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RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas

E & OE

KARVELAS:
The  fallout from Labor’s decision to block the same-sex marriage plebiscite  continued to really dominate today in politics but Labor is also flagging a  pretty hard road for some of the Government’s proposed tax changes. And in the  Senate, a Senate Inquiry examining that fractured relationship between the  Attorney General and the Solicitor General heard a damning assessment of the  treatment of Justin Gleeson by George Brandis, who is the Attorney General. For  more on everything that’s happened, and maybe more, I’m joined by the Leader of  the Government in the Senate and the Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield.  Welcome to RN Drive.

FIFIELD:
Good  afternoon, Patricia.

KARVELAS:
I  just want to start with your own portfolio, on a story that I’ve just read on  The Guardian’s website. The Government has been reported to have removed  Nationals Senator John Williams from the membership of a Parliamentary  Committee looking into the nbn. To give your own spot, the Government spot, to  Pauline Hanson. Why?

FIFIELD:
Well,  it’s not the Government’s sole spot on the Senate and House nbn Committee. We  have, I think, about half a dozen Government Members and Senators on the  committee. We had two crossbench Senators who were keen to take part in that  committee, Stirling Griff from NXT and also Senator Hanson. Stirling Griff was  elected through the floor of the Senate. Senator Hanson was still keen to make  a contribution. So Senator Williams very chivalrously stood aside so that  Senator Hanson could be a member of that committee. So we still have good  Government representation. We still have National Party representation, in the  form of Andrew Broad from the House. But look, we’ve got crossbenchers who are  keen to participate, so happy to accommodate that.

KARVELAS:
Ok,  so let me read between the lines, or maybe you can just be honest, I mean you  can do that. You’re just trying to be nice to Pauline Hanson, to make her feel  comfortable with the Government’s bills perhaps?

FIFIELD:
Look,  to be perfectly upfront. Before the ballot occurred I made the same offer to  both Stirling Griff and Pauline Hanson that whichever of them was unsuccessful  in the ballot, we’d be happy to try and accommodate them. And that’s what we  did.

KARVELAS:
Ok,  so is this something we’re going to see more often?

FIFIELD:
We’re  in the business of trying to have the Parliament work well. The House of  Representatives is working well. I think the Senate, where we don’t have a  majority, is also working well and we saw evidence of that on Monday when the  legislation to protect the CFA volunteers in Victoria was passed through the  Senate with the support of the crossbench. That’s a terrific outcome for  volunteers in my home state. So look, I think this is a Parliament that’s  working.

KARVELAS:
Ok,  is she really interested in the nbn specifically?

FIFIELD:
Absolutely.  One of my very first conversations with Pauline was about the nbn. And she has  a great interest in the nbn, in what it can do for regional Australia. So she  has a real and a genuine interest.

KARVELAS:
Now,  Senator Williams confirmed he’d been asked to step off, so it doesn’t sound to  me like he was desperate to step off. In fact, the Nationals are very concerned  about the nbn and its rollout and he’s very concerned. So how can the Nationals  lose a spot like that on an nbn committee?

FIFIELD:
John  is someone who I think is on about half a dozen Parliamentary inquiries. So he  was only too willing to step aside. As I said, Andrew Broad who is a strong and  passionate advocate for regional Australia, a member of the National Party, is  on that committee. We’ve got about five other Coalition Members and Senators  who are on that committee, so we’ve got a good representation. And we should  never forget my portfolio colleague, the Deputy Leader of the National Party  Fiona Nash, is also the Minister for Regional Communications.

KARVELAS:
Ok,  is this a reward for agreeing to back your CFA Bill?

FIFIELD:
There  is no connection between this and any other issue. This is just a simple case  of a crossbench Senator with a desire to make a contribution. And on this  occasion we were able to accommodate it and were very happy to do so.

KARVELAS:
Someone  has written in, so I’m just going to ask but I don’t actually think this is the  case. Are there extra money allowances that are paid to Senate Committee  Members and you know, does this up her pay? Do you understand that to be the  case?

FIFIELD:
No.  For being a regular member of a committee in the Australian Parliament there’s  no extra money. I think it’s the case in state Parliaments but…

KARVELAS:
Yeah,  I thought so too, I thought I better check.

