Transcript of Interview, ABC 891, Adelaide



25 March 2014

Matthew Abraham: Well, the ink is barely dry on the agreement we haven't seen yet between Jay Weatherill and Geoff Brock to from the Weatherill-Brock Government, and Jamie Briggs has sent a Dear Jay letter to the Premier congratulating him on the recent election victory, and then getting down to business, saying that he wants costings finalised and a proper brief from the state government for the Darlington interchange.

As you know, during the election campaign and during the federal election campaign, this was a very sore point because the state government doesn't believe that that should be the priority, whereas the Federal Government says yes, it should be. It's also a part of the Darlington interchange, a part of South Road that sits in a Federal Liberal seat.

Jamie Briggs, Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development speaking from our Parliament House studio in Canberra. Good morning to you, Minister.

Jamie Briggs: Good morning Matthew, good morning David.

Matthew Abraham: What do you want from the state government, what sort of detail and why the hurry?

Jamie Briggs: Well what we paid for. In December, we paid for a study of Darlington, the Darlington Road upgrade because over the last 18 months there have been at least three different costings for that project. In May 2013, the then Minister, Minister Koutsantonis said it was $1.02 billion cost to upgrade Darlington and then in the federal election campaign standing with the then Minister Albanese he said it was $1.8 billion cost and more recently we've seen in Labor costing documents during the election campaign that it's a $600 million upgrade. So there's a fair bit of confusion around about the exact cost. And if we're to achieve what the Prime Minister said in October last year, which is to upgrade the north-south corridor in a decade, which means doing both the Darlington and Torrens to Torrens projects, we need some firm numbers. And that's why we paid in December for this work to be done by the end of February and we're still yet to see the results of that work.

Matthew Abraham: If they come back to you and say look we want to spend the 600 million as mentioned in the state election campaign, but you take a look at that and say well, no we're not satisfied that will do the job, is that a deal breaker?

Jamie Briggs: We'll work with them, of course. We want to get the projects happening and this letters been ready since last Monday. I was hoping to send it last Monday, if there had of been a clearer result but because of the minority parliament outcome we had to wait until there was some clarity and as soon as there was some clarity the letter was sent. We intend to get the projects delivered. That's what we've said from the time we ran. I mean Tony Abbott will be the infrastructure prime minister because he gets things done, not just announced.

Matthew Abraham: Yeah, but if you're not satisfied that the project that Tom Koutsantonis and Jay Weatherill are settling on, and we've asked for Tom Koutsantonis to come on this morning but he said I'm not going to negotiate over the airways, which I think is a disappointing development frankly, but if they settle on a project and you look at it and think, well no, we're not satisfied it's going to do the job, do you say, ‘well we'll take our money elsewhere?’ Or will you say look, better half a project than none?

Jamie Briggs: No, we want the best value for taxpayers so, of course, given that we're paying for this it's about the only state in the country where we actually pay for planning work to be done, but be that as it may, we want this to be a project which satisfies the productive capacity of the economy we're trying to develop and we're not going to, of course, agree to something which in the judgment of my department and Infrastructure Australia is not value for money.

David Bevan: And you really want the case to stack up for Darlington, is that correct?

Jamie Briggs: Well, it will stack up. We will stack up Darlington and we'll also do Torrens to Torrens but we can't…

David Bevan: Darlington first?

Jamie Briggs: Well, that's the commitment we made at the federal election and we take our election commitments very seriously.

David Bevan: And you know that the state government really want it the other way around?

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, we were happy to talk to them and we have been since October when the Prime Minister said he wanted to do both projects, but we can't talk to them if we can't get the information and that's what we've been saying.

Matthew Abraham: Jamie Briggs, now we also asked to talk about Nyrstar. It emerged in our interview with Geoff Brock and the Premier yesterday that Nyrstar was placed on the bargaining table in who would form government, it appears by Geoff Brock. I know it's not strictly your portfolio but you are the Minister for Regional Development so it's relevant that the new minister, state minister for regional development has concerns about Nyrstar. The state government, he says, has said that it will underwrite the expansion or the upgrade of the Nyrstar smelter at Pirie, if the Federal Government doesn't come to the party. Is there a danger that the Federal Government won't come to the party?

Jamie Briggs: Well, if the state government's going to do it, you have to wonder why we would. If Jay Weatherill has cut that deal, I mean, that seems like the deals done and the federal Government is no longer required. What the federal Government has done, actually since the last government, put in place a process 18 months ago and Minister Emerson at the time wrote to EFIC, which is the Export Finance Insurance Corporation, an independent arm of the Federal Government, and asked it to look at whether it could, in effect, underwrite or provide a cheap loan to Nyrstar for it to upgrade or change the way it operates so it's got a sustainable future.

Now, what the EFIC has been doing in that time is looking at that and they're towards the end of the process, I should say, of doing the due diligence. Now, if the due diligence comes back to EFIC and they say, well, it's a project from the national account of EFIC, which is worthwhile funding or should be funded, then that then goes to Cabinet and a decision is made. Now, what was, I thought, quite disappointing yesterday was a suggestion from the Premier that somehow this was the federal Government who was trying to make this a political issue. Well, far from it. It was Mr Brock; indeed, last week, who was asking Steven Marshall, could he ring and demand that this process be quickened up? And Steven Marshall did the right thing in talking to Geoff Brock and he rang several ministers, including myself, and said is there a way that we can ensure this process is finalised quickly. And we made the point, and Steven Marshall accepted it, which is that there'll be no special deal. We're not a lender of last resort for big corporations, but if it passes the due diligence, of course, it'll be given consideration.

