Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC Melbourne

Virginia Trioli: Joining us now I'm very pleased to say is Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister. A lot of big political issues to kick around with him this morning so delighted he's made time for us. Michael McCormack, good morning.

Michael McCormack: Good morning Virginia.

Virginia Trioli: Good to have you on board. Look I'd like to start with something I know is of a big matter to you which is the $8.4 billion Inland Rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane. Federal Labor is calling for what it's saying should be an honest debate about paying for it, saying the plan to use equity funding is flawed because the asset won't ever be worth that much. Do you have your funding plan properly in place do you think?

Michael McCormack: Well of course it's in place. The Inland Rail is going to be a transformational piece of nation-building infrastructure and it's been discussed for many many years, in fact it was first discussed back in the 1890s.

Virginia Trioli: Yes, indeed.

Michael McCormack: …so it's time to get on and build something rather than Labor's philosophy of a banana republic—build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.

Virginia Trioli: I don't know if that's particularly accurate, because Anthony Albanese says Labor supports the project, so we won't let you get away with that one.

But, his problem is it needs to be viable, properly-financed and subject to achievable deadlines. That is always the challenge with major nation-building infrastructure in this country of course. So is your equity funding model flawed?

Michael McCormack: No it's not. And that's why I've also put on board Warren Truss to head up the ARTC, looking after this project. Warren Truss is very well known right across the nation as far as stakeholder engagement, making sure that all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed. He worked well with federal Labor, indeed across the states, he's continuing to do that.

We will get this project up and running. It will be, as I say, transformational. It is going to get product from farm gate, indeed paddock to port to market within 24 hours to port. So that's tremendous.

Virginia Trioli: What does it say though if we can't even get the line between Melbourne and Albury right, the busiest rail link in the country?

Michael McCormack: I was pleased that Jacinta Allan, the Victorian Transport Minister, actually signed on the first intergovernmental agreement. So that's positive. Victoria is in favour of it. It is going to make huge benefits for Victoria.

It is going to—particularly for regional farmers and regional small businesses—this is going to be a great piece of nation-building infrastructure and the funding model's right. The project's right. We're getting people on board. It's a good project. And as I say it's been discussed for many, many decades, time to get on and do it.

Virginia Trioli: I don't imagine it's going to stick to the timeline, just to quickly finish off this part of the conversation. Far be it from me to give you advice, but no bit of infrastructure that big ever really sticks to the timeline does it?

Michael McCormack: The first 600 tonnes of steel were dropped off at Peak Hill in Central Western New South Wales on 15 January. Red-letter day as far as the project's concerned. It's a goer. It's going to be built.

Virginia Trioli: Alright, let's turn to the Barrier Reef issue and the philanthropist Michael Myer of the Myer family, who helped set up the Great Barrier Reef Foundation says—and I'm quoting him here: it's shocking and almost mind blowing that the organisation's been given almost half a billion dollars in funding, that now controversial funding. He says the foundation is not equipped to handle about 100 times more money than it's used to dealing with. Is it time to admit that this was a mistake to hand this money to that organisation?

Michael McCormack: The foundation has an impressive record at delivering on-ground benefits to the Reef, working with a variety of stakeholders.

Virginia Trioli: On a very, very small scale. On a very small scale. That's the view of the man who actually set this up and who's a big philanthropist himself. That this is so many more times the amount of money. You can't afford to bring on, like a pink batts situation for yourself, can you?

Michael McCormack: And we're not. And I don't know why people are opposing spending money on the Reef. Our investment is going to put the Reef are in the best position to regenerate and remain resilient in the face of multiple threats.

Virginia Trioli: Deputy Prime Minister, I had to jump in there. You know very well that the opposition to this is the way in which it was done and whether public money is going to the right organisation. It's not about funding for the Reef, it's about to whom or to what it goes.

Michael McCormack: Well ultimately it is funding for the Reef.

Virginia Trioli: Only if it goes to the right place otherwise it's up in smoke.

Michael McCormack: Tony Burke, when he was Environment Minister gave the foundation money. The foundation has a strong record…

Virginia Trioli: Wasn't half a billion.

Michael McCormack: That's the sort of investment that we believe—and I'm sure the people of Australia believe—that the Reef deserves, and wants and needs and is getting.

And I live in a land-locked electorate in South-West New South Wales. The biggest issue from my local constituents last year—according to the number of emails and letters and other correspondence that they sent me—was the Reef. And that's in the Riverina in New South Wales, very much landlocked.

It's an important issue for a lot of people, particularly young people who want the Reef for the future. It's their Reef, it's our Reef, we need to make sure we preserve the Reef and that's what we're doing.

Virginia Trioli: Moving on to the NEG—and maybe I should put to you the question that's popped up here on our text service this morning. Someone asking a very simple question, what is the NEG? I don't know if you want to actually dive into that one this morning because bigger brains than us struggle to even explain what that might be [laughs].

Michael McCormack: Well, it's a policy plan to retain existing resources, encourage new investment in the National Electricity Market, while ensuring that emissions standards and levels are met.

Virginia Trioli: That will do [laughs].

