Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Spence Denny and David Bevan
Topics: Banking Royal Commission; ABC; Incentives to join political parties




David Bevan:                Let’s welcome our panel, this morning. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Liberal Senator from South Australia… good morning to you…


Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, David, Spence and everybody else.


David Bevan:                Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, good morning to you…


Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.


David Bevan:                and Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for Kingston, in Adelaide’s south, good morning to you.


Amanda Rishworth:     Good morning.


David Bevan:                Let’s begin with Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, is it time to wrap up the Royal Commission, just get on with it, or should we continue to hear more of the pain?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we should take the advice of the Royal Commissioner, which is exactly what the Government has said we will do. We know that the Royal Commission has done an outstanding job to date, last week he published his interim report, that report didn’t hold back any punches, it was very clear in its criticism of banks, of financial industries and of the regulators – in doing so, it of course demonstrated that the action the Government has already taken in terms of providing more funding to regulators, more powers, a special prosecutor, were the types of things that were right to do. If the Royal Commissioner asks for more time to have more hearings, he’ll be granted more time to have more hearings. If he believes he can finish the job properly in the time available, then I’m sure he’ll get on and finish the job thoroughly.


David Bevan:                So it’s entirely up to him?


Simon Birmingham:     Quite rightly.


David Bevan:                Amanda Rishworth, the Labor Party… and we heard earlier this morning, on Breakfast, the Labor Party’s pushing for more hearings. It’s a pretty powerful argument, isn’t it, from the Government – they resisted setting the thing up but eventually they did and now, well, if he wants to continue he can, if he doesn’t he can wrap it up, it’s entirely up to him?


Amanda Rishworth:     Well, that just shows that the Government’s taking no leadership. The Government sets the terms of reference and, indeed, set the timeframe, so the Government could take leadership and extend the Royal Commission and the reason why we want to see the extension of time in the Royal Commission, of course, if to make sure victims do get a voice. Of course, we’ve only had 27 victims, out of close to 9000 submissions, actually have their voice but it’s important that they get their voice heard but it’s important for the policy framework going forward. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually set some really… change the direction, I think, of our banking practices in Australia and make sure that, unlike the Royal Commission has pointed out… that banks don’t put greed before people and I think it’s really, really important that we get this right, that victims do get a say but, importantly, that policy proposals and recommendations are properly tested with the community, that victims have a voice and that we do have a clear blueprint going forward.


David Bevan:                Almost 9000 people have given submissions and only a handful have yet given public evidence – what would satisfy you? Would be a hundred (100) more witnesses, 500 more witnesses, a thousand (1000)? You’ve got to draw the line somewhere, don’t… I mean, I think we get the message: the banks were ripping us off.


Amanda Rishworth:     Well, there’s a number of different ways the banks were ripping us off – there’s issues with insurance, there’s issues with credit and lending practices, there’s issues with…


David Bevan:                And don’t you trust the Royal Commissioner to manage that? I mean, if he thinks he needs more time, he’ll get it.


Amanda Rishworth:     Well, as I said, the Government itself set the timeframe and the Government has within its power to actually extend it and I would hope that the Government would want to take this seriously. We know they didn’t want it, we know that they fought it tooth and nail for over two years with Labor calling for this but it’s time for the Government to take some leadership. We want to see concrete proposals tested with victims’ groups, with those that have been affected…


David Bevan:                Okay…


Amanda Rishworth:     and make sure that we get effective outcomes and the Government has the opportunity to do this…


David Bevan:                Okay, I… well…


Amanda Rishworth:     we would like to hear a much broader range…


David Bevan:                I think we get the idea. Let’s give everybody a go. Sarah Hanson-Young, should it be wound up and actually deliver for people so that they get a better banking and financial system or do we need to hear more?


