Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: In his speech Mister Turnbull warned that the rising tensions between an increasingly assertive China and populist United States posed a threat to the global economy and stability. Joining us now live from Perth is the Finance Minister. Good morning.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Did the Prime Minister as Paul Kelly was just suggesting there outline what is an insurance strategy for putting in place a structure that would be able to respond to a future president who would be more interested in those trade arrangements?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Australian position has been consistent for some time. We believe that the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is a good agreement. It will liberalise trade across a substantial part of the global economy, in the part of the world where most of the global economic growth will be generated for years, if not decades to come. Our belief is that over time, whether this administration or a future administration, the United States will want to have a piece of the action. I cannot imagine that a successful Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement area would not be something that the United States ultimately would want to be part of.
PAUL KELLY: Senator, you have been the moving force on the Australian side, behind his extraordinary Australia German conference we are now seeing in Perth. When did the Prime Minister ask you, if you like, to take over responsibility for deepening the Australian German relationship? Where do you think this is likely to go? And what are your hopes for what might emerge from this conference?
MATHIAS CORMANN: A lot of questions there. The initial start actually happened when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Australia for the G20 in 2014. That was under Prime Minister Abbott. Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Abbott asked me to co-chair an advisory group, the Australia Germany Advisory Group,, which was designed to take stock of the relationship between Australia and Germany. There was a realisation that while we are friendly, we have friendly relations, and are like minded on international issues, have shared values, we did not really do as much with each others as we could and as we should. Germany is the fourth biggest economy in the world, the biggest economy in Europe, a substantial power in Europe. Australia is the twelfth biggest economy in the world and a relevant country in this part of the world. There was a view that we should be doing more together. So we took stock of the relationship across a whole range of areas, trade and investment, to strategic issues, to culture, the arts, research, science and innovation. You name it. That led to about 59 odd recommendations on things that we could do to deepen the relationship. That is something that Prime Minister Turnbull and Chancellor Merkel and I discussed in Berlin late in 2015. The rest really went from there. Since that time we have decided to have regular 2+2 meetings between the Australian and the German Government, between our foreign and defence Ministers on a regular basis rather than in an ad hoc fashion, to engage on strategic issues. We have renegotiated our double taxation agreement in record time to facilitate better trade and investment flows. We have established a landing pad for start ups in Berlin, so that Australian entrepreneurs can benefit from the networks and expertise in the German start up scene. We have set up this conference, this conference is designed to bring Australia and Germany closer together, to generate more business for Australia in Germany, for us to do more business with each other in each others’ markets but also, it is designed to ensure that Australia and Germany together can bring Asia and Europe closer together. To explore what Australian business and German business together can do into the Asian market and into Europe. We are ecstatic as to how well this has gone. There is a lot of interest on the German side. There is a lot of support all the way down from Chancellor Merkel. There is a lot of enthusiasm here in Australia for this. We do need an influential champion for Australia’s interests in continental Europe, part of the European Union and a central and committed member of the European Union. So from that point of view it was very important for us to invest more into that relationship. The conference here this weekend is one very important manifestation of that.
