Transcript of Interview: Sky News Viewpoint with Chris Kenny



08 February 2015


Chris Kenny: Jamie Briggs, thanks for joining us Jamie.

Jamie Briggs: Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris Kenny: Look just 16 months ago, Tony Abbott promised a government that would be adult and would provide no surprises. He's failed, hasn't he?

Jamie Briggs: Well, it's not the best time for the Government. We haven't had the best couple of months and there are obviously people who are unhappy with the direction or how the last few months have played out. The political difficulties have been reflected by some of my colleagues taking this course of action. Now, the reality is the policy challenges that the country faces are still there tomorrow no matter what direction some of my colleagues want to take. No matter who is the prime minister, no matter who are in the senior positions in cabinet or in the ministry, we are facing a significant challenge with a budget which is heavily in deficit at a time when revenue sources are drying up. Our choices aren't easy.

Chris Kenny: Yeah, I want to come back to that policy—I want to come back to those policy challenges in a moment but when you look at the two cardinal sins from Labor that you as a government and Tony Abbott as prime minister had to avoid, surely they were broken promises and leadership disunity and now he's got himself caught up in both.

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, the reality when we came to government was that things were a lot tougher than what we were let on. The deficit was a lot higher than what we were let on. And if you look at what we did last year we actually did deliver a vast bulk of what we'd promised we'd do. We said we'd stop the boats from arriving and they've been stopped. We said we'd get rid of the taxes and even with a difficult Senate we got rid of the carbon and mining tax. We said we'd get on with infrastructure and we've been at sod turns this year already with new infrastructure projects funded out of last budget, Bringelly Road as part of the western Sydney package. We made a decision on the second Sydney airport. We are getting on with those key policies but….

Chris Kenny: [Talks over] But if Tony Abbott can't even keep his whole—the entirety of his party room behind him how can he keep the public behind him?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think he can keep the entirety of his party room behind him but unlike the Labor Party we have a free…

Chris Kenny: What, the spill motion vote won't get one vote tomorrow. We know the spill motion's going to be supported by some. I've suggested if there's as many as 30 MPs support the spill motion that will be a mortal blow to Tony Abbott. What do you think is the maximum number of votes for a spill that the Prime Minister could survive?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I don't think the spill motion will get much support tomorrow morning but that's not to say that I disrespect at all the colleagues who are pursuing this course of action, I just think that they're wrong…

Chris Kenny: [Talks over] What's the maximum number of votes for a spill that the Prime Minister could sustain without his leadership being mortally wounded?

Jamie Briggs: Well, thankfully I'm a participant Chris and you're a commentator and I think you're quite good at commentating. I'll let you and others make those judgements…

Chris Kenny: So you're happy with 30? You think Tony Abbott has to keep the number of dissenters, the number of those voting for a spill below 30 then?

Jamie Briggs: No, I think what we'll do tomorrow morning is we'll have a vote in the party room on the spill motion and it will be heavily defeated. Then we'll get together and we'll talk about the issues that people are finding difficult politically and we'll work them through. But I make this point. The challenges that we've got as a country with the budget that we were left by Labor, with an ageing population, they remain tomorrow no matter the outcome of this vote. The policy positions, the direction we've been taking to fix the budget, the choices remain tomorrow. None of these things are easy. We're not in the time where we've got increasing revenue through high commodity prices. We've got a lessening commodity price and we've got an ageing population. These are hard choices.

Chris Kenny: Again, I want to come back to those hard choices but in terms of the vote tomorrow you say that as an assistant minister, of course, you're locked in behind the Prime Minister. We've heard a lot of talk over the past few days that the Prime Minister should be able to count on the 35 votes of his ministry, yet just tonight in an interview on the ABC he said to quote; that it's entirely up to ministers and parliamentary secretaries how they vote. Do you see that as him giving license to all of these ministry and parliamentary secretaries to vote for a spill if they want to?

Jamie Briggs: No, but I think he's just pointing out what is the reality. It's a secret ballot. You know we don't have a right and show sort of approach in the Liberal Party. We're not told by factional heavies on what position we need to take but [indistinct]…

Chris Kenny: [Talks over] But on contrary the Prime Minister says…

Jamie Briggs: …what is the reasonable expectation as a minister.

Chris Kenny: The Prime Minister says it's entirely up to ministers to do this and he would expect that they should do whatever they believe is—what they genuinely believe is best for the party and the Government, so he has actually gone out of his way to give them license to vote for a spill.

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think that's an interpretation. I think what he's done is pointed out the bleeding obvious which people are entitled to in a secret ballot to vote how they wish, but I think there is an obligation on people in a ministry as part of a government that if you're unhappy about the direction of the government to the extent that you think the leadership should be spilled, then it's probably time to think about whether you want to [indistinct]. That's just a view that I've had. I know in the previous government people like Chris Bowen thought it was okay to be a member of a cabinet and be part of a hit squad trying to undermine a prime minister. I don't think that's right.

