PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator Scott Ryan is the Special Minister of State and also the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet, welcome back to RN Drive.
SENATOR SCOTT RYAN: Thanks for having me back Patricia.
KARVELAS: So is it a ‘dog act’?
SENATOR RYAN: Look, I’m not going to use terms like that. People are very disappointed. There are thousands of Liberal Party members, right around Australia, who would be disappointed that someone that they supported and handed out how-to-vote cards for, has decided to leave the party so soon after his re-election. And I think occasionally you will get a bit of anger about that.
KARVELAS: Why won’t you use any terms like ‘dog act’? Doesn’t that adequately describe it? Or do you think that’s overblown?
SENATOR RYAN: I’m not going to comment on my colleagues comments, I’m just going to use my own language. I think it’s disappointing. I can understand why people are angry and look, I don’t think anything has happened between July and now to justify this, but Cory has made his explanations and, particularly my South Australian colleagues, feel hurt by them.
KARVELAS: Should he quit the Senate altogether and recontest at the next election on the new party platform he has developed?
SENATOR RYAN: That’s a matter for him to decide.
KARVELAS: Is it really though? I’m asking for your opinion. Do you really think he should stay in the Senate?
SENATOR RYAN: Look, I’ve never been one to argue that people should necessarily do that. The Senate is different because the truth is, we get elected on the party vote in the Senate. I think he should consider that, but I don’t think he is going to, so it’s a bit of a moot argument.
KARVELAS: Is it a moot argument? But I suppose saying it on the public record – that you do think he should resign – it’s certainly important for people to hear what different perspectives ministers have.
SENATOR RYAN: Yeah but I’m also dealing with the world the way it is, not the way I’d necessarily like it to be as a senator. We now need nine out of 10 crossbenchers in the Senate to support our legislation. I hope Cory supports all the legislation that we put up that reflects the policy platform on which he got re-elected in 2016, only seven months ago.
KARVELAS: Your policies today are broadly those you took to the election, but seven months on, you’ve got a senator who has defected from the party, you’re leaking votes to One Nation and the polls show your primary vote has plummeted, what are you going to do to change this?
SENATOR RYAN: Well, we’re going to keep doing our job.
KARVELAS: It’s not working though, is it?
SENATOR RYAN: We made a lot of promises at the last election and we’ll decide whether it worked in two and a half years at the next election. The truth is, we took a number of policies to the election. Quite a few of them were very difficult to get through due to the intransigence of the Labor Party and some members of the Greens, but we got through our big central policies on industrial relations reform and making the rule of law exist on building sites again. Now, we are getting through a lot of our budget measures. Sadly, the marriage plebiscite – explicit promise we made – has been blocked for opportunistic reasons by the Labor Party and the Greens and some members of the crossbench. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do to continue to implement the policies we said we’d do seven months ago. I’m not going to get into a comment on what this week’s poll or next week’s poll says, the truth is, we elect people, we give them three years and then we get thrown out or re-employed by the Australian people.
KARVELAS: You and your colleagues were concerned when Tony Abbott’s polling was low. Why is Malcolm Turnbull being held to a different standard?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I don’t think anyone will ever be able to find comments from me on the public record about polling. I’ve never been in the habit of discussing them and I don’t plan to start now.
KARVELAS: Were you privately concerned at the time?
SENATOR RYAN: Cory did mention this as an issue in his departing press conference – the issues around our change of leadership have been sort of trawled over and discussed at great length 18 months ago and we’ve had an election since.
KARVELAS: Tony Abbott says you should have tried harder to keep Cory Bernardi in the party. Did Malcolm Turnbull try hard enough?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I’m not sure that any of us know the extent to which each one of us individually tried to do that with Cory. A number of us who are close to Cory had conversations with him and know this probably didn’t come as a surprise. I don’t think there are many people in the Liberal Party or in Canberra who are surprised by Cory’s announcement today.
I think what’s really happened is that in any political party you have to make compromises. No one in any political party is going to say that every policy that the party announces is something that they agreed with as their first preference. We have to compromise in our family life, we have to compromise in politics, we have to compromise to get legislation through the Senate. I think what Cory basically made clear today is that he doesn’t want to have those compromises and he wants to strike out on his own. Cory’s always been one of the more conservative members of the Liberal Party that I’ve known in my nearly three decades as a member and my nearly decade in Parliament. It is pretty clear he doesn’t want to compromise between the liberal, progressive and conservative strains that make up our very broad-based Liberal Party.
KARVELAS: You are very good friends with Cory Bernardi. Did you try and convince him?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I didn’t have an explicit conversation with him, but without breaching the confidences of conversations with colleagues, it is fair to say that Cory has expressed his disillusionment with certain aspects of politics publically over the last few months.
KARVELAS: How successful do you think his Australian Conservatives party will be?
SENATOR RYAN: I generally try not to predict the future of politics.
History in Australian politics is that people who leave major parties to set up on their own more often don’t succeed than do. But politics is changing, so I don’t want to appear arrogant by saying nothing will happen. I think ideally, Cory would have stayed with the Liberal Party because the more people in a party that I think provides good government, the better. Whether it succeeds or not, it will depend on Cory, it will depend on what happens across the country, but it’s always very difficult, particularly for a senator, I think to branch out on their own and establish their own identity when it really is a party vote that gets people elected to the Senate.
