ABC Victoria Statewide Drive
08 November 2016
Subjects: Same-sex marriage, Community leaders meeting following Hazelwood power station announcement.
Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester is the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the Turnbull Cabinet. He's also the Member for Gippsland, and he is a supporter of same-sex marriage. Darren Chester, good afternoon.
Darren Chester: Good afternoon, Nicole.
Nicole Chvastek: What's your reaction to the failure of the plebiscite to get up in the Senate?
Darren Chester: Well overwhelmingly, Nicole, it's one of disappointment and frustration. As someone who has advocated for change, I think the plebiscite would've resolved the issue once and for all, but now I fear, as Warren Entsch has indicated, we've reached a stalemate for some pretty base political reasons. I think Bill Shorten lost all focus on the policy outcome and became obsessed with playing politics on this one, and I think he knows this is a difficult issue for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to manage, perhaps internally. There's strong different views across the Coalition, and I think that Bill Shorten, in his effort to try and drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and Coalition colleagues, has been quite pathetic about this, and I'm just disappointed it ended the way it ended.
Nicole Chvastek: It's not all political though, is it Darren Chester? People as eminent as Patrick McGorry warned that—the former Australian of the Year and the renowned mental health specialist and expert—internationally renowned—he warned as recently as a month or so ago that if this plebiscite were to go ahead then the hate-speak that it would generate against members of the gay and lesbian community may drive some of them to suicide.
Darren Chester: Look, and I think that was a fair warning by Patrick McGorry, but what I'm saying is, Nicole, is when you have the leader of the Liberal Party, the leader of the Labor Party, the leader of the Greens, and at least two National Party Cabinet Ministers all agreeing for a need to change the Marriage Act and willing to campaign to support that change under a plebiscite-style debate, they have very loud opportunities to raise those points in a responsible, respectful manner, and I think we could've had that debate and made sure that it didn't go off track. Now, I think Bill Shorten, rather than focus on that policy outcome, just became obsessed with playing politics. We've got this bizarre proposition now. Plenty of times in Australian history I've heard that voters don't trust politicians, but this is the first time I can recall a politician saying he doesn't trust the voters. In refusing to give Australians a say, Bill Shorten is saying he doesn't trust Australian voters, and I think that's a bizarre proposition.
Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, Warren Entsch now says that he is going to walk away from this issue. Is that what you're going to do as well?
Darren Chester: Well there's not much choice left. I don't see any credible pathway now, through this sitting of Parliament, for any other approach. I mean, government MPs are now in an impossible position where we took a position to the election, we won our seats, won government, and to some extent that's an endorsement of the policy position we took, and voters keep telling us they're tired of politicians who say one thing before an election and do something opposite. We're endeavouring to keep our commitment, and I can see the only credible pathway to changing the Marriage Act was through a plebiscite. Anything else, it would be very difficult to see how it would come to fruition in this Parliament.
Nicole Chvastek: Well, you could have a free vote.
Darren Chester: Well this is the point I'm making, Nicole. We went to the election saying we would give the Australian people a chance to have their say. That is the position we took, we were successful on that position. The voters are telling us on a daily basis they're disenfranchised with politicians who want to change their minds after an election. We're trying to keep our promise, and Bill Shorten and the Labor Party don't get to choose which promises we're allowed to keep and which ones we can't keep. We had a very clear policy to give the Australian people a chance to have their say, and I'm just disappointed and frustrated that Bill Shorten doesn't trust the Australian people to have their say.
Nicole Chvastek: I'm speaking to Darren Chester, who is the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, and also the Member for Gippsland. Warren Entsch indicated—Warren Entsch of course who is the Federal Member for Leichhardt—he indicated that he has been the target of some foul campaigning. He says that he has received extraordinary abuse, and he seemed to suggest that this is one of the reasons now that he is going to walk away from campaigning for same-sex marriage. Have you been the target of that sort of abuse, Darren Chester?