PAUL KELLY: We had some very strong warnings in the speeches yesterday about the danger of populist, protectionist sentiment undermining the free trade system. How much of a threat do you think this is? And what is the best way Australia can combat these populist sentiments?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have got to continue to engage in the conversation. There is no doubt that for Australia open markets and free trade are a key foundation for our economic prosperity and success and have been for a long time and will be into the future. Australia is a globally focused, an outward looking, open trading economy. Governments from the Hawke, Keating to the Howard governments and later the Abbott and Turnbull governments have sought to position Australia as an internationally competitive, outward looking, open trading economy. The more Australian products and services we can sell around the world the better for our exporting businesses here in Australia. The more successful our exporting businesses are, the more Australians they can employ, the better the wages they can pay and for Australian consumers, having access to competitively priced products from around the world, at affordable prices, that is of benefit for consumers as well. There is no doubt that trade, open trade, free markets deliver benefits to consumers and to workers. But, it is also true that competition is something that can be quite confronting. When you are engaged in the competitive battle, so to speak, it does force you to be the best you can be but it also means that from time to time you need to go through economic adjustments that can be difficult. It is incumbent on governments and business and all of us to support those parts of the community which from time to time struggle through a transition in the context of being engaged in global competition. But the point is the overall benefits of open markets and free trade for the economy as a whole, for Australians wanting to get ahead, for everyone to have the best possible opportunity to get ahead are such that we really need to preserve public support for open markets and free trade. That also means that we need to do better in helping those sections of the community which from time to time have to work through difficult transitions to do that successfully.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: The challenges Germany has faced in terms of border control and border protection are obviously very different to those Australia has faced and yet we are told German political leaders have asked for advice from Australia over the weekend in relation to this matter. What sort of advice have they asked for and what has been the nature of those discussions?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It was a matter of better understanding the context of Australian decision making in recent times. We had a period of time between 2007 and 2013, which is well documented, where we lost control of our borders. Many people arrived in Australia illegally and sadly about 1,200 people, as far as we know, died at sea. It was really a matter of being asked questions about how we went about dealing with this, securing our external borders. There are differences between Australia and Europe. That is in Australia, we are an island, an island continent. We are in complete control of our own borders. Germany, is part of the European Union and part of the Schengen Agreement, so the external borders across Europe, because there were no borders internally anymore, were really a matter to be managed at a European level. That brought some different challenges for them. There was an exchange of views in relation to all of these different dynamics.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Okay, well lets talk about the challenges that Australia is currently facing in relation to this issue, and of course there are still hundreds of men refusing to leave Manus Detention Centre. Reports overnight of a man with heart problems was then taken 40 km away to hospital. Is it time to send negotiators in to try and solve this before anything else occurs?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are dealing here with the legacy case load that Labor left behind after six years of policy failure under the Rudd and Gillard Governments. It is very important that the decisions we make in relation to the remaining illegal boat arrivals, it is important that the decisions relating to the remaining case load do not encourage the people smugglers to get back into their trade. The last thing that we want is to get this terrible trade underway again. Anyone who has been found to be a refuge has got the option of resettling in PNG. We have also provided the opportunity for alternative pathways, people are able to apply to transfer to the United States or to Nauru. In relation to those who are found to have not been refugees, we would expect them to go back to their country of origin. This is consistent with the position that we have adopted all the way through. The Australian Government is not going to deviate from that very important position because it is a central part of Australia being able to control our external borders.
PAUL KELLY: But Minister, this is a dangerous situation on Manus, this is a deadlock fraught with all sorts of risks. What responsibility does the Australian Government accept for the situation? Does the Australian Government believe it is incumbent upon it to find a solution?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are working through a case load here that is the result of six years of policy failure under Labor. What we are doing here is, what is happening here is that people are being processed. Those people who have been found to be genuine refugees have been able to resettle in PNG or to apply for resettlement into the Untied States or Nauru. For those to have been found not to be refugees we expect them to go back to their country of origin. To do otherwise would be to provide that incentive again for people to hire the services of people smugglers to attempt to come to Australia illegally by boat. We know what that led to last time, around 1,200 people died at sea, 50,000 people on 800 boats arrived here illegally. One boat as far south as Geraldton here in Western Australia.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Okay we are going to take a quick break just there at the moment and come back with Paul Kelly’s question and also ask Mathias Cormann about New Zealand’s offer to take some of those refugees.
Welcome back to Sunday Agenda, our guest is the Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann and Paul Kelly, you were asking Mathias about this issue in relation to Manus and the responsibility of the current Australian Government to act.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, the New Zealand Prime Minister is prepared to take up to 150 people from Manus, but it seems as though Malcolm Turnbull is going to reject this offer. On what basis is Australia continuing to decline this offer from New Zealand, given this dangerous standoff we currently see at Manus?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I will let our Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of New Zealand have their conversation this morning. and then our Prime Minister will make relevant remarks at the appropriate time. What I would say to you though, is that it is in our national interest and it is in the interest of anyone around the world that might consider in the future to pay people smugglers to come to Australia illegally and put their lives at risk. It is in our national interest and in their interest for the Australian Government to make judgments that stop that from happening. We do not want people to come to Australia illegally by boat in the future. We do not want people in the future to put their lives at risk by putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers. All of the decisions we make in relation to this have got to be consistent with the position that we want to continue to protect the integrity of our borders, that we want to continue to ensure that people do not come here illegally by boat and decisions in relation to that offer will be made by the Prime Minister and the Government in that context.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: The argument against New Zealand in the past though has been that it would be too close to Australia and that in that way it might act again as a pull factor. But given that this deal is now on the table with the United States, another attractive western country. Why on earth would you say that those refugees that are currently held up in Manus without food, without water, could not leave there and go to New Zealand?
