Interview with Chris Kenny, 2GB Sydney

Chris Kenny: Now, we’ve been hearing some big promises lately about the advent of driverless cars, and apparently we’re going to be seeing them all over Australia in not too many years to come. Car makers and motoring groups are warning that there are safety and legal issues and what a quagmire that could turn into. The National Transport Commission said they’re working on those issues around safety and legal issues. Automated vehicles, they sound safe, but there really are all sorts of concerns that people might have about them. Now, the Transport Minister of this country happens to be Michael McCormack. He happens to be the leader of the Nationals and usually is the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. At this very moment though, of course for a few days he is the Acting Prime Minister of Australia, running this great nation from the town of Wagga Wagga in the Riverina of New South Wales. He joins me on the line now. Thanks for joining us, Acting Prime Minister.

Michael McCormack: Thank you, Chris. All the best.

Chris Kenny: Tell us about driverless cars. Are we really expected to see trucks and cars on our roads within years, without drivers?

Michael McCormack: Well, look, that is – I mean we’re going into this George Jetson sort of world. It’s not just Australia, it’s indeed, it’s the entire globe is going down this path. And I appreciate the fact that the National Transport Commission told the Parliamentary Inquiry last year that based on predicted uptake rates in the US that there could be anywhere up to 1.7 million highly autonomous cars on Australian roads by 2020. I think that’s a bit over the top, I think that’s quite a bit ambitious. But…

Chris Kenny: [Interrupts] Well, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? There’s not one on the roads now and they’re talking millions within a couple of years.

Michael McCormack: Look, indeed and sometimes these Parliamentary Inquiries hear these sorts of things which are totally over the top. But, look, I do agree with Roads Australia President David Stuart-Watt. He made the comment that the more we can do to accelerate the safe introduction of this sort of technology on our roads, the more lives we can save. And look, we all know that there’s 1,200 deaths a year on our roads; that’s 1,200 too many. Any death on the road is one too many. And they do say that these automated, these autonomous vehicles do save lives, and indeed, they do. But you know, I do caution against rushing into it, you know like the Australian Automobile Association, I think, whilst it’s exciting technology, I do caution against rushing into regulations which allow them onto Australian roads given there’s a multitude of regulatory issues that have to be resolved before we go down this path.

Chris Kenny: [Interrupts] Well, there must be a worry that they could cost lives as well. I mean because we haven’t even seen driverless trains go in place here very effectively in this country. Although I think we’re about to see them in the Kimberley, on the iron ore trains. I mean trains will be one thing, because they can’t go off the rails, but to have actually driverless vehicles or trucks on our roads would concern a lot of people, including me, because a glitch could take people out.

Michael McCormack: Yes indeed and that’s why, you know, I’ve been in regular talks with my State colleagues and indeed, Anthony Albanese. You know, we’ve worked in good faith and we are, to do this, because it needs bipartisan support. And that’s why late last year, I did establish the Office of Future Transport Technologies, which is an exciting development. We’ve put nearly $10 million towards setting that up to see where we could go in the regulatory space; to see where we could go in keeping up with the rest of the world’s pace. And we’re progressing work to prepare for connected and automated vehicles and the establishment of this Office does just that, to take advantage of any opportunity that this technology can present, but also to make sure that we get it right because we can’t go down this path and have it done in a haphazard way that’s going to, as you quite correctly point out, cause a bit of mayhem and perhaps even cost lives on our roads. There is some important work to do and that’s why this Office is going to do it and I’m pleased that it has support across the Parliament and it also has support with our State and Territory Ministers and we need to do that. We need the State and Territory governments and the Commonwealth Government – we need to make sure that we get this right when this sort of technology is rolling out – and we will.

Chris Kenny: Now, as Acting Prime Minister, what’s your response to the Labor Party, in particular, through Penny Wong, who’s the acting Leader of Labor at the moment. They’re really trying to smear the Coalition with the antics of Fraser Anning. He’s said some horribly, racially intolerant things in the past. He’s turned up at this rally, I suppose you’d call it, by extremists on the weekend and yet Labor tries to smear the Coalition with this, saying they shouldn’t take his vote in the Senate. I mean it just strikes me that Labor is being incredibly dishonest and divisive on this. Fraser Anning and those extremist groups and even those fringe conservative parties do more damage to the Coalition. They’re actually a political help to the Labor Party more than anything.

Michael McCormack: Well look, I think we all agree that, and I agree with the fact that Senator Anning should really, actually dig deeply into his conscience and think what sort of future part he’s going to play in the Parliament, if he wants to think it’s right to turn up to these sorts of rallies. And I’m the first believer in free speech. Goodness gracious, I’ve been a politician for eight years, I’ve been a newspaper journalist for many more years than that, and I do believe in free speech but I also believe you’ve got to get these sorts of things into perspective. And these sorts of…this intolerance, this hatred against what Australia has been very proudly promoting for many, many years, In fact, always, and that’s a very multicultural, diversified country. We need to stand up and be proud of what unites us, not what divides us.

