'Yesterday was a day that was historic, and something very moving.' ABC Hobart Breakfast Radio Interview, Thursday 30 November 2017





SUBJECTS: Banking royal commission; Sam Dastyari; Foreign donations; Marriage equality vote in the Senate.

LEON COMPTON: It's time to go to a place where there is no political gravity. There is no political spin. It’s a tough morning – there's lots of hot political issues around. We may or may not succeed in that objective. I'm sure everyone will return to Earth safely. Liberal Senator for Tasmania, Eric Abetz, good morning to you.


ABETZ: Labor Senator for Tasmania, Lisa Singh, good morning to you.


COMPTON: Approached to go on QandA together – such is the chemistry and rapport that you've built up here over the last few months. Is that what we should interpret as having happened?

ABETZ: I'm sure you are the catalyst for all this, Leon and we are extremely thankful to you.

COMPTON: I don't need any credit.

SINGH: And if we run out of time this morning Leon, it can be continued next Monday night.

COMPTON: I don't want any credit; I just want a cut of whatever payment QandA are offering for your performance.

The Banking Royal Commission. Senator Abetz, the majority – I think it's fair to say – of the community have been pushing for this for a long time. Indeed, members of your own coalition have suggested that they would have voted for it in the Reps when Parliament goes back next week. Is the announcement this morning by the Prime Minister a sign of weakness or strength?

ABETZ: I think there's been a very strong community momentum for a royal commission, but might I add not only into banks but also into Industry Super Funds. The Institute of Public Affairs for example has identified the "rivers of gold" and the slush funds that seem to move from the industry super funds to unions to the ALP. I think that should be an area of inquiry and the Terms of Reference that the Prime Minister and Treasurer are, I think, still announcing as we speak, will include the financial sector very broadly. And I think that'll be welcomed by many people throughout the community. I'll allow the commentators to determine whether it’s a good or a bad thing. But the banks themselves have come out this morning to say that the continued agitation within the community for such an inquiry, means that it should be happening because it is undermining people's confidence in the banking and financial sector. So a good move, something that I support, and the fact that it is wide-ranging is something that I think will cover the field, and let's see what it finds.

COMPTON: Because there was a risk that if you didn't get on the front foot that next week the Parliament was going to impose a banking Royal Commission, and it wouldn't have looked anything like this, would it?

ABETZ: It would be fair to say, as John Howard used to say, politics is the law of arithmetic, and adding up the numbers with especially some Nationals – it would have been possible to get some sort of inquiry through the parliament and I think government is seizing control of it, and having it as a properly-structured commission, with the support of government bureaucracies etcetera, so it's done in a proper manner, is the right way to go. So in all the circumstances the government has been responsive to community pressure. Some will argue it should have happened sooner but at the end of the day this is what we've got now and let's make sure it works and we can get the very best financial system. And, can I just quickly say, that around the world Canada and Australia are seen as the two countries with the best and most robust banking systems in the world. People argue whether Australia is best or Canada is best, but either way we are in the top two. So whilst we are having an inquiry let's remember we've got a very good banking system but let's hope this inquiry makes our very good banking system even better, and some of those very ugly areas of banking hopefully will be able to be excised.


SINGH: Labor has been calling for this banking Royal Commission. For so, so long. And the government has completely ignored the idea. Only now, because the banks themselves – the big four themselves – have now written to the Treasurer, asking for the actual inquiry themselves – has the government acted. So it is a sign of absolute failure and weakness by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The fact that the community has wanted this, the Labor Party has been calling for it – and now, because of the division within his own government with the National Party threatening to actually call on this inquiry themselves – and now the four banks coming out, has he acted. He wouldn't have acted otherwise Leon, and it just shows the complete arrogance and the fact that this Prime Minister is so out of touch with what community expectations are, with what his own coalition members have been wanting, that he's actually acted. So this is a win for Labor, for the community, but it is certainly not a win for the government. It shows complete, utter embarrassment that they've actually now had to act.

ABETZ: And that was a win for political spin, if ever there was one.

SINGH: No, it's a reality Eric and you know it. How long have we been calling for this banking Royal Commission?

