PATRICIA KARVELAS, PRESENTER: It's six past 6. It may seem hard to believe, but it's a year since Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott to become Prime Minister.
The Coalition are still living with the consequences of that decision, but aside from the slimmest of election victories, what exactly has the government achieved since then? That's the question being asked. I'm joined tonight by the assistant minister to the Prime Minister, Senator James McGrath, and the Shadow Assistant, I think the assistant minister for the region, Stephen Jones. Welcome to you both.
SENATOR JAMES MCGRATH, ASSISTANT MINISTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER: Hey, good to be with you.
STEPHEN JONES MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS: Good evening.
KERVELAS: James McGrath, today's Senate filibuster has been described as farcical and a show about nothing. Why didn't the Government have any bills ready for debate?
MCGRATH: I disagree about it being a filibuster. I think the address-and-reply is an important part of the opening of any parliament, and as parliamentarians, the address-and-reply is one of those rare opportunities when you can talk about anything you want to talk about. I am a cheerful flag nut. I love the flag. I think our flag is fantastic, so I took the opportunity to speak for about, as part of the 20-minute speech, I spoke about five minutes on the flag. It happens to also be one of my ministerial responsibilities, and that is how I segued into the Last Night of the Proms, which I do think is a fantastic program, because I was so proud to see last night lots of Australian flags splattered throughout Albert Hall, and I thought it's fantastic how our flag goes around the world.
KERVELAS: With respect, we don't actually elect Senators to talk about their favourite TV shows here or in the Senate. How do you think it looks when people see Senators on six-figure salaries talking about their favourite TV shows because there's no work to do?
MCGRATH: I was talking about the flag. I'm not going to apologise for talking about the flag. I think the flag is a wonderful symbol of our national unity.
KERVELAS: Sure, but the question is, why didn't you have more important things to do like, I don't know, passing legislation?
MCGRATH: Without wanting to bore you or your listeners any more than I do by me speaking, the address-and-reply is one of those rare opportunities for Senators to talk about anything they wish to talk about, and I am very proud of our flag and I spoke about our flag. I proudly spoke about how I saw it last night –
KERVELAS: I have to get in here. Let's save people from your favourite TV show. My question is -
MCGRATH: You're the one who keeps talking about my favourite TV show. I keep talking about -
KERVELAS: You talked about it in the Senate and you would -
MCGRATH: I talked about the flag.
KERVELAS: Why would you –
MCGRATH: I love the flag and I –
KERVELAS: Why would you –
MCGRATH: I spoke about Ewen Jones, I spoke about Wyatt Roy –
KERVELAS: The question is why –
MCGRATH: I spoke about Labor –
KERVELAS: Why weren’t you doing anything substantive that would take the country forward?
MCGRATH: We spend a lot of time in the Senate doing a lot of talking, and one of the things as politicians that we've got to do is we've got to communicate with people in relation to the issues, and I think one of my ministerial responsibilities is the flag. I'm not going to apologise for talking about the flag. If that is a crime, lock me up and throw away the key.
KERVELAS: All right. Stephen Jones, he just wants to talk about the flag. I've heard alleged by the Coalition that you're trying to derail the agenda, make it difficult for the Government to actually talk about substantive issues. How do you respond to that plan?
JONES: It’s very difficult to derail an agenda that doesn't exist, and that's the big problem. That's why James was struggling in the Senate today. Normally the -
MCGRATH: I wasn’t struggling about the flag.
JONES: Normally, the address-and-reply is the opportunity for you to talk about the vision for your state, in the case of Senators, the vision for the next term of Parliament, what you want to do for the country. The problem that James like every other Coalition MP and Senator has is they don't have a clear vision, and because they don't have a clear vision, a clear agenda, they don't have legislation, which means the Senate's been dragged back for a full, probably a day, maybe two days earlier than it needs to be, because it hasn't got any work to do. That's why you have the ridiculous spectacle of senators getting up there talking about their favourite TV station.
KERVELAS: Got nothing to do, James McGrath?
MCGRATH: No, I keep going back to, the address-and-reply is an opportunity for Senators to talk about the issues that they like. I like the flag, I talked about Ewen Jones, Wyatt Roy, and I would encourage you to listen to my full 20-minute speech and I'm happy to send you a transcript if you wish for some night-time reading. But also, I went on to talk about our national economic plan, because we are the only party that actually has a plan for the economy. What we see from Labor today and last Thursday is that they're a party of stunts. We saw on the last sitting day down the House of Reps, we saw Labor act like a second-rate Inspector Clouseau operation where you had Labor members pretend to leave Parliament. They got in their big white cars and drove around the corner and some hid in the basement and had spotters at the airport. I mean, seriously? You want to talk about politicians wasting taxpayers' money, you want to talk about politicians not dealing with the real issues, here we had Labor just being stunt-o-rama.
