Television interview - ABC Afternoon Briefing 6 February

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister

GREG JENNETT, HOST: All right, time now for our political panel. And joining us this Monday, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Patrick Gorman is back. And Liberal senator and fellow West Australian Linda Reynolds is back too. Welcome to both of you. Patrick Gorman, why don't we start with the major news of the day that happened in this building? Lidia Thorpe defecting from the Greens. What does it mean for the Government's agenda? It's been rather smooth sailing for you in the Senate up to this point. Do you accept it gets a little or may get a little more complicated now?

PATRICK GORMAN, ASSISTANT MINISTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER: Well, what you've seen from the Albanese Government from when we were elected is treating independent members with respect, both in the House where we do have a majority, but it's still important, and we've adopted amendments and ideas where we think they're in the national interest and treating independent members in the Senate with respect. We'll deal with Senator Thorpe as we try to do with all Senators who want to advance the national interest with respect.

Now, the circumstances of how this has come about within the Greens Party, I'm sure we'll hear more about in coming days. It is pretty spectacular to see a Senator walk out of their own party less than a year after they were elected, when actually the Greens haven't changed any of their policy positions from when they were elected in May last year. So, it is very curious, and I'm sure there's many Greens Party members and many Victorians who are wondering what actually happened to the Senator they elected.

JENNETT: No. To be certain, there are some questions to be answered. But just on the Voice, she's got her own particular set of grievances around that. But do you think it augurs badly that people of her ilk are splintering away from what might otherwise have been the Yes position through a vacuum, or what they claim is a vacuum of information?

GORMAN: Well, there is no vacuum of information. And the proof to that is indeed Linda's former colleague, Ken Wyatt, who put out so much of that information in the Calma-Langton report, in addition to the constitutional amendment proposed by the Prime Minister at Garma last year.

But in terms of Senator Thorpe, she just gets one vote. This is a vote of the Australian people. 17 million Australians get to decide what goes in and what stays out of our Constitution. She's just one vote. This is a choice for the Australian people, not for the Senate, not for the House of Representatives. I encourage every Australian to make up their mind about whether they believe this will advance our national interest, which I believe it will.

JENNETT: Yeah, that is true. Linda, that last point of Pat's that we seem to obsess a lot over what the party positions will be here in Canberra, but it's ultimately going to be about 17 million Australians who vote. But on Lidia Thorpe, do you think she was mismanaged by her leadership or not kept in the tent by the Government? She demanded bits of information, never got them, and so she's marched.

SENATOR LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, look, I think this has been coming for a while and certainly in the Senate we've seen with Senator Thorpe's rather extreme and quite often unparliamentary behaviour, that there have been tensions between her and the Greens. It's rather extraordinary to see in Parliament, where you've got a senator who finds the Greens too moderate, so it's not a surprise. But in the Senate, for any legislation that comes forward, her vote will count because it will negate Senator Pocock's vote, possibly.

JENNETT: It's hard to imagine what those issues might be, where she splits away from her former party says she won't on climate, but anyway, we'll know them when we get to them, I suppose.

On the Voice, your esteemed fellow West Australian Justice Robert French is fully convinced that the model the Government has put up is fine, checks out legally and won't be challenged. If the laws are correctly tailored in this place in the Parliament, won't be challenged in the courts. Do you accept that as an informed piece of commentary on the Government's proposal?

REYNOLDS: I think there's a number of issues at play here and I think it's a very bold person, whether they're a jurist or not, to predict how Australians will vote and what will end up at appeal at the High Court. I was very heartened today to see the poll in The Australian because what that demonstrates, reconfirms really, what we all know is that Australians are very compassionate people, but they are also very cautious when it comes to the detail and how they vote on referendums to change the constitution.

JENNETT: But it would pass on those numbers. 56 per cent support, although with that softness.

REYNOLDS: But the question was very open, "Do you support a Voice?". Well, the vast majority of Australians are reasonable and compassionate and do. But again, as those very same people start to look at the lack of detail and again, I'll note that Peter Dutton has put fifteen very basic questions and they still haven't been answered. So as Australians come to look at the detail, as they inevitably will, it is incumbent on the Prime Minister now to show leadership and to bring the nation with him on the detail, because having an esteemed High Court judge making an assessment on a constitutional issue is quite different from putting the case to the Australian people.

JENNETT: Yeah, fair enough. Just on that, Justice French has been quoted by fellow Ministers in your government. He thinks you can safeguard against this becoming justiciable is the word. Can you or would you, when you're up to drafting the legislation, would you try to eliminate that possibility?

GORMAN: Well, as we've done throughout this entire process, we've got an expert group giving us advice on these constitutional legal matters. We'll continue to listen to them. When it gets to the point of drafting, the Parliamentary Counsel will do that work as they do for all legislation that comes to this place from the Government. It will be high quality policy and legislation.

But when it comes to the real question, which is what Australians will vote on this year, that is about the principles in the Constitution, do we recognise and do we consult? And I believe the answer from the Australian people will be yes. And to the similar reasons that Linda outlined, Australians recognise that this will take us forward and it's an idea that time has well and truly come to.

JENNETT: The point that Linda made, questions are at large from Peter Dutton. The reality is some of those won't be answered, almost can't be answered this side of the referendum. Is that where the Government's settling on that list? It's a fifteen question list. Some can't and won't be answered?

GORMAN: The Prime Minister has responded to the letter from the Leader of the Opposition. We still see that there is an opportunity for this to be a moment that brings both the Parliament and the nation together. Some of those questions there are already answers out there. Some of them are maybe questions that I think maybe I would think if the Leader of the Opposition has time again, he might have worded in a different way. He met with the Referendum Working Group last week. I welcome that and I say thank you to the Leader of the Opposition for sitting down with that group to hear more about how the Voice will work.