ABETZ: Only for the banks, not for the financial sector, not for the industry super funds, because you know you are the beneficiary of millions of dollars being slushed through to the ALP. So that is why this is a broader inquiry and a better inquiry than that which Labor wanted. They wanted to demonise the banks and protect themselves in relation to the industry super funds and their "rivers of gold".

SINGH: That’s spin right there, because you've never supported this in the past, and now you are.

COMPTON: Can I ask you a question about the industry super funds for a moment? You talk about them being used as a slush fund and so on and so forth. Is it not true that they almost always outperform the commercial superannuation funds that are offered by the big banks and AMP and so on.

SINGH: Yes they do.

ABETZ: Oh look, in relation to these matters it is comparison of apples and oranges. But that aside, even if they do, Leon, is there any justification for what has now been identified by the Institute of Public Affairs as the “rivers of gold” that flow out of those super funds to unions, to the ALP? Money that actually belongs to the members and should be for the benefit of members and-

COMPTON: I hear what you're saying there, and there is the structure of them and the board make-up, which you may or may not have changed but involved union representation and so on, notwithstanding that, is this not a case of your party trying to cut off a source of funding to your political opponents rather than do something that would actually benefit people, which is targeting the worst performing super funds? As I understand it, almost none of them are the industry funds that you're talking about this morning.

ABETZ: Well some industry funds, as I understand it, do not perform very well, but look, at the end of the day the simple fact is that the money that is leeching out of the industry super funds actually belongs to the members and should be used for the members and for their retirement funds, not for feather-bedding trade union officials and the Australian Labor Party. So, let's see what the commission finds in that area, and having a broad financial sector inquiry, I think takes the focus away from what has been a very destabilising attempt to demonise the banks. Everybody dislikes banks because if you're an investor; you never get enough interest, if you're a borrower; you are always paying too much interest.

COMPTON: But it's not that. I mean it's the fact that there's been institutionalised appalling behaviour from all of them.

SINGH: Yeah. Say that to the mums and dads that have been ripped off!

ABETZ: And that is why previously in this very program I said that there were ugly areas of the banking sector that clearly should be excised, and so I'm sure that the commission – the inquiry – will determine those areas and the banks will lift their game. They have been lifting their games, but I think this will assist them in doing so, but might I add; not only the banks but a lot other players within what we call the broader financial sector.

COMPTON: You're on Mornings around Tasmania. Leon Compton in the chair this morning. Eric Abetz and Lisa Singh, our guests for Senators in Space. This is Sam Dastyari, the Senator from New South Wales for the Labor Party:

AUDIO - [SENATOR SAM DASTYARI: The Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China, and the role that Australia should be playing as a friend is to know that we see several thousand years of history, thousands of years of history, where it is and isn't our place to be involved and as a supporter of China, and a friend of China, the Australian Labor Party is playing an important role in maintaining that relationship. And the best way of maintaining that relationship is knowing when it is and isn't our place to be involved.]

COMPTON: Lisa Singh, that is absolutely at odds with Australia's position on what should be happening in the South China Sea, and more broadly about the policy that we have in engaging with China. How can Sam Dastyari stay a credible member of your party in the Senate?

SINGH: Well that position is definitely at odds and not our position in relation to the South China Sea. But what is clear here is that Sam has shown an incredibly poor lack of judgement in this situation. But what I'm not going to do is defend Sam Dastyari. I think Sam can defend himself and I'm sure he'll have more to say on this. But what I will say-

COMPTON: Bill Shorten has said that he's got to step down from his role in the Senate but surely-

SINGH: Exactly. Bill has acted very decisively on this, as a leader should, and he has asked for Sam to resign from his positions. Now Sam has been paying a price for this for some time now. It was a year ago that he was made to step down from the front bench and now again he's going to be asked and has been asked to step down from his other administrative positions, so while I'm not going to defend his role, what it does bring into play here and where I'm very concerned, Leon, and not clear from the media reports, is how this is all coming about now? Something that obviously transpired over a year ago has now somehow been leaked into the media. Now my understating is that national security secrets and the like are only given to the Attorney-General so there are questions here to be-

COMPTON: Hang on a second. You're not seriously trying to make this about someone else. You have a member-

SINGH: No, I'm not making this about someone else-

COMPTON: It seems that their opinion was bought by a national from a foreign country that was warned about our security services interest-

ABETZ: Yeah, Bill Shorten gets these national security briefings as well, Leon, let's be very clear about that.

