ABC VIC Statewide Drive

Interview

DCI076/2017

18 August 2017

Subjects: Citizenship, National security, Barcelona attack.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester is the Infrastructure Minister and the Nats Member for Gippsland. Darren Chester, good afternoon.

Darren Chester: Good afternoon, Nicole.

Nicole Chvastek: It's looking shambolic, Darren Chester, from voter land.

Darren Chester: Well, I'd have to say from the outside looking in it would look very untidy this week. We have had a bad week in terms of the dual citizenship story surrounding our leadership team, and I can understand why people would say it hasn't been a great week for the Nationals. I can only acknowledge that we are going to need to do better in terms of the early vetting processes of our candidates; making sure there's a full appreciation of the citizenship standards that are set by other nations.

It is a strange situation though, Nicole. I mean, you have got a situation where a person can be born in Australia–which obviously makes you an Australian citizen by birth–and then by no action on your own behalf, another country can actually grant you citizenship, which creates some issues around Section 44 of the Constitution. So, I guess we have all learned a pretty tough lesson this week in terms of how the dual citizenship laws apply from other countries imposing that citizenship upon Australians, sometimes without their knowledge.

Nicole Chvastek: Nonetheless, it is up to your party administration to do the due diligence.

James Massola writes: what the hell is going on with the Nationals? Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, the leader and the deputy, plus rising star Matt Canavan, and Barry O'Sullivan also facing questions over family business dealings with the Commonwealth. Is anyone checking the forms in the Nationals headquarters? Does anyone do due diligence? What sort of Mickey Mouse operation are they running? Because the net result is this; Malcolm Turnbull has endured perhaps the worst week of his Prime Ministership, and the junior Coalition Party, which holds them over a barrel on issues like same-sex marriage, is to blame.

Darren Chester: I think that is a fair roasting from James Massola and in some aspects of that I would have to say we deserve a bit of a clip behind the ears. When we are talking about administrative errors in the sense that this issue around citizenship, which I don't know that everyone fully understands, is that people who are born in Australia can actually have a citizenship imposed on them, and they may not well be aware of it. That's why Barnaby Joyce has referred his issue to the High Court, and why Fiona Nash has done the same thing: to seek some clarification on that very point.

Now, the whole point of the Section 44 of the Constitution is around making sure people who become elected to Parliament don't have a conflict of interest or have a split loyalty, which does beg the question: how can you possibly have a split loyalty to another country if you didn't even know you had that foreign citizenship in the first place?

So, I mean it is an issue that has caused a degree of distraction in the Parliament, and I accept that, and from a Member of a party which has been around now for the best part of 100 years. We have a rich and a proud history, and I'm sure we'll have great future as well–but in terms of how we manage the nomination form for candidates, we need to make sure in the future that candidates are fully aware of how the citizenship laws apply, and what impact that may have in terms of the Constitution.

Nicole Chvastek: Do you think that Barnaby Joyce will lose his seat, lose his eligibility to stand in the Federal Parliament?

Darren Chester: Well, I'm not a constitutional lawyer, but I have received the same advice that the Prime Minister's referred to, in that the Solicitor-General gave advice to the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet that Barnaby has a very strong case to retain his seat as the Member for New England, and he'll be deemed eligible to continue in that role. So, that is a question for the High Court, and I couldn't possibly prejudge that, but we believe we have a very strong case, particularly given the circumstances, where Barnaby was born in Australia 50 years ago, his mum's a fifth generation Tamworth resident, and his father–who fought for New Zealand in World War Two, I understand–moved to Australia to study as a vet in, I think, 1947. Up until that date, Nicole, it is important to remember we were all subjects of the British Empire. We were all British citizens. It's only this concept of New Zealand citizenship or Australian citizenship came in years later. So, it is a complex area, and it's one that I think deserves some clarity. I actually believe there are some members on the other side of the chamber who have some questions which they may need to clarify with the High Court as well around their citizenship status. So it is messy, but it's a bit of a lesson I think for everyone involved in politics to get a full understanding of how these laws of dual citizenship actually apply.

Nicole Chvastek: Malcolm Turnbull must be furious with you. He's holding on by just one seat, and at the moment he looks like the circus plate-spinning juggling act waiting for one to drop and smash real soon.

