Transcript - ABC Afternoon Live - 25 November 2019


SUBJECTS: Chinese influence; electoral funding; trade unions; Westpac.

GREG JENNETT: I’m joined here in the studio by Liberal MP Tim Wilson and by Stephen Jones from Labor. Welcome to both of you. Tim Wilson, some of these claims about Chinese foreign interference actually hit very close to home. You, a Victorian Liberal with these claims of trying to trying to stand up a Liberal candidate to win the seat of Chisolm. Does any of this ring true to you based on your knowledge and familiarity with the party in that part of the world.

TIM WILSON: No, I think anyone that wants to draw those connections will find they’re arguing a baseless case. What this is about is the allegation of the attempt by foreign interference to try and get a candidate up through political processes, including an election, to get elected to Parliament. I don’t believe that would’ve happened in our party whatsoever, I  think it shows a naivety if the allegations are true about how democratic processes work within the Liberal Party.

JENNETT: But it’s sufficiently credible for ASIO to be examining it still and to take the unprecedented step of saying so.

WISLON: What matters here is the allegations, the attempt, by foreign agents to try and influence our political processes. Now which party in which process they picked is completely irrelevant. These are deeply disturbing allegations. We've introduced strong foreign interference transparency mechanisms, as well as around electoral integrity processes to deal exactly with these types of challenges, but it reminds you that the challenge is not going to go away. It's not going away. And we have to remain vigilant.

JENNETT: It may not be going away, Stephen Jones, because it's not just the Liberal Party in Victoria that's being touched by it, we could use the word burnt by it. So has your very own party in your very own state. So both sides are being tainted by this.

STEPHEN JONES: Facts are scant. We know the guy was a Liberal Party activist. We know that he was interested in preselection at some stage. We know that he's made some allegations and we know that a ASIO are treating them serious. So there is something there.

WILSON: It's the bloke who was killed who was in that situation. It's not some sort of Manchurian Candidate.

JONES: Can I just make this point? China, quite rightly, is fiercely independent of its own sovereignty. If this is true, you can imagine that the Australian people would feel the same sort of outrage at China, quite rightly, would if there was the same sort of interference going on inside their internal processes, totally unacceptable.

JENNETT: The role of money is not inconsequential here in New South Wales.

JONES: This is going a step further. This is not about money. This is not about donations. This is about saying we will put you in and you will be our guide.

JENNETT: It was with what said to be a seven-figure amount of money to run, what I assume would be, the candidates campaign after successful preselection, which has its own challenges, as Tim would attest, but that's where the similarities crossover between Labor’s experience in New South Wales.

WILSON: This is fantasy world stuff. What we had is a bloke who was approached by the CCP, allegedly, to become a candidate to run for Parliament. He actually then went, according to newspaper reports, and told ASIO  and said this is what's going on. By comparison, you have the Australian Labor Party where we've had Aldi bags of money. Drawing comparisons and equivalents is just a fantasy world.

JENNETT: So for this reason, because it leads to the question has been raised by many over the years donations public funding. Do you see a case, as all this bubbles away in federal politics, to switch to a fully publicly funded campaign finance model in Australia?

JONES: Yes, I do. I think the current process of corporate donations to whether the Liberal Party of the Labor Party or any other party or independents for that matter, I think the largest individual donation went to the Greens in the last two elections. I do think it's a cancer on Democracy.

JENNETT: Do you think it will get up as Labor Party policy?

JONES:  It's seriously debated within Labor Party forums and current review of New South Wales. Seriously being debated.

JENNET: So now do you think the Lavarch Review of New South Wales Labor could actually land your party, and you’ve got to have debates internally and all of this, but could land you around that as a policy proposition?

JONES: Recommendations have gone up to Michael Lavarch and to others. It has been debated in our party conferences before now, so it is not a new idea. It is one idea whose time will come, because I think the public, at large, are sick of the perception of corporate control over politics and money politics. They want a new way.

JENETT: Alright, Tim Wilson, and you can see now the reason why I sort of drew the parallels here, whether you accept them or not, that's where our discussion lead. What’s your own attitude to this sort of model backed by Stephen?

WILSON: Well firstly I just want to stress this point, which is where there is an allegation on the basis of this story. What you had was the party member in question taking a responsible path of action and reporting it to ASIO and then, if you believe the allegations,  ended up being will been killed. By comparison, the issue that has plagued the New South Wales division of the Labor Party is where people have knowingly done the wrong thing, whether it be having their credit card bills being paid off, or whether it's the situation with Aldi bags of money being delivered. I don't believe that's a case for suddenly chucking all of the cost of elections on to the taxpayer

JONES: It would disadvantage you personally, enormously I imagine Tim, in this respect. You were very well backed by the finance industry in the last election?

WILSON: Where is this fantasy coming from?

JONES: It’s not a fantasy.

WILSON: And to draw this parallel, I just find really bizarre.

JONES: We need to take money out of politics.

WILSON: We have a bloke who was allegedly killed for foreign interference and it should be treated with the seriousness in which it deserves.

JENNETT: Let's just talk about the issue because Malcolm Turnbull, in fact prior to his Prime Ministership, as I recall, was an advocate for full public financing, but you just don't like the idea?