MATHIAS CORMANN: As I say, the Prime Minister is having a meeting with the newly elected Prime Minister of New Zealand today. They will have a discussion. No doubt our Prime Minister will make relevant statements after that meeting has occurred. What I would say to you, it is very important for us to continue to make our decisions in Australia in our national interest and in the interest of people that might otherwise decide to put their lives into the hands of people smugglers, that we continue to make all of our decisions in a way that stops that from happening. That is what we are committed to do. We will continue to preserve the integrity of our borders. We will not facilitate in any way shape or form the people smugglers bringing their trade back.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: But there are 1400 or so, a large number of asylum seekers that have arrived who have arrived since this policy came into operation that are still in Australia, are there not? People who have come here for medical reasons and others, they are still in Australia and so we have indeed let some of these people come to Australia and it is quite possible that over time some of them may remain here permanently.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I would suggest that if you want to go into all of the ins and outs of this any further that you invite Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection onto your program. I think I have been very generous in engaging in this conversation, which is well beyond the bounds of my Finance portfolio or any of my other responsibilities. What I would say to you as a matter of principle again is that we are committed to protecting the integrity of our borders. We will make decisions to ensure that we can keep our borders secure. We have a good track record. There has not been a successful illegal boat arrival in Australia for some time now under our Government as a result of the policies that we have implemented, that we continue to implement. This is not the time to change course. Bill Shorten clearly is intent on pursuing Labor policy on the run again. The people of Australia have seen what Labor policy on the run delivers, it delivered us 800 illegal boat arrivals with 50,000 illegal arrivals and about 1,200 people who died at sea. It was a terrible disaster, a terrible outcome. We are absolutely committed to ensure that does not happen again.
PAUL KELLY: On the dual citizenship issue Minister, do you accept that the way this is playing out, it is substantially leading to an erosion of public confidence in the Parliament?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The best way to ensure public confidence in the Parliament is to scrupulously comply with all of the processes under the Constitution and relevant laws. Every Member and Senator has an obligation to comply with the eligibility requirements set out in the Constitution. Every Member and Senator has an obligation to satisfy themselves at all times that they do comply. If they become aware of new information that they may not comply or do not comply, then they need to take appropriate steps. But what I would also say is that beyond that there is a clear process under our Constitutional arrangements to challenge the eligibility of a Federal Member of Parliament. That is through the High Court. There are some very important principles underpinning our Constitutional arrangements which we need to preserve in order to ensure public confidence in our institutions. They have stood the test of time for a very long time. The separation of powers between the Executive, the Parliament and the Judiciary. I have heard some suggestions from some people that somehow the Government should be running this audit of Members of Parliament. There is an inherent conflict. The Parliament is not accountable to the Government. The Government does not have the authority to assess the eligibility of individual Members of Parliament arguably and for very good reasons incidentally. Under our Constitutional arrangements there has been a deliberate decision to give the power of determining the eligibility or otherwise, if challenged, of a Member of Parliament through the High Court. That is as it should be. So we have the principles of procedural fairness, natural justice, but also the presumption of innocence. We do not want to get ourselves into this situation where we have this witch hunt-type, lynch mob-type justice. We are a civilised society. We are a Parliamentary democracy. We have Constitutional arrangements that underpin the stability of our system of Government. We have to preserve that and that means that Members of Parliament should not be in a position where they are assumed to be in breach until they are proven not to be. For anyone who believes that they have evidence that any Member of Parliament is in breach of the Constitution there are avenues available for them to pursue that, but it is not a matter of having this blanket approach with an assumption that the Parliament as a whole somehow as a starting position is assumed to be in breach unless or until we can prove that they are not. It is crazy to suggest that that would be the appropriate way forward and certainly not a way that would improve the stability of our system of Government which is also something that is very important.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, the entire point of this week was the revelation that Senator Parry did not comply. That for many weeks he did not comply with his obligation and this has raised a whole series of doubts about how many other people might be in the same situation. So my question to you, given the answer you've just given is, how tenable is it for the Prime Minister not to take any sort of pro-active action to try and address this situation?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister is taking proactive action. He is focussing very strongly on the very important foundations of our Constitutional arrangements. That is what he should be doing. Former Senator Parry should have disclosed information he had earlier. There is no question about that. But if you think about the analogy across the community, just because somebody does not disclose when they should disclose the breach of a relevant provision, law or relevant Constitutional arrangement does not mean we then reverse the onus of proof for everyone in the community. We do not say to everyone in the community, we now assume that everyone is guilty of a particular breach until you can prove to us that you are not guilty of a particular breach. That is not something we would do at any level. It is not something we should be doing at the level of the Parliament. It is very important that we stick to the democratic principles, to the Constitutional principles that underpin our Parliamentary democracy. To do otherwise would be going down a slippery slope that would not be serving Australia well.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: You're asking Australian voters and the media to take you on trust.