KARVELAS: Emissions trading was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him, was that a mistake?
SENATOR RYAN: I think we discussed this previously on air Patricia. I really don’t think that the small set of words in one interview that the Minister used last year justified the degree of response to it. The Government wasn’t proposing an emissions intensity or emissions trading scheme, that was made clear at the time.
KARVELAS: So is Cory using it as an excuse? Do you believe him that that was the turning point?
SENATOR RYAN: You’d have to ask Cory. I don’t have windows into men’s souls and I don’t seek to try. Cory said that that was an issue, but I think it is also fair to say he has expressed his disillusionment with the Liberal Party on a number of issues overs the last four or five years unrelated to the leadership or any single policy.
KARVELAS: His argument is ‘you’re bleeding votes’. You’ve lost a million votes. Isn’t it incumbent on you and Malcolm Turnbull to try and fix that, to bring back those lost conservative voters?
SENATOR RYAN: I’ve never necessarily agreed with that analysis. By all means we didn’t get as many votes in 2013 when we came to office, as we did in 1996. The Palmer United Party did actually attract quite a few votes away from the Coalition. There has been a growth in minor party votes in Australia now for several decades. Now whether or not they are conservative voters, whether or not they are voters who are concerned with particular policies, like health or changes to pensions, I don’t think anyone would accurately say there is a single issue that drives it. I wouldn’t describe it as a million conservative voters at all, that’s a profoundly incorrect analysis.
KARVELAS: If you’re just tuning in to RN Drive, Senator Scott Ryan is the Special Minister of State and my guest. Our number is 0418 226 576. That’s the number that you can text on.
What do you make of Cory Bernardi’s decision? Is this a kind of crisis for conservative politics or is it just one man defecting. Lots of different views coming through today.
You’ve abolished the gold travel pass with immediate effect. I have read lots of commentary on this saying that the Government rushed this out desperately trying to get on the front foot. Is that what you were trying to do?
SENATOR RYAN: I’ll be honest, it’s crap Patricia.
I’ve been in this job since August. Last year I announced that we’re not going to proceed with the legislation in the last two [sitting] weeks as planned because we had a very busy schedule dealing with the building and construction commission and registered organisations and various other contentious pieces of legislation, which we successfully got through the Senate.
I got whacked around publically a bit for that, and I made it clear to my colleagues that I was going to bring it back very early this year. It went to cabinet last week and the Government determined to toughen it up so that there is no six-year phase-in period and as part of our commitment to transparency and reform of parliamentarians’ work expenses, we announced that on the first day of Parliament resuming. That was always the plan.
KARVELAS: I’ve been told from my sources that you were always going to do this on Tuesday, so that’s correct? This was not linked to the news about Cory Bernardi?
SENATOR RYAN: It was always going to our Joint Party Room for its consent this morning.
KARVELAS: Well Peta Credlin on Sky, I heard her a little earlier, was essentially saying that even if that was the case, what a ridiculous thing to do. You have no political oxygen and if you look at this interview itself, I’ve spent more time on Cory Bernardi then on asking you about this. Was it the wrong decision to talk about it on a day when no one wanted to talk to you about it?
SENATOR RYAN: Anyone who thinks that the Government’s going to get massive support for reforming parliamentarians’ expenses is a little misguided. This has been sitting there to be done since May 2014 and I was keen to move on it very quickly, as I am on the other parliamentary expenses reforms that we also announced today and will be introducing in coming weeks.
I have a pretty traditional commitment to process, which is, we went through Cabinet, we took it to the Joint Party Room today and then we made the announcement. That’s the way that we can ensure that we are seen to be acting appropriately, not acting surreptitiously and not acting cynically.
KARVELAS: Former PMs and their spouses maintain the Gold Pass. Is that fair? I heard Warren Entsch a bit earlier saying it wasn’t fair at all. In fact, one of his lines was ‘we have prime ministers for five minutes now’. He makes a good point. We do, and they get to keep it. But other MPs that have been in Parliament for a long time who are grandfathered, will not. How is that fair?
SENATOR RYAN: I think it’s fair to say that everyone agrees that our former prime ministers play a slightly different role in public life. Most of them that I remember, particularly Gough Whitlam and John Howard, played a significant role, whether that be in community organisations, party organisations. They do travel and they’re work remained quite popular. I think it’s fair to say – we provide them with an office and some staff as well – this reflects their ongoing commitment to public life in Australia.
The life gold pass is a relic of a bygone era. It was announced and abolished, with immediate effect, for those who had already left Parliament in May 2014. The plan was to allow those who still hadn’t retired from this Parliament to keep it for up to six years and I thought, and the Government thought, that given the legitimate sensitivity around MPs’ expenses, if we’re going to abolish it, let’s do it straight away.
KARVELAS: And there was no politics in your decision making?
SENATOR RYAN: This was always intended to come forward today. We’ve got a range of changes coming forward on the work expenses, the travel expenses of Members of Parliament. We announced another bill today to set up an independent authority, so MPs’ travel expenses are overseen independently, and we’ll have another bill coming forward in a number of weeks to tighten the rules. I might say, the independent authority, we’ve got that into Parliament less than a month after the Prime Minister announced it, which in some countries has taken many, many months.
KARVELAS: Scott Ryan, thanks for joining me again.
SENATOR RYAN: Thanks for having me Patricia.