The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Chris Bowen

Chris Bowen

Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law

9 June 2009 - 14 September 2010

Transcript of 18/03/2010

Interview with Ashleigh Gillon

AM Agenda, Sky News

Thursday, 18 March 2010

SUBJECTS: Stern Hu trial, asylum seekers, Building the Education Revolution, National Broadband Network, Opposition obstructionism.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:

Joining me here in Canberra for reaction to that story and other political issues around today, Human and Financial Services and Superannuation Minister, Chris Bowen. Good morning.

CHRIS BOWEN:

Good morning, Ashleigh.

GILLON:

And the Shadow Education Minister and Manager of Opposition Business, Chris Pyne. Good morning to you.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Morning, Ashleigh.

GILLON:

Chris Bowen, let’s start with you. Are you confident that Stern Hu can receive a fair trial in China?

BOWEN:

Well, we would prefer that this trial was completely open. As I understand it, one of the parties to the trial have asked for part of the trial to be closed because there is commercial-in-confidence information available.

We still hold the view that it would be better if it were all open and public. We have communicated that to the Chinese Government and we will continue to make our views known to the Chinese Government. We of course have to respect the Chinese legal system. We do, but nevertheless, we are asking for that to be made public. We think that’s consistent with the consular agreements between Australia and China, and we will be making that point.    

GILLON:

Chris Pyne, apart from requesting an open court session for the full trial, there’s not much else the Australian Government can do, is there?

PYNE:

Well, the reality is that we do have to respect the fact that Mr Hu is in China and therefore he’s subject to the Chinese legal system. If he was in Australia, he would be subject to ours. But we shouldn’t cast aspersions about the Chinese legal system.

The Government has made the correct requests of the Chinese Government. Obviously, in Australia we believe in fair and open trials that are available to the public, but we also have our own rules in respect to the suppression of names etcetera, but we don’t generally hold courts in secret.

But I think we need to wait and see the process that occurs in China and how the outcome is arrived at. But we would also in the Opposition join with the Government in suggesting that the trial be open to everyone, but that’s really a matter for the Chinese Government.

GILLON:

And it is scheduled to begin at 8.30 on Monday morning, so hopefully we’ll learn a lot more information about this case when that does happen.

Looking at what’s been on top of the agenda here in Parliament House over the last couple of days, or at least yesterday, we heard that the Northern Territory coroner had asked police to decide whether three of those asylum seekers who’d been involved in that boat blast last year should face criminal charges. That was the explosion that killed five people.

Chris Bowen, why should these people have been given visas in the first place, considering that now whether or not they might have participated in criminal conduct is under examination?

BOWEN:

The process, as laid out in the law, was followed to the letter. The Northern Territory police were consulted and the Northern Territory police agreed with the decision to grant them visas. These matters are covered in the Act, and there is a convention in place about how to deal with matters such as this when they arise and that’s what the Minister will be doing.

And it is not helpful to the process of law and making sure that these people are dealt with under the process of law, with the full force of the Australian law, for aspersions to be made and requests to be made by the Opposition that the visas should be torn up today. There’s a process in place; it’s very important for that process to be followed.

GILLON:

Chris Pyne, don’t we believe in people being proven guilty? Before that, they’re innocent, aren’t they? So why should these visas be revoked before the court system has gone through all its processes, as Chris Bowen said?

PYNE:

Well, Ashleigh, this is a very murky story and it goes to the general competence of the Government yet again, in another area, because these three people who’ve been given permanent protection visas could have been given temporary safe haven visas last October.

The question that the Government needs to answer is why did people who were part of a situation where Australian servicemen and women were in danger – five people perished in the explosion on Siev 36 – were immediately given permanent protection visas when they could have been given temporary safe haven visas. Because of that decision, we’re now in the situation where the Government’s hands are essentially tied, and that goes to their general competence. Any competent Government would have said, ‘Let’s give them a temporary safe haven visa in the short term and await the coroner’s outcome’.

