19 December 2017
Subject: Cabinet reshuffle.
Darren Chester: Good afternoon. Can I say how sorry I was to hear today that my good friend and colleague Arthur Sinodinos' ill health means he be won't re-joining Cabinet any time in the near future, and it certainly draws into clear contrast any disappointment I might have today about my own situation. I certainly wish Arthur all the best as he recovers from his serious illness.
Can I further say what a great honour and a privilege it has been to serve as part of the Turnbull Government's ministry. As the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, I've been very fortunate to be in a position to really have an impact on people's lives. In fact, that portfolio is the one I regard as the best portfolio in the Federal Parliament. It is a portfolio where you get to change people's lives and save people's lives, where you get to reduce congestion, improve productivity, and also reduce road trauma through our road safety initiatives.
So it has been a great honour and a privilege to serve in that role, but politics is a tough game, and as the Prime Minister said today, he had to make some tough decisions regarding the allocation of portfolios, and on this occasion I've missed out. So I don't particularly feel sorry for myself at all, I feel more privileged for the fact that I've had the opportunity over the past 20 months. I look forward now to redoubling my efforts here in the electorate of Gippsland.
I intend to be in Parliament for many, many more years to come. I still have the enthusiasm, the passion and the determination to do a great job for the people of Gippsland. I've been blessed to have their support for several years now. I think I have won four elections and I look to contesting the next election in about 18 month's time.
Question: Is this just a case of five into four doesn't fit?
Darren Chester: Well, it's a question of the portfolio allocations. There were five Cabinet positions available. As the Prime Minister indicated, there's a range of considerations made by the leadership team when it comes to deciding the allocation of those portfolios. I've missed out on this occasion.
Question: Mr Chester, do you understand that—could this be a question of personal loyalty? Is that why you've been dumped from Cabinet.
Darren Chester: I'm not sure I understand the question, sorry Kelly.
Question: Because you supported Bridget McKenzie for the deputy leadership position?
Darren Chester: I don't think my loyalty, certainly to the leadership team, has ever been questioned. I have gone above and beyond on many occasions to support Prime Minister Turnbull and the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. That's my nature; I'm a team player and determined to make sure that the Coalition does well in the next election campaign. I think we have been a good government, delivering right across Australia, and I feel very privileged to have played a small role in that over the past couple of years.
But in terms of the premise of your question regarding Bridget McKenzie, I don't resile from the fact that I supported Bridget very strongly in the deputy leadership campaign. I thought she was the right person for the job. Our party needs to connect more with younger voters, with female voters, and Bridget speaks in a way on issues that perhaps not all National Party members speak about. She talks on regional education issues, she is an experienced teacher and university lecturer, and I think she has a great deal to offer our team.
Question: Is it a question of geography, then, that you are not from Queensland?
Darren Chester: I can only take the words of the Prime Minister, he spoke earlier at a press conference. He indicated that was a considerable factor in the decision that was made to exclude me from the Cabinet.
Question: When did the PM contact you and advise you of this?
Darren Chester: Look, I had several phone conversations with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister over the past 24 hours. I won't go into details of those conversations, other than to say they did occur over a period of hours last night and again this morning. That's the nature of these things, you have conversations with the leadership team as they finalise the final make-up of the Cabinet and the Ministry more generally.
Question: Was it a shock?
Darren Chester: What aspect?
Question: The outcome, the PM's decision?
Darren Chester: Look, I wouldn't describe it as a shock. I am disappointed, naturally. Anyone would be disappointed to lose a position they have been particularly passionate about. So it's disappointing, but I'm not sure if I'd call it a shock. Worse things happen to people. As I said at the outset, I think of my colleague Arthur Sinodinos, who has some very serious health issues he's dealing with. It really does, by way of comparison, make my disappointment seem quite minor.
Question: Was there any discussion about a deputy ministerial role or a secretary, anything like that?
Darren Chester: Yes, there was. The Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce offered me a parliamentary secretary role, or assistant minister role as they call them these days…
Question: In which cabinet, which part?
