ABC Radio Melbourne, Mornings
13 November 2017
Subjects: Citizenship, same-sex marriage.
Jon Faine: Darren Chester is a senior Victorian Minister in the Government, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and acting in Regional Development and Local Government and Territories as well. He is also one of those rare birds. He is a link between the bush and the Coalition leadership. Darren Chester, good morning to you.
Darren Chester: Good morning, Jon.
Jon Faine: Barnaby Joyce fighting a by-election, John Alexander resigning over the weekend and any number of other MPs with a cloud over their head. The Prime Minister can't take a trick at the moment. Where is the circuit breaker going to come from?
Darren Chester: Well, to be blunt, Jon, when you look at the past monthly media coverage on issues around citizenship, it is probably surprising that our numbers aren't even lower in the Newspoll this morning. I mean I had to ring my mum this morning to make sure she was still voting for me, Jon. Look, we have got to keep focus on delivering everything that we said we would deliver at the last election. We have got to deal with the citizenship issue, we have got to deal with the same-sex marriage postal vote when the result comes through this week. We have got to stay focused on things that actually matter to people like national security and supporting jobs growth and in my own portfolio it is about infrastructure, about things we said we would build. We have got a lot of work going on right around Australia, but while we have this issue hanging around it is going to be an oxygen thief of an issue for us when we have these media discussions with people like yourself.
Jon Faine: I don't doubt the bad luck of the Prime Minister, I don't query that for a moment, but how you deal with the hand that you have got is what it is all about. I think it's not fair to criticise the Prime Minister for the section 44 situation, but it is fair to criticise the Prime Minister for the way he has managed the challenges of the section 44 situation.
Darren Chester: Look, I think you are right to some extent. The Prime Minister is cleaning up a mess which has affected both houses of Parliament and these are legacy issues. These are people who nominated for Parliament in some cases more than 10 years ago and have fallen foul of section 44. Now, what the Prime Minister has done though in the last 10 days has announced a process to ensure a full transparency and disclosure of parliamentarians and their individual citizenship status. Now…
Jon Faine: But if we go back at the start when the Prime Minister stood up on the dispatch box and said, look, I am confident the High Court will do whatever it was, in his view, almost sure to do and he was wrong and there was no plan B. From that moment on, this has been running away from your party, has it not?
Darren Chester: Well I think it is running away from the Parliament in general though, Jon. We are talking about people coming forward now raising issues, or concerns being raised about Members obviously from the Greens, from the National Party, from One Nation, there is a question mark over some Labor Members, there is obviously John Alexander. I mean John Alexander is a person who played tennis for Australia. In most people's minds he is pretty well straight forward as an Australian citizen and it has probably come as a heck of a surprise to him that he has fallen foul of the issue as well now.
From the people I talk to Jon, I have got to say when I am out—and I have travelled a lot in the last 10 days—when I am out there in the communities they do make a joke about my citizenship first of all. Just checking mate, where were you born, where was your mum and dad born, and then they get straight down to business. They want to talk about mobile phone coverage or making sure we are getting better and safer roads for them or what we are doing to support regional development and jobs and security. All of those issues are actually at the front of their mind. The Australian people are pretty frustrated by this debate. They think, really we have got to sort this out guys. Quickly, sort it out and let's get on with the job of doing what you are elected to do.
Jon Faine: So you no longer enjoy a guaranteed majority on the floor of the Parliament. We contacted Cathy McGowan, the Independent from Indi in Northern Victoria, and she said I have got no further comment to make in addition to what I said last week about guaranteeing the Government confidence and supply, but I am watching with interest and you are just hanging in there by a thread at the moment. It only takes the slightest bit of bad news and the Government will lose a vote on the floor of the Parliament and get thrown out according to conventional political.
Darren Chester: Well, I think you are going a lot more steps down the path than I am prepared to go with you on this one, Jon. I mean we have a majority Government still. Keep in mind the whole Gillard Government was a minority Government from start to finish. Now, we still have a majority on the floor of the House of Reps. We have got two by-elections to work through now. Obviously the New England one with Barnaby Joyce, I think they go to the polls on 2 December and we think he is going to go very well there.