There are many people on that group, people from across the spectrum of Australian society, who are trying to say, here's how it works, here's how it will look and feel. But most importantly, here is the principle. Do we recognise our first Australians in the Constitution and do we consult them on matters that affect them? And again, that's the question that will be in front of the Australian people later this year. And that's the thing which we will all have an opportunity to vote yes for at that referendum.

JENNETT: And just wrapping up, Linda on the Voice, because I want to move to some other matters, if your party granted you a free vote or a conscience vote, as some people describe it, what would your position be?

REYNOLDS: I don't know yet, because I haven't seen enough detail to make that assessment. Personally, I am in favour of some form of constitutional recognition, as I think most Australians are. However, without seeing any of the detail, and I do dispute what Patrick has said is that while we won't necessarily have finalised legislation before the referendum, we can certainly answer the big questions that will be on people's minds. And that they have a right to know, and even a draught of the legislation that the Government has in mind, which, of course, would then go through the normal parliamentary processes and committees.

JENNETT: But some things like staff numbers and cost, that sort of granular detail, literally wouldn't exist at present, would it?

REYNOLDS: In concept, I think it is very important because it goes to the question of is it going to be yet another big bureaucracy like ATSIC, for example. So while they might not have exact staff numbers, what type of organisation, with what type of responsibilities is required? So at a high level, I believe it can and should be answered.

JENNETT: All right, why don't we move on to national security. You are, for your previous stint as Defence Minister, something of a keeper of national secrets. Can we be certain that China has never put any sort of balloon surveillance over this continent in the way that it did in the US?

REYNOLDS: Look, I'm not aware, without revealing any secrets, I'm not aware of any similar balloons. However, I think it is very safe to say that not just Australia, but the United States and other key allies, they have eyes on us and ears on us at all times. And that's why we have organisations and we heavily resource organisations like the Australian Signals Directorate, both in a defensive and an offensive capability. So whether it's in a balloon or other means, they have certainly got their eyes and ears on us.

JENNETT: And what's your assessment, Patrick Gorman, of what unfolded in the US? It was somewhat extraordinary. Do you think it was sophisticated, crude or ill judged?

GORMAN: Well, I think every nation has a right to the sovereignty of their airspace and to defend their airspace and to take the actions that those governments see as necessary. And that's what I saw from the United States in terms of their actions when you had that balloon over South Carolina and then over the ocean, and it's up to individual nations how they choose to respond. We live in an era of strategic competition, where you do have nations seeking to advance their interests in a range of different ways.

JENNETT: But in the hypothetical case that there had been one over Australia, would we be within right to deal with it in the way that the US does? I suppose that question is framed around, there are things America can get away with without inflaming things that Australia or other countries couldn't.

GORMAN: And I can understand that your viewers would be wondering exactly that question. It's probably not right of me, as part of the Albanese Government, to be speculating on hypotheticals, other than to say that we take Australia's defence, the defence of our territorial integrity, including our airspace, as seriously as any government that's come before us, and we wouldn't hesitate to act in our national security interests in whatever circumstances are put in front of us.

JENNETT: It is completely hypothetical, that question I put to Patrick, but on it Linda, Australian forces choosing or an Australian Government choosing to shoot down, would that be a prudent course of action?

REYNOLDS: Well, it depends on the circumstances, but what I can say is good on them for taking the action they did in a way that wasn't going to harm people on the ground. But also making that strong statement is if you violate our sovereignty, and in this case sovereign airspace, then we will respond. And Australia under the Morrison Government, and I'm sure under the current Australian Government, would take very strong action.

JENNETT: All right, why don't we move on and close out in fact with another Grattan Institute report today. Patrick Gorman, it concerns fuel tax credit for off road users, farmers and miners, primarily identifying some significant savings if this was revisited. I haven't heard much warmth around that proposal coming from the Government. Why is it not interested?

GORMAN: It's not on our agenda. What we see in terms of the big shift that Australia needs to make when it comes to mining, farming, agriculture, is we know that we're moving to a net zero world, that the fuels of the future for those industries are things such as hydrogen batteries and finding smarter and cleaner ways of doing things. That's where we want to incentivise. That's what we see as the priority. You've seen that already in terms of some of the incentives we've put forward and some of the partnerships we've put forward.

JENNETT: So some of those benefits will wind out in time anyway, is that what you're saying?

GORMAN: Well, look, Linda and I and every West Australian knows the sort of transition that particularly the resources sector is undergoing in Western Australia, where they are looking at new battery powered vehicles, onsite hydrogen, onsite electrification. That is the way of the future. That's something that I welcome. And we're keen as a Government, through our National Reconstruction Fund and other things to try and accelerate that transformation because we know more jobs for Australians, more industry for Australia and a cleaner planet for all.

JENNETT: All right, Linda, that's a "thanks, but no thanks" from the Albanese Government on this suggestion.

REYNOLDS: Greg, I think you heard it first here on the ABC that the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister has comprehensively ruled out that suggestion. And I know that that will be of great relief to farmers and miners, not just in our own home state of Western Australia, but nationally. This Government has placed significant cost of living burdens on all Australians and particular farmers. And now, through some of the measures that the Assistant Minister was talking about on miners, so another burden, a necessary burden of cost of living on miners and farmers. Now that it's been comprehensively ruled out, I think they will breathe a sigh of relief.

JENNETT: All right, but don't be misled by the acrimony, they are actually on the same page here. Folks, Patrick Gorman and Linda Reynolds, thanks both of you for joining us once again, we'll talk to you soon.

REYNOLDS: Thank you

GORMAN: Thank you

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