Interview — 774 ABC Melbourne

Interview

DCI008/2016

25 October 2016

Subjects: Resignation of the Solicitor-General, Victoria infrastructure

Jon Faine: Darren Chester is a Senior Minister in the Turnbull Government, he's the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the Turnbull Federal Government. Darren Chester, good morning to you.

Darren Chester: Good morning Jon, how are you this morning?

Jon Faine: Well we'll come to the South Yarra Station Metro Rail stand-off in a moment, but you may have had the chance to hear some of what Mark Dreyfus was saying about how it's George Brandis who should go rather than Justin Gleeson. This is a controversy, again, that the Government could have done without and one entirely of your own making, is it not?

Darren Chester: Well, I disagree on that point and as reluctant as I am to get in a debate between lawyers and QCs, this political misadventure has been driven to a large extent by Mark Dreyfus as well in the sense that he's guilty of a massive over-reach. He went out hunting George Brandis and destroyed the Solicitor-General in the process. Now the fact that the Government lost confidence and trust in the Solicitor-General came about when the Solicitor-General admitted he had a conversation with the Labor Shadow Minister in the middle of the campaign and withheld that information. And quite …

Jon Faine: But a conversation of no great consequence, it needs to be said, Darren Chester.

Darren Chester: But quite simply, the Solicitor-General himself has said—and so has the Attorney-General—there needs to be complete trust and confidence between the Solicitor-General and the Government. In effect, the Solicitor-General is the Government's own lawyer, and the Government has to be able to trust its own lawyer. So the fact that the whole position has become politicised largely stemmed from Mark Dreyfus' own involvement. He went out trying to capture George Brandis and unfortunately this whole process has ended up destroying the career of the Solicitor-General. So I think it's a disappointing turn of events, but…

Jon Faine: Okay well politically, Darren Chester, last week you lost momentum talking about votes for guns. This week you're starting off with an attempt to gather momentum to your agenda, but instead now on the defensive over the resignation of the Solicitor-General. It's politics 101, is it not, that governments should try to manage the agenda rather than be responding to other events?

Darren Chester: Well I think you're right, and yesterday I was in Rockhampton and Longreach announcing $300 million in infrastructure funding for improved roads to improve productivity and capitalise on free trade agreements. You have got Ministers travelling right throughout Australia doing their job in the weeks between parliamentary sittings, and whether those activities and announcements and stories make the media is a question for political commentators to decide what they think is newsworthy, but we're getting on with the job of delivering the things we said we'd deliver during the federal election campaign, and that's why I'm in Queensland this week and I'll be back in Victoria later in the week again working…

Jon Faine: Okay, and that's why you're on the radio this morning, because the Commonwealth should pay Victoria nearly $1.5 billion, which is our share of the sale, or the dividend from the selling of the Port of Melbourne. It's a guaranteed formula we're supposed to get, $1.45 billion but now you're trying to attach conditions to it, including that the South Yarra Station be included in Metro Rail. Why does a Nationals MP concerned about the bush dud Victoria for needed infrastructure money?

Darren Chester: Well Jon I'm not dudding Victoria, and it is a significantly more complex negotiation than the way you have described it. I guess there's two key infrastructure negotiations on with Victoria and the Federal Government right now. The one you and I have talked about before is the $1.5 billion for Monash and Murray Basin Rail and Regional Roads, and Jacinta Allen and Luke Donnellan, the two state Labor Ministers and I have had some very productive conversations there, and I think we're not far away from landing an agreement for the Victorian Government to match that funding, so I think that's one project or one process which is well advanced and we're going to get $3 billion worth of infrastructure works underway in Victoria, which is positive. The one you're talking about …

Jon Faine: But why South Yarra? The State Government has said if we're putting another $600 million into Metro Rail, we want to use it for outer suburbs that have no public transport infrastructure rather than yet another advantage for the people in South Yarra.

Darren Chester: So Jon the other quantum of money we're talking about—so separate from the $1.5 billion, which I am very confident we're going to reach an agreement on pretty soon, the other quantum of money you're talking about is the asset recycling initiative, which was the $877 million which was attached to the Port of Melbourne lease. And there's no question it has been a bit of an impasse between the two Treasurers, the State and Federal Treasurer on how that money should be treated. My ambition if you like as Infrastructure Minister is to land an agreement on the projects we can agree on, which is that first $1.5 billion, and then let's get back to the negotiating table on that $877 million and see how we can work together.

Jon Faine: Sure, but in principle—in principle, why should the State Government spend even more money on the inner city when the funds are desperately short for projects for regional Victoria and the outer metro regions?

Darren Chester: Well that's the point I'm trying to get to, Jon. What I want to do is get back to the negotiating table with the Victorians on that other quantum of funding, that $877 million, and then reach agreement on that as well. Now negotiations, as you'd understand, sometimes don't go the way you would have hoped in the outset. The $1.5 billion which we've been talking about for a few months now, I'm very confident we're going to land that pretty soon, and I think we have had some good faith negotiations on that, and then my view and my plan is to get back to the table with the Victorians and say well that $877 million, what can we spend it on? I've put no demands on the Victorian Government in relation to…

Jon Faine: Well Kelly O'Dwyer is driving a campaign which she spoke to us about regularly during the election campaign to get South Yarra included in Melbourne Metro, which will cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. The state governments say we don't want to do it, South Yarra's already well served for public transport. If we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars, we want to spend it in Tarneit or South Morang, or somewhere else.

Darren Chester: Jon on that point, she wouldn't be doing her job as a local member of Parliament if she didn't advocate for a local project. She's not speaking on my behalf as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, she's speaking on the basis of she's advocating for a local project. I have made no demands…

Jon Faine: Are you saying you don't support her position on this?

Darren Chester: No, I've made no demands on the Victorian Government in relation to that sum of money, and I want to have that conversation with them about what is the best way to spend that money. In every conversation I've had with the Victorian Ministers in the past, I've made it very clear that I expect a fair share of infrastructure spending to make it out to the regions and the suburban interface areas, if you like, where the growing pains on Melbourne, the congestion which is causing great difficulty for productivity and also community living and safety on our roads, they've all been issues that I've had good conversations with the Victorians about, so we want to make sure that we…

Jon Faine: Okay. But the business case on South Yarra, Mr Chester, is that South Yarra loses—for every dollar spent, it returns 60 cents. So why would you spend more money on a case—I mean, your government says there has to be a strong business case for any investment, there isn't one for making South Yarra part of the Metro project.

Darren Chester: You're asking me now to do exactly what you didn't want me to do at the start, was rule things in and rule things out. What I'm saying is I'm going to have these negotiations with Victoria in good faith, and I'm not going to flag with you on the media what's in or out. I want to have these conversations with the Treasurer and the Transport Minister on projects we can reach agreement on, and I fully accept your point, and I think it's a very valid point that I need to make sure that if I'm spending Commonwealth money I get a fair share out to the suburban areas and to the regional areas where the congestion issues are very pressing, and they're ones that people raise with me, other members of Parliament raise with me beyond Ms O'Dwyer, other colleagues raise with me about projects in their area as well.

So I'm in the situation—I'm not asking for any sympathy—I'm in the situation where I have limited amounts of funding available to me, I have a Treasurer and a Finance Minister trying to fix the budget situation, but I need to get maximum value and spread the benefits of the Commonwealth's investment in Victoria as wide as I possibly can, and that's the kind of the negotiations I expect to have with Tim Pallas and Jacinta Allan in the weeks ahead.

Jon Faine: Thank you indeed. Darren Chester, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the Turnbull Federal Coalition Government.