SINGH: What I'm saying, Leon, is that I just don't understand how all of a sudden this is coming in to the media this week. Something that happened over a year ago, and I think there are questions to be answered as to how this leak has occurred. Because it's just really unclear to me, and whether or not it's some sort of distraction by the government or a politicisation of our government agencies. They're legitimate questions that should be answered.

COMPTON: They are legitimate questions, but for another time. The reality is that – and I think most people would welcome however this has come to public light, the information that you have a member of your party, your Senate team, who seems to have their opinions shaped, potentially bought, by a foreign national with ties to a foreign government.

SINGH: Well, again, this again brings into question why we need legislation, which Labor's had on the table for a while now, to end foreign donations being provided to political parties, which I understand this particular Chinese businessman in question has provided to both major political parties. So, if Parliament was sitting this week in the Lower House, we could actually have that debated. But of course Malcolm Turnbull cancelled Parliament even sitting. But look, as I said, there has been a complete lack of judgement here by Sam, and I'm sure he'll have more to say on that.

COMPTON: Should he quit?

SINGH: These are decisions, Leon, that he's going to have to come and front up and make clear that, as I said, that the positions he's taken are completely at odds with Labor's position on our foreign policy position with China, and it's a complete lack of judgement. And Bill Shorten has acted very decisively, unlike Malcolm Turnbull, who has allowed Michaelia Cash, who is a Minister in the Cabinet – lied to the Senate five times and continues to sit there as a Minister.

ABETZ: Look, Michaelia Cash- 

COMPTON: Did – sorry, if you could stop for a moment Eric Abetz – Lisa Singh, did you receive talking notes this morning from within the Party about how to deal with this issue, and how to try and put it back on the Liberals to deflect from this issue?

SINGH: No, I did not, because this is called Senators in Space, and we're supposed to have a conversation and not use talking points.

ABETZ: But did you get the talking points?

SINGH: No. I don't use talking points! You know me, Eric, I'm pretty free-wheeling, and I say what I think and what I want.

COMPTON: Eric Abetz, this is not an issue that is isolated to Lisa Singh's party. Your party receives donations; your party – Chinese nationals seek to influence your party too. What should we do about it?

ABETZ: Leon, one: I've been on the public record trying to ban foreign donations, and in recent times I indicated publicly that whilst I was Special Minster of State in the Howard Government, I sought to achieve that. But I was in a minority and so that hasn't happened – that didn't happen – and I look forward to foreign donations being banned. But that is a completely separate issue to a Senator advising somebody that our national security agencies might be, or actually are, monitoring them. This is the serious issue here. And for Bill Shorten simply to ask Sam Dastyari to resign is weak. He should have sacked him. Secondly, he should be suspended from the Labor caucus until such time as this issue is resolved. And it's not me saying that this is a serious issue; the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, if I've got the name correct, Peter Jennings, gave an interview yesterday indicating how very, very serious it is when you've got a member of the elected Parliament talking to somebody about national security and that they might be being monitored – and they then, the two of them, if the stories are correct, deliberately leave their phones behind and walk outside to have a discussion – one presumes about the weather. So this is very, very serious. It needs a full inquiry. And Mr Shorten should be showing a lot stronger sense of leadership here by suspending him from the Labor caucus until such time as it's resolved.

COMPTON: Senator, I think there are worries about how both parties are influenced by Chinese nationals. Do you think we'd be better off spending a lot less time being paranoid about Islam, and a lot more time being paranoid about China, in Australian political life?

ABETZ: Look, I don't think people are "paranoid" about Islam, or about China. I think there are very real concerns about particular Chinese influences, and that's why I've been on the record as being against the proposed extradition treaty with China, which – thank goodness – bit the dust. That is why I was on the public record at a Senate Estimates a while back expressing concern about the then head of Foreign Affairs meeting with Huawei and getting sponsorship for his favourite rugby team, namely the Canberra Raiders. I thought that was highly prejudicial to our national interest. So I've been very clear in these areas of seeking to protect our national interest, and I think you can be concerned about elements of Islam just as much as you can be concerned about elements of Chinese influence in our body politic.

