Transcript ABC Melbourne Mornings

Interview

DCI059/2017

27 June 2017

Subjects: Regional rail funding in Victoria, same-sex marriage plebiscite

Jon Faine: Now, though, to the Federal Government's version of what's gone on with the negotiations with the State Government over, in particular, regional rail. Darren Chester, good morning to you.

Darren Chester: And good morning, Jon. At the risk of earning your wrath, I must point out from the outset that I'm actually the Nationals Minister for Infrastructure and Transport as part of the Coalition—not a Liberal minister. But …

Jon Faine: In the Coalition Government. And thank you for the clarification.

After months of no, no, no, no, no, no, we finally got a yes on Victoria getting, what some regard as part of its share of federal infrastructure investment. What brought about the change of heart from the Federal Government's point of view?

Darren Chester: Well, the fundamental point of difference we had from the outset was we didn't have any detail from Victoria in relation to the $1.4 billion they were after.

Jon Faine: The State Minister this morning has already said that is completely wrong—a furphy. And she says there were chests full of documents provided.

Darren Chester: Well, Jon, I can only tell you what I know and I was given a one and a half page letter from the Premier a couple of months ago requesting this $1.4 billion- well, not requesting $1.4 billion—actually demanding it.

Jon Faine: The letter may be a summary but it's by means the only documentation provided, she said …

Darren Chester: Well I can only tell you what was on my desk, and I got a one and a half page letter, I got no details. So I said to the minister at the time, provide me with more details, let's have a proper conversation about that, once the state Budget's out of the road, once the federal Budget's out the road, let the dust settle, and let's sit down like mature people and work out way through this. And [indistinct] …

Jon Faine: [Talks over] So did you write a letter back to the state minister?

Darren Chester: Yep, and …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] How long was that?

Darren Chester: Oh, goodness knows, mate. That was about two months ago.

Jon Faine: No, how long was the letter?

Darren Chester: Oh, probably two pages.

Jon Faine: So, a one and a half page letter asking for $1.5 billion and then you write a one and a half or a two page letter back saying no. I mean, they could say- this is so childish …

Darren Chester: [Talks over] Well, that's …

Jon Faine: Clearly the State Government have more documentation than one and a half pages.

Darren Chester: Well, at the time of the announcement, which was about two months ago now, I think, that was all that was provided to me, so I said to Jacinta Allan on that day, let's start this conversation once your Budget's released, once our Budget's released—the dust will settle, we'll know exactly how much money's on the table. At that time, there was a billion dollars on the table for Victoria; they wanted more, and so we sat down over this past month in particular, her office have been talking to my office, I've spoken to her on numerous occasions, we've got ourselves a position where there's now money available for this regional rail package. We've got a heap more detail than we had two months ago and the Victorians …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] It was always there, Minister. Don't you want to get re-elected? Don't you want to see Dan Tehan re-elected? Don't you want to see Sarah Henderson in Corangamite re-elected?

Darren Chester: Well, Jon, you're saying it was always there. We're going back over something from a couple of months ago—it wasn't there, I had no detail whatsoever, now I do have the detail. And I couldn't possibly, in all good faith, come on your program a couple of months ago and say yep, mate, I've signed up for $1.4 billion of taxpayers' money on the back of a letter just sent to me by the Premier. Now, I have [indistinct] …

Jon Faine: [Talks over] In February, you were on this program saying you had meetings with Jacinta Allan. I understand those meetings involved huge swags of planning and assessment documents, business cases and the like. There are rooms full of public servants—whole floors of departments working on this stuff—it's not as if the information's not there. To say that that was a reason for the delay is, quite frankly, being misleading to the Victorian public.

Darren Chester: Well, Jon, you're saying that, and with all due respect, you're wrong. I was not provided with the information by the Victorian Government. Let's just wind back a couple of steps here to understand how this relationship is working at the moment. It has been working pretty badly for a couple of years, and it's fair to say there wasn't any trust at all from the Victorian Government in relation to providing us with the information and vice versa. So, what's occurred since that very first announcement is we're now actually working together to deliver these regional rail projects, which will deliver great outcomes for regional rail lines right across the state. Now, I think, you know, it hasn't been a process that people want to watch from the outside, but I tell you, from the inside we've been working very productively over the last month to six weeks to deliver this.

Jon Faine: You said this on AM this morning about the Premier, Daniel Andrews:

[Excerpt]

Darren Chester: The Premier can say what he likes really; just don't particularly care what he says about most things these days. He's completely out of touch with Victorians.

[End of excerpt]

Jon Faine: If indeed you're trying to impress upon the voting public that the Coalition Government, and you from the National Party and your colleagues from the Liberal Party are wanting to get things done, saying that about the Premier's hardly consistent, is it?

