Radio National Drive

Interview

DCI073/2017

15 August 2017

Subjects: Citizenship of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, media reform laws

Patricia Karvelas: Darren Chester is the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. He is also a Nationals MP. He joins us now.

Welcome to RN Drive.

Darren Chester: Good evening, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: So, Barnaby Joyce has confirmed this afternoon that he's no longer a New Zealand citizen. Doesn't this prove he held the citizenship at the last election and that he is therefore ineligible under the Constitution to be sitting?

Darren Chester: Well, let's go right back to the days leading up to this where Barnaby Joyce became aware that there was a question mark over his citizenship. Obviously, it came as a shock to Barnaby. He was born in Tamworth 50 years ago and spent all of his life in Australia. It's hard to imagine anyone more Australian than Barnaby Joyce, from the soles of R.M. William boots right to the top of his Akubra hat. He's clearly an Australian citizen, and this question mark over whether he had some level of dual citizenship only came to pass in the last few days. And he's …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] That's not true, because I actually interviewed him two weeks ago and raised it with him, and said that there's this issue around his dual citizenship. I put this question to him, and he said it's up to other people to raise it. Shouldn't he at that point have made some calls, investigations? Because it wasn't just in the last few days. As I say, it was a couple of weeks ago.

Darren Chester: Well, we're splitting hairs, I think, a little bit, Patricia, but I understood that he became aware in the middle of last week that there were some questions about his citizenship. He's a fifth generation Australian on his mother's side, and his father served in the New Zealand Army and came to Australia in the best part of 60-odd years ago to study to become a veterinarian. So, Barnaby had neither applied or his parents hadn't applied to register him as a New Zealand citizen. He had no reason to believe he was a New Zealand citizen, and the Government, having become aware of this issue, took independent legal advice from the Solicitor-General, and on the basis of that advice, the Government was of the view and remains of the view that Barnaby can continue to serve as the Member for New England, and the Prime Minister has absolute confidence and faith in the Deputy Prime Minister continuing in that role and his various ministerial responsibilities. So, we are very confident in the legal advice provided by the Solicitor-General.

Patricia Karvelas: I'm going to read this quote to you. “I think you have just got to do your homework and make sure you're not a citizen of two countries when you stand for Parliament. Ignorance is not an excuse.” That's Barnaby Joyce from a few weeks ago. He actually said it on RN Drive when he was my guest a couple of weeks ago before this happened. No excuse, he says. Why didn't he do his homework?

Darren Chester: Well, the question I think most Australians are probably asking is how is it that when you're born in Australia—and that makes you obviously an Australian citizen by birth—but by virtue of a foreign law you can achieve citizenship by descent, unknown to the individual involved. Now, the intention …

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Sure, but all he had to do was do his homework, and he didn't do his homework, did he?

Darren Chester: But the intention of the Section 44 of the Constitution, as I understand it, is it's intended to prevent a conflict of interest or a Member of Parliament perhaps having a split loyalty, but how can you possibly have a split loyalty if you don't even know you hold a foreign citizenship? So, I think it's the appropriate course of action by the Government to refer this issue to the High Court, and I think it was also an appropriate course of action by the Prime Minister to invite the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten to make any references he'd like to make in relation to some of his colleagues who have some question marks above their heads right now as well. They haven't provided documented evidence about their citizenship status, and I think Labor does have some questions to answer, and I think it would be appropriate for Mr Shorten to refer some of those MPs who have those question marks hanging over them, just to provide some absolute clarity to ensure that the Australian people have trust in the system and recognise that everyone is, if you like, tidied up the situation which has become quite a difficult one for Members on both sides of the House.

Patricia Karvelas: Perhaps your biggest understatement so far. It's become quite an issue. Quite an issue. The Deputy Prime Minister embroiled in it. Let's get to the Foreign Minister and what she did today. I mean, she made pretty alarming claims about the potential relationship between Australia and New Zealand if there was a Labour Government in New Zealand. She didn't actually ask the Labour Party in New Zealand about their involvement in this. Should she have made this accusation before having the proper evidence to back it up?

Darren Chester: Well, I'm not sure what evidence the Foreign Minister had, but these are serious issues when you have- just been confirmed by the Shadow Attorney-General on your program—that a Labor staffer from Senator Wong's office is in the middle of this. They're up to their necks in this. They're prompting questions from the Labour Party in New Zealand to be asked which involve, basically, a conspiracy against a Member of Parliament of the Australian Government. So, these are genuine issues that need to be resolved. I, for one …

Patricia Karvelas: She overreached, didn't she? She can't question one of our closest allies like that. That wasn't appropriate, was it?

Darren Chester: Well, what I was about to say, Patricia: I, for one, believe our relationship with New Zealand—which is historically incredibly strong, and our men and women have fought side by side through countless battles, most famously the ANZACs—the relationship is remarkably strong, but the point being made by many in this place today is what is Bill Shorten doing sanctioning this type of behaviour? You don't get a foreign government involved in domestic politics here in Australia, and I think Bill Shorten has a lot of questions to answer. What did he know and when did he know it, and why wasn't he just simply asking questions of the relevant Members of Parliament, in our own Parliament here in Australia, rather than plotting behind the scenes? And I think it goes to Bill Shorten's character. He is a master of the dark arts.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Well, you say that …

Darren Chester: He plotted behind the scenes for Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and he's plotting behind the scenes again. He'll do anything to get into power, and it's really disappointing.