WILSON: Well, you know, I just don't think we should be passing all the costs to the taxpayer. I believe that when it comes to electoral financing there's always a discussion about what can be done how we can tweak it. But I have no issue with people actually having to stump up and make the case about why there is a candidate, they deserve support. And to just say no, no, we're going to entrench the privilege of existing parties, we're going to make sure that it basically is only ever a contest between the existing candidates, I think is wrong.

JENNETT: And it would do that wouldn't it, Stephen? When you move to say a full extension, beyond the model we already have which is $2 something per vote, it does inevitably favour the majors.

JONES: No, I think we have moved to the situation where you can just about buy an election. We've moved to the situation where money wins votes, where money wins paid TV, time where money wins advertising and campaign time, and we're very, very close to a situation where the richest person wins and I really don't want the Australian democracy to be distorted, to be corrupted.

WILSON: What possible evidence do you have for that ridiculous statement?

JONES: A guy by the name of Clive Palmer.

WILSON: But he’s got zero seats.

JONES: When you look at the last 3 weeks of his campaign, he said don't vote for Bill. He converted all of his TV advertising to anti-Labor. You were the beneficiary of that, Tim, and you know it full well, I understand why you don't want to get rid of big money politics. You don't want to get rid of big money politics because you guys are the net beneficiary of that. Democracy is what suffers.

WILSON: You've accepted massive million dollar donations from the trade union movement.

JONES: Me personally? No.

WILSON: You’ve made a series of allegations against my candidacy, which were all false. If  the Labor Party was serious they would stop taking hundreds of thousands of dollars and millions of dollars from the trade union movement. If they don't want this, the reality is election should be contestable. Everybody should have an equal participation and a right to be able to participate and we shouldn't be entrenched in the existing position.

JONES: Well, the fact of the matter now is we have a situation now where you can buy an election. Somebody like Clive Palmer can sink 80 million dollars into an election.

WILSON: Zero seats.

JONES: But determine an outcome in over 30 of them. Why are you so upset about GetUp then? GetUp did not win a seat either, but you seem to think that their money and their influence changes outcomes?

WILSON: Because they are not a registered political party and they didn't stand candidates.

JENNETT: All right, but let's move on to the trade union movement and I suppose corporate Australia, both are kind of becoming enmeshed in our conversation here. We had questions asked about this in Question Time today. Why is it that things are proceeding slowly but purposefully on the Westpac breaches while the Government plows headlong into this Ensuring Integrity Bill?

WILSON: Because we already have laws in place to deal specifically with the issues around AUSTRAC and Westpac. They already exist. And what we're doing is going through a process of making sure there's a full investigation, so that if charges are brought, then they will be done so under existing law. With the Ensuring Integrity Bill, what we're trying to do is make sure that those people who are in the trade union movement who are committing crimes or committing serious breaches of the law held accountable.

JENNETT: That's fair enough, isn't it, Stephen? I mean that we do have a regime around AUSTRAC, around APRA,  the accountability regime. What's wrong with matching that up with a model that sits over the trade union movement?

JONES: Before we get to that I want to do with the substance of the allegations, 23 million individual breaches by Westpac. This story has dragged on for close to a week now. I don't think the CEOs position is tenable. In fact, I think there's positions within the board and no longer tenable either. It is a drag on the institution and it's not just a management failure and AUSTRAC were quite clear about this, it is not just a management failure. It is a failure of governance. I saw the board last night announced that they are going to hire a consultant. They don't need a consult and they need a mirror, because there were failures of governance and failures of management and there needs to be accountability on both sides.

JENNETT: We you have heard the call there, Tim, from Stephen. You have high visibility on all of this stuff because of your role in the parliament. Would you match it?

WILSON: I asked Westpac about these issues in their last appearance, which is only about two weeks ago. But actually I just want to get to the facts of the matter, so Westpac did was they self-reported these breeches and that was the right thing to do. There should be accountability on behalf of the board and the management and I think once we get to the bottom of the data, the facts of what happened, I think there should be accountability.

JENNETT: But we have a publicly elected individual in Stephen, prepared to say I've seen enough, I'm done.

JONES: Westpac of put their hands up and said yes, we did this. So there's not a question about whether it happened, they’ve put their hands up and said yes, we have committed these 23 million crimes and we also know, through the admitted facts, that they knew for a considerable period of time which enabled pederasts to use their platforms to pay for the abuse of children.

JENNETT: Why does accountability mean you leap straight to you lost your job over this?

JONES: Because the head of the organisation has to take account for what's going on inside of their organisation. And because of what AUSTRAC of said in their report and their review failures of management and failures of governance, of both. That's why there has to be accountability at the management and at the board level.

JENNETT: And if that's where the pieces fall Tim Wilson, would you be satisfied with that?

WILSON: Of course, but that's why establishing the facts, you’re right Westpac did self-report. They have gone through and accepted responsibility, there does need to be accountability. But frankly, I think there should be accountability for the former management, the former directors, who were in the roles at the time that this occurred.

JONES: We may not have an argument on that one.

WILSON: I think one of the most scandalous things is that a lot of those people seem to be overlooked in this discussion.

JENNETT: You'll probably get an opportunity, if some of these Chief Executives are still around, to ask further questions. When would that next be due?

WILSON: They're not due till the middle the middle next year. We only had them about two weeks or three weeks ago where we are specifically about these issues.

JENNETT: We're going to say thank you and farewell to Tim Wilson and to Stephen Jones for some lively discussion around foreign interference and then the accountability of those who lead institutions, whether they be corporate in the case of Westpac or the trade union