Darren Chester: Well, I've had no productive conversations with this Premier in the time I've been the Minister. I've had good, productive conversations with his Treasurer and his Public Transport Minister. I can only say what my relationship's been like with the Premier, and hasn't been terribly productive. Now, you can take exception to it, but we've got a deal done Victoria over these last six weeks, with I think has been good for Victoria—particularly good for regional Victorians. The Prime Minister's made it clear he's ready to do more work in Victoria—we'd like to see more infrastructure investment here in Victoria—and we stand ready to work with the Victorian ministers involved. Now, in terms of the Premier himself …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] Well, let's put that to the test. If indeed the Coalition Government—the Turnbull Government—is so keen to work productively with Victoria- the Prime Minister was here just yesterday in Melbourne—one of his few visits to Victoria—he was here with the Justice Minister Michael Keenan. The media were told to stand by for a major announcement about cooperation between the Federal conservative government and the Victorian Labor Government, and it amounted to one Federal police officer seconded for liaison in a so-called taskforce—a taskforce of one. Are you seriously telling us the Prime Minister and the Justice Minister flew to Melbourne to announce one police officer being seconded? And the Victorian Government and the Minister were not even invited to the press conference.

Darren Chester: Well, Jon, you're asking me about an event yesterday which I don't know much about. I must confess I was tied up in meetings working through this regional rail package yesterday.

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] Two things, if you talked about cooperation, the Victorian Government weren't alerted or invited to the meeting—where's the cooperation there? And it amounts to one Federal policeman.

Darren Chester: Well you're putting to me that they weren't invited, I don't know if they were invited, I've got no …

Jon Faine: [Talks over] I'm telling you they weren't.

Darren Chester: Well you're putting it to me, I've got no idea if they were invited or not. I know the Prime Minister is- you describe him as an infrequent visitor to Melbourne—well I don't believe that you're accurately reflecting his diary, he's in demand around Australia. He's in Melbourne again today doing some work out towards Box Hill, I understand, as well. So I think you're presenting a position in relation to the Prime Minister's schedule which is unfair to him. He is in demand here in Australia and around the world. His time is extraordinarily difficult to secure for a whole variety of reasons; there's pressing concerns at a national security level, international forums he needs to attend. I see him in Melbourne on a regular basis and he's been very supportive with me in my efforts to secure this regional rail funding and, quite frankly, it wouldn't happen without the Prime Minister's support and he certainly has backed me in my judgement that this was the priority the Victorian Government wanted to see progress, and he supported me in that effort and was very instrumental in getting this project through our internal processes, so I think he's been a great friend to Victoria and will continue to be so.

Jon Faine: $30 million allocated to planning for an airport rail link; what's the Commonwealth's interest in that?

Darren Chester: Well our interest in that is we have an international airport linked to one of the great cities in the world—probably the greatest city in the world—and it doesn't have a rail link and we've got …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] Sorry, Melbourne's not the greatest city in the world. You can talk it up as much as you like, but you can't get away with that.

Darren Chester: Well, I'll talk it up and you and I can argue about it. I love coming to Melbourne …

Jon Faine: [Talks over] It is a great city, I love living here. But it's not the greatest city in the world.

Darren Chester: As a country bloke, I think it's a great city and I've argued …

Jon Faine: [Talks over] It's the greatest city in Victoria, I'll give you that.

Darren Chester: [Laughs] Well, people in Bendigo, Ballarat, and Geelong would argue with you on that one. But look, it's a great city and we want to see an airport rail link here in Victoria. The people of Victoria have waited for a long time …

Jon Faine: Do you want to plan it or do you want the State Government to plan it?

Darren Chester: Well the point was, at the start of this year the Victorians weren't interested in doing a Tullamarine rail link of any description so we've said: we think this is actually a priority and we'll put $30 million on the table to get that planning work underway. And I think they've come around on that point. I think they're keen to see that planning work done now. Let's figure out what it is that will deliver the best outcome for, not just people who live in Melbourne, not just people who live in the outer suburbs, but also how it will benefit regional Victorians who want to access Tullamarine as well. So …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] What are the options from your point of view? What do you regard? Heavy rail, light rail, sky rail, mono rail?

Darren Chester: I think all of the above. You've run through the options there. We need to work out first of all, what's the question that we're trying to answer? Is it just about a rail link for the airport or is it to provide another function in terms of linking the outer suburbs as well? We need to devise the question I guess and then work out how we're going to solve the problem.

Now, $30 million is a lot of money for planning and people will say: well, can't you actually get on with it? This is a project that I think will span generations in terms of the benefits will flow for our kids and our grandkids, but we need to get the planning work done. Victoria, I think, has come round on the need for this project. The Victorian public and people I talk to in Melbourne and regional areas are very keen to see a Melbourne airport rail link; I think it's long overdue and I'd love to see the planning works start as soon as possible and let's get moving on this project that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for.

Jon Faine: Christopher Pyne or Tony Abbott?

Darren Chester: In what sense?

Jon Faine: Who's right and who's wrong?

Darren Chester: In what sense?

Jon Faine: Gay marriage.

Darren Chester: Well, I- No, sorry, in terms of our policy, our policy is …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] I love the way that you're pretending not to know what I'm asking you about.

Darren Chester: Well, I wasn't too sure. I mean, these names come up quite a bit in conversation these days.

