Talking political transparency and Grexit - RN Drive





SUBJECT/S: Political donations; Q&A; Greek economic crisis.

JONATHAN GREEN: Joining me now from Sydney is Senator Arthur Sinodinos and in our Canberra studio, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh. Welcome to you both. 



GREEN: Touch gloves, gentlemen.

LEIGH: I thought it was swords, isn't that what knights do? Or is it lances?

GREEN: That's sounding very fancy. To this [Hockey] ruling, Arthur Sinodonos, is it vindication for the Treasurer or a warning to editors about how to sell a story?

SINODINOS: Jonathan, I think Joe Hockey clearly felt very strongly about this, having these posters and tweets around suggesting he was for sale was going beyond the pale. And so he decided to take the matter up and he's been, in that sense, vindicated by the judgement. 

GREEN: Was it those words that he objected to principally, the 'Treasurer for sale' claim, and not the substance?

SINODINOS: You see Jonathan, the problem is you put a picture up of someone and the headline 'Treasurer for sale' and then the article may be more carefully worded but to many readers, including more casual readers, the damage, in a sense, is done. What they remember is 'Treasurer for sale', and not everyone reads articles as carefully as you or I might, or Andrew might. That is the problem with this. The suggestion was that you could own Joe Hockey if you paid money. Now I can tell you, no-one owns Joe Hockey. His decisions can't be influenced by money. He's made some big decisions against people like Archer Midlands Daniels, for example, the big American firm that was chasing him over investing in Graincorp. I mean, he's been up against some pretty big corporations. He's made decisions against multinationals and so this is not a bloke who can be pushed over or bought. And I resent the implication that politicians can be bought. We all see a lot of people in the course of our daily lives, I go to lots of dinners and lunches – as does Andrew and others – and we go there because we're invited. We go there because we need to talk to people. You don't have to buy access to any of us.

GREEN: And yet, Andrew Leigh, it's a murky bit of territory. To the untrained eye, to the observer from the outside of politics, businesspeople, people with particular interests paying large amounts of money to get access to a politician – what can that be but a way of getting some sort of influence?

LEIGH: Jonathan, I think you've raised an important point. It's not just about being clean, it's also about being seen to be clean. That’s why I think the call by Geoffrey Watson, the Council Assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, for an overhaul of Australia's political donation laws is overdue, particularly in light of these revelations that the Mafia may have paid something in the order of $50,000 to the Liberal Party's Millennium Forum fundraising vehicle. Labor has consistently been saying that the donations threshold for disclosure is too high – tomorrow it goes up to $13,000. Labor reports everything that our national party receives over $1,000. In Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT you've had Labor Governments that have brought down those disclosure thresholds. The Liberal and National parties could vote with us in bringing the disclosure threshold down from $13,000 to $1,000 at a national level – we could do that as soon as Parliament resumes. 

GREEN: Why is that not a good idea, Arthur Sinodinos, to bring that threshold down?

SINODINOS: Well we can have a debate about thresholds, we can have a debate about the amount of the caps on spending, because that is one of the things that drives the culture of seeking donations – the levels of spending on campaigns. What the NSW Liberal Government did was to put pretty significant caps on donations and pretty significant caps on spending. One of the things that happened in NSW when Barry O'Farrell was Premier was that the trade unions took the matter all the way to the High Court in order to be removed from the purview of those caps on donations. So I think Labor have to accept that if we're going to have proper reform of donations, it also includes the very significant financial resources that flow to the political arm of the labour movement from its industrial arm. This is a very big issue because if you want to be Caesar’s wife and above suspicion, the role the unions play in bankrolling the Labor Party is a very important issue in the structure and conduct of the Labor Party at both a federal and a state level. 

GREEN: But it could be the trade unions or it could be the Calabrian Mafia – influence can be bought?

SINODINOS: In the case of the Calabrian Mafia, I saw that report and my understanding is that the Federal Police twice investigated this matter and did not find evidence that in this case the Minister at the time, Amanda Vanstone, had done anything wrong. So this is a story that has been reheated because something must have happened recently, but of itself it does not illustrate that the access that was sought or attempted to be bought led in any way to any adverse decision as far as the public interest is concerned.

GREEN: What about that issue, Andrew Leigh, of union influence?

