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RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas

6.06 pm

E & OE

Subject: House of Representatives, Media Laws, Samn Dastyari, nbn

KARVELAS:

There’s growing pressure on the Federal Government to ban foreign donations to all political parties after it emerged that the head of ASIO had warned Liberal, Labor and National Party officials of the national security risk posed by foreign linked donations. The issue has come to a head after Labor’s Sam Dastayari admitted he’d made a mistake by allowing a Sydney company with links to the Chinese Government to cover his travel expenses. Mitch Fifield is the Manager of Government Business in the Senate and the Minister for Communications and he is my first guest tonight, welcome.

Now you’ve lost your first vote in the House of Reps, you’re in the Senate but I know you’re across this, on a procedural motion to adjourn the House. Labor is trying to come back in to vote on a banking royal commission. The Senate today voted for a royal commission into banking. Have you lost control already?

FIFIELD:

No, certainly not. The floor of the House of Representatives, the floor of the Senate are dynamic places. You always want to make sure that you can maintain the advantage in either chamber. Obviously, in the House of Representatives we have a majority, in the Senate we don’t. You have to keep your wits about you. What it looks like this afternoon has happened is that the Labor Party who have been talking about working cooperatively have decided to demonstrate a stunt. An end of day stunt.

KARVELAS:

Is there a flaw though in the way that your Whips are managing this, the way your MPs are operating? It seems as though your MPs are operating in the old model where you had a comfortable majority. You don’t have that anymore.

FIFIELD:

We do have a majority…

KARVELAS:

But you lost the vote.

FIFIELD:

But you’re right, it is a majority of one. Which means that you need to keep your focus for the entire period that the Parliament is live. Now, we shouldn’t be surprised that Labor haven’t been true to their word. That they haven’t been seeking to be cooperative. That they’ve sought to play a game at the end of the day. We’ve got to make sure that we keep our focus.

KARVELAS:

So, what are MPs doing when you’ve only got a one seat majority running off to catch flights?

FIFIELD:

Well, at this point I emphasise I’m the Manager of Government Business in the Senate and my jurisdiction ceases at the end of the red carpet. But look, we’ve got to recognise the environment that we’re in and act accordingly.

KARVELAS:

So do you think this will be an early shock for the Government? That this is a high stakes game and that you can’t take anything for granted, and everyone has to be much sharper in the way that they operate?

FIFIELD:

We should never make the assumption that the Australian Labor Party won’t try and play games.

We should never take the Australian Labor Party at face value. We should never take them at their word that they’re serious about the business of cooperation. All evidence to date undermines that.

KARVELAS:

Alright, Mitch Fifield is my guest tonight. He’s the Manager of Government Business in the Senate and the Minister for Communications. Should the Government ban foreign donations given the briefing by Australia’s spy chief?

FIFIELD:

The important first point is that all Australian businesses, all businesses, should comply with Australian electoral law. And all political parties should comply with Australian electoral law. As a matter of course, after each election the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters examines the conduct of the election and also examines any other matters that they see as relevant to the running of Australian electoral law. So it’s open, and I’m sure there will be submissions across a range of issues…

KARVELAS:

Are you indicating to me that you’re keeping an open mind on this? Because we’re seeing now a series of pretty questionable donations and perhaps foreign policy influence on both sides of politics. Is it getting to a point now, I mean, we’re one of a very small number of countries who actually don’t ban this practice. Is it really something that we can keep living with?

FIFIELD:

I think that there are two issues that are being conflated here. One is donations to political parties, which should be declared in the appropriate way. The separate issue, is that which has come to light over the last 24 hours or so, being Sam Dastyari’s acceptance of a personal benefit. The situation of Sam Dastyari is not a donation to a political party. It is an individual Senator who has accepted a payment in the form of a personal benefit. It’s weird. I mean, I do not know of a similar instance where a Member or a Senator has said: ‘Look, I’ve got this personal debt to the Commonwealth,’ and another party, another business, has expunged that debt on their behalf.