Sarah Hanson-Young: Like, I think there’s some really strong arguments for why it’s still… why hearings are still important but what we do already know is that these banks are just too big to deliver, they’re too powerful, they think they can set their own rules. That scathing interim report from the Commissioner last week saying that they put [sic, didn’t or should put?] people ahead of profits… now, you know, the victims have written in or have submitted know very well the real impact of that and I think we’ve got to get tough on the regulators and, just like whether we’re looking at the issue of aged care or the child care industry or indeed what’s going on in disability care, the regulators haven’t done their job and, in the banking sector… like, what on earth have ASIC and the ACCC really been doing, because why hasn’t anyone yet gone to jail? White-collar crime is alive and well and it’s the victims who are continuing to suffer, so, yes, let’s give them a voice but we actually need to clean up this mess in the first place.


Spence Denny:             Simon Birmingham, can I just come back to you briefly, if we can, and clearly the banks and financial institutions haven’t come out of this well but are there economic consequences to what’s going on right now, given that the banks were giving out money so freely previously and we’ve sort of been in this environment where business, households, those who want to get things up and running can get finance very easily? We know the banks are already tightening their lending criteria to the extent that some people simply cannot get credit now because they can’t put forward a strong enough case. Are there economic consequences to really tightening the screws on the banks in this way?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Spence, it’s certainly why the Royal Commissioner, I’m sure, will be very cautious in his recommendations and the Government will then be careful in terms of how we apply those. It’s absolutely the case that we need to see tougher regulation of the banks – the Royal Commissioner, though, in his language in the interim report, was pretty clear that that may not mean new regulations; that may actually mean a simplifying of what is there so that it’s easier for regulators to prosecute and to hold banks to account. The Royal Commissioner, as well, made it clear in his report that one of the things he has to balance is the uncertainty that goes on in terms of the management of our banking and financial system while the Royal Commission is being conducted versus making sure he is completely thorough in all of his recommendations and inquiry and that is why the Government thinks it’s right to back his judgement around the timing of the report to make sure that we actually have him taking a balanced approach so that there is minimal negative impact on our economy, on people’s ability to engage with the banking and finance system but still a completely thorough job that ensures we never see a repeat of these types of horrendous behaviours again.


David Bevan:                Moving on to another topic. The ABC, it’s never far from us. The other board members who were aware of Justin Milne’s actions, the pressure that he applied to Michelle Guthrie to get rid of two reporters. But they did nothing until this became public and when it became public they moved on Milne. Simon Birmingham, do you think there is a case for the rest of the board to answer for their inaction?


Simon Birmingham:     We have instigated as a government, an inquiry that the Secretary of the Department of Communications is undertaking in terms of some of these management issues, and we expect that will be a thorough inquiry. I know there are calls for a Senate inquiry as well, we’ll look at terms of reference proposals there. That even though that Justin Milne has resigned we haven’t called off that inquiry by the Secretary of the Department of Communications, we recognise that there are some questions still to be answered and expecting that to proceed.


David Bevan:                And, that would apply to the rest of the board?


Simon Birmingham:     I think it needs to look at all of these sorts of management questions in terms of whether everybody was operating clearly within their role, within their statutory role as we discussed last week. The Board and the ABC have statutory independence from the government, the managing director has hiring and firing independence from the Board and everybody had to have been operating within their appropriate roles and responsibilities.


Spence Denny:                         Amanda Rishworth, do other members of the Board have questions to answer here?


Amanda Rishworth:     I do think they have questions to answer and I think that those questions need to be dealt with in a more transparent way than the Secretary of the Department’s investigation. The government hasn’t been clear of whether that inquiry would be public and transparent, and of course people would be sceptical I think in terms of the government investigating its own political interference into the ABC and its operations. So I do think we need a Senate inquiry, there are questions to be answered from the Board, from the Chairman themselves but of course also what did the government say? What gave Justin Milne the impression that there was a choice between the survival of the ABC and Emma Alberici as a journalist? I mean what did the government  say that made that choice so stark and out the Board and the Chairman under enormous pressure, so I think all of those questions need to be explored and I think the best process is a Senate inquiry. The transparency is critically important but of course also the fact that a Senate inquiry can compel witnesses and make sure it’s all on the public record.