LEIGH: Well we declare union donations over $1,000. I think it's deeply unfair of Arthur to somehow suggest some equivalence between receiving money from the Mafia and receiving money from trade unions. Labor's view is that it's appropriate for unions to donate to our political system, as it is for individuals and businesses. But we've got to get more transparency into the system than we've got now. It's just not reasonable in the 21st century to have vehicles like the Millennium Forum, set up entirely in order to keep out of the public eye people who are giving money to the Liberal Party. It's not reasonable to have this $13,000 threshold that lets you donate to states and territories individually and so give up to $100,000 without being identified.

SINODINOS: What I find remarkable, Jonathan, is that the Greens say: we've got to do something about corporate donations. Do you know who got the biggest corporate donation in Australian history?

GREEN: That would be Mr Wood to the Greens.

SINODINOS: That's right. And of course, the Greens would say that's because he sees a confluence between his interests and theirs, i.e. promoting and advancing the cause of the environment but –   

GREEN: But at least we know about that donation, Arthur Sinodinos.

SINODINOS: Yes, and you know about all the big donations that occur at the federal level and at different threshold levels at the state level. If you're raising the issue of the extent to which there should be greater consistency between disclosure thresholds at federal and state level, to stop things like regulatory arbitrage and the like, I'm on the record before as saying that would be a good thing. But because all donations are declared above a certain threshold – at the moment that's $12,000 or $13,000 – all the very big donations are there for all to see. If you go through the Labor Party disclosures, the ones that are done through Canberra, there are very big amounts run through places like John Curtin House and the like. The composition of those is never broken down.

GREEN: Yes, it's that channelling on both sides – whether it's John Curtin House or whether it be the North Sydney Forum. The setting up of entities like that to obscure the flow of money, surely this is an issue of disclosure.

SINODINOS: But they have to be disclosed. Above a certain threshold, they have to be disclosed on Labor's side, the Liberals' side and the Greens’ side. I think one thing that we could do, which I've raised before, is have continuous disclosure of donations in real time. So that people have a more accurate picture over time and closer to an election who is donating what to whom. I think that's something we should look at, rather than waiting for the returns which are often delayed by 12 or 18 months so you get a post facto view of what's happened but you don't have a real-time view of the flow of donations. 

GREEN: Talking federal politics with Andrew Leigh and Arthur Sinodinos. Andrew Leigh, we were expecting today to have the departmental inquiry into the Q&A program completed, are you comfortable with this process? Are you looking to the findings of this inquiry?

LEIGH: Jonathan, I think we need to keep the issue in perspective. Q&A has acknowledged they made a mistake in putting Zaky Mallah on their program but the attacks on the program have been entirely out of proportion to what happened. This not-so-secret attempt to suggest that the ABC's funding would be linked to how it behaved. Of course, their funding has already been cut in contravention to the government's pre-election promise, and as Mark Scott said, we have to distinguish between a state-funded broadcaster and a state broadcaster. We have a great national broadcaster that tells our national stories as well as any other media outlet in the world – 

GREEN: But enough about SBS, Andrew Leigh!

LEIGH: Which has also been cut, Jonathan! In contradiction to a promise made down an SBS camera. How's that for gold medal promise breaking?

GREEN: Senator Sinodinos, let's assume that in 15 minutes’ time we'll have a live-to-air interview with Khalid Sharrouf, the infamous Australian ISIS terrorist ­–

SINODINOS: That would be a great scoop.

GREEN: Should I broadcast that? Should I do it live, should I do it as a pre-record, should that be decided by the Department of Communications?

SINODINOS: Let me ask you this, what does your journalistic instinct tell you to do?

GREEN: I should go with it and be careful.

SINODINOS: Yes, and I think that's right. 

GREEN: But what if there's a bit of furore subsequently?

SINODINOS: I think there would be huge public interest, depending on what you asked this character, right? Because there's a whole host of questions to be asked of such a person. What we're talking about here is – and this is where the debate has got a bit muddled –  last night Tony Jones made the point that if they've been aware of a particularly gross, misogynistic tweet of this character's, then they wouldn't have put  him on. Now this goes counter to the defence that Mark Scott was putting forward the week before with the Charlie Hebdo defence about free speech.

GREEN: And yet if it has no free speech component then it's just a simple editorial error – why all this fuss?

