ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
MONDAY, 14 FEBRUARY 2022
SUBJECTS: Foreign interference; Peter Dutton’s failures in defence; Donation transparency; Liberals’ climate inaction; NSW by-elections; Dyson Heydon.
GREG JENNETT, HOST: Jason Falinski, Liberal MP, and Labor's Andrew Leigh in the studio. Both have dashed into the studio from the House of Reps, where there was an impromptu division keeping you on your toes. Let's roll straight into discussion about weaponisation of national security. I think we might have heard some more overtones of this today in Question Time, as we did at the end of last week. Firstly to you Andrew Leigh. This is not without foundation, is it, when we hear Peter Dutton and others trying to dial up national security concerns on Labor when you consider the ASIO Director-General’s threat assessment last week, that is all parties are vulnerable here.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: We certainly know all parties are vulnerable, Greg, but it is very clear that there are no Labor candidates under concern from ASIO. Anthony Albanese said as much as a result of discussions with the ASIO Director-General. We know that ramping up fear of conflict with China is counter-productive to Australia’s national security interest.
JENNETT: If that is the case, Jason Falinski, why has Peter Dutton and others been talking in these terms that Labor and Anthony Albanese might be the Chinese Communist Party 's pick?
JASON FALINKSI: I don't think Peter Dutton suggested that, but feel free-
JENNETT: Something every similar.
FALINSKI: Look, in truth, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We know that. That shouldn't be news to anyone. It shouldn’t be news to anyone in the Labor Party. We have seen over and over again that foreign actors have tried to interfere and influence the outcome of our elections. We have some very good agencies in place that have, in some cases, come very close to not being able to avert it but we have been able to avert it-
JENNETT: Including in your own party? You're confident that no-one, nothing untoward has slipped through undetected in the Liberal Party? I'm talking about exposure to donors, influence of pre-selection candidates.
FALINSKI: In answer to your question, the foreign influence of, you know, getting rid of foreign influence out of our election campaign was something the Turnbull Government dealt with, very strongly, against a lot of opposition. We saw the impact when Sam Dastyari was enticed to take a $400,000 donation over policy in the South China Sea, so we have seen this in the past. But what Australians should know is that governments today have responded by ensuring that those things are closed off.
JENNETT: That's a factual reference, I suppose, to the Sam Dastyari case. But what about Andrew 's point about divide and conquer here? That is, I think the Director-General made it as well, that if we are tearing ourselves apart about potential and thwarted influence, that’s akin to foreign interference anyway. Doing the work of foreign interference.
FALINSKI: What do you mean?
JENNETT: If it's been politicised in the way that it has been.
FALINSKI: The point of democracy, what makes democracy so resilient and so strong is the dynamism. It’s not that everyone agrees with each other and that we don't, that we actually tolerate dissent. That is what has made democracy and Liberal democracy so strong over such a long period of time.
JENNETT: It must be disconcerting, Andrew, to see just how close – we don’t know all the details, but in the ASIO Director-General’s account - to see just how close and perhaps even complex was this candidate interference attempt by Chinese interests that came to light on Friday. I mean, that cuts close to the bone for Labor, doesn't it?
LEIGH: Certainly attempts to influence elections are going on, but I would prefer that Peter Dutton focused on his day job. That would involve ensuring that we have a successor to the Collins class submarine. Having a long range submarine for Australia is crucial to our defence. That had been expected to happen in the 2020s. Now under Peter Dutton, it won't happen until the 2040s. That is a catastrophic failure of national security.
JENNETT: And under an Albanese government, have you got a best guess date for getting these boats in the water?
LEIGH: We would certainly do our best to get them in there as quickly as possible, but the problem has been created under this government and it's a serious national security problem. As Malcolm Turnbull has said, Peter Dutton is making the world more dangerous, not safer, by playing partisan politics with the China relationship.
JENNETT: And he in turn, Peter Dutton I think while you were in Question Time today Jason, was reminding everyone that Labor’s defence spending had crashed below 2 per cent to historically low levels under the Rudd Government, I think was the historical reference. Again, the question is why? What’s the upside in domestic politics towards throwing this stuff around?
FALINSKI: Well, Greg. Well, Greg, it is disingenuous for the Labor party to claim that Peter Dutton has made this world a less safe place because this lack of preparation in terms of our national defence occurred under the Rudd-Gillard years, when they invested record low amounts of money in national defence. We have seen today that if we are not willing to have free and open discussions – we have seen that today with the exposure today of donations to independent candidates from coal mining interests-
JENNETT: This is Zali, just to be clear? This is Zali Steggall, a couple of years ago I think.
