ANDREW GREENE: Hello and welcome to Capital Hill. I’m Andrew Greene on a day of dramatic developments in two long-awaited investigations troubling the Gillard Government. First, this morning, the Commonwealth Auditor-General highlighted a series of flaws in the Government’s handling of the tender for the Australia Network contract. Then, hours later, Fair Work Australia announced it had referred its investigation into the Health Services Union and its former national secretary, Craig Thomson, to Commonwealth prosecutors. Well, joining me this evening to discuss these matters and plenty more, Labor MP Anna Burke and, from Adelaide, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
ANNA BURKE: Welcome.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Andrew, a pleasure to be with you.
ANDREW GREENE: Firstly to the ongoing Craig Thomson saga. Late today we saw the Member for Dobell release a very brief statement in which he says that he acknowledges the announcement by Fair Work Australia regarding the investigation into the Health Services Union. He adds “I maintain my innocence and will continue to do so. I will also continue to fully cooperate with any further investigations relating to this matter.” Firstly to you, Simon, should this now be left with the appropriate authorities, the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions]?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, certainly, the DPP has a role to play here, Andrew, but… and a very, very important role it is, but the Coalition believes that Australians have a right to know if a Member of the House of Representatives is the subject of potential criminal proceedings, that Australians have a right to know if the Gillard Government, which relies on the votes of each and every Labor MP including Craig Thomson’s, is being propped up by someone who is the subject of potential criminal proceedings.
ANDREW GREENE: Will the Opposition be pursuing the release of this report from Fair Work Australia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Opposition believes that after three years more than three years of investigations the fact that this report is finalised means it should be made public. Australians have a right to see it, a right to know just what went on inside Fair Work Australia, just what Craig Thomson was or was not up to and, of course, there’s a legal process to be followed here and that may well end up in criminal proceedings against Mr Thomson or others but Australians do have a right to far more transparency in this matter than they have been afforded to date.
ANDREW GREENE: We did also see another report released today, that from the Auditor-General having a look at the Aus Network tender process, for the overseas broadcasting. Simon Birmingham, the Government has agreed to compensation for Sky News. Is this the end of the matter?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not at all, Andrew. What we’re seeing now is that taxpayers are having to pick up the bill for yet another Labor bungle in this case, a couple of million dollars being paid to Sky News. The ABC is, of course, also out of pocket for their participation in the tender process, as, of course, are the Department of Foreign Affairs and the bureaucracy, generally, for running a very expensive, very prolonged tender process that ultimately was axed and why was it axed? Well, it was axed because, as the Auditor-General’s report demonstrates, the dysfunction between the key personalities at the heart of this Government brought this whole deal unstuck. We ended up with a situation where the Prime Minister stripped Kevin Rudd, who was then the Foreign minister, and his department of any responsibility, handed it over to Stephen Conroy, the Communications Minister, creating what the Auditor-General has acknowledged is a perceived, if not real, conflict of interest, so we had a genuine problem here of conflict of interest in terms of the decision maker in Senator Conroy. We have a litany of processes that are outlined that were failed to be followed properly, including the handling of commercially confidential information, information that ultimately ended up, some of it, being leaked in the public arena that was then used to justify axing this tender, so it is a sorry, sorry saga here. The Prime Minister needs to explain why she allowed this conflict of interest to happen, why she had to make the changes she did that stripped Kevin Rudd of responsibility and gave it to Stephen Conroy, and Senator Conroy needs to explain how on earth he allowed such lax processes in his department, in his office, to let this tender go off the rails, leaving taxpayers with a multi-million dollar bill.
ANDREW GREENE: Anna Burke, the Auditor-General did highlight some degree of dysfunctionality in this tendering process. Did you have any concerns when this was happening?
ANNA BURKE: To be honest, it’s something that’s not on my radar or that of my electorate, I’ll be honest, but I think Senator Conroy actually asked the Auditor-General to conduct the inquiry into the tendering process. I think…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Only after the Opposition asked twice, Anna, only after we asked twice.
ANNA BURKE: Yeah, well, Senator Conroy asked for the Auditor-General to come in, we’ve welcomed the report, we’ve looked into the issue, we did pull the tender process when it got to the stage that it wasn’t in the public’s interest and due compensation has been awarded. That is a normal tendering process if it goes off the rails if it goes off the rails. It often does.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Too often under Labor.
