Transcript of Interview: SKY News PVO News Day



20 July 2015


Peter Van Onselen: We're joined by Jamie Briggs, the Assistant Infrastructure spokesperson—or minister I should say, what am I doing demoting you to Opposition…Thanks for your company. Bronwyn Bishop. Is this over? The Prime Minister has suggested that she's now on probation, what does that mean?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think the Prime Minister is reflecting an unhappiness that we all have with what was a big error, an error that has been admitted and money refunded with a penalty which was an impost put in place by this Government.

Peter Van Onselen: But what does it mean that she's on probation?

Jamie Briggs: Well, the Prime Minister has made clear that he's not happy. He's not happy that the community looks at us as leaders and they see examples where we've not behaved as the community would expect us with taxpayers' money. And Bronwyn has admitted she made an error—a big error. It's caused quite a lot of commentary on what she did. She's copped a fair bit of criticism, and rightfully, for making a big mistake.

Peter Van Onselen: But it's taken the Prime Minister a while to build up to this. I mean, I was at a function on Friday night where he described this sort of stuff as just village gossip. He then said on the weekend before her media conference, the Speaker's media conference, that she may have made an error of judgement. She then said that she made an error of judgement but didn't apologise, and now today we've got the Prime Minister first up saying that it was a major error of judgment and then putting her on probation. Is he sort of slowly waking up to community attitudes on this, Jamie?

Jamie Briggs: No, I think the point he's trying to make is there's a big discussion going on started by Premier Baird about really important reforms to ensure our Federation works better. Versus what, you know, is a distraction from major policy debates. I think we would both agree we'd prefer to be talking about the issues that confronts us going forward into the future as far as our country is concerned, versus what has been an example of a politician not acting in accordance with community standards.

Peter Van Onselen: But if you put her on probation that doesn't end the matter, in fact that just opens up new questions. Does that mean that if more things come to light that she's one foot out the door? Does it mean that we're waiting to find the results of the investigation by the Department of Finance? I mean, it's odd rhetoric. I'm just wondering if it's the start of the end of her Speakership do you think?

Jamie Briggs: Well, there's an investigation from the Department of Finance, which is the point the Prime Minister made. So, obviously that will go through its process, and we'll look at the process in which obviously the charter was used. It wasn't an appropriate use of the charter allowance. It obviously doesn't pass …

Peter Van Onselen: [Interrupts] She doesn't agree with that. In her media conference, which was a train wreck I thought on Saturday. Not only did she attack Joe Hockey, which I want to get your thoughts on in a moment, but on the way through she also said that she believes that this is within entitlements but it was the quantum of the amount, given that it was the helicopter travel that led her to pay back, and of course she then refused to apologise. She said paying it back is apology enough.

Jamie Briggs: Well look. I guess we all make judgements about what we think are within entitlements, and I think the key test here is the public test which is applied. The reason that this is public is because all of our use of entitlements are rightly made public every six months. That's the reason that this is being debated.

Peter Van Onselen: But is there even ambiguity about whether- assuming that it was only a fundraiser, I mean I think a lot of people thought that perhaps she got around this—as a lot of politicians on both sides do—where you do two things at once, you can walk and chew gum. You might attend a fundraiser; you might attend whatever, at the same time as doing some official business. I think people thought that she might've done that, and therefore we were only talking about helicopter extravagance rather than misuse. But it sounded from her media conference on Saturday like all she's done was go to Melbourne to get to Geelong for a fundraiser. That's a misuse, isn't it?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I didn't see the press conference, and I'm not the Department of Finance who makes those judgements. But I wouldn't use entitlements purely for a fundraiser. I don't think that is a reasonable use, and it's not part of my official duties. I judge whether I use entitlement on whether this is part of my job as being the member for Mayo firstly, or secondly as a minister in government. I think if you're invited as a minister or as a member of parliament to something, then it's not an unreasonable use because you're there because of the position, not because it's Jamie Briggs or Peter Van Onselen who has been invited. It's because you've been invited because of the position.