FALINSKI: No, we are talking about- I'm not specifically pointing to a Member of Parliament, but we're talking about these campaigns, these pro climate candidates running in a lot of seats around Australia have been taking money from coal interests - that actually bought their coalmine from Eddy Obeid, and then sought to divide those donations so that they wouldn’t be declared by the Australian Electoral Commission and it only came to light years later after an audit by the AEC and it’s been [inaudible]. If we do not have a well-informed electorate, then we can't have a well-informed democracy.
JENNETT: And where should it go? As far as it’s too late for this Parliament to change anything, but with disclosure, with acceptance-
FALINSKI: No, we have made changes and one of the reasons this audit took place was because of a bill that the Liberal Party and the Labor Party voted for just towards the end of last year, which has made those audits possible by the AEC. If we hadn't changed the law, then maybe this donation still would be unrecorded and unknown.
JENNETT: So a system at work. Andrew Leigh, this is - I'm using the Zali Stegall reference because that’s how it's been reported publicly today as a case that looked at the donations regime a couple of years ago. Is that a system, is that checking the boxes?
LEIGH: Greg, just before I come to that, I should say quickly that every time when anyone hears Peter Dutton talk about defence spending, they have to remember that his defence spending includes the $4 billion that he’s paying to the French to not deliver a single submarine. On donations, it is important that we have more transparency in the system. The Hawke Government introduced a $1000 threshold in 1983. The Howard Government took it up to what’s now $14,000 in 2006. Labor would bring it down to $1000. And we’d bring down the threshold for disclosure for timely disclosure to seven days, which would mean that you couldn’t have a situation such as you had with the former prime minister giving a $1.75 million donation which wasn't disclosed for some 500 days. Labor’s always stood for stronger transparency and donations disclosure. The Liberals have always stood against it.
FALINSKI: Greg, let me ask Andrew this question. Will the Labor Party preference these pro climate independents who today have been shown to be hiding where they have been receiving their funds? It's a simple yes or no question. If the Labor Party really is in favour of transparency, then surely they would have to put those candidates last on their list.
LEIGH: Jason, I don’t do preference deals for my party, as you well know. But the reason that you are raising this issue which was first reported last year is that you're feeling under pressure in your seat, because of your party’s position on climate change. And that's why this issue has been brought up-
FALINSKI: The reason you’re diverting to that is because you can't deal with the issue, with the fact that we have today confirmation that people are hiding donations. If the Labor Party was true to their principles, they would put them last in the preferences.
LEIGH: As I understand it, Zali Steggall has amended her return. There’s a question as to-
FALINSKI: After an AEC audit.
LEIGH: There’s a question as to whether a donation from eight people consolidated into a single cheque is eight donations or one donation. The AEC has asked for something different. She’s amended her return.
FALINSKI: We’ve seen the limits of the Labor Party’s transparency.
JENNETT: You would accept, wouldn’t you Jason, Andrew's point that the reason you are exercised about this is that in your part of the world, these voices of candidates are a threat-
FALINSKI: No. No, I don’t accept that at all. I want our democracy to operate as best as it possibly can. That requires having a well-informed electorate. When you have people hiding things from the electorate, then you don't have a well-functioning democracy. Andrew and I were in a hearing on Thursday last week where we heard about some industry super funds that are one administrative error away from being insolvent. We heard that 200, up to a quarter of a billion dollars had been transferred out of funds from hard-working Australians’ retirements earnings into the hands of trustees. None of this has been reported anywhere. APRA took very little action over that. All of that- that's the sort of stuff that annoys me. You know, elections - every three years, I get to reapply for my job. I'm not going to be any different before or after that, other than the fact that I know I have to stand on my record and what I've been doing. What I want and I would suspect, I thought every member of Parliament wanted, is an open and transparent system. Now if the Labor Party was true to their principles, then they would put candidates who have clearly not been transparent last-
JENNETT: Alright. I am pretty sure we're going to have preferencing discussions in the weeks and months to come in great detail and in great length. But going to the question of electoral confidence, and in around you had a state by-election, and not far from Andrew's seat either, in Monaro-
FALINSKI: He’s taking all the credit, I hear [laughter].
JENNETT: We’ll ask him about that. Around the seat of Willoughby, a big kick in the pants for your own party. That’s got to have you reflecting on your own political mortality.
