Transcript, ABC News with Jane Norman

Jane Norman: Alan Tudge, welcome to the program.

Alan Tudge: G'day Jane.

Jane Norman: Well, the Victorian State Government today has announced a $600 million package to fix hundreds of buildings with high-risk cladding and it’s asking for some Commonwealth assistance. Is this a request that you'd consider?

Alan Tudge: This is a good announcement from the State Government that they’re getting on with the job of trying to fix some of those really serious issues which people are facing in relation to cladding. In relation to what the Federal Government's role is, this will be no doubt brought up at the ministerial meeting on Thursday which Karen Andrews is leading.

Most importantly, I think that Karen Andrews is trying to establish some national consistency across regulations state by state. In terms of the particular funding proposal, that will no doubt be considered by Minister Andrews and the Prime Minister in due course.

Jane Norman: That meeting is looking at, as you say, national regulations. The Minister wants to put together a taskforce to work with the states and territories to come up with some sort of nationally consistent building code, if you want to call it that. It’s about time the states and territories signed on to that, isn't it?

Alan Tudge: At the end of the day, these things are governed by the states and territories but Minister Andrews has showed some leadership in trying to bring people together and have some, I think, greater national consistency across the country. So let's hope that there’s a constructive meeting on Thursday when all the building ministers get together to discuss this.

Jane Norman: Several building groups or industry groups have written to the Minister asking her to act on this issue, saying that the Federal Government needs to restore confidence in the building sector. We understand it's going through a real crisis of confidence at the moment. But given the apartment block disasters we've seen in Sydney, Melbourne, given the cladding issues, they haven't exactly covered themselves in glory, have they, this industry?

Alan Tudge: As I said, they’re largely governed by the states and territories, these matters. But Karen Andrews is trying to take some national role here and provide some national leadership. I’ll leave the rest of the commentary to her in relation to it. But obviously, it's not great for individual residents if you have bought a house or an apartment and thinking that it’s going to be a safe apartment and then you only discover down the track that it's actually not a safe place to live and there's costs associated with that. So, that’s the issue at hand. I think Daniel Andrews made a good announcement today, and let's see what evolves from the meeting on Thursday.

Jane Norman: Do you think other states and territories should take Daniel Andrews' lead in terms of actually putting to some state government money to fix cladding issues in other states and territories?

Alan Tudge: Well, they’ll each have to consider that and I think they’ll be looking very closely at what Daniel Andrews did today. But I’ll leave the rest of the commentary, Jane, on that to Minister Andrews, and she’ll have more to say on this today, no doubt, as well as on Thursday after the meeting.

Jane Norman: All right, under your portfolio, Infrastructure, you are today urging the states and territories to bring forward some projects they’ve got in the pipeline to help boost economic activity. So where are these projects and are any of them, as they say, shovel ready?

Alan Tudge: Yeah Jane there’s a couple of issues here. My most important point that I’ve been saying today is that we’ve actually got a massive infrastructure pipeline underway right now. In fact, only five years ago, the federal expenditure was $50 billion. Now, it's $100 billion of investment and this, in some respects, deals with some of the Reserve Bank Governor's comments in relation to needing to put infrastructure into place in order to support the economy. We are doing that.

But there are also opportunities to fast-track some other projects, and there’s three areas which I think that we can do that in. Firstly, in some of the projects which we have planned underway at the moment, if they’re able to be brought forward, then we're willing to negotiate the funding there.

Second, there’s some projects which we’ve put money on the table where the state governments haven't yet committed to, and the biggest one there is the East West Link here in Melbourne. But thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is that we've announced 160 smaller urban congestion projects, suburb by suburb, and we really want to get those going as quickly as possible, because it means that you fix up those urban congestion hotspots. But it also means you’re putting in $5 million, $10 million, $20 million into a local community, and that means jobs and that means economic growth in those particular suburbs as well.

Jane Norman: You mention East West Link there but the Victorian Daniel Andrews Government doesn't want that project, so aren't you kind of flogging your dead horse here?

