'Who’s to say that Steve Martin doesn’t abandon the National Party in a short amount of time?' - ABC Hobart 936 Mornings with Leon Compton radio interview, Wednesday 30 May 2018





SUBJECTS: Crossbench Senators switching political parties; Women in parliament; Superannuation; Braddon by-election; Labor’s $4.5 million investment to TAZREACH to improve access to medical specialists in Tasmania; Barnaby Joyce.

LEON COMPTON: Senator Eric Abetz, good morning to you

ERIC ABETZ, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Good morning Leon, good to be on Senators in Space again.

COMPTON: Senator Lisa Singh, good morning to you


COMPTON: To both of you, let’s talk about who was more surprised? Lisa Singh? Eric Abetz? About Steve Martin announcing that he’ll be joining the Nationals. Senator Abetz, to you.

ABETZ: I dare say it would have been equally surprising for both Senator Singh and myself. And look, good luck to him. From the Coalition point of view, it’s great to have another number in the Senate, which makes the negotiation of government business through the Senate somewhat easier by meaning there’s one less cat to herd from the crossbenches given that he’s joined the Coalition.


SINGH: I am surprised because I actually thought he was going to join the Liberal Party. Maybe a surprise to Eric. I didn’t think we had a National Party in Tasmania. I think the electorate have the right to be a bit annoyed about this. They elected a Senate candidate that was in one political party, and then he became an independent, and now he’s in another political party. We’re seeing this across the board with crossbench Senators. Indeed, we saw it with Jacquie Lambie herself, but at least she got re-elected in her own right at the last election. But we’ve seen it with Cory Bernardi, Tim Storer, and Fraser Anning, so it seems to be a common thing.

COMPTON: It was an article, I think to credit it – it might have been an opinion piece on the Guardian or news.com yesterday – suggesting that we need to, if you were branded one thing when you join and when you garner people’s votes, that you should be compelled to stay in that party. Senator Abetz, do you think there’s something to that? There has been a lot of party jumping over the past four years.

ABETZ: Look, superficially there is, but ultimately the people of Tasmania elect Lisa Singh and Eric Abetz, albeit it under party banners. Under our system they elect us as individuals and we are ultimately responsible to the people of Tasmania, and not to our political party. Having said that, I can’t foresee any circumstance where I would leave the Liberal Party, or indeed Lisa Singh leave the Labor Party.

SINGH: I agree with you, Eric

ABETZ: I do find it difficult when people have used the resources of a political party to then establish themselves, and then jump ship. In politics you will always have your disappointments with colleagues or whatever, and also the good times, and you’ve got to ride them both out and acknowledge that your parliamentary position, whilst given to you by the people of Tasmania, largely you are given it courtesy of the trust that the party has placed in you, and then the confidence that the people of Tasmania have put in your political party.

SINGH: But I think also Eric, people know where you stand, and where I stand, what kind of values that we have when they go to vote for us based on who we are as individuals, but also the party that we are a part of. And when electors vote for someone who was part of one political party and then they jump ship…who’s to say that Steve Martin doesn’t abandon the National Party in a short amount of time and do something completely different again? It doesn’t give any respect, I don’t think, to the electors in the fact that they voted for a particular individual based on who they thought they were and the party and the values that party stood for at the time.

COMPTON: Senators, down to the nitty-gritty of the politics of this. We’re going to an election either late this year or early next year. It’s a really interesting make-up of the Senators up for re-election; three Labor, one Greens, Richard Colbeck for the Liberals, and potentially Steve Martin now with the Nationals. I’m assuming that’s your understanding of who will be heading off to election? Senator Abetz, is Steve Martin going to be appearing, as happens in some states, as part of the Liberal ticket or is it your expectation that he will be separately under his own Nationals banner?

ABETZ: I’ve already indicated that my anticipation is, and I may well be wrong, that the Liberal Party organisation in Tasmania would not have a stomach for having a joint ticket. And Senator Martin himself, before I made those comments, indicated that he anticipated that he would be leading the National Party Senate ticket in Tasmania. In other words, a separate ticket, and in those circumstances I believe it only appropriate that the Liberal Party has its ticket. Having said that, being in coalition I anticipate that the two parties will have a very strong flow of preference allocation between ourselves on the basis that we are a coalition, but we are separate parties.