KERVELAS: Stephen Jones, I'll bring you in here. You are now employing the sort of tactics Tony Abbott used against Julia Gillard, is that what we're seeing from the Labor Party?
MCGRATH: Tony Abbott never did anything like that. I'm going to jump in there. Tony Abbott did nothing like the stunt that happened on Thursday.
KERVELAS: I have some serious memories of that time and, ooh, some hilarious pictures, too, of the sort of stunts that were played.
JONES: One of my favourite moments was Tony Abbott bolting out of the –
KERVELAS: That’s the one I remember.
JONES: Chamber trying not to be included in the vote that included Craig Thompson. We're not here about the stunts. We assume that we turn up the work and the Government has got an agenda for us to consider, legislation for us to consider. Clearly, that's a reckless assumption. We've got Malcolm Turnbull, 12 months after becoming Prime Minister - he rolled the last prime minister because he said he didn't have a clear agenda and he didn't have a clear way of communicating that agenda. Now we have the Prime Minister who clearly had a plan to get to the top job, but not a plan about what to do when he got it. That's the problem we have. 12, he couldn't name a single thing that he was proud of. In fact, most Australians would look at the last 12 months and say that Malcolm Turnbull's great contribution to the Parliament and the country is calling an early double disillusion election on a pretence of having an unmanageable Senate and getting an even more unmanageable Senate two months later. More than that he has no agenda to put to it.
KERVELAS: Let me tell the listeners who they're listening to. That's Stephen Jones. He's the Shadow Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, and also Senator James McGrath is with us. He's the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and a flag lover. You said, if I can bring you in again, James, you've talked about the Government's agenda, but Malcolm Turnbull's Government has not met any of the expectations people had expected of him, has it?
MCGRATH: What Malcolm is focused on along with Barnaby and Scott and Julie and Fiona is focusing on the national economic plan, on jobs and growth. People now roll their eyes and go, "What's jobs and growth? What is it?" What it is, it's understanding that the Australian economy is transitioning and that we need to look at -
KERVELAS: If people are rolling their eyes, doesn't that mean -
MCGRATH: Because –
KERVELAS: You failed to communicate the message?
MCGRATH: We fail to communicate when we sometimes get interrupted when we're trying to explain it, but what it is that Malcolm over the last 12 months has actually set out the plan. Now it started back in December with the innovation package, $1.2 billion. Then at the beginning of this year, it's $195 billion we're spending on Defence. Under Labor, defence spending went to levels not seen since before World War II. Then we had our taxation package, and then we went to an election, because what we are focusing on, we're not doing stunts in Parliament. We've had a growth over 200,000 jobs over the last 12 months, economic growth is up to 3.3 per cent. As a Senator for Queensland, I can tell you that there are parts of Queensland that are still recovering from when Labor were in power. I can talk about the ban on live exports and the damage that that did to the human infrastructure, to the human capital of Queensland. This is a long-term plan to position Australia, to pivot, to take advantage of being that pivot between Asia, between Great Britain and the EU and America. We are perfectly positioned, but we cannot just be a hole in the ground of a giant sheep station. We've got to be more than that, and that's what Malcolm Turnbull is doing, but what do we hear from Labor? We have politics from Labor, and that's disappointing.
KERVELAS: Let's talk about one of the big issues that I know will be discussed in Cabinet. I'll start with you, Stephen Jones. Why doesn't Labor trust Australians to be able to have a civil debate on the issue of same-sex marriage in a plebiscite?
JONES: It's not a question of whether we trust Australians or not. We do -
KERVELAS: That’s one of the claims. Because Bill Shorten warned today that there would be suicides from the plebiscite –
JONES: Any Member of Parliament –
KERVELAS: But don’t people deserve the right to speech?
JONES: Of course, but with every right comes responsibilities. Every Member of Parliament would be able to give you a box full of emails that they receive not only yearly but a weekly basis. They are from people who take a position in relation to not just same-sex marriage, because most of the objections I get on this, Patricia, aren't about the marriage. They're about the relationship. I get literally truckloads of offensive emails and letters and phone calls about this issue, often from the same people, and I just know that if we're going through a long plebiscite process, there is going to be a platform for that bigotry to be promoted out of the field of emails and letters and onto the national platform. Now, that may be necessary in some circumstances and indeed some countries where their Constitution constraints the Parliament on what the Parliament can actually do, but ours is not one of those countries. Our is a country where our Constitution gives Parliament the power and the capacity to deal with these things. We've just been through an election. We've elected a Parliament and a Senate, sorry, a House of Reps and a Senate where the majority of people support these proposals, so my number one objection is it's unnecessary and expensive, a $160-million opinion poll that then senators like James don't have to follow, so -
KERVELAS: Cabinet is deliberating on this. I know the party room considers it tomorrow. Today there's a deep split, people going on the record, we've heard Warren Entsch, we've heard Eric Abetz, we've heard a number of voices on this issue. There's an argument over whether there will be public funding for a Yes and a No campaign. What's your view? Should taxpayers' money be spent on a Yes and a No campaign?