Darren Chester: Not really, Nicole. I am someone who changed their position after being opposed in my first term in Parliament, then changed to a position where I was openly supportive of a change to the Marriage Act, and I copped a bit of criticism. I certainly copped a lot of praise as well. So it comes with the job. You can't really please everyone all the time. I took a position to the last election and was one of the few Coalition MPs who got a sizable increase in their primary vote, so obviously electorally in the seat of Gippsland it didn't hurt me there. But I think, when you enter this role as a Member of the House of Representatives, it's a contract with the people who voted for you, and the contract I entered into with the people of Gippsland was that I supported a plebiscite, and that's what I voted for, and for me to do anything other than that in this term of Parliament would be extremely difficult. In fact, I don't think it's fair to the people who voted for me.
Nicole Chvastek: But sometimes you pay the price for taking those principled positions.
Darren Chester: Well, I did take a principled position, and I've maintained that throughout my whole time in Parliament. I have taken a position to the electors on each occasion, and they've been clear what my view was going into that vote. Now, going into the election this time, the Coalition policy position was to have a plebiscite and I accept the criticism that it is an expensive proposition to have a plebiscite, and you wouldn't want to be doing that on a regular basis. But for such a difficult issue of social policy where the Parliament has failed to conclusively deal with it over the best part of a decade now, I think it was a credible pathway to follow, and I think it was the best way to deal with a very difficult situation. That pathway has now been blocked, and it's Bill Shorten and the Labor Party who blocked the pathway.
Nicole Chvastek: Well hang on, though. Didn't people vote for you because you supported marriage equality? It's not the mechanism that they were more interested in. It was actually the issue. Is your support for marriage equality so shallow that you won't advocate to find another way to make it happen?
Darren Chester: Well, I think that's very unfortunate to suggest my support was shallow, Nicole. The position we took as a Coalition to the Australian people was we would hold a plebiscite. I argued during the campaign that me, as an individual, as a person, as a father and husband would vote yes if given that opportunity, but acknowledge that for people in Gippsland who had a different view, they could vote no and effectively counter my vote. Now I just simply had trust in the Australian people that we could have our say. Yes, it would be a strong debate; it would be a robust debate, but when you have got the Leader of Labor, Liberals, and Greens, plus at least two National Party Cabinet Ministers prepared to argue in support of the issue, I think we could have had the debate in a respectful and moderate manner, and it would have been something that we could have dealt with and then moved on.
Nicole Chvastek: So this will never happen in the term of a Turnbull Government.
Darren Chester: I just don't see a credible pathway now, Nicole. I mean, I have been in politics for eight years now. I hesitate to say never about anything, but I just don't see a credible pathway. I mean, we took a position of a plebiscite. It's been defeated now in the Senate. I think Bill Shorten lost focus on what he was trying to achieve. I genuinely believe he supports changes to the Marriage Act, but I think he lost focus on what he was trying to achieve and became obsessed with playing politics. I'm just disappointed the Australian people won't get a chance to have their say, because I think it would have legitimised the decision one way or the other, and we could have moved on with other issues which are of great significance to the Australian people.
Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, you are one of those who is seeking to redress some of the damage which may be done by the closure of the Hazelwood Power Station in the Latrobe Valley. We spoke to you about this a couple of days ago. Is there any advancement in terms of locking in some sort of assistance for the community?
Darren Chester: Yes, I had a meeting today with Latrobe City Council and some interested members of the community, which obviously—the dust is starting to settle now, and people are starting to think about what this will actually mean to our broader community. Now, the Federal Government has $43 million on the table which we're going to work with the community on solutions in terms of promoting jobs growth, investing in more infrastructure, and those types of things. The nature of the conversation today, though, was quite a positive one in the sense that we're basically saying these decisions aren't going to be driven by me out of Canberra, or Daniel Andrews out of Spring Street. We need to have the local community on board, making the decisions which are going to be right for them in their community.
Look, I think there's going to be a few tough times ahead for us. It's going to be very hard for the people who have lost their jobs, and contractors who face an uncertain future, but I think there's also a positive message here, that the Gippsland and Latrobe Valley has a very diverse economy, and we're going to see some investment in some other parts of the economy to make sure that people can keep jobs there as much as they possibly can.
Nicole Chvastek: Thank you so much for your time.
Darren Chester: All the best, have a great day.
Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and the Member for Gippsland.