Michael McCormack: Yep, okay. And mainly it's to get power prices down. That's the biggest thing. Reliability—but most of all affordability. And Daniel Andrews and Victorian Labor, they're standing in the way from Victorians getting cheaper power.

Virginia Trioli: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, even the Opposition Leader is calling on the states to reach agreement with you over the NEG.

Should you get the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, to negotiate on your behalf with the Victorian Government? Because that's the implication of what he's saying. The Victorian Labor Government should somehow negotiate with you, you should give ground too. Could he be used as a negotiator here?

Michael McCormack: Well, if Bill Shorten is committed to getting Victorians lower power prices, Bill Shorten should ring up Daniel Andrews this morning and say just that.

Virginia Trioli: What's the sticking point that you believe you can move on when it comes down to this? It would seem from everything that I've read and observed—when it comes at least to the Victorian State Government—it's about whether, when it comes to emissions reduction, that's enacted by legislation or regulation. It would seem that the Federal Government's not prepared to move on that. It should be legislation, correct?

Michael McCormack: Well, it's been discussed for quite some time now. And at the eleventh hour, Daniel Andrews, playing politics, is just standing in the way. And he's standing in the way of Victorians getting cheaper power bills.

Virginia Trioli: Yeah but no, answer my question about whether you really are not moving on whether it should be enacted by a legislation or regulation?

Michael McCormack: I think the negotiations are going to take place between Josh Frydenberg and the states. And I'll leave that up to Josh Frydenberg, he's done an outstanding job so far. We stand for cheaper power bills.

Virginia Trioli: You don't seem to have a view on this.

Michael McCormack: Well, I do have a view on it but I'm going to leave that to Josh Frydenberg. He's the Minister, he's done an outstanding job and I think I'll let him continue those discussions and negotiations.

We want to get this NEG up. It's important for power bills. It's important for affordable, reliable and secure energy going forward and that's where we stand.

Virginia Trioli: Alright if you're just joining us it's 16 minutes to nine on ABC Melbourne. Michael McCormack is with you this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister, talking about a number of big political issues of the day.

Let's move on to something else. The growing calls, Mr McCormack, for the former Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, being urged to forego hundreds of thousands of dollars from his taxpayer-funded pension and entitlements that he receives every year.

Given everything that's happened—that he was forced to resign, of course, back in 2003 as Governor-General and that the Royal Commission described him as having made a rather gross error of judgement in how he allowed a paedophile priest to continue in their position, should he?

Michael McCormack: I'll leave that for others to decide. But there have been precedents where people who have been earning those sorts of entitlements—and I use that word in inverted commas—after their public service has finished that they have lost those entitlements. But I'll leave that for others to decide.

Virginia Trioli: Again, you don't have a view on that one?

Michael McCormack: There's been a lot of conjecture, sure. But he's also been getting that money for a long time since those allegations have surfaced and since he stood down as Governor-General.

Virginia Trioli: Of course the decision though, and the finding by the Royal Commission is a lot more recent. Doesn't that change matters?

Michael McCormack: Well, it does. But again, I will leave that for others to decide.

Virginia Trioli: How quickly would the Commonwealth like to see standardisation of laws between the states over the criminal offence of failing to report child abuse?

Michael McCormack: Christian Porter is certainly working on those sorts of matters at the moment. Obviously the sooner the better.

Virginia Trioli: Okay. Let's move on to population, shall we? Senator Dean Smith is saying that the Government should—quote—listen to the mood of the electorate and support a Senate inquiry into population. Your Multicultural Affairs Minister, Alan Tudge, is saying still that there's no need. What's your view?

Michael McCormack: Senate inquiries often throw up some interesting positions—those sorts of things can't hurt. We are having a discussion about population and going forward. And certainly that's why we've got a 10 year enterprise tax plan to make sure we get the tax measures right. And certainly we've got a 10 year pipeline of investment as far as infrastructure, making sure that we build the roads, the rail, all the necessary pieces of infrastructure to get Australians home sooner and safer whilst allowing for a growing economy and a growing population.

And the other thing that we're certainly doing is making sure that our regions are strong. When our regions are strong, so too is our nation. So long as we've got the jobs, the housing affordability is, of course, important. And that's why those sorts of discussions are taking place, about population, particularly in line with the fact that we ticked over 25 million just the other night.

Virginia Trioli: That's exactly why the conversation's being had. Mr McCormack, we'd love to have you back on again. But I will have to put to you what's being said on the text message service this morning. I'll read it as is—you'd think a Deputy Prime Minister should have a say on all of these issues; the issues I've been putting to you this morning that it would seem you've been pretty much ducking all of.

Michael McCormack: I have had a say. Certainly on Inland Rail—transformational. Population—we're having the discussion. All those sorts of matters. And the NEG—if we want to get cheaper power, we need to get this NEG through. We need to make sure that the Victorian Labor Government puts the people of Victoria first and helps put power bills down.

Daniel Andrews, that's your job, mate. Make sure that you get power bills down, support the NEG.

Virginia Trioli: Good to talk to you this morning, Michael McCormack, thank you.

Michael McCormack: Any time, Virginia. Thank you.

Virginia Trioli: The Deputy Prime Minister there, Michael McCormack.