Yesterday in the Parliament, Kevin Rudd said that he wouldn’t make any decisions about their permanent protection visas being revoked until the NT DPP had made their decision. But apparently, it was okay to give them the permanent protection visa even before the Northern Territory coronial inquest. So yet again, the Government, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. 

GILLON:

Is the Opposition not worried, though, that it could be prejudicing this trial by making these sorts of assertions?

PYNE:

Well, that is a complete red herring that the Attorney-General raised yesterday in Question Time. There is no trial. These three men have not yet been charged with anything. The DPP is considering whether charges should be laid. There’s been a very adverse finding in a Northern Territory coronial inquest; that is quite a different matter.

Yet again, the Government was trying to shut down debate and not be scrutinised, to be held accountable for the fact that three people who’ve been found to be of pretty poor character have been given permanent protection visas when the initial decision should have been that they were given temporary safe haven visas. And Kevin Rudd again fell back on, ‘These decisions were made by officials’. Now, apparently we have a Prime Minister who is a control freak who makes every decision in the Government, and yet whenever a decision’s a bad decision, he always says it was somebody else’s idea, not his.

GILLON:

Chris Bowen, what do you make of the argument that we also heard from the Opposition yesterday that the decision to give that visa to these people at the beginning sends a very bad message to other people who might be wanting to come to Australian waters and hoping to get visas here?

BOWEN:

Well, this is the typical Opposition playbook. The Opposition says unless we bring back TPVs, unless we process people on far off Pacific islands, unless we put children behind bars, then we’re sending the wrong messages.

Well, we have the approach to say that we need to send a strong message about our border protection, but we need to have appropriately measured situations in place, and that’s what we’ll do.

The Opposition would have you ignore the situation in Afghanistan, ignore the situation in Sri Lanka, and say, ‘If only we put children back behind bars, if only we’d kept people in limbo and put them on TPVs people would stop coming’. Well, of course that’s nonsense. People will keep coming to Italy, Greece, Canada, and yes, some will try and get to Australia when their countries are in very difficult circumstances.

GILLON:

Okay. I want to move onto another story that directly relates to your portfolio, Chris Pyne. This is a story on the front page of The Australian newspaper today. It claims there’s been a major blowout in the costs of the Government’s BER program, which of course is the one that delivered thousands of school halls and libraries and sporting fields and stadiums and that sort of thing across the country.

This report says that the state of New South Wales has now provided a breakdown of costs associated with those projects and found that many of the initial cost estimates for those projects didn’t include a range of fees.

Chris Bowen, the New South Wales Upper House is launching an inquiry into this. Will the Federal Government investigate too?

BOWEN:

Well, this is the most transparent program perhaps in Australia’s history, Ashleigh. This is the biggest school rebuilding program in Australia’s history. There’s 24,000 projects. There’s been 300 boxes of information made available already to the New South Wales Parliament, and I know Chris and his colleagues have enjoyed going through those 24,000 projects and through those 300 boxes and enjoyed making all sorts of spurious allegations about some of those projects.

Now, to take today’s example: there were some costings prepared very early in the process, which were generic, not relating to particular sites, which didn’t take into account site costs and the degree of flatness or otherwise of the land and the particular circumstances. It is singularly unsurprising that when you come to actually design a particular building and you take into account the circumstances of the site, then the quote changes, and that’s how buildings work.

GILLON:

Shouldn’t they have been taken into account at the very beginning, though?

BOWEN:

But this was a generic document about what a generic building might cost across the board. When you come to look at a particular school and the particular circumstances of that school, then the situation’s going to change. That’s as is appropriate. 

GILLON:

So does the Government know how big this cost blowout is?

BOWEN:

Well this is, as I say, the biggest school rebuilding program in Australian history: 24,000 projects across the country.

PYNE:

Why don’t you answer the question?

