Radio Interview - ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett


Senator The Hon Don Farrell
Special Minister of State

E & OE
Subjects: Housing Australia Future Fund, Voice to Parliament Referendum, Electoral reform, Trade with China.

Greg Jennett, host: Don Farrell joins us now in the studio. Welcome back Don. Why don’t we start with the Housing Australia Future Fund. You read from a piece of paper – it seemed to be hastily scrawled handwritten notes as far as I could tell – identifying its delay as “a failure to pass the bill”. First strike, in other words, on a potential double dissolution. Why did you choose to spell it out in that way? Was this the product of cabinet deliberations? I assume it was.

Special Minister of State, Don Farrell: Thanks, Greg and good to be with you here this afternoon. Look, I’m hopeful that the Greens will come to their senses hopefully very soon, because each day that goes by is $1.3 million that the government isn’t spending on the issue of housing and homelessness, and renters. By the time the 16th of October comes around, which is the date that the Greens and the Coalition have selected to be the next date that this legislation is considered, $250 million worth of investment that could have gone into social housing will have passed. So I’m just hopeful that at some point the Greens realise the error of their ways and gets on board with the government’s housing proposals.

Greg Jennett: I think they’re putting the word around the building this afternoon that their intent in kicking this down the road was simply to allow national cabinet time to consider housing and the new injection of $2 billion that was announced by the Prime Minister over the weekend – in other words, they weren’t thinking about potential double dissolution triggers at all. And yet you were. Why? Why was it necessary to spell that out?

Special Minister of State: It was necessary to spell it out because we want the Greens to come to their senses, realise that what they’ve done by joining forces with the Coalition – remember, what the Coalition wants is nothing spent in the area of housing. They had nine years to do something about the issue of housing, housing affordability, rents and homeless and they did nothing.

Greg Jennett: Sure.

Special Minister of State: We’ve got a $10 billion proposal here. The Greens say they’re concerned about this issue, but the way they’re acting is essentially to stop progress on this issue.

Greg Jennett: I know it’s a few steps away, but as a matter of principle would the Albanese government be prepared to call a double dissolution election if it were suitably armed with those triggers because of Housing Australia Future Fund?

Special Minister of State: Greg, what we want the Greens to do is to come to their senses, end this – what I described as ‘axis of evil’ with the Coalition, and support the Government’s programs on housing. We both agree that housing is a big issue. Homelessness is a big issue. Rent is a big issue. Here’s a $10 billion program that’s going to assist it, start the process of resolving all of these issues. The Greens have to get on board with the Labor Party’s policies here.

Greg Jennett: Well, it’s a fascinating game of brinkmanship and has been for many months now. We’ll watch it again in October. There’s no suggestion that it’s coming back before then.

Why don’t we move on to the Voice Referendum with your responsibilities overseeing the Australian Electoral Commission. What kicks into motion today? What processes are triggered if not by today then royal assent when this is all signed off?

Special Minister of State: Okay, so what happens from today is that the referendum must be held no sooner than two months and no longer than six months. So we essentially have a four-month window to conduct the referendum. The most important next step is, as you might recall, one of the concessions we made in order to get the machinery legislation through - I must say unanimously through the parliament. This was the preparation of a pamphlet, a yes/no pamphlet. That will probably be the very next step.

Greg Jennett: Who will be involved in the selection of the personnel there? Does the government per se have a role or is it something for the parliament to determine?

Special Minister of State: Look, it’s essentially the parliament. Those people who voted yes get to write the yes case, and that’s of course the vast bulk of the parliament who voted yes and, in fact, the vote in the Senate today I think was 52-19 in favour of the legislation. Then those people who voted no get to write the no vote, or the no case. That then has to be presented within a fairly tight framework to the AEC. They’ll then get that document out to Australian voters.

Greg Jennett: With not much oversight on it, is that correct? I think if I look back to the Electoral Commissioner at estimates he was describing how based on their understanding – and I think he qualified it by saying we haven’t had a lot of experience in this area of late – the words as presented are as distributed by the Electoral Commission. There’s no fact checking, there’s no editing by them?

