FRAN KELLY: The Special Minister of State, Scott Ryan is in charge of all of this, he joins me in the Parliament House studio. Minister, welcome.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Good morning Fran thanks for having me.
KELLY: The Government took a hammering over the summer thanks to the then health minister Sussan Ley’s prolific use of her travel allowance. You’re rolling out a number of changes. Do the rules need to change though, or do politician’s attitudes to spending our money need to change?
SENATOR RYAN: Well, I think all politicians suffer when we have issues around travel use, and use of public money generally, and over the last couple of years I think it has hit political parties from all sides. But the rules are going to be changed as part of the review that was commenced in late 2016, 2015 sorry. There will be some changes coming forward in legislation, as well as setting up the independent authority.
KELLY: Okay, but I go back to my question, is it the rules that are the problem or is it in the interpretation? For instance one of the recommendations from the committees that did this is to ban COMCAR use for personal journeys. I’d think that’d be obvious you shouldn’t use a taxpayer funded car for your own personal get around.
SENATOR RYAN: Yeah I don’t think, I can’t think of an example of where it has been used for personal journeys. A number of the recommendations in the Conde report there, are about restating what I think is already in the rules and already practised. For example, it also says family reunion travel shouldn’t be used for family holidays. I don’t think it has been in my time in this role, but it is restating a clear rule and principle.
KELLY: The big problem that emerged with the Sussan Ley situation is just how blurred the definition of parliamentary business has become. There’s a loophole which enables a politician to claim official business when the nature of the trip could be primarily personal. So, what are you going to do to tidy up that definition? Because this was one of the key recommendations of the Tune-Conde inquiry.
SENATOR RYAN: And the Conde review came up with a new recommendation for parliamentary business, which I am working on now, and effectively we will likely move to a test around what is the dominant purpose of your travel.
But as the Prime Minister has made clear, we do need our politicians to travel, and we don’t want to be in America where every MP moves to Washington. I don’t want to live here, all of our politicians travel. We are a very large country, so we want to maintain the flexibility of travel, but actually ensure, through a combination of monthly reporting, we are held accountable by the media, by the public, as well as a definition that suits the needs of our constituents as well as our members of Parliament.
KELLY: It’s hard to define. I mean a politician going to watch a sporting grand final in a box with some corporate heavyweights that might be key to their portfolio, it’s hard to say what’s right or wrong.
SENATOR RYAN: And that’s why monthly reporting on a searchable database is actually going to be very important.
KELLY: Why, because it’ll make people stop and think?
SENATOR RYAN: Well part of it is a cultural change, and I think over the last few years there has been a change in community expectations. There are two tests: the written rules and there are community expectations. Monthly reporting, when we move to that with a new IT system over time, more regular reporting in the short term, because currently we do six months, will ensure there is a cultural change. But I might also say, compared to our state parliaments, and compared to a lot of international parliaments we compare ourselves with, we do disclose a great deal. People who look up my records can find out what days I travelled, where I travelled, what cars I used, what flights, effectively what city I flew to. We disclose quite an enormous amount of detail, and quite rightly.
KELLY: Yeah but it doesn’t come very frequently and that’s part of the issue.
SENATOR RYAN: Part of that is the IT system in some cases are a decade old.
KELLY: So I think a lot of people listen and go, ‘oh no don’t blame the IT system’. How long is this going to take we’ve already waited a year haven’t we since the Tune-Conde inquiry?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I might say, so there are almost a dozen pieces of legislation and regulations some that are almost as old as me, and I’m 43, that underpin how we give salary to our MPs and how we fund the offices and everything from how we interact with our constituents. And so compiling those into a single piece so we can move forward with a modern, single piece of legislation has taken several months. Since I’ve been in the job, that’s a priority that’s been at work, that’s been undertaken both by the Department of Finance and by the Remuneration Tribunal.
KELLY: So in terms of time, the real time reporting, how long do you think it’s going to take to get the IT system up and running?
SENATOR RYAN: That is what I’m working on, the IT system. What I’ve been working on initially is ensuring we can move forward with the rule changes that John Conde recommended. I think we can move to more regular reporting than 6 months very soon. Monthly, might take a little bit longer.
KELLY: We have a system whereby we trust the politician to spend the money wisely, this setting up a new independent agency to take the administration, will that actually take the administration entitlements out of the hands of MPs? Will the new agency be able to determine what MPs can claim?
SENATOR RYAN: So the determination about what MPs can claim, for example, is primarily a matter for the Remuneration Tribunal, and occasionally myself at the moment.
This new authority will be focused on enforcement of the rules, reporting on the rules and ability to seek guidance when MPs aren’t clear on the rules, and ensuring that all the data is out there in the public. It’ll be effectively, particularly, for travel. It will also do administration, but it will primarily be a reporting and compliance regime.
KELLY: Okay, but MPs won’t have to get the tick for every claim?
SENATOR RYAN: That’s not feasible. We have, for example, thousands of transactions every week being undertaken by Members of Parliament and their staff, from the time they get a cab to the airport, to the flights our Members of Parliament take for a committee hearing around the country.
KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast it’s 17 minutes to 8. Our guest is Scott Ryan, he’s the Special Minister of State.