COMPTON: You're on Mornings around Tasmania. It's Senators in Space; Eric Abetz, Lisa Singh our guests this morning – poached for next week by QandA, apparently, where Tony Jones will be taking up the cudgels. Senator, Tasmania voted overwhelmingly for same sex marriage. Why did you vote against it yesterday in the Senate?

ABETZ: A number of reasons. One: in the Senate in particular, we are a proportional body; we are elected on a proportional basis. And 36 per cent of Tasmanians voted no. Would it not therefore be reasonable that 36 per cent of our Senate representation actually would also vote no, to give expression to that concern? As it happened, only two of us did: Helen Polley from the Labor Party, and myself. So, two out of twelve – or indeed, if you take into account the House of Reps, two out of seventeen – it's only about 12 per cent of our Federal Parliamentary representation that voted no, whereas three times as many people – 36 per cent – voted no in the postal survey. In relation to the issue itself, the postal survey question was very clear: do you support same sex marriage? The bill that was introduced went a lot further than just same sex marriage, and it also denied some very basic, fundamental amendments – the Senate denied some very basic, fundamental amendments. And the surveys which predicted the postal survey result also told us, very accurately, that the Australian people wanted safeguards in any move to same sex marriage.

COMPTON: Is that true, Senator? I mean – but the question was really simple: do you want the laws changed? It wasn't, "Do you want the laws changed but only if there's an enormous number of safeguards placed in for religious groups? Tick yes or no." It was – people want the law changed, and they seem to want it changed fairly quickly.

ABETZ: They were asked, “Do you support changing the law to allow same sex marriage”? The same surveys undertaken by Newspoll, which predicted the result of the postal survey, showed an even greater majority in favour of protections coming along with the change to same-sex marriage; such things as protecting charities to be able to continue receiving public funding, even if they continue to hold to the view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Now, these sort of protections are important, they're vital, and we've seen overseas what has happened: once the definition of marriage has changed, certain public institutions then make a decision that charitable status ought to be lost, school accreditations are taken away. And we wanted to provide support for that. And when I in fact asked, not once, not twice, but three times, both the Labor Party and the Greens in the Senate, would they support charities that continue to hold the view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman? Would they support ongoing public funding and support for those charitable institutions? Not once, not twice, but three times, both the parties, Labor and Greens, refused to answer the question. And that is why I do not believe those fears that myself and others expressed were baseless.

COMPTON: Okay. Lisa Singh, is same sex marriage going get through the Lower House next week? Will it be law by the end of the year?

ABETZ: It will be.

SINGH: I very much hope so. Following what happened yesterday – a momentous day, a day for the history books I have to say – in the six-odd years I've been here in the Senate, yesterday was a day that was historic, and something very moving; something that so many have fought for over a decade or more. Particularly Senator Penny Wong, who has fought internally within our party for this, and again, Dean Smith as well, who was, as he said himself, a latecomer to the issue, but then, you know, was so instrumental in going through the process of getting a bill before the Parliament that would pass, that got that balance right: the balance between protections for religious freedom and marriage equality. And that's what we had yesterday. And that's why those amendments that Eric talks about didn't pass the Senate: because the balance was right in the bill that was brought before us, a bill that went through a rigorous process, a Senate process, of inquiry, and that the Australian people clearly were happy with us debating and having pass with an overwhelming majority of 43 to 12. So, it was a fantastic day, and a day for equality for so many Australians, but particularly for LGBTI Australians – in the hope to end that discrimination, and not, of course, bring in more discriminations, which is why that bill got that balance right.

COMPTON: It is – it will be interesting to see what happens next week, when all the tension will be on the Lower House, and how they handle the issue. To both of you thank you for joining us on Senators in Space this morning, and we'll see you Monday night, Senators Eric Abetz and Lisa Singh! And I hope you'll both be able to join us in two weeks from now for the last edition – the Christmas edition – for the year.

ABETZ: Look forward to providing some Christmas cheer!

SINGH: With bells on!