MCGRATH: I just want to pick up on something that Stephen said -
KERVELAS: Then you'll answer my question, right?
MCGRATH: In relation to – yeah, totally. I'd love to. It's part of my day job. Is that whatever way the plebiscite votes, I will fulfil the wishes of the Australian people. I just want to be clear on that.
KERVELAS: The way Queensland votes or the whole country?
MCGRATH: The whole country. I didn't want listeners to take from his comments, I'm sure he didn't want to insinuate that I would do anything other than that, and I've said that publicly before. In relation to public funding, that's something that Cabinet are looking tonight and the backbench policy committee and party rooms are, and I think it would be premature of me as a member of the Executive to second-guess what's going to happen there, but I do want to say, us politicians, probably sometimes rightly, get smacked around at the chops because we are perceived to break our promises. Now, the promise about the plebiscite is a clear commitment of Malcolm and the Coalition to the Australian people at the last election, that in relation to the issue of gay marriage, that there would be a plebiscite. I in a previous life had a bit to do with campaigns. I think it would be very dangerous for the body politic of Australia, for us to be encouraging politicians to break such a strong commitment to the Australian people. I think that is dangerous. If you are a supporter of gay marriage, the only way that is going to happen in the next three years is if a plebiscite bill go through the Parliament and that the Australian people vote for gay marriage. The government will not be supporting a private members' bill or a bill from the opposition in relation to the -
KERVELAS: Don't you think that if it's blocked, if you of course try and take it to the Parliament and then it's blocked, then that opens the door for another path?
KERVELAS: Why would that be an election promise? You'd be able to say to the electorate, "We took it. The Parliament wouldn't pass it."
MCGRATH: Our words are very clear and our commitment is very clear to the Australian people that they will have their say. I'm disappointed with the Opposition Leader's comments this morning about people committing suicide and whatever. As I said, in a previous life, I -
JONES: You can't deny it's a fact. You can't deny it's a fact that -
MCGRATH: Look, no, sorry. No one is going to commit suicide because of a plebiscite. It's actually offensive of the Labor Party to say that people are going to commit suicide because of a plebiscite. It is outrageously offensive.
JONES: It’s not offensive!
MCGRATH: It is!
JONES: You are sticking your head in a bucket of sand.
MCGRATH: No, I’m not.
JONES: Go and talk to them families –
MCGRATH: Oh, please.
JONES: Go and talk to the young kids –
KERVELAS: James, if I can get in here –
JONES: Who are dealing with their identity –
KERVELAS: Because I’m the host here, RN Drive, Patricia Kervelas, here I am.
MCGRATH: Have control, please.
KERVELAS: I'm trying to! What I'm trying to say to you is, to both of you, actually, I'll challenge, and I'll start with you, James McGrath, there has been evidence from the Irish Referendum that calls from young gay people to those helplines increased, that there were more reports of young vulnerable gay people reporting that they felt under attack during that time. What is your answer on that issue?
MCGRATH: I think without commenting on what happened in Ireland, I think the Australian people are civil enough and adult enough to be engaged in conversation in relation to an issue of such social change. If you do support gay marriage, I think how you'd want it be accepted by the Australian people is that there is a vote of the Australian people for this important social change.
KERVELAS: Your own colleague Dean Smith was on this show on Friday night saying that on precedent and on price, they're the two reasons he cited, not the speech argument but on precedent, that social issues in Australia are never determined by public votes like this. He said, "Why wouldn't you have a vote on a number of other issues where people would like their say?" He makes a decent point, doesn't he?
MCGRATH: Look, I haven't seen his comments, but the plebiscite was a strong commitment, a clear commitment of the Coalition before the last election. The other thing is, we've talked about how young gay people or gay people may be upset by the debate. We'll also go look at the other side, about how those who have the other views on the other side are treated. What we've seen is there's an increasing element of if you're opposed to gay marriage, you're some type of bigot and you're some sort of knuckle dragger. That's just as disappointing, but my strong view is that in a large public debate through a plebiscite, that those on the opposite sides will treat each other with respect.
KERVELAS: Okay, but –
MCGRATH: That’s many experience in campaigns in Australia and around the world by and by.
JONES: I want to make two comments about this. Firstly, can I deal with the issue of what the debate will look like? You're going to have one side of the argument saying, "We think that people who are living in a loving, same-sex relationship should have the capacity to go to a celebrant or a church, if the church is willing to do it, and have their relationship recognized by the state as a marriage in the same way that my marriage to my wife is." One side of the debate is going to be saying that. Another side of the debate is going to say, "No. Your relationship is not equal to my relationship. Now the way you live your life is not normal and it's not equal to mine." That’s what’s going to happen.