David Bevan: And how much money do you think Nyrstar want from this financial arm of the federal Government, EFIC?

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, my understanding is it's over $300 million that needs to be provided to assist and, I stress, it will be a loan, of course, the terms of a loan is you need to pay them back. But I make the point that if there is a special deal now, to get Mr Brock support to be a member of the Labor Government, then it seems that the federal Government is no longer is required at the table.

Matthew Abraham: Are you just playing hardball there, Jamie Briggs?

Jamie Briggs: No, there's a process still underway. EFIC is independent from us, but if a state government wants to go and underwrite certain companies, it's entitled to do that, but it needs to tell South Australians what it has agreed to.

Matthew Abraham: Just as the Victorian Government did with SPC when the federal Government wouldn't.

Jamie Briggs: Indeed, they did. Well, they provided some additional capital, you're dead right. We said, and we made very clear that this government is not going to be a lender of last resorts, so it is a difficult test for companies to get past, and that's why EFIC is an independent process.

David Bevan: And you're also looking at framing a tough budget. If you can reduce your liabilities by not having EFIC loan Nyrstar $300 million, then that helps your bottom line. Thank you very much, Jay Weatherill.

Jamie Briggs: Well, we need to find out what Jay Weatherill has agreed to. I mean, I think it's reasonable for South Australians to understand exactly what it is, in the sense of transparency, he signed up to when he signed Mr Brock into his Labor Cabinet.

Matthew Abraham: On the flip side, if you'd come back with a more definite answer to Steven Marshall, maybe he would have been able to woo Geoff Brock. Although while those negotiations were taking place, it would appear that Geoff Brock was having pizza with the Premier.

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, they're all matters that you canvassed yesterday, but I think the point that we would clearly make is that this is not a government that's just going to hand out blank cheques to big corporations without good reason. And if Mr Weatherill wants to do that, he can do that, but he should tell South Australians what judgments he's made.

Matthew Abraham: Jamie Briggs, do you agree with your South Australian colleague in the Abbott Government and frontbencher, Chris Pyne that this is now illegitimate government and it will be viewed as such in its dealings with the Commonwealth.

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think the point that Christopher was making is that the government—the Labor Party hasn't received the majority of support of South Australians, either in terms of votes or seats, and they've had to form a minority government with an independent from a conservative seat. And I think we've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well.

Matthew Abraham: Now, you're meant to be dealing with Geoff Brock and on election night when our computer was saying what the result was going to be. 23 – 22 and two independents. Now one of those indpendents, Bob Such, is on the sick list. We were interviewing Geoff Brock and while we were, you wrote a note, and handed it to me and it said ‘God, help us’. Now, what do you mean by that?

Jamie Briggs: What goes on tour, stays on tour, Matthew.

David Bevan: We've kept the note, Minister.

Matthew Abraham: It's on your ministerial letterhead.

Jamie Briggs: Interesting question though, did we ever find the notes that you two wrote about predictions?

David Bevan: No, no, no, they're lost.

Matthew Abraham: Funny that. Seriously, you're meant to be—you're the federal regional development, Minister—you obviously have concerns about Geoff Brock and what he'll bring to the table.

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, I don't know Mr Brock at all but what I do know is what happened in the last minority government federally. And that is if you have a minority government with the support of independents from what are traditionally Liberal held seats, it doesn't end well. Particularly, when it is a long serving government and it is not performing well. And, I think, it would have been on election night—before we knew that Mr Brock would take up a position to join the Labor cabinet—whatever the outcomes was of a hung Parliament, it is not good for South Australia. I don't think minority parliaments work. Minority governments traditionally don't work well, and I think, in the end, for Mr Brock, it was a difficult decision quite obviously and one I think he's made error in.

David Bevan: Do you take any responsibility in allowing Jay Weatherill to run a scare campaign?

Jamie Briggs: One person's scare campaign is another person's information campaign.

David Bevan: But you took a tough line personally on the Holden case. Now that allows Jay Weatherill to come out and say, ‘these people, they are tough, really tough. They are going to cut and they are not going to help you out’. Whether it is housing trust, or jobs, or whatever, he was able to paint the Liberals as a hard mob. Jamie Briggs, do you take any responsibility for that?

Jamie Briggs: Look, I am proudly a member of a government that will fix the books that we were left by the Labor Party. We were left with over $600 billion of Labor debt. I would just say to Mr Weatherill and the Labor Government, they made a lot of promises in the campaign (inaudible). And they'll be judged on that. They've won the election. They ran a hard campaign, there is no question. They created a lot of fear about changing government and it seems to have had some success, there is no doubt about that. Their test now is to be able to deliver on the promises they've made, and what we're going to be interested to see that if there is money there for funding private companies, like Nyrstar, then there should be funding there for building infrastructure, like South Road, and we'd like to see that.

Matthew Abraham: Jamie Briggs, thank you, Minister.

Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development and the Member for Mayo in South Australia.