure limit?
SENATOR RYAN: So the issue with political donations – I made a specific reference to the Electoral Matters Committee, the most wide ranging one that I can remember in my eight-and-a-half years in Parliament.
We got the report on the issue around authorisation of new technology, like robocalls, back in December, and we are looking at legislation regarding that very shortly in the new year.
In the first week of March, I and Parliament should get a report back from the committee on foreign donations. The reason I asked for the report is that this is quite a complex issue.
Should an Australian citizen, based in Los Angeles and still on the electoral role and can vote here by postal vote, should they be able to make a $50 donation to their local candidate? Now I don’t think that’s unreasonable. But the proposal when Labor talk about it, when they say they’re going to ban foreign donations, doesn’t ban the company that gets $50,000 transferred to it and then makes a donation to a political party. Labor foreign donations ban doesn’t ban the foreign donations they’ve received, so I want to look at a system that is water-tight and that tackles foreign donations to third parties. By that I don’t mean the Greens and Nick Xenophon, I mean non-political parties that have very big presences in our election campaigns. By world standards, by comparable nation standards – Australia, the UK, New Zealand – Australia has the largest third-party campaigning sector by far, in some cases by a factor of 10.
KARVELAS: Given your commitment to do that, you mentioned the first week of March, are we likely to see legislation banning foreign donations, as you’ve just described, this first half of the year?
SENATOR RYAN: Well the Prime Minister has made clear that he wants this acted on soon and I would hope we can do it. The budget session is always busy with budget bills, and there are only three weeks of the Senate sitting in that budget period from May to June, but I would hope to be able to act on it very quickly.
KARVELAS: So the earlier part of this year?
SENATOR RYAN: I would hope so.
KARVELAS: Just finally, the other issue you were responsible for was the plebiscite, which was blocked. Obviously this means the whole issue of gay marriage is now at a stand-still. Do you envisage that this will be revisited this year by your party room, because I know there are many people on the backbench, and you know that too, who think that this should be determined by a free vote?
SENATOR RYAN: The first point you raised is the most obvious one: we would be voting and determining on this issue in eight days if the Labor Party and Bill Shorten had gone through ... [interrupted]
KARVELAS: But they didn’t so it is academic.
SENATOR RYAN: I’m not going to let the Labor Party changing their minds, and the Greens, who asked for a plebiscite and put the bill to Parliament for it, changing their minds – both for opportunistic reasons – that’s not going to be what determines Coalition policy.
KARVELAS: If someone raises it in the Party Room, will it have to be reconsidered?
SENATOR RYAN: I’m not entirely sure. The Liberal Party Room, unlike the Labor party room, doesn’t have a written set of rules. But the Coalition’s commitment to holding a plebiscite was fairly strong. Given that Labor and the Greens both said they wanted one at various points – well Bill Shorten did – they’re opportunism in trying to block it is not going to be what determines our policy.
KARVELAS: Can you rule out that there will be a free vote in this term of Parliament on gay marriage?
SENATOR RYAN: As a member of the ministry, I’m bound by party policy, but I’ve said on this program many times before that the Liberal Party does not have a binding caucas, it is what differentiates it from Labor. But in my observation, I think there is very strong to maintain the party’s commitment on the plebiscite.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for your time.
SENATOR RYAN: Thanks for having me.