Chris Kenny: Okay, we won't re-run Labor's leadership spills just now. Now you're a South Australian MP, a South Australian minister, of course the submarine deal has been a big issue in that state, bigger there than anywhere else. Sean Edwards a Liberal senator from South Australia has extracted a promise from the Prime Minister today, something he's been after for a long while, something South Australia's been talking about for a long while and the Labor Party that the Australian Submarine Corporation should get the chance to bid for whatever replacement submarine programs are put up, yet Tony Abbott has caved in to that demand today in the context of trading for votes on this spill. Is that not an act of absolute desperation?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think it's an interpretation from Senator Edwards, who's a good friend of mine. I've known Sean for a long time and I do note that he's got a preselection for his Senate position up later this year. I suspect that's an interpretation because the truth is this has been the position for some time. We've said for some time that there'll be an open look around the world at who is best placed to build Australia's next submarines to ensure (1) that we get the best defence outcome for our country and (2) we do it at the best and lowest cost for taxpayers ensuring that we get the…

Chris Kenny: [Interrupts] So, it's nothing to do with Tony Abbott getting votes in this spill motion tomorrow?

Jamie Briggs: Well, it's the same position it has been for some time.

Chris Kenny: Alright now Julie Bishop, the Deputy Liberal leader do you believe that she's been loyal to Tony Abbott?

Jamie Briggs: Absolutely.

Chris Kenny: Where can you point to over the past three or four days where she has said anything to endorse Tony Abbott staying in the prime ministership other than that she is duty bound to vote against this bill because she's the deputy leader and a member of Cabinet?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think Julie herself has made very clear that since the 2007 election when she was first elected into the deputy leader's position, she's served now three leaders of the Liberal Party—Brendan Nelson initially, Malcolm Turnbull following and then of course the Prime Minister and she's loyally defended each one of those.

Chris Kenny: Yeah but the only one she needs to serve at the moment is Tony Abbott and it's been very obvious to all watching over the past few days that she has not at any stage gone out of her way to endorse his prime ministership beyond the fact that she's duty bound to support him against the spill motion.

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think she's been very loyal and I think she's been loyal in a couple of ways I would point to. Firstly, she's done a terrific job and it must be said as foreign minister she's done a very good job in sending Australia's message across the globe. Secondly, she's been—as I say—a loyal deputy now for three leaders of the Liberal Party over seven years. She's been in that position; she has a good relationship with the backbench, her front bench colleagues as well. Her office is across from mine, we often walk down to the chamber together. She's from the Adelaide Hills originally, we've got a very strong relationship and she does with many colleagues. I think having Julie there in that stable position for seven years now has been something that people have become quite used to.

Chris Kenny: Okay, if there were a change would you be happy to serve in a ministry led by Malcolm Turnbull?

Jamie Briggs: Well, Malcolm is doing a terrific job as communications minister and I think he'll continue to do that. I think the Prime Minister will get a strong endorsement tomorrow morning from the party room and we'll get on with the job because the challenges that the country faces are important. My job as Infrastructure Minister to get these projects out to create jobs and build a stronger Australia is a very important part of our plan. I intend to get on first thing after we deal with these issues tomorrow morning with that job.

Chris Kenny: Now if Tony Abbott's—if the new Tony Abbott—if the reformed Tony Abbott as prime minister wants to listen to his party room more, then why would he bring the spill motion on 24 hours earlier therefore denying his colleagues of spending a full day in Canberra talking to each other considering these momentous issues?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think it was the idea that you would sit through a day of Parliament was ludicrous and I indeed was one of the people on Friday who urged the Prime Minister to talk to the Government Whip about having this vote first thing tomorrow morning. The idea that you could sit through a Question Time with this motion sitting above us was, I thought, absurd and we were best to deal with this so we could get on with normal business of running a government after 9 o'clock tomorrow morning when this spill will be well and truly defeated.

Chris Kenny: Alright, I mentioned I wanted to come back to the policy issues because, I think, this is the really big issue below—bubbling along below all of this and that is that of course we saw the Labor Party chalk up record deficits and debt and they never tackled it and this largely—in large part why they ended up out of government. Now, of course, you and the Abbott Government, your budget has been frustrated, it's caused enormous political pain and we're seeing this leadership instability. How can we be confident now that anybody's going to have the gumption to tackle the debt and deficit because Tony Abbott, in order to stay into his job, will be desperate not to displease anyone? If there's a switch to Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, they're hardly going to want to tackle the debt and deficit because that will only make them unpopular. We're getting to a situation where no side will be able to actually tackle the budgetary issues—the fiscal problems that this country desperately needs tackled.

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think we have a plan to tackle these issues. It is challenging you're right. In the Howard Government years, when the Labor Party put themselves outside of the debate, you had the Democrats there who while they were frustrating at times were willing negotiators on big reforms—work place relations reforms with Peter Reith, the GST reforms with Treasurer Costello. We don't have that luxury.

We've got a group of independents in the Senate who come from diametrically opposed perspectives. You've got a Labor Party and the Greens who are completely outside of the debate so you have to attempt to do deals with people who have no policy thread at all. Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm's view of the world is completely opposite to the view of Jacqui Lambie and others in the Senate, so it is very difficult for us to get reforms through. That's not to say it's not worth continuing the effort and it's not worth continuing to have the conversation with the Australian people about why it is we must, as you say, reduce the deficit, reduce the debt because at the end someone has to pay, someone has to pay and if we're not careful as Prime Minister Abbott has said we will end up being a second rate country riding on its luck. That's not the Australia of the last 30 years but it has been the Australia of the last five years.

Chris Kenny: Alright, Jamie Briggs, thanks very much for joining us on a difficult night.

Jamie Briggs: Thanks Chris, thanks for having me.

Chris Kenny: That's Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs who'll be part of all that action tomorrow, tonight as well I imagine.