Darren Chester: Well, it has been a tough week. I don't shy away from that, Nicole. I'd have to give some level of reassurance though that while Question Time has looked very messy, and lots of arguments across both sides of the House, you go back to your office–and my role as Minister of Infrastructure and Transport–it's very much the same work. We're getting on with the job of delivering the infrastructure we promised, and the announcement only a couple weeks ago of the regional rail package, a great package Victoria, record roads funding. My staff are working every day and I am working every day on those issues. So while it does look untidy when you see Question Time, a lot of yelling, a lot of shouting, back in the ministerial offices it is business as usual. We're getting on with the job. But I accept that it hasn't been a great week for the Government, and we need to do better.

Nicole Chvastek: What did you think of George Brandis's emotional outburst yesterday when Pauline Hanson walked into the Senate wearing a burqa?

Darren Chester: Well, I wouldn't have described George's comments as an outburst. He was asked a question. I think he responded quite magnificently in that he made what I think was a very valid point. I think this is a regrettable stunt by the One Nation leader. We rely very heavily on working with the half million people of Muslim faith in our nation who are determined to get on with their lives and live good lives here in Australia. We work very closely with them to make sure that the tiny minority who seek to do harm in the community, that they provide information on those who have run off the rails. So our security and our intelligence agencies work with those communities all the time to make sure that we can keep a track on anyone who may be seeking to cause us harm, and there's nothing to be achieved by playing up divisions in our community. I think the senator from One Nation should have a good hard look at herself in terms of how she came to make that decision, thinking that was a good idea. It is a potential to send the wrong message to the community, and I think there are other more constructive ways she could deal with the issues that she may have had with regards to wearing that particular garment.

Nicole Chvastek: If Barnaby Joyce is deemed ineligible to be sitting in the Federal Parliament, will you become Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Darren Chester?

Darren Chester: Oh, Nicole. We have already had one Steven Bradbury in Australian history. You think if everyone falls over in front of me I might sneak across the line?

Nicole Chvastek: Well, you might. You might, Darren Chester…

Darren Chester: No.

Nicole Chvastek: There are three now who have gone. You might be the last man standing.

Darren Chester: Look, I appreciate your enthusiasm. Look, we have a…

Nicole Chvastek: Would you like to be the Deputy Prime Minister, Darren Chester?

Darren Chester: I have the best leader in Federal Parliament and we have a great leadership team, and I accept that we haven't had a great week in terms of the issue of dual citizenship, but we have a great leadership team in Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash and I support them 110 per cent. I already have the best job in Parliament. The Infrastructure and Transport Minister gets to build stuff right around Australia, really making a difference in people's lives. I love the job I've got, and I'm very happy with what I'm doing.

Nicole Chvastek: I'm speaking to Darren Chester, who is the Nats member for Gippsland and the Minister for Infrastructure.

Darren Chester, horrific news coming out of Barcelona today of a terror attack. A Sydney woman was separated from her seven year old son, who remains unaccounted for. What is the reaction of your Government?

Darren Chester: The Prime Minister has made statements and I understand the Foreign Minister as well. It is just horrific scenes we are seeing on our televisions again coming from Barcelona. It is quite chilling, the footage, and obviously we condemn the attack, and our thoughts and our prayers are with those who have already lost loved ones or have someone missing in the aftermath. We hope that those who have been injured can recover, but obviously, some people are going to be maimed for life, and this has had an enormous impact already, and the ripples of that will spread throughout the world. So, it's another tragic event, and it's one that we obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms, and we must redouble our efforts to keep our own country safe.

Nicole Chvastek: A seven year old boy, Darren Chester.

Darren Chester: Well, it's just horrific, Nicole. Those of us who are lucky enough to be parents and have the opportunity to see our children grow up, it is just horrific to think a young fellow like that is missing and we can't begin to imagine the pain for their family. But as I said, it means that for people like myself in the role that we have, we have just got to redouble our efforts to keep our community safe. Our best defence against terrorism is being vigilant ourselves and being aware of our own environment, if we need to be alert to any strange or unusual behaviour and report suspicions of any unusual activity to police. Then from a transport response, we need to strengthen up our defence around areas of mass transit where people are gathering. It's a sad part of reality in 2017 that we have to do things like put bollards in public places to prevent such an opportunistic attack here in Australia, but it's a sad reality we have to do that, that there are some people who seek to do us harm. But at this stage, all we can do is hope and pray for those who have been injured, and our thoughts go out to the families and their loved ones.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, thank you.

Darren Chester: Appreciate your time Nicole.