SINODINOS: When you strip everything away the issue was – and this is why the Q&A program has been an interesting case, being our access to the public commons if you like – the point Malcolm Turnbull has consistently made is that this was live. We didn't necessarily know what this character was going to say and we didn't necessarily know what this character was going to do. We've just been through the Lindt siege issue where someone who was dismissed by everybody as a crank turns up with a sawn-off shotgun and ended up doing some really terrible things. So my point is, and the point Malcolm has made which I'm very supportive of, is that it is one thing to have pre-recorded, to have an opportunity to have some check of what's going on. But to put this person on live, just confront a minister on air not knowing where this character will go or what he might do in a live audience context, I think there's more of a duty of care than that. The reason this has become such an issue, leaving aside the media because in the media we all love to talk about ourselves, the reason it has become an issue is that as a society at the moment, we have a heightened consciousness and a heightened sensitivity to what is going on in the national security front. Not because Tony Abbott is out there talking about it, but because we are worried about random acts of violence by lone wolves that are not predictable by our security forces, and it has made people very edgy. 

GREEN: How does that get fixed up by the communications department and the Minister potentially advising Q&A not to do these things live? I mean, what will this inquiry find?

SINODINOS: Well I think in the first instance, as Malcolm has made clear, this inquiry will look at who authorised what, what circumstances they took into account, whether they took into account it being live, if there were security or safety implications. From your point of view, Jonathan, it will establish a base of fact which, at the moment, is missing from the whole debate. We will move on. We will not spend the next three years debating Q&A and Zaky Mallah. Rest assured, we are moving on.

LEIGH: Jonathan, hopefully we'll get to talk about Greece at some stage, but no-one has got an objection to this particular inquiry. What people are concerned about, what I'm concerned about, is threats like the one that Steve Ciobo made on the Bolt Report on Sunday, that ABC funding is at risk as a result of this. I think trashing the ABC because of a mistake made by Q&A would be just ridiculous.

GREEN: Ok, let's finish then with a quick discussion on Greece. As we know, we're heading to a referendum vote this weekend. Is there a real game of brinksmanship being played here, Andrew? 

LEIGH: I'm deeply worried by it, Jonathan; $1.5 billion Euros due to the IMF by midnight tonight European time. I think Greece should have been allowed more opportunity to restructure – at the moment the pain has all been placed on the Greek side rather than on the creditors. People are now talking about a shadow Greek currency or a second currency being used to pay wages within weeks. For Australia, this will probably mean we get capital inflows, maybe also some human inflows, and it's a reminder of the risks that are there in the global economy. Not just this but the unwinding of quantitative easing is also a risk that we need to be concerned about down the track as well. 

GREEN: Arthur Sinodinos: if you had a vote in the Saturday referendum, what would you do? You may well have one! How would you vote, yes or no?

SINODINOS: Jonathan, I'm not a dual citizen. I'm happy being an Australian citizen but I love Greece, it's the land of my heritage.

GREEN: Your citizenship is safe then, Arthur.

SINODINOS: I am concerned about what's happened there because one of the reasons Syriza has come to power there is that there's a feeling this austerity in Greece has gone on a long time and where's the light at the end of the tunnel? At the end of the day, they have to stay in Europe and I think they have to come to a deal that provides significant debt relief in return for ongoing, steady progress in achieving the targets on raising tax revenue, reducing spending in the appropriate places while maintaining or restoring a strong social safety net for the most vulnerable, and speeding up structural reform. They need to become more competitive. The problem they've got is being in Europe, they've got a single currency, they can't devalue to be more competitive and so they've got to do it by curtailing their costs and being as innovative and nimble as they can be. It's a difficult juggling act but there is no benefit for Europe in a Grexit. There is no benefit in Europe for that. Most of the Greeks want to stay in Europe but it has to be on terms which give them some light at the end of the tunnel.

GREEN: Yes or no on that, Andrew Leigh? Just as a final point – Grexit or stay?

LEIGH: I'm much more pessimistic than I was last week, Jonathan. I mean, you've had – LINE CUTS OUT

GREEN: Oh no, we seem to have lost Andrew Leigh there. Rest assured, listeners of Australia, that this is not some evil attempt by the Department of Communications to stop the flow of this program. We simply book the lines to a particular time and that time must have expired. Arthur Sinodinos, we'll leave it there.



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