Spence Denny:                         Sarah Hanson-Young what do you think?


Sarah Hanson-Young:             There are serious problems with the Board as is because obviously they did know about these allegations, Michelle Guthrie put it to them and they did nothing until it became public. Also, of course we know that a number of the members of the Board were appointed by the government not through the non-partisan appropriate means and I think that really draws into the independence a number of those board members. But I think the real problem here is that you have to get the political interference out of the ABC and out of the ABC board. The thing that was hanging over the heads of ABC management was this threat and it was very clearly articulated by Mr Milne with his interview with Leigh Sales after he resigned and fell on his sword. You can’t just keep annoying and irritating the people who pay you, who fund you. Well lets de-politicise the funding of the ABC by locking into legislation base funding so that it doesn’t matter who is in government, it doesn’t matter who the Prime Minister’s or Minister’s mates are on the board, the ABC gets funded regardless. That’s what taxpayers want, they don’t want the ABC funded just because journalists are writing good stories or bad stories about the government. They want the ABC funded because they get the news when they need it, they can rely on it, that it’s trustworthy and to de-politicise it would be to lock that funding in and I see today that Kevin Rudd has called for something similar and I think it’s worth exploring and the Greens are going to be doing what we can to lock in funding to make sure it’s not at the whim of the government of the day.


Spence Denny:                         Simon Birmingham, a story out of the Daily Telegraph, to do with the Liberal Party. Are you offering incentives for people to become financial members of the Liberal party with things like beers, chocolate and RM Williams boots?


Simon Birmingham:     I haven’t seen the story but if people are then I must be missing out Spence.


David Bevan:                Apparently that part of the membership deal. You sign-up and you can get cut-price deals on Coopers beer, Haigh’s chocolates, RM boots. Sarah Hanson-Young, what do you get if you sign up to the Greens?


Sarah Hanson-Young:  A lot of policy documents, a lot of meetings.


David Bevan:                Perhaps a copy of your book?


Sarah Hanson-Young:  I have given a couple of members a copy of my book, but tomorrow night is actually the book launch in Adelaide so I’m looking forward to seeing more members along there to talk about it.


David Bevan:                Amanda Rishworth, what do you get if you sign up to the Labor party?


Amanda Rishworth:     You get to participate in the democratic processes of the Labor party, you get a vote for who leads the federal Labor party and you get to be part of a movement that wants to see a positive future for Australia.


David Bevan:                You might get more members if you offer cheap petrol?


Amanda Rishworth:     Well, I think we will stick with a values proposition as opposed to free things. I read somewhere, this is something that has happened in the UK or proposed to happen in the UK-cheap Nando’s but I think its erring on the side of a little bit desperate when it comes to offering freebies to get…


David Bevan:                What about reduced rates a holiday shack, owned by the Shoppies Union in Wallaroo or you get to use Don Farrell’s caravan down there or something? Nothing?


Amanda Rishworth:     We’ll stick to our values proposition I think.


David Bevan:                Right ok. So Simon Birmingham, you’re completely unaware of this incentive?


Simon Birmingham:     Well I don’t think there is any such incentive in the South Australian division, I haven’t seen the news story in the New South Wales papers today.


David Bevan:                The three items that are being offered as discounts are all South Australian products?


Simon Birmingham:     Awesome. Well I think that’s fantastic news and I send my hearty congratulations to the New South Wales division of the Liberal party that they are being such strong supporters of the South Australian economy, but frankly if members can be given a bit of value add, the fact that not only do they get to have the exciting experience of branch meetings debating policy and selecting candidates, something the Labor party denies its members really a say in doing, but they can also get some discounts on some Coopers and some RM Williams boots as well. Awesome, news. Sign up, join up today.


David Bevan:                Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, and Liberal Senator from South Australia. Before that Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens and Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for Kingston.