COMPTON: That second spot on your ticket will be very winnable at the upcoming election. Steve Martin might go in there, assuming that Richard Colbeck makes it into first place and there’s no guarantees on that, but it’s also a very winnable spot for any woman that you could find to preselect as a party. Will that be your priority?

ABETZ: I’ve already indicated that yesterday, and anybody that knows me within the Liberal Party knows how hard I’ve worked for people like Elise Archer, Jacquie Petrusma, and now more recently Jane Howlett. It is important – if at all possible – that we get more women into the parliament. We’ve done quite well, might I say, with 40 per cent in the State Parliament. Not so well federally. So all things being equal, I am anticipating and hoping that the Tasmanian Senate preselectors of the Liberal Party might be able to find a suitable female candidate for a very winnable spot on the Liberal Senate ticket come the next election.

SINGH:  Not so well, Eric. It’s been disastrous for the federal Liberal Party in Tasmania. You haven’t had a female elected Liberal Senator or Member for, what, over a decade now?

ABETZ: I accept it’s been some time. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, the Liberal Senate team in Tasmania is all male? The Labor Senate team in Tasmania is all female. And we don’t ask for gender balance on the Labor Senate team, so I don’t think Lisa Singh has a very strong proposition there to offer the people of Tasmania. I think both our parties need to balance up their Senate teams, and I am hopeful that the Liberal Party will be able to do that at the next election. But let’s wait and see who offers themselves and at the end of the day it has got to be the very best person available to represent the people of Tasmania-

SINGH:  Are you saying there haven't been any decent Liberal women to be able to represent the people of Tasmania federally?

ABETZ: Or decent men to represent the Labor party in the Federal Senate?

COMPTON: Lisa Singh, what's your response to that question about the gender balance in the Senate team?

SINGH: We do have men and women who make up the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party from Tasmania.

ABETZ: But not the Senate team.

SINGH: But over the scope of our representation, it is both men and women. You have only men and you have only had men for a long time – that is out of touch with society. Society is made up of both 50 per cent men and women and I'm sure you would admit that Eric.

ABETZ: Lisa, can I say to you that men and women come through my parliamentary office door seeking assistance and they don't say, ‘I'm not going to see you because you are a man,’ or, ‘because you're not a women,’ or whatever. They want good service from their parliamentarians and that is the first and most important criteria. However, having a variety of different cohorts from within the community – be it sex, be it racial origins etc – that's all very good and interesting and that is why I am very supportive of Senator Lucy Gichuhi from South Australia, a black African born in Kenya and a wonderful adornment in the Senate.

COMPTON: Let's move on this morning and talk about superannuation issues and the Productivity Commission’s draft report into super. Senator Eric Abetz, you are perpetually critical of the industry super schemes. Off the back of what the Productivity Commission found yesterday, do you finally acknowledge that it would almost be, in almost every case, better for any young person to sign up to an industry super scheme, rather than one of the retail ones that you don't talk about so much?

ABETZ: Well look I'm not sure you've appropriately categorised my concerns about-

COMPTON: You have a bit of an issue with industry super schemes and the way they are administrated.

ABETZ: Because the industry super schemes – I think there needs to be a full inquiry as to how board fees and other monetary funds are gouged out of those and find their way to particular organisations.

COMPTON: Accepting all of that; it happens at a much lower rate than retail funds and the funds themselves perform better than retail funds in most cases. Given that-

ABETZ: That is where this interim report from the Productivity Commission I think is a very helpful report for superannuation, which is something which has to work for the benefit of our nation because the welfare bill and the capacity sadly to continue to pay the aged pension is diminishing and therefore if workers are able to look after themselves through superannuation contributions during their working life that will ensure their future and lessen the burden on our fellow Australian taxpayers. Very good and that is why we should be pursuing the very best super schemes and also the very best management of them and-

COMPTON: Senator, do you acknowledge that the industry funds – on the evidence, on the facts – are doing it better than the retail funds, particularly those managed by the banks?