John Alexander, there hasn't been a date declared for the Bennelong by-election, but John is a very strong local member. There are going to be questions raised, I think, about several other Members of Parliament. There are a few Labor MPs who now have acknowledged they had not renounced their citizenship at the time of their nomination, so that is going to have to be sorted out, and Bill Shorten really has to come up front with the Australian people and say what he is going to do in terms of clarifying those issues for his own members…
Jon Faine: You are all at each other's throats over same-sex marriage. You have got Senator Patterson, the former IPA operative suggesting a free speech same-sex marriage religious freedom omnibus bill as a Private Members Bill this morning.
Darren Chester: Let's be fair to the Prime Minster on this one, Jon. He took a position to the Australian people in the last election to have a plebiscite, and Labor stopped it from happening. So he went ahead with a postal vote, because he wanted to keep his promise to the Australian people to let people have their say. Now, we were ridiculed for that, and people said: oh, no-one will vote, it will be a disaster. As I understand it, in the order of 80 per cent of Australians have voted in this same-sex marriage postal vote. We will get the results on Wednesday this week. I think there will be a resounding majority, we will just wait and see…
Jon Faine: And it threatens to split your party, so back to Senator Patterson's Bill this morning. He has been a staunch campaigner on Section 18C from the day he arrived in the Parliament and before then at the IPA. He is sensing an opportunity here to get the 18C amendments and free speech protections he has long advocated through the vehicle of a religious and free speech protection omnibus bill on the same-sex marriage issue. Are you going to back that?
Darren Chester: Let's wait until we see the result of the postal vote on Wednesday and as I said, I think it will be a strong majority. I mean I have no doubt there will be a couple of different bills come forward from Members, individual Members. Not by the Government or the Opposition itself, but by individual Members and Senators, and we will have the chance to vote on those in the next few weeks. But you know, I think the vote is going to be strong, it is going to be compelling, and that Members and Senators should reflect on that before they go too much further down the path of drafting bills. Let's see what the Australian people had to say on this issue, because we give them the respect of having their vote and having their say, and you had better respect it on the floor of the Parliament.
Jon Faine: Couple of other quick things, if I may, please, Darren Chester. I don't know if you had the chance to hear Christopher Pyne being interviewed on AM at 8 o'clock this morning. Never heard Christopher Pyne sounding so flat before.
Darren Chester: Well, I didn't hear him and I have never heard Christopher sound flat. So I will have to play that tape and listen to it myself. He is an eternal optimist and a relentlessly positive person, and that is what we have got to be. I mean, we are in Government to do a job and no-one is suggesting that we haven't delivered on the things we took to the last election. The events that have occurred over the last couple of months haven't been of our making. We are not very happy about them, but we are dealing with them. I mean as I said at the outset, these are legacy issues, some of them date back more than 10 years. We have to resolve them because the Australian people are frankly sick of reading about people's citizenship status. They just want us to get on with the job and focus on them and focus on issues that matter, like job security, like energy, like better infrastructure, like national security…
Jon Faine: And that is what's not happening. So does the Prime Minister still have the numbers within your party room, do you think? There is some speculation from some of the columnists in the papers this morning who say that he no longer does.
Darren Chester: You will excuse my frustration, Jon, on those types of questions because that is exactly what the public is sick of hearing about. They are sick of hearing about speculation about nothing. There is no-one…
Jon Faine: Well, the front page of one of the papers is openly saying Julie Bishop now has more support and is preferred. Tony Abbott still only has a tiny handful of votes, and people are looking at alternatives.
Darren Chester: On a Newspoll, they throw names into the ring and say: who is more popular on a particular poll. Your question is about within the party room, and I would say that Malcolm Turnbull has great support in the Liberal Party room. He certainly has support across the Coalition. We are working to try and resolve these issues, and I think the speculation that goes on now is complete rubbish. We have got to back the boss, back the captain of the team, help him get the show back on the way, functioning, that the Australian people will appreciate, and keep on delivering everything we said we would do at the last election. Now, that is our challenge. That is my challenge, as a Minister and a local Member for Parliament, is to focus on my portfolio and keep on delivering. These other issues which are obviously taking up a lot of media time—and I understand why—these aren't the issues that when I talk to people in regional Australia, they are particularly worried about.
Jon Faine: Thank you indeed for your time on all of those topics. A difficult week, I am grateful to you.