MATHIAS CORMANN: No. That is not right.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: … refusing to provide documents that do hold the key to this. A lot of these documents are not publicly available.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Let me just completely reject that. Firstly all Members of Parliament are always subject to a constant audit by the media and we are always subject to a constant audit by our opponents. But, I do reject the proposition very, very strongly that unless you are proved innocent that you should be assumed to be guilty. I do not believe that in the absence of evidence that a Member of Parliament, or any member of the community should be put in a position where they have to prove their innocence. Unless there is evidence that someone is in breach, whether that is in the Parliament or in the community, of a particular law or a particular provision that they are expected to comply with, unless there has been a breach, there is not a process that will lead to a satisfactory resolution of any alleged breach, other than through the High Court when it comes to eligibility … interrupted
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Well there is, isn't there. There are two processes proposed. The Labor Party has proposed that you voluntarily produce your documents and the Greens have suggested that there be a Parliamentary Committee set up where you are required to produce your documents. Isn’t it the case that the reason why the Turnbull Government won't agree to those options is that it is highly likely that other MPs will be found to be in breach and there could even be enough bi-elections to see you lose government. Isn't that the real reason why you won't agree to those two options?
MATHIAS CORMANN: No Samantha. I completely reject that. You have to really think through what is being proposed here. Bill Shorten clearly was under some internal pressure and he came out with a process quite frankly that is in place at all times. Anyone can always decide to voluntarily disclose information they hold. Personally I have disclosed. The information I held I disclosed. I came here as an adult migrant from another country and as such it was a top of mind issue for me when I decided to put my hand up for Parliament. I made certain disclosures in that regard. But let me just say that every single Member and Senator signed an official form when nominating for election to Parliament that they comply with section 44 of the Constitution. Every Member and Senator certified that they complied with section 44 of the Constitution. If any Senator or Member becomes aware that they may not or do not comply, then it is incumbent on them to disclose that information and to take the appropriate steps. But we are not going to make a blanket assumption here that everybody is in breach and that everybody has to prove their innocence when there is absolutely no evidence, absolutely no credible proposition that they are in breach.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Okay just before we go, I want to ask you Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, there are these suggestions once again that Julie Bishop has had some form of cooling of relations with the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and that there has also been a falling out with other moderates including George Brandis and that Julie Bishop is again being looked at as a leadership option. Do you think that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull will lead the party to the next election, is that a realistic option given that he has led the Coalition to a record low in terms of its primary vote?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The answer to the last question is of course a resounding yes. Of course I am confident that Malcolm Turnbull will lead us to the next election. He is providing very strong and effective leadership to our team. The record of achievement we will be able to take to the next election already is substantial, it will be more substantial by the time we go to the next election. We will have the better plan for Australia's future. Beyond that I am not going to get myself involved in gossip. Julie Bishop is an outstanding deputy leader. We work together as a team. Julie strongly supports the Prime Minister's leadership, and indeed, Julie is consistently on the public record as strongly endorsing the Prime Minister's leadership. I am not going to get myself involved in gossip.
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Okay Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, I apologise we are going to leave it there, we could probably talk to you for a lot longer but you've got the conference to get back to. Thank you very much for your time today.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.