Patricia Karvelas: I just heard Greg Sheridan, foreign affairs editor for The Australian on Sky saying this is pretty normal, you'd expect- that's what politicians do. I mean, asking questions: it's not treason or treachery.

Darren Chester: I've never done it, Patricia. I've never done it and I have no intention of doing it.

Patricia Karvelas: You might not have had a reason to yet. You're saying that you never do any work on your political opponents; I'd find that hard to believe. I mean, that's pretty standard behaviour, isn't it, in politics?

Darren Chester: I wouldn't be calling Members of Parliament of a foreign nation and asking them to get involved in some level of conspiracy to try and undo the parliamentary career of an Australian Member of Parliament, and I think Bill Shorten needs to come clean. What do you know, when did he know it, did he sanction this behaviour? I know he's a master of the dark arts …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] No, but you heard—one minute, I have to take up on this. You heard Mark Dreyfus' argument, and the argument being this: Barnaby Joyce is the one that may not be eligible to be sitting in the Australian Parliament.

Darren Chester: So ask him a question in Question Time.

Patricia Karvelas: You're trying to turn it around and blame the process …

Darren Chester: So ask him a question in Question Time, Patricia. Ask him a question in Question Time.

Patricia Karvelas: You're trying to blame the process.

Darren Chester: Well, the process in Australia …

Patricia Karvelas: The reality is still the reality though, isn't it? Which is that he was a dual citizen.

Darren Chester: If you have doubts about a Member of Parliament in any shape or form in Australia you have the opportunity in the House of Representatives—if that Member is a Member of the House of Representatives, particularly when he's a Minister—to ask him a direct question. You don't need to go around plotting behind the scenes. That's Bill Shorten's way, and quite frankly, I think the Australian people have had an absolute gutful of politicians sneaking around behind the scenes in the way the Labor Party appears to have done in this case.

Patricia Karvelas: Bob Katter will no longer guarantee supply for his vote to the Government while the issue is being sorted. He spoke to Sky News earlier today and had this assessment of the Government's handling of all of this.

[Excerpt]

Bob Katter: Let me quote Malcolm Turnbull. They have to go. They've breached the law. They have to go. Well, that's the law, until we hit three- one Government supporter and two Government Members, and then the law changes. Malcolm- well, your position is totally untenable, Malcolm. The whole of Australia is laughing at you. And in politics, you want to think about it before you shoot your mouth off and take a position, because that position now makes you look like a towering hypocrite.

[End of excerpt]

Patricia Karvelas: If there is a by-election, and given the strength of his comments there, will you have to concede to his political desires to maintain the balance of powers? I'm thinking, for instance, about a Royal Commission into the banks.

Darren Chester: Well, you're going a long way past any of those considerations, Patricia. I mean, we've taken legal advice from the Solicitor-General and not from the Member for Kennedy, with all due respect, and given the strength of that legal advice, the Government has concluded and the Prime Minister has concluded that the Deputy Prime Minister should remain in his position, that under the operation of Section 44 of the Constitution, we believe he will be found to be eligible to continue as the Member for New England. So, you're proposing a whole chain of events where the High Court considers this issue and then it goes on to being an issue of a by-election, which is a long, long way down the track, and quite personally, I haven't even cast my mind to it.

Patricia Karvelas: Just one final question on the media reforms, and I know this isn't your area, but it's pretty significant. One Nation say they will back the Government's media reforms and that the Government has also agreed to undertake a competitive neutrality inquiry into the ABC, and to legislate a requirement for the ABC to be fair and balanced; also more regional representation on the board, I understand. What do you make of these changes? Why are they necessary? Because the ABC already is under an obligation to be fair and balanced.

Darren Chester: Well, it's a good question, Patricia. I mean, there's a lot of people in Australia who don't believe the ABC achieves that—being fair and balanced. I must say, from my experience as a regional Member of Parliament I've had nothing but positive dealings with the ABC in regional Australia. I have to say from time to time I question the impartiality of some of the coverage that emanates out of Sydney and Melbourne, with all due respect to yourself. I'm not casting aspersions on anyone in particular, I just believe that there's a …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] No, because you love my program, don't you, Darren Chester?

Darren Chester: I love your program, Patricia, and you always give me a fair grilling and I deserve it, and I cop what I get. But in terms of media reform, the point is the laws that were put in place were almost, become prehistoric in the sense that media has moved so quickly with the various platforms that people can access news and entertainment from now. So, the Government's position was to endeavour to bring those media laws into the 21st century, and recognise that to have a strong and vibrant media industry we need to make sure they are viable on the bottom line as well. So, it's been quite a large reform package, and I want to congratulate the Minister Mitch Fifield for the work he's been able to do in that regard. But, as you know, in the Senate you have to negotiate as well, and the crossbenchers had some additional things they wanted to add to that reform bill, and they're being negotiated as we speak here in the Senate.

Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for your time, Darren.

Darren Chester: Appreciate your time.

Patricia Karvelas: Darren Chester there. He's the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. He's also the Nationals Member for Gippsland, and if you're ever in Victoria, Gippsland is a beautiful place. Just a bit of tourism talk there, too.