Special Minister of State: No, in fact, if there are spelling mistakes or grammatical mistakes, that’s what will go into the document. They’ve got a big job to do in a relatively short space of time. We’ve made sure that they’re fully resourced to conduct the election and, of course, because of those changes we made earlier in the year the Australian people can expect when they vote on the referendum to have an almost identical experience as voting in a general election.

Greg Jennett: And they’ll be in the field with their own information campaign, quite separate to these pamphlet processes?

Special Minister of State: Yeah, and I think you’ll find that might have already started. In fact, I saw an ad the other day – a very good ad – explaining what the recognition of a voice to parliament was all about.

Greg Jennett: Sure. Now, since you mentioned sort of an alignment between the Referendum and electoral law, you may be aware that the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters has handed down a report this afternoon that has 15 recommendations, but some really strong ones on donations to political parties and limits on spending as well. The proposal is to reduce the threshold from about $15,000 for disclosing down to $1,000. Would the government be open to adopting that within this term of parliament?

Special Minister of State: Yes, look, can I congratulate Kate Thwaites and her team for their report. They’ve put a lot of hard work into this. It’s taken them now more than 12 months since the last election. Yes, we support that proposal. I think one of the policies that we took to the last election was greater transparency as far as electoral funding is concerned and reducing that threshold was one of the things that we are certainly prepared to do.

Greg Jennett: As a first-term agenda?

Special Minister of State: Yeah, look, I think all of those things are perfectly capable of being dealt with in our first term.

Greg Jennett: What about real-time disclosure, which I think is also among the recommendations this afternoon. You know it’s been baulked at technically or perhaps even politically in the past. Is that part of what you believe to be the mandate from the last election?

Special Minister of State: Yes, I think that’s another key to transparency. What’s the point of finding out 12 months after the election that a particular donor has granted money to a candidate? You need to know that. If you’re going to make a decision about who you’re going to vote for in an election you need to know simultaneously with the election. So to the extent that we’re able to do that – it will be a big change. But some of the states have done it already. I think you’ll find Queensland has moved in this direction. So if Queensland can do it, we can do it in the Commonwealth.

Greg Jennett: And I’m not sure if this is addressed in the report, but one recommendation goes to caps on the amount of spending, the political arms race, if you like, in a campaign. If that is to go through, can you rule out compensating political parties with higher public funding per vote?

Special Minister of State: Look, that’s one of the things – and it’s a difficult issue to deal with but–

Greg Jennett: Not particularly popular, is it, the public funding component?

Special Minister of State: I think the Australian population understand that if you’re going to have democracy work in this country, it just can’t be rich people who can afford to fund election campaigns, because that’s what it’s starting to look like. We saw Clive Palmer at the last election spend $117 million – it’s his own money, I accept that – but in order to get election results. Now, I don’t think –

Greg Jennett: It wasn’t particularly successful, though.

Special Minister of State: No, he got one person elected. On the one hand you’d say, it wasn’t a successful outcome, but, on previous occasions it has been successful. He’s won more seats than that. I don’t think the Australian people want a situation where it’s only rich people who can run for Parliament and successfully get elected. So I think that, sure, there’s some concerns about any additional funding in this area, but on the other hand, people do want some transparency and they do want to make sure that ordinary Australians can successfully run for Parliament.

Greg Jennett: Interesting. And, look, just finally, because you are a Minister of many hats, just on trade, we are drawing closer towards the end of the agreed period with China to suspend WTO actions on barley. I guess we’re entering that zone where you’d want to see signs of progress. You would have more visibility on that than anyone. Is that progressing?

Special Minister of State: It’s progressing. I am hopeful that in the next few weeks that we get a favourable decision by the Chinese government on the issue of barley. We were, as you say, prepared to suspend our World Trade Organisation dispute in return for a quick, internal process. That process is almost coming to an end, and I’d be hopeful that we get a positive outcome, that sets the template for other issues, including wine.

Greg Jennett: All right. Well, you can be sure that we’ll follow through with you if and when we discover the final outcome on that one. Don Farrell, really appreciate your being here and covering a whole lot of ground with us today. We’ll do it again soon.

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