FALINSKI: Oh sure. Look, the fact of the matter is, these decisions are made by the people of Australia. All you can do is the best job you can possibly do, and you have to let the cards fall where they may.
JENNETT: And how can you be certain that there is not some sort of federal statement going on in that-
FALINSKI: Greg, the one thing that Andrew and I will definitely agree on is, in this business, nothing is certain.
JENNETT: Nothing’s certain. Alright. Well, I know it is different country. It’s outside the ACT and in New South Wales.
FALINSKI: Seems like a different country.
JENNETT: You look at Bega, positive for Labor. You look at Monaro, less so. What were you picking up over the weekend in those by-elections?
LEIGH: Very strong support for the Labor team, and a resounding confirmation that Chris Minns's message is resonating with New South Wales voters. It was also very clear that Dominic Perrottet didn’t want Scott Morrison anywhere near him. His basic view was ‘take your race car driving, hairdresser pretending, ukulele playing selves - take them somewhere else, I am not interested in being a part of that’ - to the extent that Dominic Perrottet was speaking out against the Religious Discrimination Bill. That’s how strongly he didn’t want Scott Morrison around. And it’s a reflection that people are frustrated, Greg. They are frustrated with the fact that real wages are going down at the same time as prices are going up-
JENNETT: You don't think that cuts both ways? As you look the suite of seats, Strathfield for instance – won by Labor again, but not as emphatically. I mean, are there some statements being made there too about Anthony Albanese, if you want to wind Scott Morrison into this?
LEIGH: There’s an incumbent effect there, but Jason Yat-sen Li will I think rapidly build his own personal vote as his predecessor did in that electorate. And I should give a special shout-out to Bryce Wilson, who worked incredibly hard in Monaro and I hope will pick up that seat for Labor in the next NSW election.
JENNETT: Okay. Just a quick one. Moving on from politics to breaking news, I think you might have heard on your trample towards the studio here from the House-
FALINSKI: I’ll have you know we were gazelle -like.
JENNETT: Alright. About Dyson Heydon, the former High Court judge now being the subject of a settlement payment, undisclosed. Why does the taxpayer always have to be left carrying the can here for some of these workplace culture issues?
FALINSKI: Greg, I absolutely agree with you. I have to say that it goes more broadly to workplaces generally. It, it seems-
JENNETT: You wouldn't expect it from the High Court, though, would you?
FALINSKI: You wouldn’t expect that from anyone, in any level of authority. We expect our leaders to set examples, not to be a part of the problem. And I know what Andrew’s going to say, that these things should have been disclosed, and in this absolutely particular instance he is absolutely right.
JENNETT: It is a black stain on the Court, and its normally impeccable reputation.
LEIGH: I think that’s right, Greg. I was an associate to Justice Michael Kirby in the 1990s, and I know how close that Judge-associate relationship is and how much of a breach of trust these things were. The Government needs to provide a lot more transparency with the people that are paying the bills. The Australian taxpayer is paying the bills. This isn't Liberal Party money being given here-
JENNETT: So you want to hear publicly disclosed the terms of the settlement?
LEIGH: I think we need a lot more transparency. The Government is yet again trying to hide from scrutiny, as they have done with car park rorts, sports rorts and their battle against an integrity commission. Instead, they need to recognise that transparency is a part of the very democratic values that Jason has been praising in this interview until now.
JENNETT: Very quickly and finally, Jason, on transparency and value for money, can you assure us we're getting good value for money out of the Reps sitting this week? Nothing you do there, apart from running over to our studios for which we’re very thankful – nothing you do there gets passed into law. This is a lame-duck session for Parliament.
FALINSKI: Aw no, that’s’ not - I mean, the Senate is back at the end of March. There will be some sitting days. I am personally very hopeful that the mitochondrial donation bill will get passed by the Senate. We are dealing with a whole bunch of important, that I have brought in, pieces of legislation which may make it through the Senate.
JENNETT: They would have to be lucky. They would have to be lucky, on current time estimates.
FALINSKI: These are questions of the Senate efficiency and, as Dr Leigh and I will absolutely agree, they could do better.
JENNETT: Alright. Well, that’s one thing you might choose to agree on in the interest of harmony. Jason Falinski and Andrew Leigh, we’re going to let both of you go and perhaps jog back if necessary to the House of Representatives.
LEIGH: Thanks, Greg. Thanks, Jason.
FALINSKI: Thanks, Greg.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.