BOWEN:

Well, why don’t you let me answer the question?

PYNE:

Well look, you’re having a good run but you haven’t answered the question. 

BOWEN:

Well, Ashleigh asked the question so you –

GILLON:

Okay, so let’s go back to that question, which was how much is this cost blowout going to cost taxpayers?

BOWEN:

Well, I don’t necessarily accept, Ashleigh, when you say ‘this cost blowout’, referring to this morning’s newspaper article, that there is a cost blowout.

GILLON:

But you’ve already said in your answer before that costs are much higher than you initially anticipated.

BOWEN:

No, there is a change in parameters with some projects.

GILLON:

Which means the costs are higher.

BOWEN:

And we have indicated some time ago – as part of, I think it was, from memory, the MYEFO process or a recalibration – that we would recalibrate the cost of the stimulus package in relation to some projects costing less than we might have originally estimated and other projects costing more, so that the total funding envelope was the same.

GILLON:

Chris Pyne, you have, I guess, been through these pages and pages detailing all these costs and different sorts of projects. Do you have any idea from what you’ve come up with as to what sort of costs we are looking at?

PYNE:

Well, we know that the Building the Education Revolution, so called, has officially already blown out by $1.7 billion. So it’s now $16.5 billion and we know that within that, there’s been a great deal of waste and mismanagement and duplication and over-inflation of quotes, etcetera. I mean, everyone’s talking about it.

What I found most amazing about Chris Bowen’s response is that, in the light of the home insulation scandal, which has been an absolute debacle, we’re now having exactly the same defences being put about the Building the Education Revolution, where apparently anybody else is wrong; all the evidence they’re being presented with is either made up or spurious or aspersions; and we get weasel words from Ministers trying to defend it. I mean, you asked Chris Bowen some pretty specific questions and all we heard about was exactly the same blah blah that we get from the Government all the time, about, you know, how ‘it’s not our responsibility; it’s somebody else’s. It’s not really a policy’.

BOWEN:

I didn’t say that at all. Don’t put words in my mouth. Don’t verbal me.

PYNE:

If there really wasn’t a problem, why is there an Auditor-General’s inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution nationally; an audit in New South Wales being conducted by the New South Wales Department of Education; calls for an audit being conducted by the Auditor-General in New South Wales alone; a Senate inquiry; an Upper House inquiry in New South Wales? I mean, the dogs are barking and the Government just is putting its hands over its ears and saying, ‘No, there really isn’t a problem’.

BOWEN:

Well, I mean, the Liberal Party never wanted this program in the first place. They didn’t believe that it’s part of the response to the Global Financial Crisis; we should invest in schools and create jobs and improve the infrastructure around education. I mean, I represent – 

GILLON:

That doesn’t mean it’s the Opposition’s fault, though, that this has happened.

BOWEN:

No, of course, but the Opposition having not supported this in the first place, of course they’re desperate to try and –

PYNE:

What’s that got to do with it being a mess?

BOWEN:

No, because you are trying to justify your position of opposing this. Now, I represent a western Sydney electorate. This is the biggest boon for schools in disadvantaged areas and elsewhere across the country that we’ve seen for some time. This will improve educational outcomes and provide jobs and improve efficiency in our schools. I actually think that’s a good thing. I know Chris loves to sit on the sidelines and –

PYNE:

How will a covered outdoor learning area improve education?

BOWEN:

Well, if you don’t understand that, Chris, you should spend some more time in schools.

PYNE:

Well, I have four children.

BOWEN:

And learning areas: that’s what schools are for.

GILLON:

We are running out of time. Let’s move onto the National Broadband Network. Now, the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s under pressure to release a $25 million study into this NBN. It seems like an awful lot of money, but that aside for a second, the Minister’s also refusing to release that implementation study. Why is that, Chris?

BOWEN:

Well, it’s only just been received by the Government, Ashleigh, and I think it’s reasonable –

GILLON:

So when was it received?