Jon Faine: [Laughs] Specifically in the last 24 hours!

Darren Chester: Indeed they do, John. Look, the policy we took to the election was that we'd give the Australian people the chance to have their say with the plebiscite. Now, obviously my position I'd made public before that, that I support same-sex marriage; if I get a chance to have a vote as part of that plebiscite, I'll be voting yes.

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] But do you want to circumvent the plebiscite? And clearly Zimmerman and others, in particular Warren Entsch in the Liberal Party- I mean, there are people in your party room now who are determined to avoid the plebiscite and there are people in your party room who are just as determined to insist on the plebiscite. It's completely irreconcilable.

Darren Chester: Well the difficulty we have, Jon, is- [indistinct] you have in Australia right now is trust with our elected representatives and we need to build that trust. Now, Bill Shorten and the Labor Party don't get to choose which promises we keep and which promises we don't keep. Now we made a promise to the Australian people that we'd give them a chance to have their say with the plebiscite. So having made that promise, having been elected—admittedly with only a one seat majority—we've been true to our word in taking it to the Parliament and saying we want to get this plebiscite bill through and give everyone a chance to have their say.

Now, I think it's reasonable to argue the case on the basis of cost. It's reasonable to say that this plebiscite is too expensive and that's a reasonable argument to make. I think it's an unreasonable argument to make saying that Australians aren't capable of having this discussion, having this debate in a civilised way. I mean, we've been having this conversation for a long time already; I think the only fair way to resolve it is through the plebiscite process. And even though I have a personal view that I'd rather see gay marriage allowed in Australia, that's my personal view, but I don't think I need to inflict that opinion on the people of Gippsland who I represent in the Parliament because they have a mixed view.

Jon Faine: So there's little doubt that a conscience vote—if indeed it came to it in the Parliament—would get through both the lower and the upper house, agreed?

Darren Chester: I think you're right in your estimation there …

Jon Faine: [Talks over] Okay, in which case the plebiscite is the last chance of those who want to stop gay marriage and that's why they're clinging to it; is it not?

Darren Chester: Well I don't think I'd- I wouldn't apply that motive the way you've described it.

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] Well it's as simple as that. The conscience vote would work, so if we're going to stop it we have to avoid a conscience vote—say Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz and Tony Abbott to each other and to their supporters—so let's put all our hopes in a plebiscite.

Darren Chester: But I don't think your estimation on numbers—and I don't think we can be absolutely adamant on that point—the difficulty we have, Jon, is we took a position to the Australian people saying they'd have a chance to have their say. Now, it's Bill Shorten and the Labor Party who don't trust Australians to have their say and I think they should get out of the way and let Australians vote on this. What we'll then see is—are the polls right? You know, all these opinion polls saying that there's a clear majority of support-

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] You're not worried about the hate speech and other things, and the bullying and the homophobia that will erupt ,on the advice of all the people who advise and counsel, in particular, gay teenagers and the like, saying this is going to be ghastly and it will have a terrible toll attached to it?

Darren Chester: [Talks over] Jon, I am certainly conscious of that concern, but at the same time I have a, perhaps, more positive and optimistic view of the Australian people that we can have tough debates on difficult issues where people have strong opinions and not descend into name-calling and bullying. The bottom line is, Jon, we took a position to the Australian people at the last election, we need to build trust with people that when we say we're going to do something, that's what we do and that's what we're trying to achieve through having that plebiscite bill. I think the Australian people are more than capable of having a debate on this issue, expressing their opinion and getting on with it. To be honest, Jon, there's other issues in Australian life right now that people are raising with me more frequently than this issue: people are very concerned about economic outlooks and jobs in regional communities; they're talking to me about roads and rail and airport infrastructure—they're the issues they've raised with me on a daily basis. This is not an issue that comes up much in conversation, I must admit, as I travel around Australia but I think we do need to deal with it.

Jon Faine: Text messages galore for you but one of which I'll ask you for a response to. Keeping promises? This is the Government that tried to force Daniel Andrews, once elected, to break his promise on the East-West; so you can't have it both ways.

Darren Chester: That's a great question and I think it's fair to say that when I inherited this position last year—about 18 months ago—we were in a stalemate over the East-West Link money. There was $1.5 billion of federal money sitting in a bank account they couldn't use and what we've been able to do—and Prime Minister Turnbull helped me achieve this—is unlock that $1.5 billion and we got a deal done last year and Victoria matched it. That $3 billion worth of work is rolling out now, just as we've managed to get a deal done today in relation to regional rail. Malcolm Turnbull as a Prime Minister has been very pragmatic in supporting me in my efforts to see more infrastructure spending here in Victoria and as much as possible, we need to work with the Victorians to achieve the projects they want.

Now, in relation to the East-West Link, tragically $1 billion of Victorian money was spent to not build a road and that still hurts the people of Victoria.

Jon Faine: It certainly does. Thank you very much, Minister.

Darren Chester: Thank you, all the best.

Jon Faine: We've heard from your state counterpart and now also Darren Chester, the Nationals Minister in the Coalition Government for Infrastructure and Transport.