Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan 

Topics: Senate Estimates; school zoning; price of milk.

Transcript, E&OE

20 February 2019

David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment, Liberal Senator Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Good morning Ali.

David Bevan: Amanda Rishworth Labor MP for Kingston. Good morning to you.

Amanda Rishworth: Good morning. Great to be with you.

David Bevan: And Cory Bernardi leader of the Australian Conservatives. Good morning to you.

Cory Bernardi: Good morning everyone.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, have you ever heard a CEO of a travel company book your overseas travel?

Simon Birmingham: No, not that I can recall.

Ali Clarke: So how has this happened? Is it common then?

Simon Birmingham: Well I can say that I can recall ever counting the CEO of a travel company as a personal friend either so Mathias as he obviously outlined yesterday when asked questions about this, spoke to his friend who happen to have that position and obviously asked if they could help out with some bookings. I gather, he did so on more than one occasion, that on all the other occasions that have never hit the news, his credit card was duly charged and he paid for them and on this occasion, it seems as if the payment wasn’t processed as he thought it had been.

Ali Clarke: OK. So Amanda Rishworth does that sound fair enough?

Amanda Rishworth: Well no I think there are questions to be answered. The questions here are not just about the thousands of dollars of free flights that were received by Mathias Cormann it that they weren’t declared but of course he then signed off on a very large Commonwealth contract with this company.

Simon Birmingham: No he did not Amanda.

Amanda Rishworth: Well there is clearly his signature….

Simon Birmingham: If you listened to Senate Estimates, it was very clear, very clear, that all the probity rules were followed and he had…

Amanda Rishworth: His signature is on the brief, his signature is on the brief and he did not declare this interests.

Simon Birmingham: The department handled the procurement processes.

Amanda Rishworth: Anyway his signature is on the brief and also he has received these benefits which he did not declare so there are questions to be answered. I think for Simon to say there’s nothing to see here shows that there’s some sort of naivety. People want to have confidence that our Commonwealth procurement is done in a way that isn’t compromised and and that is why we have the declarations of members interests to actually make that declaration so that people are, it’s very transparent and very aware. In this case it didn’t occur and so we’ve clearly said there are questions to answer.

David Bevan: Well let’s listen just to a small portion of how this unfolded in Senate Estimates yesterday.

Kimberley Kitching: You spoke with Mr Burnes directly.

[Recording starts…]

Mathias Cormann: Yes.

Kimberley Kitching: So he’s the managing director isn’t that correct?

Mathias Cormann: Yes that’s right.

Kimberley Kitching: …of an ASX listed company, and he took your travel booking?

Mathias Cormann: Well I made arrangements through him…

Kimberley Kitching: It’s a 717 market capitalised company and he took your travel booking?

Mathias Cormann: I can only tell you what happened. I made a booking through Helloworld, engaging with Mr Burnes, that is right and I provided my credit card details and I asked for payment to be made and I wasnt sure that this would happen.

Penny Wong: But it’s not just through Helloworld, you don’t just ring one of their employees, you ring the boss. Is that how it works?

Mathias Cormann: Well he was my contact that I knew at Helloworld and I made travel arrangements through him. That’s right. So not through his office.

Penny Wong: It’s an odd arrangement…

Mathias Cormann: Sorry?

Penny Wong: It’s an odd arrangement.

[Recording finishes…]

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham is there any suggestion here of a breach of the ministerial code of conduct?

Simon Birmingham: No.

David Bevan: You sure about that.

Simon Birmingham: I’m pretty sure about that, is there a particular breach you’re alleging David?

David Bevan: Well if you’ve got a minister who’s dealing directly with the head of a company that is doing business with the government and on Amanda Rishworth’s version of events, his signature eventually appears on the brief and he’s accepting what later turns out he insists, was not free travel, but at the time appeared to be. You don’t think any of that gets anywhere close to a ministerial breach?

Simon Birmingham: No, Mathias been very clear, this was always expected to be paid for. He believed that he had paid for it. The moment he realised that he had not, he ensured that it was paid for. And in terms of the contract, noting that this is a company that had a pre-existing travel contract with the federal government that was awarded under the previous Labor government. It is a company that was simply in many ways tendering for a renewal of a contract they’ve got under Labor and those probity protocols which have external probity and legal advice applied were all followed to the absolute letter and in no way did Mathias play a role in the selection of that company.

David Bevan: Okay. Cory Bernardi, nothing to see here?

Cory Bernardi: There’s absolutely nothing to see here. Look it looks bad because Labor are beating it up as a distraction. But let’s put this in perspective, Mathias is mates with the CEO of this company and I can perfectly understand why he’s called him and said look I want to deal with your company, how do I go about it to protect my privacy, to facilitate it whatever it might be and he’s gone through this process. It happens all the time and let’s put this in perspective, Bill Shorten when he wants a private jet he just rings up the billionaires, he doesn’t go through their employees and everyone does it to to facilitate the ease of a transaction.