Alan Tudge: We’ll be continuing to push this project until it is complete.

Jane Norman: But is that the role of a Commonwealth Government? Isn't it up to the states to decide where urban infrastructure should go?

Alan Tudge: Well, increasingly, the Federal Government does have a role in setting priorities as well. Now, another big project here in Victoria where we put it on the agenda and did convince the State Government to come on board is with the Airport Rail Link. Now, we put $5 billion on the table just a little over 12 months ago now. It took a while for the State Government to agree to it but now they have and we’ll finally get that rail link built, and everybody agrees that that needs to be constructed.

There’s also almost a strong view that the East West Link does need to be constructed as well. Certainly, Infrastructure Victoria has said that. Infrastructure Australia has said that. The 50,000 people who take the Eastern Freeway every single day know it has to be completed. And we’ve said to the State Government that we’re willing to pay for the entire government share of that road for it to be built, and so we’ll still be putting pressure on the State Government to take up that offer and get that road completed.

Jane Norman: Okay. So in your negotiations with the states and territories over the possibility of bringing forward some sort of state-based infrastructure projects, would you at the same time commit to expediting Commonwealth approvals? Because, as I understand it, there are some state projects waiting but they’re still waiting for their federal funding to be approved.

Alan Tudge: What typically happens is that we'll profile our federal contributions to a road according to what the construction time frame is that the state governments have set. Now, if the state governments want to fast-track those construction time frames, then we're open to looking at whether or not we can re-profile our funding to match that and that's what we’ve said today. On top of that, if there are other projects which we have got federal money associated with, and I mentioned the East West Link but there’s others as well, that the State Government wants to get going on, we’ll be able to bring forward that money as well to get on with those projects. East West Link being one of them, the Rowville Rail. Obviously, over in Western Australia, there is the Roe 8 and 9 Project as well.

Jane Norman: During the election campaign, Labor promised that it would restore Infrastructure Australia to what it once was, give it back its independence and make it the pre-eminent advisory body on infrastructure.

Now, the argument was this would address issues with pork barrelling by both parties and would also address what they described as the short-termism of thinking when it comes to these big infrastructure projects. Is this something that you should consider? Would it actually help you get more bipartisan support with the states for big projects?

Alan Tudge: Well, Infrastructure Australia still is an independent body, operates at arm's length from the Federal Government, and every single major project that we fund will go to Infrastructure Australia first. It will be assessed by Infrastructure Australia to determine the cost benefit analysis before any funding is determined and provided for that particular project.

They do some great work in terms of working out where you do get the highest bang for your buck in terms of their priority list, which they put out regularly, and we do pay close attention to that priority list. And so we’ll continue to work with Infrastructure Australia, we’ll continue to listen to them and we’ll continue to invest in record amounts into infrastructure overall.

Jane Norman: You may listen to them, but it's not always the case that you actually take their advice. Isn't that correct?

Alan Tudge: Well, at the end of the day these big, often billion dollar decisions, are decisions of Government so we will listen to the advice of Infrastructure Australia. It’s always considered and we take heed of that. But at the end of the day, governments will make decisions, particularly when they are, as I said, billion dollar decisions or hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re big decisions for governments and we’ll take those appropriately.

Jane Norman: Okay Alan Tudge, I want to ask you about constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians. The Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt put forward his ambition last week for a referendum in this term of Parliament. How realistic do you think that is?

Alan Tudge: Well, I do think it is realistic. And Ken Wyatt is the person that would be able to do it.

It's going to be tough though and we need to work steadily and we need to bring everybody along the journey. And that's what Ken Wyatt has articulated. Because unless you actually get a very broad consensus across the community, you won't be successful in getting a referendum question up. That's been the experience across time.

As you probably know, only eight referendum questions out of 44 have been successful and the last really substantial one that passed was the 1967 referendum. So, we have got to be cautious here, we’ve got to be steady, we’ve got to bring people along the journey, and that's what Ken Wyatt has committed to doing and working very closely with Linda Burney, who's his shadow from the Labor Party, as well as other members of the Parliament.

