Transcript—Sky News PM Agenda

Interview

DCI012/2017

16 January 2017

Subjects: Federal ICAC, Trans-Pacific Partnership, road safety

David Speers: Let's bring in our first guest this afternoon, our first guest for the year on PM Agenda. He's the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure—the Nationals' Darren Chester. A very good afternoon to you, and thank you for joining us. Happy New Year, hope you got a bit of a break.

Darren Chester: Good afternoon, happy New Year.

David Speers: Thank you. Let me ask you straight off the bat there, Bill Shorten now open to a federal ICAC—what do you think of the idea?

Darren Chester: Well he is not actually open to anything; he wants to have a discussion about it. I mean the Government's position has been, right throughout our term in office, that we have various agencies responsible for dealing with anti-corruption responses in the community. It is not a question of one single overarching agency having that responsibility. We take it very seriously, and it is obviously Bill Shorten's first thought-bubble for 2017.

David Speers: Okay, but are you saying there is no need for it, or is it worth discussing?

Darren Chester: Well what we are saying is he is trying to combine the Prime Minister's very decisive response to the concerns in relation to MPs' work expenses. The Prime Minister acted last week, indicated you'd have an independent body to oversee that system of claiming workplace expenses going forward, and quite frankly Bill Shorten's just trying to play one-upmanship today, just trying to extend that debate even further rather than acknowledge the Prime Minister has made a good decision.

David Speers: So this is a no, it is not something to discuss?

Darren Chester: Well there is no evidence in front of us right now there is any need to have a single overarching body when you have multiple agencies already taking anti-corruption activities very seriously across the Commonwealth.

David Speers: So this new agency that the Prime Minister announced last week, from your perspective—you are a minister, you have to deal with these sort of travel expense issues all the time—what difference will it make to you? Explain to our viewers perhaps how it works at the moment if you want to travel somewhere, and what this new agency will mean for you.

Darren Chester: I think the best part about the new agency or the new independent authority; it will provide greater clarity, transparency and confidence, not just to members of parliament and their staff, but also for the bureaucrats charged with operating the system. But more importantly, it will provide that confidence for the Australian people. I accept that there is a deficit of trust between politicians and the public at state and federal level right across the country at the moment; we need to do as much as we possibly can as elected members of parliament to build that trust back with the Australian people, whether it be at state level or federal level, whether you're a National Party MP or…

David Speers: You are absolutely right about that, I just want to get to a more practical level about how it will work. So if you want to travel to another state at the moment, does your office have to ring anyone at the moment to check it off, and will you have to do that with this new agency?

Darren Chester: Well it will give you the capacity to do that, but if there is any doubt whatsoever you can seek an independent third-party opinion on whether that travel expense or that workplace expense is within the expectations of…

David Speers: You can. Would you expect that you'll have to—this'll be an obligation on MPs to get something ticked off before you jump on the plane?

Darren Chester: Well I'd suggest, David, if you didn't you would have to be a bit of a mug, because if you got it wrong in the future I don't think there would be any second chances for anyone. So you've got a position that will be in place for you to go through an independent assessment, and if you get it wrong and you haven't bothered to check, you'd have to be mug to do that. So certainly from my perspective, if ever we have any doubt we would look to get that checked in advance of the travel before making any commitments.

David Speers: I heard one of your Cabinet colleagues, Steve Ciobo, making on the radio the other day a rather heroic defence of going to sporting events—AFL Grand Finals and so on—that Australians expect you to go along to these things, they want you to use taxpayers' money to get there. This is an opportunity for businesses to have, in his words, important conversations about important matters at the footy. Is that how you see it? Have you been to footy matches where you have these important conversations with businesses that invite you there?

Darren Chester: Well I have, David, in the past. I'll have to consider my future travel arrangements according to the response we have seen in the last couple of weeks. There is no doubt that members of parliament and ministers have responsibilities to attend community, social, cultural, sporting activities in their electorate and in relation to their ministerial responsibilities. Now, the question is do the Australian people still want us attending those activities on their behalf or not, and what do we regard as a reasonable workplace expense.

David Speers: What do you reckon, do you think they do?

Darren Chester: Well I think it is going to depend on the circumstances, and I think that is why having this independent authority in place will provide some greater clarity. For example, a member of parliament has direct responsibilities in a particular area and is invited to go to an event where there is a level of hospitality served or presented as part of that gathering, it's only reasonable that they still attend. Now, the question's going to be on those areas of grey; if there are areas of grey, getting an independent assessment on whether that travel is of value to the Australian taxpayer. I think we need to work out…

David Speers: Sure. I mean, let's take your role for example. If you had a big transport or logistics company wanting to talk to you, you have got an office here in Canberra, you've got other offices in, I think, every major city. They have got their offices. Why do you have to do it at the AFL Grand Final?

Darren Chester: I think that is a fair question. If you are invited- for example, in the past I have been invited by airlines or by logistics and transport organisations to attend and I have accepted hospitality and I've declared that in accordance with the current rules. Now, I guess the question is do we accept that level of transparency that we already have so that it is quite obvious, it's there listed under my name that I have attended that event and received hospitality and I have had meetings leading up to that event and meetings the next day. Do we accept that as a reasonable use of the MP's time or the Minister's time? Now, this is where I think that greater clarity and transparency into the future will hopefully avoid what has been a pretty ugly period over a number of years where, for many years, there has been concern about members of parliament, what travel they should be taking, what accommodation they should be claiming for, and I think this will provide that greater clarity.