FIFIELD:
But  in the Federal Parliament it’s considered part of your core business.

KARVELAS:
It’s  called doing your job.

FIFIELD:
That’s  exactly right.

KARVELAS:
I’m  changing the topic to this plebiscite issue which has again, been a big theme  of the day. There is pressure on the Prime Minister to rule out a free vote, to  say there is no chance a free vote will happen in this Parliament on the issue  of same-sex marriage. Will you rule it out? Should there be no free vote in  this term of Parliament?

FIFIELD:
We  remain focused on the policy, on the commitment, that we took to the election.  Which was that the Australian people would be given the opportunity through a  plebiscite to have their say on the issue of same-sex marriage. We have the  bill to give effect to a plebiscite in the House of Representatives. It’s yet  to come to the Senate. And as the Manager of Government Business in the Senate,  I never count anything out until the vote has actually occurred in the Senate.

KARVELAS:
You’re  a smart man, you know that it’s not going to pass the Senate. Because you don’t  have the numbers, it’s basic maths 101, even I can count that. And it’s not  going to pass this week when it comes to the Senate. What do you do then?  What’s your plan B?

FIFIELD:
Well  Patricia, stranger things have happened in the Australian Senate. I still hope  that Bill Shorten and his caucus colleagues will pause and reflect. Reflect on  the fact that we took a policy to an election. We won the election. We have a  mandate to bring that policy to fruition through legislating a plebiscite to  occur on 11 February. 
The  question really is for Bill Shorten: why will he not respect the mandate that  the Government has? Why will he not respect and recognise that this is a policy  that we took to the election?

KARVELAS: 
Sure  but in the event that it is blocked in the Senate which is inevitable now,  absolutely inevitable, that means that you can’t get your plebiscite through.  Can’t you then say to the public: “well, we’ve honoured our election  commitment, we’ve given this a red hot go, we’ve tried to get it through the  Senate, we cannot get it through the Senate”? And doesn’t it mean that you  perhaps need to find a different way to try to deliver this reform given that  the Prime Minister says he believes in same-sex marriage?    

FIFIELD:
I  will continue to argue the case, argue the merits for a plebiscite on same-sex  marriage until the vote is conducted. Until the vote is counted in the Senate…

KARVELAS: 
And  what happens after?

FIFIELD: 
The  easiest way to ensure that Australians who want to have same-sex marriage, the  easiest way to ensure that can happen, is for the Labor Party to get out of the  way and to support the passage of the plebiscite. We could have this  essentially done and dusted…  

KARVELAS: 
But  can you rule out a free vote…

FIFIELD:
…all  done and dusted by the 11th of February…

KARVELAS: 
Can  you rule out a free vote in this term of Parliament?

FIFIELD:
We  have a policy we took to the election.

KARVELAS: 
Can  you rule out a free vote in this term of Parliament?

FIFIELD:
Patricia,  what I am absolutely focused on is seeking to secure the passage of this bill  through the Senate. That’s my focus.

KARVELAS: 
So  you can’t predict what will happen after that though?

FIFIELD:
Well,  we have a policy. We took it to the election. And it’s my job to seek to  deliver that promise through the Australian Senate. That’s what I’m focused on.

KARVELAS: 
Ok,  another topic, I’m changing around here. There is no way that you can get your  full company tax cut through, can you? I mean, Labor won’t support it. It  doesn’t look like you’re going to get them through. Does that mean you’re going  to have to modify your proposal, perhaps just giving tax cuts to small  businesses?

FIFIELD:
Well  Patricia again, we take policies to the election. What we did before the  election was we handed down a budget. We did something which is fairly unique  in that our budget was essentially our election manifesto. We took that to the  election. We won. So what we’re going to do is seek to argue the case, to argue  the merits of the company tax cuts…

KARVELAS: 
But  you’ve been prepared to negotiate. In fact, I think it was George Brandis using  that language, that this is the year of compromise. This Parliament is tighter  than usual, you’ve got a one seat majority. Are you prepared to split it off?  To allow small businesses to get the tax cut so you can at least get that  element through given the other part, big business tax cuts, is very  contentious.

FIFIELD:
We’re  very early in the process of seeking to legislate our company tax cuts. What we  want to do is argue the merits. We want to argue the case. We want to convince  our colleagues in the Senate. And that’s what we’re going to focus on. That’s  what we’re going to do. That’s our job.

