Interview with Nat Barr, Channel 7, Sunrise

NAT BARR: Christian Porter begins life as a backbencher this morning after resigning from the Government frontbench. The now former Industry Minister accepted funds from a blind trust to help pay legal bills in a defamation suit against the ABC. Being anonymous meant the mystery donor could not be ruled out as a conflict of interest under ministerial standards. For their take, I’m joined by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon. Good morning, gents. Barnaby, the PM cannot afford to lose him because then you’d be forced into minority government. If that wasn’t the case, would he be gone?

BARNABY JOYCE: Well, he is not resigning. He has gone now, like so many of us in the period of our career, to the corridor of the nearly dead which sits above the Comcars. I was there for a bit over three years. It is part and parcel of a lot of political lives. Joel was across the corridor from me. That is life. He has accepted that he believes that it is not as clear as the Prime Minister would want and he has accepted that it creates a sense of fog for the Government, and he has done the right thing, to be frank, as I did, and resigned. I bet you that his electorate won't resign from him though. He is an incredibly astute politician, he is incredibly capable and he will be back in his electorate and working the part and parcel of what is so essential, the life of a backbencher in committee work. I would put money that we will see him back again.

NAT BARR: Joel, the interesting thing is that he doesn’t have to tell who is giving money to the blind trust if he is a backbencher. Why are the rules different? A lot of people in Australia might be asking that this morning.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, Nat, we expect the highest of standards from our ministers. It is critical to maintain public confidence in our parliamentary democracy but look, the blind trust was a terrible mistake and Christian’s resignation in the end was inevitable. It closes another sad chapter in the Prime Minister’s slowness to act on these ministerial standards, and of course, when he fails to act, it does hurt all of us. On the other side of the equation, if Christian Porter is guilty of those historical allegations, he will get little sympathy. But if he is not, I can say this because I'm getting out of politics, but people should look at how this exposes all politicians to this sort of attack on their political careers. It is such a dangerous precedent and on that basis, all politicians should be really concerned at the way that defamation laws allow them to be attacked like this with almost a situation where it is almost impossible defend themselves.

NAT BARR: Barnaby, why are there really high standards for ministers and then crappier standards for backbenchers? So he doesn't have to tell and he can go sit on the backbench. Do you agree with that?

BARNABY JOYCE: As a minister, you are actually engaged in a formal contract by the Prime Minister, but there is no actual engagement by the Prime Minister to your seat. That is a contract between you and the people in your seat. In my case, the people of New England. They make the decision about whether they believe you have something to answer to them and your seat has an entirely different view to the press gallery. Your seat, in many instances, and I love the people of New England and try and do my best for them, can be a lot more forgiving and understanding because they see it from a distance. And although they see it from a distance, they see it with vastly greater clarity. They see a person and say, “How could anybody afford a legal bill like that?” It’s just not possible. You’re going to have people to support you. Or, as Joel said, you just go undefended and you just put your throat to the wolves and accept whatever comes your way. My vote between two elections went up, not down and I imagine that Christian Porter, people will say, well, “I can’t afford that sort of bill but I want the right to defend myself from the allegations cast my way”. What else do you do? Without defending them, you’re sort of quasi accepting them, so you’ve got to defend them and that costs bucket loads of money.

NAT BARR: Exactly, it’s just, who’s funding it? No one would dispute him being represented. It is just the funding.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: It was a bit bemusing the way in which Christian tried to make a virtue of it and not exposing the names of the contributors. If he doesn’t know who they are, how can he possibly be concerned about their privacy? If he does not know their character, I mean, it was a bit cute.

NAT BARR: That’s the clincher. Let’s go to the subs, that’s what everyone’s talking about. France is calling on its EU allies to freeze Australia out of the free-trade agreement, saying the decision to torpedo the $96 billion submarine deal with them was a major breach of trust. Barnaby, they’re saying there has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt, this will not do. How much notice should we have given them?

BARNABY JOYCE: Well, the reason we have a National Security Committee is to keep things a secret, obviously, and that is the whole point. We kept this one under wraps and we weren’t going to ring the French and go, “By the way, can you just keep this to yourselves”. By reason of the circumstances we find ourselves in in the Indo-Pacific, we have to change the direction we are going. We will remain incredibly strong friends and work with the French, but you wouldn’t want to have to remind people that tens of thousands of Australians died on French soil protecting France. We did that because we believed that France needed to protect itself and we needed to assist them. I know that they will understand that we have to protect this nation with a deterrent, because we want peace but you only get peace from strength. I’m sure the French, if the tables were turned, and the French said a better platform to protect the people of France, to protect Paris, to protect Lyon, instead of option B or option C, the French would do the right by the French people and take that option, and others would get upset but they would have to accept it because that is the right of France and this is the right of Australia.

NAT BARR: Joel, there is the right thing and there is the right way of going about it, and that’s what they say we didn’t do. Do you think this will lead to trade sanctions with the EU?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, the French are very angry and understandably so. I mean, we could have socialised that there was something on the move without disclosing what plan B in Australia was. That, I think, is the main point and diplomacy seems to be a craft gone missing within this Government. But look, we were wasting billions of dollars and the capability was being delayed substantially. I'm glad there was a Plan B and it is a good plan.

NAT BARR: Okay, thank you, gents. We will talk to you next week.

ENDS