Darren Chester: …and I chose to reflect on that overnight, and I advised both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister this morning that I didn't intend to take that offer, and my reason for doing that is because there is a range of issues that I am particularly passionate about involving road safety, the use of illicit drugs and ice and its impact on regional communities, youth suicide, and our veterans as they return from war, how they've been treated, and they're issues that I'm very keen to pursue now I have that time on the backbench. I want to be someone who gets to have the freedom of pursuing those issues, particularly around young people in regional communities. I thought the portfolio that was being offered to me wouldn't allow me the opportunity to explore those issues that I'm particularly passionate about.
Question: Do you think the process is the best way to determine who's the best fit for a cabinet position?
Darren Chester: What do you think I'm going to say today? Look, I've had better days than this, and this is the process we go through. We get an allocation of ministerial roles as National Party members according to how many seats we win. On this occasion, I have missed out. I mean, if you'd asked me that question 20 months ago, I would've said it was the best process in the world.
Question: Does this have anything to do with your stance on same-sex marriage?
Darren Chester: I don't know. I mean, some of my colleagues don't like the position I took on that issue and they made it clear to me privately that they would wish I hadn't taken such a strong view on that issue, but I'm not sure that had any impact on anything that's gone on in the last 24 hours.
Question: Backgrounding against Mr Littleproud has already begun. What do you make of some of that criticism, given he's only been in Parliament for 18 months as a backbencher, and now he has been catapulted into Cabinet?
Darren Chester: Look, I get very frustrated when anyone backgrounds against their colleagues. I've been the subject of backgrounding in the past and I get very frustrated. You're trying to argue with pieces of smoke; you can't actually grab hold of them. People are prepared to say things off the record and behind the scenes on background. If they're prepared to say those things, they should back it up in front of a camera. In terms of David Littleproud, I've known him for the past 18 months. I think he's a talented young member of Parliament. I think he's a particularly passionate fellow who's got the interests of his electorate at heart. I have to say he's got a lot to learn, but I'm happy to say that in front of a camera. I'm not going to say it behind his back.
Question: Is it a coincidence that he comes from a very conservative Queensland seat?
Darren Chester: What?
Question: You know, that he has taken over from somebody who very vocally voted yes for same sex-marriage campaign?
Darren Chester: Look, I think you are in search of a conspiracy that doesn't exist. David Littleproud comes from Queensland, a lot of our members come from Queensland, and the Prime Minister made it clear that geography is part of the decision-making process. So I don't think the nature of his voting public has necessarily been a factor in this. I think the Prime Minister made it pretty clear in his press conference that factors perhaps outside his control were part of the decision-making process.
Question: Daniel Andrews says that Victoria's lost a friend in Parliament. Are we still going to get our rail upgrades?
Darren Chester: I'm in trouble when Daniel Andrews is standing up for me. The rail upgrades are locked in. There is $1.42 billion that the Federal Government put on the table and $150 million from the State Government. It's a great program, one I'm very proud of. If you had asked me what's one of the things you'd be proud of in that 20 months, it would have been the rail program. It would have also been the $1.5 billion for East West Link, which we secured for projects right throughout Victoria, including rural and regional roads. So that money's there, we'll roll it out. It's up to the State Government to get the project proposal reports into the new Minister's office, and I'm sure they'll be rolled out in good time, and I'll certainly be keeping an eye on him. What's that bloke's name again? Barnaby? Yeah, I'll keep an eye on him and make sure he delivers every project that I promised in regional rail.
Question: Speaking of Barnaby and regional rail, have you heard anything about if Adani doesn't get the thing up in Queensland, then Gina Rinehart's company could get it instead and, conveniently, they're very good mates all of a sudden?
Darren Chester: No, I haven't heard anything like that. I've heard alternate proposals from Aurizon at one stage, so I'm not sure if that's progressing any further. It hasn't been an area that's been directly in my portfolio control.
Question: Do you think he wanted more control over infrastructure, anything to do with that end of town?