BOWEN:

It was received in the last few weeks, is my understanding, and it’s reasonable that we work it through and we decide how to deal with that report once the Minister’s had the chance to digest it. It’s as simple as that.

GILLON:

Why should the Senate debate this NBN, though, before all of the Senators have been able to also have the benefits of going through this full report like the Government? 

BOWEN:

There’s a huge amount of information out there about how important this program is for Australia’s economic future.

GILLON:

If it’s so crucial for the Government Ministers to have to go through step by step, all of these things being raised in this implementation study, then it’s fair enough that Green senators and the Coalition Senators should have access to the same information.

BOWEN:

Well, it’s also fair enough that the Minister has the chance to go through it, to digest it and to consider how to deal with it.

GILLON:

And I’m guessing that this study must have some commercial-in-confidence material; that’s been another issue raised as to why it isn’t out there just yet. Is there really an obligation for the Government to release this report now?

PYNE:

Well, Ashleigh, it’s a $43 billion project, apparently, and the Government expects the Senate to sign off on all of its legislation on the back of an envelope’s planning. Now, this Minister, Minister Conroy, has already been in hot water over a number of issues.

Why on earth would the Coalition trust the Government to deliver a $43 billion project when they haven’t been able to deliver school halls, they haven’t been able to put insulation in people’s homes. They’re asking them to trust us with the hospital system, with the tax system and with the $43 billion National Broadband Network. It is farcical.

GILLON:

It looks like the NBN is going to be just another piece of legislation that the Coalition is looking at blocking. Are you worried that the Coalition is starting to look very obstructionist and voters might be seeing you and your party as just holding things up in the Senate?

PYNE:

I think the public would be shocked if the Senate passed a piece of legislation that was a $43 billion project without having seen the information that the Minister is relying on to introduce it. Now, if it’s such a great idea, if this KPMG-McKinsey report, which is 500 pages, says that this is the most marvellous plan and its implementation program, why wouldn’t they want to release it?

GILLON:

Chris Bowen, there’s still a lot of legislation the Government’s trying to get through the Senate and time is running out. There’s not many weeks left of sitting this year and say, with an election in October or around there, the sitting weeks – I think there must be five or so left – how on earth are you going to get all this legislation through? The ETS being the big one, of course. 

BOWEN:

Well, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge dealing with an obstructionist Opposition. Well, it’s a fact, Chris. It’s a fact.

PYNE:

Well, I’m happy to go through the list of legislation which you’ve banked up.

BOWEN:

So am I. So am I.

PYNE:

Which you’ve banked up. And hasn’t even been introduced yet.

GILLON:

Okay.

BOWEN:

I’m more than happy to go through a list of legislation, many of which is implementing election commitments. The Opposition likes to say we haven’t met our election commitments but some of them we haven’t have because they won’t let us get through the Senate. Well, we don’t have the numbers in the Senate.

PYNE:

We’re about to have a seven-week break.

BOWEN:

We don’t have the numbers in the Senate. Well, do you want the Senate to come back?

PYNE:

I think we should be sitting a great deal more.

BOWEN:

Well, if you want to talk to your Senators about coming back and then –

PYNE:

No, no, the Government schedules the list of the sitting days. The paid parental leave legislation hasn’t even been introduced.

BOWEN:

Yeah, well, it starts on the first of January next year.

PYNE:

Apparently we’re blocking it and it hasn’t even been introduced yet.

BOWEN:

Well, it starts on the first of January next year.

PYNE:

The Emissions Trading Scheme is not on the agenda.

GILLON:

As the Minister says, it is a struggle and one it doesn’t seem like the Government’s going to get through everything, at least in those next few weeks of sitting after the break comes back. Of course we will see both of you back here in Canberra back then.

Chris Bowen, Chris Pyne, thanks so much for joining us.

PYNE:

Thank you, Ashleigh.

BOWEN:

Thanks, Ash.