The Prime Minister revealed last week he donated $1.75 million to the Liberal Party. Under the current rules he could’ve waited another year before he told us that. Does the same transparency argument that we were just talking there, about close time reporting, apply to donations? Is it in the public interest for all of us to know who is donating to our politicians our political parties and how much?
SENATOR RYAN: Well the first point I’ll make Fran, is that the Prime Minister didn’t make us wait a year, he actually announced it, he did it on TV.
KELLY: And I know, I said that. But he could have under the rules, that’s what I’m saying so do the rules need to be changed?
SENATOR RYAN: So the rules go back several decades, well before I was in Parliament.
KELLY: Doesn’t matter how far they go back should they be changed?
SENATOR RYAN: And the PM has said that he is inclined to move towards more regular disclosure. The former prime minister John Howard has also made a similar point. I gave the most wide-standing reference to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in years last year, they’re reporting to me on foreign donations in the first week of March. They reported to me in the Parliament on the issue of authorisations, and robo-calls and modern communications technologies in the first week of December we’ll be acting on soon. I’ve also asked for a wide-ranging report on donations generally, including disclosure. As soon as that reports, the Government will take it under consideration, but there is an inclination, as the Prime Minister, said to use technology and move towards a more regular reporting regime.
KELLY: And is there an inclination to ban foreign donations? The PM indicated his support for that, and is that going to be a ban on all foreign donors, or only foreign donations to third parties like GetUp! Which really annoy the Government with its efforts?
SENATOR RYAN: We need to do a couple of things, we need to decide what a foreign donation is. Now for example, the Labor Party, which says it has a bill on foreign donations, it actually wouldn’t ban foreign donations it received. Andrew Wilkie has a different bill, should foreign donations … [interrupted]
KELLY: Well are you going to have a bill that’s going to work?
SENATOR RYAN: I’ve asked for the committee to report first week of March on the complexities, but let me give you one complexity. Should an Australian citizen based overseas, who is on the electoral roll, be allowed to make a foreign donation? If they’re voting, I think most people would think they should. We can’t set up a system that creates the veneer of a foreign donations ban, but allows money to be transferred into the country by Australian shelf corporations. I want to do it comprehensively.
KELLY: Okay, couple of broader issues, marriage equality, unfinished business for the Government it would seem. We’ve spoken to several Liberal MPs who support legal recognition and who say it’s not going to go away. It will be a defining issue this year, according to one of them. I believe you support marriage equality, can the Government afford to go yet another term with this still being a major distraction?
SENATOR RYAN: Well it’s not a distraction for me. I spent a lot of time last year working on a comprehensive plebiscite proposal.
KELLY: Which didn’t get up.
SENATOR RYAN: I’m not going to let the opportunism of Bill Shorten changing his mind when he said a plebiscite was okay, the Greens introduced a proposal for a plebiscite in a previous Parliament. I’m not going to let their opportunism define Coalition policy. We’re committed to the plebiscite, I’m committed to the plebiscite and one of the reasons I might say Fran, is the arguments used against the plebiscite I find absolutely reprehensible. The idea that we cannot trust the Australian people to conduct a debate responsibly.
KELLY: What about the idea that we cannot trust our parliamentarians to vote responsibly, which is their job
SENATOR RYAN: Well, we took a policy. We took a policy to an election that this is an issue that can go to a plebiscite. It’s been done before in many cases, they’ve done it on daylight savings in Queensland, they’ve done it on shop trading hours in other states.
KELLY: Free votes on a lot of policies too.
SENATOR RYAN: Agreed, but our policy as a party was to go to the people and have a plebiscite. We put that in the Parliament. Bill Shorten previously said a plebiscite was okay, the Greens previously said they supported a plebiscite, but out of opportunism or some of the most offensive arguments that we can’t trust the people to have a debate, they decided to vote against it. That’s not going to define Coalition policy.
KELLY: Well some Coalition MPs and others are pointing out privately to others that Tony Abbott previously said that this was the last term, this was last term in which the Coalition party room can be bound to the official policy.
SENATOR RYAN: At this point I will also say that the Liberal Party has always been a party where individual Members of Parliament’s consciences are valued. And Fran, I hope next time a Labor Party person is in here you ask them why they’re banned a free vote after the next election.
KELLY: Well we’ve had that conversation many, many times, but if there’s no plebiscite policy now up on the table.
SENATOR RYAN: Our policy is still for a plebiscite.
KELLY: Just very briefly, some bad Newspoll numbers. Labor ahead of the Coalition 54 to 46 two-party preferred. Voters don’t seem to be buying what you’re selling, and they seem to be more interested according to this poll anyway on One Nation. On the weekend, Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek said Labor would never preference One Nation. What do you think? Would you be happy doing a preference deal with One Nation?
SENATOR RYAN: I’ve been a party official before in the Liberal Party, it’s the purview of the organisation or the parliamentary leadership to make pronouncements on that. I’m not going to muddy the waters by providing personal views on air.
KELLY: Why not?
SENATO R RYAN: Because, those are matters for the people who are elected via the members of the Liberal Party to make those decisions in conjunction with our parliamentary leadership and I think that’s the entirely appropriate place, that the party should speak with one voice on those matters.
KELLY: Scott Ryan thank you very much for joining us.
SENATOR RYAN: Thanks for having me Fran.