Darren Chester: Questions regarding the decisions the Deputy Prime Minister has made in terms of portfolio allocations are quite rightly questions that should be directed to him. I can only talk about my own position. I was very honoured and very privileged to have this role for the best part of two years. Now I'll have the opportunity, with a bit more time on my hands, to focus on some of those issues that are difficult for a Cabinet Minister to focus on in their own electorate. So I'm really looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to getting into some of those issues that I mentioned earlier outside my own electorate as well. I plan to be a very active backbencher. I plan to use my considerable passion, energy and enthusiasm for regional Australia for very positive reasons.
Question: How would you describe this experience? How would you describe what's happened?
Darren Chester: Character-building. I've got a hell of a character, Kelly.
Question: Did the PM make it clear that a return to Cabinet might be possible in the future?
Darren Chester: No, there was no conversation with the PM along those lines. We had a good chat and he expressed—as he expressed publicly today—he expressed a great deal of support for me and the work I've done. We had an excellent working relationship in the role I had, because obviously there was a cross-over into our urban electorates as well. So the Prime Minister and I get on very well. He was very kind in the remarks he made on television just a few moments ago, and he was equally as kind in his comments to me this morning and last night.
Question: Do you think you'll find yourself back in Cabinet in the future?
Darren Chester: I only just left. Look, I'm someone who is an eternal optimist. I believe that good work and determination and passion will be rewarded in the longer term. I think I have all those characteristics. I intend to be a very positive contributor to the Government. I certainly will be working every day to make sure Gippsland gets every little bit of funding it can get out of the infrastructure portfolio, just as I will be making sure that Gippsland's social issues are well-progressed in the Parliament. I’m a determined and passionate Gippslander and I'm very lucky to have the role I've got. So that bundle over there, I'm going to pick it up and walk away with it pretty soon, so don't stress about me too much guys.
Question: Are you too progressive for the National Party?
Darren Chester: I think I adequately reflect the people of Gippsland's views on a range of issues. We don't always agree on every issue here in Gippsland, but I think I try to reflect that well in Parliament. The fact that 60 per cent of Gippslanders voted yes to same-sex marriage in many ways vindicated the position I took, if that's the issue you're referring to.
I think regional Australia's changing. Regional Australia Gippsland is changing. People are prepared to move on some social issues that perhaps only 10 or 20 years ago wouldn't have even thought about. That doesn't necessarily make me too progressive, it just makes me a product of my times.
Question: Any highlights of your time? Anything that stands out from your time in the Ministry?
Darren Chester: I loved the role I have had, both in the parliamentary secretary role for Defence, but also in Infrastructure and Transport. I think winning additional funding for Gippsland in terms of the regional rail package and also regional roads has been a personal highlight. It's what you get into Parliament for, is to try and make a difference in your community, and being able to deliver sizeable amounts of money in terms of the Princes Highway duplication and the extra works beyond Sale, but also the regional rail package, they're large amounts of money which will transform Gippsland in the future. I'm very proud of that.
Question: Regrets? Anything unfinished? Is there one thing you wish you could still do? One more piece of paper you'd like to sign?
Darren Chester: There's a lot of projects in the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio that I would loved to have been part of the future of. I've got an Inland Rail project which I managed to secure $8.4 billion for in this year's Budget, and that's going to be rolled out over a period of years. So I was always of the view that we'd be lucky to see that one finished. But there's a range of policy areas I was working on which I'm a bit disappointed I'm not going to see come to fruition.
Question: Anything in particular?
Darren Chester: I was going to do an inquiry into road safety that I thought was an important piece of work, and that's due to report back to the Minister in the new year. So I'll certainly continue to champion road safety issues from the backbench. There's some other policy work in terms of aviation security, and also in terms of the freight and logistics supply chain strategy we're working on, which I think are very important bits of work that I hope will be properly progressed under the new Minister.
Question: Disabling mobile phones on light aircraft?
Darren Chester: I could comment on that. It was an unfortunate incident. The pilot quite openly indicated he made a mistake. The phone which he'd normally turn off on descent rang in his ears at about 500 feet, he turned it off immediately at that time, but he'd been distracted and unfortunately he'd forgotten to put the landing gear down and we landed without the wheels at West Sale. On a bright note, both of us walked away completely unharmed, but it's an expensive lesson for the pilot, I'm afraid.