KARVELAS:

Sure, and that’s why he’s had to apologise and pay it back, and give it to charity and why this is an incredibly embarrassing issue for him.

But even so, Liberal MPs including Scott Morrison, George Brandis and the Prime Minister have had photographs taken with the man who gave Sam Dastyari a donation.

FIFIELD:

I think there is a massive difference between Members of Parliament, in the course of their duties, being photographed with people. Happens to all of us. Massive difference between that and an individual Senator with a personal debt to the Commonwealth having a business pay it on their behalf. Now I’m just trying to conceive of how this could have happened…

KARVELAS:

But this businessman has also donated to the Liberal Party, though.

FIFIELD:

But donations to political parties, under electoral law, which are declared in the ordinary course of events is entirely different to…

KARVELAS:

Ok, and…

FIFIELD:

And let me just paint a picture for you. I mean, how does this scenario occur? We had Sam Dastyari, I assume with an invoice from the Department of Finance, saying “you’ve overspent your travel entitlement.” What do we picture? Sam Dastyari going down to the bank. And as he’s walking into the bank, he happens to bump into a businessman who says ‘Hey Sam, I don’t suppose you happen to have a debt to the Commonwealth at the moment that you’d like me to help you pay?’ That’s the scenario.

KARVELAS:

Sure, but let’s get real here. We now have ASIO. We now have the ASIO boss. It doesn’t get more serious. Warning all of the political parties, not just yours, that this behaviour, these foreign donations, are effectively a risk to our national security. We’re getting to that point. That is incredibly serious. There is no way that anyone can avoid the seriousness of that. Do you concede that it’s extremely serious when it gets to that point?

FIFIELD:

People should always follow the electoral law as it stands…

KARVELAS:

But don’t we need to change it…

FIFIELD:

And appropriately declare any donations that are made. That is the case for businesses and that’s the case for political parties and…

KARVELAS:

But Mitch Fifield, this is the law that the ASIO boss says is a problem.

FIFIELD:

And the reason we have a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is so that it can conduct inquiries into the conduct of elections and submissions can be made across a range of issues…

KARVELAS:

Ok, so you’re leaving the door open to some reform on foreign donations?

FIFIELD:

It’s not my portfolio area. Obviously, it’s that of the Special Minister of State…

KARVELAS:

But you’re a senior person in the Government…

FIFIELD:

It’s the portfolio of the Special Minister of State and the Comms Minister doesn’t make policy for Australian electoral law. But, I’ve got to emphasise again, we have a very different situation and I know Labor keep trying to run together donations to political parties and the situation of Sam Dastyari. Sam Dastyari by his own…

KARVELAS:

I’m just talking about ASIO…

FIFIELD:

By his own admission has accepted money from a business that on Sam Dastyari’s own statement has a connection to foreign government. An individual Senator directly receiving a personal benefit in that fashion…

KARVELAS:

Ok, if I can bring you back to this ASIO warning…

FIFIELD:

Is a world away from political donations.

KARVELAS:

The ASIO warning revealed today by Chris Uhlmann, ABC’s Political Editor, I’m sure you’re across the story, ASIO warning about Chinese donations, foreign donations. Do you think that is worthy of now a serious look?

FIFIELD:

I will leave matters of Australian electoral law to the Special Minister of State.

KARVELAS:

It doesn’t concern you?

FIFIELD:

I don’t expect the Special Minister of State to develop communications portfolio policy. And as Comms Minister, I’m not going to be developing electoral law policy on the air. But what I will be doing is pointing out that Sam Dastyari still has some serious questions to answer. Did he approach the business in question and ask them to pay off his debt? Did that business approach him and offer whatever services he might need? Were there conditions put in place that related to the paying of Sam Dastyari’s debt? Sam Dastyari has not given an account on any of those matters.