KERVELAS: Stephen, you've got people in your own party who would argue against marriage equality in a conscience vote -
JONES: I don't agree with them, and we came to a conclusion -
KERVELAS: You’re not arguing to shut them down, are you?
JONES: There is a place for those arguments to occur, and they should be in the Parliament. We should not have an excruciating -
KERVELAS: Why are MPs allowed to have that view?
JONES: Three month debate –
KERVELAS: But not people in the public? That’s what I was trying to ask you.
JONES: They can have the debate, they can have the discussion. For God's sake, Patricia, you and I know, I first introduced a bill on this matter in 2012. We've been having this discussion for nearly five years now. I think the majority of Australians have made their mind on it and they want their political representatives to get moving on it. As for public funding, you had public funding around a plebiscite or a referendum question where the issues are complex and perhaps need explaining. These -
KERVELAS: James McGrath –
JONES: Issues aren’t complex. They’re straightforward.
KERVELAS: James McGrath, please help me out with this one, that marathon party room meeting just over a year ago now, there is really different views about what was determined there. Eric Abetz says it was crystal clear that public money would be spent on a Yes and a No case and Warren Entsch says that was not crystal clear. What was your analysis of what was determined?
MCGRATH: I'm not dodging the question, but I was asked this question by one of your colleagues earlier today, and I can't recall whether it was raised in the party room. It's not me avoiding the question. I just genuinely cannot recall if it was a marathon party room. Look, I might have fallen asleep or gone to screensaver mode or something. You missed it if it was
KERVELAS: Screensaver mode. Imagine that.
MCGRATH: We do it in the Senate quite often, actually.
KERVELAS: Yeah, you’re good at that.
MCGRATH: I can't recall whether it was raised, but all I can talk about is what Malcolm's commitment is, that if there is public funding, it will be split equally between the Yes and No -
KERVELAS: Before I let you both go, I've got one Budget question each for you, okay? Because we're running out of time. I want to start with you, Stephen, if I can. Labor is yet to say whether they'll support this omnibus bill. Which way are you leaning at the moment? Are you comfortable voting for cuts to Newstart and dental health and ARENA?
JONES: I think savings do need to be found, and we're willing to put savings up. But I don't think you go after the poorest people in our community -
KERVELAS: Then why was it one of your election pledges?
JONES: It wasn't, actually, it wasn't, and I don't believe that we should be going after the poorest people in the community to fund savings. I think Labor has within it the capacity to find savings in alternative areas. We're very strong and very proud about our history around tackling climate change and investing in renewable energies and having the innovation architecture in place to do that. So I think we can, and I'm pretty confident that we will, be able to deal with all of these issues and put up some positive compromises on the issue to the government, and hopefully the Government will accept them.
KERVELAS: You want the Omnibus Bill to be split?
JONES: I'm saying that we think that there is a way through this. This is –
KERVELAS: You’d have to split the Bill though –
JONES: An example of where the Parliament –
KERVELAS: Is that what you’re arguing for?
JONES: These are issues within the Government’s control. We can have a discussion with the government tonight, tomorrow, throughout the course of the week and say, "How about these amendments? How about we look at different sorts of savings? You'll get our full support." We'll sit down and work through the night to make it happen, and hopefully by the end of the week, you could have the Senate debating this instead of their favourite TV show.
KERVELAS: James McGrath, You'll be devastated if you can't talk about your favourite TV show, but what happens to your plans for both –
MCGRATH: I support the Big Bang Theory, but anyway, that's another story.
KERVELAS: I was worried about your television taste, but anyway, let's move on. What happens to your plans for budget repair if Labor doesn't support the savings bill?
MCGRATH: Look, it's really nice to hear Stephen's words then, and this is happening above my pay grade, that I understand there are discussions underway in relation to where common ground can be found. I could be partly political and say, "Look, Labor made these promises before the election. The reason why we have it all in this one package is because it's our view that Labor promised before the election-"
KERVELAS: Would you be prepared to pull bits out so that you can get some savings through?
MCGRATH: I think that’s above my pay grade.
KERVALAS: Do you think that would be reasonable?
MCGRATH: No. It'd be wrong for me to jump ahead of where Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann are in relation with the discussions with Labor. It'd be wrong for me to pre-empt their discussions.
KERVELAS: All right. I'm getting from your tone, though, that you're in a conciliatory mode on this one. I want to thank both of you. It's been-
MCGRATH: I'm trying to cuddle. I'm trying to cuddle.
KERVALAS: I can see.
MCGRATH: I’m a cuddle guy.
KERVELAS: It's good to end with a cuddle because –
JONES: I'm not a cuddle guy.
KERVELAS: There was a bit of argy-bargy.
MCGRATH: Oh please.
KERVELAS: Thank you to both of you.