Chris Kenny: Sure. We’re in agreement on that and Queensland voters should just sort that out, come May. But what about Labor, who try and turn this into a partisan issue and use Fraser Anning to bash the Government?

Michael McCormack: Oh well that’s typical Labor. But look as for any Senate negotiations they’re managed by Mathias Cormann and he does a very good job and the Government is engaging in, as always, as it has done, in good faith with all sides of politics to make sure that the sorts of things that we're getting through the Senate that are already passed by the House of Representatives are going to be good for all Australians. But you know, as I've said before, I believe with what John Howard has always said that the things that unite us are far better and far greater than those which divide us though. I don't think anything's changed on that front.

Chris Kenny: Sure. But Fraser Anning, given what he’s said and done, I can't see any reason why you wouldn't take his vote on some issues to do with the economy or some promise you’ve delivered when it comes to taxation reform and the rest of it. But what about if there was some immigration policy or some citizenship issue – an issue that gets to the heart of these sorts of debates? Surely you wouldn't want to be relying on his vote for something like that?

Michael McCormack: No and I agree with that but also let's not …

Chris Kenny: [Interrupts] So in those circumstances you wouldn't take his vote? If there was an issue to do with immigration or integration or border protection, you wouldn't rely on his vote?

Michael McCormack: Well again, that would be totally up to Mathias Cormann and then you take each vote and you take each vote in context of what it is at the time. But the fact is, we have condemned it. We have condemned his actions in attending the rally. We were out on the front foot doing it from the start. And you know, I think all Australians agree that what we saw in Melbourne on the weekend was ugly, was unnecessary. The fact that people were doing Nazi salutes is totally un-Australian and no one goes along with that, and Senator Anning should dig deep into his own conscience to see what future part he’s going to play in the Parliament. And let me remind people if they didn’t already know, I mean, there were only a handful of people who really voted for him to get into the Senate in the first place.

Chris Kenny: Yes, as I mentioned earlier in the show, not even family and friends – 19 first preference votes.

Michael McCormack: Indeed.

Chris Kenny: Tell us Michael McCormack what life’s like as the acting Prime Minister at the moment? Over the years, we've often had the Nationalist leader acting in that position over this part of the year. I remember Doug Anthony used to run the country out of a …

Michael McCormack: [Interrupts] From a caravan.

Chris Kenny: From a caravan on the north coast of New South Wales at some station. Where are you sitting here? Are you out in a shearing shed or have you been running affairs from your electorate office? What's the set up?

Michael McCormack: I've been doing constituent appointments in the electorate office today. But I also spent the afternoon at the Narraburra Lodge, which is the senior’s retirement home at Temora. Counsellor Rick Firman, the wonderful Mayor of Temora, I rang him up yesterday and said ‘Look, I'm the acting Prime Minister, I'd love to come out and talk to a few of the seniors who have helped build your community and our nation. I’d love to come out’. And so I went out there this afternoon and sang a few songs…

Chris Kenny: [Laughs]

Michael McCormack: … A few Elvis songs, indeed, in preparation for the Elvis Festival in Parkes this weekend and with 25,000 Elvis devotees who will descend upon Clarinda Street in Parkes.

Chris Kenny: [Talks over] Yes, his birthday is coming up on the weekend, I think and that is Elvis Presley’s birthday. Tell me, have there been any other nations, any foreign nations in the last couple of days proposed shifting their embassies from Canberra to Wagga Wagga?

Michael McCormack: Well, I haven’t heard of them but would certainly welcome them. I mean- but…

Chris Kenny: [Laughs]

Michael McCormack: ... it was in the running to be the national capital – more’s the pity it wasn’t – but anybody who hasn’t been to Wagga Wagga, put it on your bucket list. It’s a great place, very friendly people. It’s big enough to get a good cup of coffee, small enough to care, and that is my wonderful hometown. There’s only ever been two federal members actually born in Wagga who’ve actually represented this town, this city, in the Federal Parliament, Wally Fife and I. The late great Wally Fife. But tomorrow I’m out at Lockhart which is Tim Fischer’s old stomping ground and I’m going to be spending some time there with the Nationals candidate Mackenna Powell, with Roger Schirmer, the Mayor, and doing a bit of a main street walk. So anybody who wants to come and meet and greet me walk up to the place from about noon tomorrow.

Chris Kenny: Great stuff. Thanks for joining us Michael McCormack.

Michael McCormack: Good on you Chris, anytime.

Chris Kenny: Michael McCormack, the acting Prime Minister of Australia. He’ll be out at Lockhart tomorrow if you want to catch up with the Prime Minister on the trail out there in the Riverina District. Wagga Wagga is indeed a lovely town on the Murrumbidgee there. Pop in there for a lunch stay, go for a holiday. Love Wagga Wagga and it’s great to have the acting Prime Minister on the show.