Ali Clarke: So that’s how you do it as well Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: Well you know what, when I want a restaurant booking, I ring the owner of the restaurant. Yeah I do because…

David Bevan: What a world you all live in….

Ali Clarke: I just need to point out, i’ve got to say…

David Bevan: You don’t know when money is coming out of your credit cards and you ring CEO’s directly or you ring the guy who’s running the restaurant…

Cory Bernardi: Hang on a second, when politicians have problems with newspapers they ring editors they ring journalists when the ABC, they ring the managing director at certain levels to connect with the person that can make the decisions. Now it’s not inappropriate at all to deal with one of your friends directly even if it’s to say, how can I manage this in the most appropriate manner or to say what sort of product should I be using?

Ali Clarke: One could argue Cory Bernardi people, one could argue for example if you bring the ABC up as an example it didn’t end well for Justin Milne and Malcolm Turnbull.

Cory Bernardi: Well you know you can argue all sorts of things but there’s no suggestion that Mathias Cormann has done anything wrong here at all. In fact what he’s done is he’s paid for multiple airfares, one hasn’t been charged and anyone that looks at the credit card statement that travels a heck of a lot looks for abnormal charges not charges that don’t exist and particularly where you share a credit card statement with your significant other.

Ali Clarke: I would just like to put on the record that I book my travel usually through the internet and I don’t ring up anyone I usually try and book it …

Cory Bernardi: What about when you want the help from the union movement, who do you ring? The head of the union, you don’t ring someone else.

Amanda Rishworth: When I’m talking about my my private holidays. I …

Cory Bernardi: Maybe you don’t have friends.

Amanda Rishworth: That’s right maybe I don’t have friends.

Ali Clarke: One 300 triple two, eight, nine, one if you are a CEO or want to be friends.

David Bevan: We move on to another topic here but with a similar theme and that is how completely out of touch some people within politics become. I’m talking about the state government. How is it that they could make a decision regarding school zones and not have or not care, any idea about the impact it would have on people on the east… sorry just outside the borders of the seat of Adelaide. We’re talking about people in Clarence Gardens and Glandore, Mile End…

Ali Clarke: Western southern side of the CBD.

David Bevan: How could the government not have any idea or not care about the impact that zoning decision would have? Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: David I don’t think that’s a correct assessment. My understanding is that there was detailed demographic analysis undertaken. Now, school zones and not something that are locked in stone forever and a day, they have to respond to what the enrolment profile around the school looks like. Otherwise you end up with overcrowded schools or schools that actually can’t service the number of potential students in their zone.So this is really a straight up and down matter of demographics and student numbers and how you best manage to fit people into a zone and it seems as if anyone’s at fault that the previous state Labor government decided to overexaggerate what could be accommodated within the new Adelaide High School zone and that the proper analysis shows that a more narrow zone is justified.

David Bevan: But there would have been families absolutely distraught parents in tears the night before last when they realised that they’d invested all of their money into a home paying for them, premium price for a house in that area thinking they were getting into the Adelaide High School zone only to find out that they’re no longer in there, they haven’t got the money now because of their investment in their house, their big mortgage they haven’t got money to spend on a private school, they haven’t got time to make arrangements to get into a private school and by the way that investment that they made in this in their house is no longer worth too much. So if you had a government that had any appreciation of what it’s like to be somebody buying a house in that area for that reason, they would not have done this.

Simon Birmingham: There’s a lot of hypotheticals in the scenario that you paint there, but…

David Bevan: No I’m saying that was the reality was it the night before last? For those families, that’s not a hypothetical that was a reality.

Simon Birmingham: No you’re painting a scenario without an actual concrete example. I understand that people who might be in that zone who had wished to send their children to Adelaide High School would obviously be disappointed with that decision. But what do you want the State Government to do? David what do you want them to do, to decide? I mean they’re already investing more in terms of the capacity within those schools and other schools but ultimately unless you want an overcrowded Adelaide High Schoo, you have to make sure the school zones are drawn to fit the demographic expectations of the number of students who are going to attend. That’s just the reality of the way in which those decisions have to be made and ultimately school zones are not something that are set in concrete. And so people should not be making investment decisions. I understand that people do and they do try to move closer to school and that does happen from time to time. But the reality is those zones will change from time to time because of the predictions of the number of students going there and because it is the responsibility of the state government to make sure that those schools are not overcrowded that they are able to accommodate all of the students eligible to attend that school.

David Bevan: Amanda Rishworth?