I think the Prime Minister has made a very good decision, and it's one that I think members of parliament into the future will appreciate, because they will have, I think, greater clarity. And the Australian public will have every right to expect and to see greater transparency to have confidence in the system going forward.

David Speers: Let me move on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Donald Trump, we know, he said it right throughout the very long election campaign in the US, he wants to tear it up on day one in office. Would you like to see the Australian Parliament spend much time ratifying this here? Is it really worthwhile?

Darren Chester: Absolutely it is worthwhile, David, and I'm surprised that on day one of 2017 Bill Shorten said he was committed to working to create more jobs in Australia, and he has given up on jobs on the first day. He has given up on jobs associated with the TPP. There is no question that the TPP and providing stronger market access and open access for Australia throughout our region is important to creating more opportunities for Australia to trade into the world. I'm just very surprised that Bill Shorten has given up on Australian jobs on day one.

David Speers: Well I think he is pointing to the fact that Donald Trump, the US President in five days' time, is going to tear it up.

Darren Chester: Well we are committed to ratifying the TPP. The Prime Minister Abe has been in Australia this week meeting with Prime Minister Turnbull, and reinforced the need for our region to be open and providing that market access which is so important for growth, particularly in our regional communities. I know Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is in Toowoomba today seeing the benefits of our infrastructure investment in that region, and the only way that that great infrastructure investment in the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail, or the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing, the only way that is going to pay dividends is through providing greater access to markets for those producers on the Darling Downs, or throughout Central Queensland into Northern New South Wales. So we are strong believers…

David Speers: Look, you're right, free trade is a very important thing, and these sort of trade deals may well have some merit, but they need all members to be a part of it—this TPP certainly does, and the US is by far and away the largest member of this TPP 12 nation grouping. So, I mean, unless Donald Trump changes his mind—do you think he will? Do you think this might force his view to change?

Darren Chester: Well it is not for me to second-guess what President-elect Trump may do. It is in Australia's interests to pursue these open trade policies, to pursue these open markets. The TPP is very significant, and I think we are in a position where we can continue to have those conversations with our American friends, just as we will have those conversations with our other trading partners. I'm just surprised that Bill Shorten is giving up on Australian jobs, while we are working very hard to see this TPP ratified because we recognise the benefits it'll provide, not just in our cities, but right throughout regional Australia.

David Speers: Let me ask you, in your portfolio, a lot of Australians are still of course on their summer holidays so we are still seeing what's going to happen with the road toll over this break. How is it tracking at the moment nationally compared to, I suppose, similar points in previous years?

Darren Chester: That's a good question David. Tragically, over the past 12 months, our national road trauma—so deaths and serious injuries—have trended the wrong way after decades of improvements and reductions in road trauma here in Australia. We have had four or five years now where we have started to trend the wrong way. I just simply say to people who are on their break, if they are travelling long distances make sure they take a break, take a rest. There is no hurry to get to where you are going to in that regard. Drive according to the conditions, there will be a lot of traffic on the road, so slow down and drive to the conditions.

Particularly in regional Australia, in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and WA had terrible years in 2016 and I simply don't accept that another 1,300 Australians have to die on our roads this year. I think we have to work as Members of Parliament with our state colleagues, with the police, but also with our communities to continually remind them of each our responsibilities to road safety, but also to make sure that we are investing in those better roads and the better infrastructure that will help to save lives. So, it hasn't been a good 12 months for us, David.

David Speers: Yeah, and what are you putting that down to? Is it that quality or lack of quality of some roads, is it the safety and awareness campaigns, is it young drivers? I mean, what can you put your finger on here as to why we are seeing this?

Darren Chester: I wish it was just a single solution, David, but it is not; it is a complex equation. It is about safer roads, so governments have to take responsibility, maintain good roads and build better roads. It is about safer drivers, so each of us has to take responsibility for that, for driving to the conditions and not being distracted. We have seen the increased penetration of iPhones into the market and people are distracted and are looking at those too much. We're also seeing the issue of safer cars, and I had a lot to say about that just after the Christmas break that if you're in the safest car possible, you're chances of having a crash are reduced but even if you do have a crash—you are unlucky enough to be involved in a crash—the level of injuries will be reduced if you are in a safer car.

So, we need to encourage people to look around, shop around for those five star rated cars. If you are in the market even for a second-hand car, you can get a five star ANCAP-rated vehicle for under $10,000 and it is something that we need to be conscious of. So, it is about safer drivers, safer roads, and safer cars, and we have all got to take it personally. We have all got to take personal responsibility for our safety. As I said before, I don't accept that 1,300 Australians have to die this year and I'll be working very hard with my state colleagues to try and get some downward pressure on that road trauma number.

David Speers: Yeah, alright. We'll keep an eye on that and as you say, you're quite right, put the phone down if you are driving or whoever's driving your car, put the phone down. Darren Chester, Minister for Transport and Infrastructure. Thank you for joining us this afternoon, look forward to talking more through 2017.