Peter Van Onselen: What about her comments about Joe Hockey though? I mean I've got to ask you about that. I mean, Joe Hockey made what I thought was a reasonable observation which was basically that she had questions to answer. She was asked about it and she had a red hot whack at him. She just said that Joe says silly things like poor people don't drive cars. What do you make of that?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think Joe picked politics' and the community's sentiment exactly right on this, and now it's always difficult to admit that you've made a big mistake, and Bronwyn has now admitted that she made a big mistake and I think that is right. It has caused a great deal of community discussion, and that's unfortunate because any time …

Peter Van Onselen: But what about trying to tear Joe Hockey down in the process?

Jamie Briggs: Well obviously I don't think the Speaker has had a great few days, clearly. And it's been a very difficult few days no doubt, and at times when you're under pressure you don't necessarily say things that you would necessarily say when you weren't under that pressure now.

Peter Van Onselen: But what does it say that what she goes to in a situation like that is a direct attack on the Treasurer? One of the most senior members of the Government, reliving a moment that frankly all of you would probably rather forget?

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, I think we all make mistakes. And in this instance there's obviously been an example of a big mistake here, and it's not acceptable in the community and it shouldn't be acceptable in public life. And obviously the reason that we know about this is because the system highlights it. There are hundreds of trips undertaken each week by Liberal, National, Labor, Greens and Independent members of Parliament using taxpayer's money. In a national parliament, we're expected to travel around the country. We need to do that within acceptable community standards and there are, at times, examples on both sides where that community standard has been breached. We put in place a penalty regime to show that there are some teeth to that but whatever system you have in place will never satisfy everyone. You know, there are people in our community, believe it or not, who don't think we should have any entitlement at all, in fact, think we should walk everywhere…

Peter Van Onselen: Which, of course, is ridiculous. Now, are you frustrated, though? I mean, we would have sat here for the last 10 minutes talking about, probably, the GST which we'll get to as well as WestConnex, which is why you're in Sydney for that announcement, but are you frustrated because of what Bronwyn Bishop has done and then, more importantly, the way she's handled it after having made the mistake? We're spending this much time on it, also probably because I'm a bit of a pain on it.

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think it is a distraction but it is something which is raised in the community. It was raised when I was at the under eights, Mount Lofty versus Onkaparinga Valley game on Saturday morning. I'm the goal umpire. We're undefeated, Mount Lofty under eights this year. Not because of my goal umpiring by the way…

Peter Van Onselen: You drew the link.

Jamie Briggs: …yeah and when I arrived, people asked whether I'd arrived in a helicopter. This is the sort of thing that happens when politicians make mistakes like this. So…

Peter Van Onselen: She's got to go, doesn't she? She's the Speaker. Tony Abbott talked about the need for Speaker to have the highest of standards when he was attacking—prosecuting the case against Peter Slipper quite rightly, as I said at the time. She's got to go. How can she possibly stay with the tarnish of this?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think she's paid a high price and she's admitted an error…

Peter Van Onselen: $1200, that's really the price.

Jamie Briggs: Well, you know, it's also a pretty difficult period for her to go through what has been, you know, a public flogging over the last four days.

Peter Van Onselen: Cry me a river. She…

Jamie Briggs: No, I'm not saying it's wrong but…

Peter Van Onselen: She got a helicopter for a 30 minute journey by car. It's ridiculous.

Jamie Briggs: It's a big mistake. As, in effect, the highest office holder in the Parliament, it is very disappointing and I know she would be disappointed in herself and it has caused a massive distraction when we should be talking about the good things the Government's doing.

Peter Van Onselen: Let's move on to some of those things now. Bill Shorten's going to rudely interrupt us with a media conference at some stage so let's get to it. Start with the GST if we can. Mike Baird's proposed this. The Prime Minister's welcomed it at the media conference that you were at earlier today. I welcome what I think is a nice show of leadership there but will the Government have the courage to follow that leadership up with some standard policy adjustments in the GST space, do you think, ahead of the next election? I know, you've got to go through a process, but do you think that's likely?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think the developments today are exceptionally good. I mean, you've got Premier Jay Weatherill from my home state of South Australia who I not always agree with but I think today has shown real leadership within the Labor Party coming out and supporting Mike Baird in the need for a discussion and as the Prime Minister said this morning at the press conference, this is the beginning of the discussion, not the end and sometimes I think in politics we seek to get to the end of the discussion before actually going through the details. The point that Mike Baird makes and Jay Weatherill make, not unreasonably, is that we've got an expectation of certain services in the community. We've got to raise the money somehow. There are a series of inefficient taxes and that's why we need to have a look and see whether we can have lower, fairer and simpler taxes which deliver the services that people want. Mike Baird's exactly right. The current settings are not going to achieve that so what we want from the White Paper. We've always said this, is not to rule things out from the beginning, to have a broad discussion but when it comes to the GST, you've got no possible chance to get the changes to the GST through without the states being on board and without the states leading the discussion because they ultimately benefit from this…