Jane Norman: There’s long been a divide in this debate between those advocating symbolic recognition and those wanting something more substantial; certainly Indigenous communities made it pretty clear through the Uluru Statementthat they want substantial change. What are your thoughts? Which side of this debate do you fall on?

Alan Tudge: We've said, and the Prime Minister’s indicated this, that we’ve got some reservations in relation to this voice concept, which came out of the Uluru Statement, but we are committed to having Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. I guess at the end of the day, we do have to get a broad consensus across, at the very least both parties, but also across Indigenous Australia as well. And that’s the real challenge here.

And different people have got different views on this, but unless we do come together and reach a broad consensus across Indigenous Australia, across the two major parties and, indeed, bringing the rest of the Australian public on board, then we won't be successful and we won't get a good outcome.

I have always thought, to be honest, Jane, that the process itself is as important as the outcome. Because the process is making us think very deeply about what is unique about Indigenous Australians to this country, and how we properly do recognise them as a people and the fact that they’ve been here for 40,000 or 50,000 years, and we have to go through that discussion still before we get to the final outcome.

Jane Norman: So, the Voice appears to be one of the more contentious issues. Whether or not it gets into the Constitution is one question. Do you think there could be a compromise, whereby the voice to Parliament, as some sort of advisory body, becomes a legislated body, something that the Parliament determines?

Alan Tudge: Yeah this will be something which Ken Wyatt will have to consider in the discussions. At the moment, obviously we have committed to go through this process and to see how far we can get through this process, which Ken is leading. We have for some time have had a Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, which has provided advice to government and there's been some very good people on those Indigenous Advisory Councils, which has provided that advice.

Whether or not we get to what you're discussing there, I don't know. That will be, time will tell going through the current process, as to how far we get.

Jane Norman: Okay and just finally, from one very complex and divisive issue to another, and that is religious freedoms. Your colleague, the Attorney-General Christian Porter, is drafting a religious discrimination bill. There are calls in the party to go a bit further, though, and actually enshrine religious freedoms in legislation. What are your thoughts on that? Would that be going too far?

Alan Tudge: Again Jane, as you pointed out, this is a really sensitive matter, which we do have to carefully work through. We are 100 per cent committed, though, to introducing a religious discrimination bill. We do want to ensure that people can practise their faith freely in this country as one of the fundamental rights which people should have.

But there's some really tricky issues which need to be worked through very calmly and very sensitively. We don't want to make this a divisive issue, but we do want do introduce this bill and make sure there are proper protections for people to exercise their own faith.

Jane Norman: So you seem to be falling on the side of the religious discrimination bill, as opposed to going further and enshrining rights in legislation?

Alan Tudge: Well, that's been the commitment which we have made, is to introduce that religious discrimination bill. But again, we're taking this very calmly and methodically and we do want to bring the Australian people with us so it doesn't become a divisive issue. It's important for a great many Australians and we recognise that.

We recognise that religious freedoms are fundamental to people's identity and who they are as a person. But we have just got to get this right and therefore the Attorney-General's just calmly going about this, consulting broadly, until we get the right answer.

Jane Norman: So you say that it's important to people of faith that you’ve obviously been speaking to, but it's been difficult finding actual examples where people's freedoms have been eroded. Philip Ruddock's own review into the religious freedoms in Australia found that it was A) hard to find examples of this in real life and B) that Australians largely enjoy a very high level of religious freedom. So why is this an issue that the Government needs to be legislating?

Alan Tudge: At the same time, Philip Ruddock did outline 20 recommendations and we've adopted 15 of those recommendations and the other five more complex ones we have sent to the Australian Law Reform Commission to examine. He did identify a number of issues and consequently we are enacting those recommendations, or at least 15 initially, while the other five are getting further consideration.

Jane Norman: All right Alan Tudge, we’ll have to leave it there but thank you for your time.

Alan Tudge: Thanks very much Jane.