KARVELAS: 
Would  you approach it in the spirit of compromise, like you have some other things?

FIFIELD:
We’re  always happy to talk to our colleagues, but by the same token, we’re going to  argue for what we think is good policy.

KARVELAS: 
Your  Government is attacking Labor for not announcing a position yet on the  backpacker tax but you took your time coming up with something different to  what you took to the election on the backpacker tax, why can’t Labor do the  same? I mean, given you did it but you don’t want to give them the time to  consider your alternative proposal because it’s not the same proposal you took  to voters on July 2.

FIFIELD:
Before  the election we indicated that it was something that we were going to undertake  a review into. We did that. We’ve improved what the original proposition is.  But I might add that the Labor Party themselves said it was something that they  thought we should take a look at. We’ve done that. We have the legislation  before the House of Representatives now. I expect that the Labor Party will  seek to refer the package to a Senate Committee for inquiry. But what I hope  and expect is that the Labor Party will ultimately get on board and support  this package. And it’s important that this be done quickly because the start  date is 1 January next year and there are people in the horticultural industry  in particular who are looking for certainty. So it’s important that the  Parliament as a whole can give them that. And I hope that Labor do so very  soon.

KARVELAS: 
The  Senate Inquiry examining the directive issued to the Solicitor General Justin  Gleeson to seek permission before providing legal advice to other departments  heard the treatment of him compared to a dog on a leash. Is that a fair  assessment? It’s pretty extreme language.

FIFIELD:
Well  I’m not sure who used that language. But the Solicitor General is an important  officer in the Commonwealth. And the Attorney General and the Solicitor General  work closely together as you would expect.

KARVELAS: 
Clearly  the relationship is pretty badly damaged. Do you see a way through this now?

FIFIELD:
Well,  George Brandis in the Senate today in response to questions from the Opposition  indicated that he considered the Solicitor General to be a fine lawyer. So the  Attorney General has no objective or intention other than to work with the  Solicitor General.

KARVELAS: 
Just  a few other things that have happened today. Tony Abbott asked his first  question in Question Time. Now I know you’re in the Senate for Question Time,  so don’t even say that to me that you weren’t there, because I’m sure you’ve  seen the footage, Labor clapped…

FIFIELD:
I  haven’t.

KARVELAS: 
Well  you should. I’ve tweeted it, you should follow me – I think you do. Watch it.

FIFIELD:
I  do follow you.

KARVELAS: 
Applause  from the Labor benches. Is he back in the tent? What’s with Tony Abbott asking  questions?

FIFIELD:
It  just seems as though the House of Representatives was expressing some affection  for the Member for Warringah. I must say, yesterday in the Senate when it was  announced by Penny Wong that Don Farrell had been elected as the Deputy Leader  of the Opposition in the Senate, there was thunderous applause and foot  stomping from our side of the chamber and complete silence from the other side.  So, all I can say is that it’s good that people from the other side of the  aisle can express affection to their opponents on the opposite side of the  chamber from time to time.

KARVELAS: 
I’m  going to end with something that I think is a bit more serious to be honest.  And that’s something that Julia Gillard has said, former Prime Minister of  course, she said that women are being dissuaded from pursuing a career in  politics because of abuse and online threats. She talks about rape threats and  that women do receive them when they are in public life, in politics. Is that  what you’ve heard from other women in politics and do you think… I mean, you’re  Communications Minister too and there is sort of overlap with the way we’re  communicating now online. Does that worry you? Is this something we need to  really have a proper conversation about how to deal with these kinds of  threats?

FIFIELD:
There  is absolutely no place for personal abuse or threats based on gender to members  of the community, whether they be in public office or whether they be people  who are considering public office. It’s something that’s just not on. It’s one  of the reasons why we have established the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, to  be a cop on the beat for some really bad behaviour that can occur online and on  social media. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner’s ambit and role has  expanded over time also to include some protections for women. So it’s an  office, it’s a role that is expanding. We’re open to looking to further enhance  that office. But there’s no place for this sort of behaviour.

KARVELAS: 
Thank  you so much for your time this evening.

FIFIELD:
Thanks  very much, Patricia.

[ends]