Peter Van Onselen: But ultimately the Commonwealth will have to show leadership if there's one or two recalcitrant states that don't come on board whether you like it or not. I mean, that's what I wonder, whether you're prepared to do that as a government.

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think what you need though is you need advocates and there's no better advocate than Mike Baird. I mean, he's clearly the stand out premier across the country and he's yet again shown why that's the case and it's pleasing that Jay Weatherill's willing to participate. We are up for that discussion, we are absolutely up for that discussion.

Peter Van Onselen: Last question that I've got to get an answer from you on which is right in your space of infrastructure, so fire away but I do want to get your reaction to this. Alan Kohler, who's not exactly a commentator without note. He's got significant standing; he said the Abbott Government's efforts on infrastructure have been pathetic. That was just in May this year that he wrote that. In fact, the detail of the Budget papers show a real decline in spending in the infrastructure and regional development portfolio of 11.2 per cent between 2014, '15 and '18, '19. What's your reaction to that?

Jamie Briggs: That's the department. That's what he's misunderstood in the Budget papers unfortunately…

Peter Van Onselen: So, what do you mean just the department?

Jamie Briggs: That's a reduction in staffing and the money allocated to the department.

Peter Van Onselen: To tidy up the bureaucracy.

Jamie Briggs: Correct.

Peter Van Onselen: So, that's not the actual funding?

Jamie Briggs: Correct, absolutely.

Peter Van Onselen: Have you alerted him to that?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I haven't had a chat with Mr Kohler but he's written something which is incorrect and I'm not saying that Mr Kohler's good, bad or otherwise commentator but in this case he's misunderstood the Budget papers. We have always said we'll reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape and get money where it needs to be like the WestConnex project that we've just launched today, Stage 2, 18 months ahead of schedule. We are spending far more on infrastructure than any previous government in the history of the Commonwealth and it's really important that we do that because it's a key part of our productivity agenda.

Peter Van Onselen: Well, if you're right and he's wrong then that's a good thing because I'm all for reducing government waste where it's not necessary at a bureaucratic level and I know you are as well. Before I let you go, you might have seen or you may not have seen reports that an asylum seeker vessel has been spotted by one of the mining companies or oil companies up north off the Coast of Western Australia, what's your reaction to that?

Jamie Briggs: I haven't seen the reports. I mean, obviously these are operational matters that the Minister…

Peter Van Onselen: You got to watch Sky News more; we were talking about it just before you came on.

Jamie Briggs: I was in a car…

Peter Van Onselen: [Laughs]

Jamie Briggs: …you don't watch it when you're travelling in a car obviously coming all the way out here to see you PVO.

Peter Van Onselen: But if that is true and if an asylum seeker vessel is so close to the shore, I remember Tony Abbott describing when one landed on the shore as the Government having lost control of the borders, akin to an invasion with them being able to get to the mainland. Is that the attitude this time?

Jamie Briggs: I think the fact that there haven't been any boat arrivals over the last, I think, it's more now than 12 months. There's been one, I think, since we put in place the policies that have worked, shows that this government knows what it's doing when it comes to protecting our borders and I know with Peter Dutton in charge of the immigration portfolio we've got a minister who's absolutely focused on assuring Australia has an orderly immigration regime that instils confidence in people and doesn't send a signal to people smugglers that we're open for business.

Peter Van Onselen: And we will see how Labor reacts to this at their national conference. That will be interesting. Do they support turn-backs or not? Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs, appreciate your time coming out to see us. Thanks.

Jamie Briggs: Always a pleasure, thank you.