ANNA BURKE: The ABC’s doing a great job and it will continue to do a great job in this space that’s to the benefit of all of us.
ANDREW GREENE: But, Anna, were you concerned about Kevin Rudd being sidelined?
ANNA BURKE: To be honest, it really wasn’t on the radar of many individuals. It’s not a top priority issue so, to be brutal about it, until you read it on the front page of The Australian it was, you know, one of those 10th order priorities. There’s much more concerns to my electorate. Today’s interest rates announcement is one of them.
ANDREW GREENE: To that shortly, but something which…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: All of which…
ANDREW GREENE: Yes, just… we’ll move on, just briefly, to the [Australia21] report by the group of eminent Australians who are calling for a rethink of Australia’s drug laws. This is something that often gets raised by people in the electorate. Firstly to you, Simon. Is there some room to perhaps have a debate about perhaps have a debate about the current stringent war on drugs, as it’s known?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Andrew, I think there’s a couple of things to focus on here and that is that, firstly, we do need to maintain a consistent message in the public arena that that illicit drugs are unacceptable and the Coalition did that very clearly during our time in office.
ANDREW GREENE: But is that war on drugs working?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The tough on drugs approach did see…
ANDREW GREENE: Is that working, that tough approach?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we did actually see significant decline, according to the data, during the period between 1998 and 2004 in the number of people using illicit substances, so there was some success in that regard, but the Commonwealth’s role, overwhelmingly, is at big picture level. It is about, of course, making sure that drug imports are stopped, that those significant things that everybody agrees on, in terms of breaking the supply lines for illicit drugs, actually occur. The debate that this report appears to be suggesting is one really for the States about how much effort they put into individual offences versus also trying to go after suppliers and the real problems in the drug rackets and, certainly for individuals who have a drug problem, I think there’s got to be an appropriate balance that focuses on education and rehabilitation whilst Government authorities and police really go after the drug kingpins.
ANDREW GREENE: Finally, tonight, the interest rates were kept on hold today by the Reserve Bank. Would voters in both of your constituencies be expecting some relief post-budget in the next decision, in May?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think…
ANDREW GREENE: Firstly to you, Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah, I think, Andrew, that, you know, there are very real cost-of-living pressures that voters are feeling at present and, with the looming introduction of the carbon tax later this year, voters will be looking for any relief they can get and so, certainly for households who are feeling mortgage stress, they’re looking for any break they can get and if there is something that comes from the Reserve Bank after the budget in May, well, that’ll be good news for them.
ANDREW GREENE: And Anna, what do you expect in the coming months?
ANNA BURKE: Look, it’s always a mixed bag in my electorate. I’ve got a lot of self-funded retirees who actually like to see interest rates go up because their returns on investments go up. I’ve also got a lot of people who have very high mortgages who, you know, if you buy in my neck of the woods you’ve paid a lot of money to get there, so it’s always one of those dual ones. You keep interest rates steady, it means the economy is going okay but people are struggling with household bills. Certainly, the carbon tax is not going to be adding greatly to that pressure and the compensation package will ensure most households are looked after but we always need to be mindful about the pressures on households and to ensure that we’re doing things to keep job rates up, keep employment levels going and to keep hope alive in our community and I think everyone looks with interest at interest rates, up or down.
ANDREW GREENE: Simon, finally, the Reserve Bank does make the point that inflation has begun to come down, so is there a case for further easing?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think, you know, we always want to see, on the Coalition side, interest rates as low as possible. I’m very cognisant of the points Anna makes about self-funded retirees but, in the end, low interest rates help home owners, help young people. Importantly, they also help small businesses and business investment and so anything that can get interest rates lower is a good thing. That’s certainly what we enjoyed during the Howard years with tight budgetary management, strong surpluses and that all helped us to keep interest rates as low as humanly possible.
ANDREW GREENE: Well, that’s all we do have time for tonight on Capital Hill. Thank you very much, Anna Burke in Melbourne, and, in Adelaide, Simon Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Anna. Thanks, Andrew.
ANNA BURKE: Thanks, everyone. Have a happy and safe Easter.