Amanda Rishworth: Well look obviously this is a very difficult time for those families and the State Government hasn’t taken into consideration other decisions that these families have made. But if we think about why these decisions are being made it’s because the state government without any planning in opposition decided to move Year 7 into high school and they didn’t do the detailed analytical work that needed to be done about what that impact would be, and what would that mean for families and school communities. They made this announcement without any policy work or analysis. So that’s why we’re in a situation where these families with no notice, have really had their future prospects, you know, torn up and I think it is pretty unfair for the State Government just to shrug their shoulders.

Simon Birmingham: Amanda that’s quite quite misleading. The State Government is spending a further $18 million on Adelaide High School to increase its capacity by 350 places which will accommodate all of the Year seven students. So they’re actually putting the additional investment in to increase capacity but still these decisions are necessary because of the way in which the previous government drew the boundaries.

Amanda Rishworth: Shrugging your shoulders and saying bad luck, we’re going to release them overnight. All your decisions, you’re going to have to reassess is really really unfair and I can understand those families being very upset and very angry.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi.

Cory Bernardi: The big problem here is that John Gardner promised last year there would be no changes to school zones and then they’ve just done an about face and it has paid to plans that many parents who’ve had in place for a long time. So if you can’t rely on their assurances to the Parliament and to the people before elections I think there’s a credibility gap there.

Ali Clarke: Well let’s go to Ron who has called in. Good morning Ron.

Caller: Yeah hi. Look I don’t live in Mile End but I used to, many years ago. That’s the closest suburb to Adelaide High School. The only reason that suburb could be excluded after hearing about Mathias Cormann is because may be some politicians have got some mates who’ve got kids who live in other suburbs. How can you exclude a suburb that is physically the closest to that school apart from the people who live in the CBD? It is beyond comprehension, it’s beyond logic which means there’s something behind it.

David Bevan: Thank you for your call. Let’s move on to the last subject that is a dollar a litre milk. We’ve got a promise from Joel Fitzgibbon from Labor overnight that a future Labor government would if it’s needed introduce a floor price for milk. Simon Birmingham is that a good idea?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think governments should be legislating for the price of milk. We have worked hard to bring the supermarkets to the table to try to drive a fairer bargain for dairy farmers and we welcome the fact there’s been some movement in that regard. But I think we are entering a world where suddenly the question becomes where do you stop in terms of government price regulation if you have governments of the day starting to regulate milk prices.

Ali Clarke: Right to you Amanda Rishworth?

Amanda Rishworth: Well Look the ACCC has clearly indicated that there is a power imbalance between the dairy farmers and the producer and the processors and so something needs to be done. When the ACCC is talking about the lack of competition and we know that dairy farmers are actually getting less for their milk than it takes to produce then something does need to happen in terms of that power balance. I’d say this is an example of market failure and that is where governments have to step in and do something about it. So what Labor’s announced is that we will work, we will ask the ACCC what it does cost to produce milk. What The government’s done is nothing in terms of industry-wide, the calls to boycott some supermarkets over others is really irresponsible because there’s dairy farmers that are supplying product to those other supermarkets and that’s ignoring their livelihood. When you say boycott one and not the other from government. So there needs to be an industry-wide solution. We’ve also called for a mandatory code of conduct to be introduced as a matter of priority. But where there is market failure and where there is power imbalance it does need to be addressed by government.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi, what did you pour on your cornflakes this morning?

Cory Bernardi: . Well I haven’t had breakfast yet but might I say, I’ve never contemplated that the two major parties would be racing to put the price of a basic consumer product up by increasing regulation price controls, government regulation in this space, it never ends well. You can look anywhere around the world and I just think it’s a terrible tragedy that this socialism is sort of creeping into our body politic.

David Bevan: Okay so no floor price for you?

Cory Bernardi: No absolutely not. I mean consumers can vote and why is it that in other countries for example in New Zealand The dairy farms can be profitable? And the reason is that we’re trying to buck the cycle if I can put it like that, that they’re trying to encourage milk production in times where they’ve got to be feeding the cattle hay and bringing grain and things in, it puts the cost for the producer up. In the end let the natural cycles play out, let the market play out. The consumers can vote with their feet and governments regulating to put the price of a basic commodity up, is just unbelievable.

Ali Clarke: So if you can’t afford milk in a drought time you will just go without Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: No it’s not about affording milk. I mean what you’re talking about Ali…

David Bevan: No he would just ring the dairy farmer, he would just ring him directly.

Cory Bernardi: No you’re talking you’re talking about putting the price up so that people who can’t afford milk at a dollar a litre will be forced to pay a $1.10. Now that’s just that’s just inane and idiotic.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardie, leader of the Australian conservatives thanks for your time. Before that Amanda Rishworth Labor MP for Kingston and Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator of South Australia and Minister for Trade. Thanks for your time.