KARVELAS:

Sure, ok. On RN Drive my guest is Mitch Fifield, he is the Minister for Communications, which we’re going to get to in a second, but he’s also the Manager of Government Business in the Senate.

A parliamentary committee is to investigate whether Senate rules have been breached during AFP investigations into alleged leaks from the National Broadband Network company. Are you being briefed by the AFP regarding these raids?

FIFIELD:

No.

KARVELAS:

Are you being briefed by anyone else, for example, the Secretary or nbn managers?

FIFIELD:

No, this is an issue that is fairly and squarely in the remit of the board and management of nbn. nbn were concerned that there were allegations of documents, of material that was commercial-in-confidence, being stolen from the organisation. nbn is perfectly within its rights to seek to refer those matters to relevant law enforcement authorities. And it’s then up to the Australian Federal Police who have operational independence from government to go about their business. If they are investigating the alleged commission of a crime, they should be left to do their job.

KARVELAS:

The AFP raids. Is the executive interfering with Parliamentary privilege and intimidating legitimate whistle blowers? I mean, why has the Senate President not protected Senator Conroy?

FIFIELD:

The executive has no role in operational police activity. There are well established protocols for law enforcement agencies to deal with the Parliament. If they have a warrant that they are seeking to execute, there are protocols for how they go about it. I don’t think that anyone has suggested that the AFP hasn’t followed those protocols. It is open to any Member or Senator to make a claim of privilege. In this case a Senator has in relation to some of the documents that the Australian Federal Police took into their possession. Those have been surrendered to the Clerk of the Senate. And as is a matter of routine in the Senate, if a claim of privilege is made, it is referred to the Senate Privileges Committee, and the Senate Privileges Committee will then determine whether privilege pertains to none, some, or all, of the material that is in the possession of the Senate.

KARVELAS:

I just want to get you before I let you get on with your life to deal with this unusual Parliament. Is the Government’s landmark media reform bill in doubt? Because Labor is unlikely to support the planned rule changes in their current form and now key crossbenchers are still very undecided on their positions. This could sink, couldn’t it?

FIFIELD:

There’s every reason why it should succeed. I mean, you work in this industry. You know that the media laws that we have were crafted in the 1980s when Kylie Minogue was still living on Ramsay Street. They were crafted at a time that the internet didn’t exist. They simply don’t reflect the world that we’re in…

KARVELAS:

But you don’t have Labor’s support.

FIFIELD:

And look, just let me finish. Media organisations want the freedom to configure themselves in the way that will support their viability. Now, Labor have indicated that they support the repeal of the 75 per cent audience reach rule but they haven’t declared a position on the two out of three rule. Now, these should be very straightforward things for the alternative government of Australia to support.

KARVELAS:

Could you pull out the part that they do support, get that through and then start negotiating with the crossbenchers on the element that Labor’s made very clear it’s not likely to support?

FIFIELD:

We’re putting forward this legislation as a package. There’s almost no area of public policy that has been more inquired into than media reform. Labor should support the repeal of both the media rules and we’re in active engagement with the crossbench. There’s good news in this legislative package for regional areas, which I know will be of great interest to numbers of the crossbench.

KARVELAS:

Are you going to spend more time negotiating with the crossbench though? Are you giving up on getting Labor’s support?

FIFIELD:

No, not at all. I’m going to walk and chew gum at the same time. Talk to Labor. Talk to the Greens. And also talk to our crossbench colleagues.

KARVELAS:

So tonight, are there going to be some phone calls to some MPs saying ‘You’ve got to be a bit more careful about the way you conduct your business in this house,’?

FIFIELD:

I’ll keep my focus fairly and squarely on the Senate. Far be it from me to give advice to people on the green carpet. I’ll look after my own business.

KARVELAS:

Alright, wrong carpet. Mitch Fifield, it’s been a pleasure to have you in.

FIFIELD:

Great. Good to see you Patricia.

[ends]