ABETZ: Some of them clearly are stacking up well and good luck to them. But that does not mean that there cannot be improvement in the management and the expertise which is on the board. The reports have indicated that in recent times that some of the people which sit on these so-called industry super funds do not necessarily have the expertise and qualifications, but sit there simply by virtue of the fact that they are a union official and rake in substantial sums of money which needs to be disclosed. I think those industry super funds in those circumstances could perform even better if some of those suggestions were adopted. But look this is an interim report. I think it is very helpful and healthy, as superannuation is such an important element for the future wellbeing of our standard of living and of the tax burden in our country.

COMPTON: Did I get the feeling that there was almost of whiff of bi-partisanship about possible paths forward? Lisa Singh, Eric Abetz, could there be a bi-partisanship approach to whatever reforms could be embraced on this issue?

SINGH: Well, that could only happen if Eric stops his attack on the union movement and industry super funds and I think the facts speak for themselves. I mean superannuation – that policy which is a hallmark of Paul Keating's legacy – makes me proud to be Labor. To see the success of industry super funds and what they delivers for workers right across this country is such an important part of the democracy of our nation. For Eric Abetz to continue to attack these industry super funds when they do, as you say Leon, outperform and outstrip the private and the bank-run super funds, which are doing terribly and underperforming, just shows that he has an ideological bent against these funds because of the support they have from the union movement. Which as we all know unions represent workers, so I think there could only ever be some kind of way forward on bi-partisanship if those in the Liberal party, like Eric here, stop this ridiculous attack on the success of our industry super funds.

ABETZ: Let's just understand a few things. Industry super funds are nearly always the default funds and therefore they don't have to compete in the marketplace for their members, therefore they get a substantial leg-up courtesy of union negotiations­-

SINGH: Members choose! Members choose what fund they want to be part of Eric, you know that.

ABETZ: If that were the case there would not be the need for a default fund, Lisa. You know that as well as I do and don't try to hoodwink the listeners. The simple fact is the industry super funds get a huge leg-up and get a lot more money courtesy of the default funds, and therefore it stands to reason their life is somewhat easier than those that genuinely compete in the commercial world. Having said that, let's see what we can do to ensure that anybody that is in a super fund gets the best possible long-term return for them as an individual and as a result to lessen the tax burden on future generations. 

COMPTON: Here on Mornings around Tasmania, we're talking about superannuation. The Productivity Commission's draft report released yesterday. Very interesting reading in it. If you want to go back and catch Alan Kohler's take on all that on the News last night, it is all up there for you to have a look at. It's time for Senators in Space.

 Let's talk about the Braddon by-election at the moment. Have either of you been campaigning there, and what does it say – Lisa Singh, you bridled a little a fortnight ago I think when I suggested that the Liberals might have been feeling quite confident about winning the seat and what that might have meant for Bill Shorten's leadership – do you acknowledge now that Bill Shorten's in there trying to shore up as many votes as he can find for his candidate?

SINGH: I think Bill Shorten, Justine Keay, the Labor Party, are trying to ensure that we hold Braddon and that Justine is returned to that seat, because she is the best member for that seat and Labor is the best party to represent that seat. If anything can show that, it's what I've discovered here yesterday Leon, in Senate Estimates hearings, where a program that was funded by this government called the TAZREACH Medical Program has been slashed by this government. It provides important medical outreach services to the people in Braddon, and Bill Shorten actually campaigning in that seat with Justine Keay made a commitment of $4.5 million to return money to that much-needed medical outreach program. That's just one example, let alone investment in hospitals, schools, TAFE and the like. They're the things that Labor wants to deliver, and which Brett Whiteley is doing nothing about.

COMPTON: Senator Abetz, just briefly, there are some in the North-West who wished – for the Liberal Party's sake – the election in fact was held much more quickly than has been proposed with the July date. Were you frustrated that the decision was made to put these by-elections off for so long?

ABETZ: That was a decision of the Australian Electoral Commission and the besmirching of the independent Australian Electoral Commission by Senator Penny Wong and other leadership members of the Labor Party is a disgrace and they should apologise to the Australian Electoral Commission. The date that was set was determined as a result of advice from the Australian Electoral Commission-

SINGH: That date wasn't in their original advice, and you know that Eric!

ABETZ: We can argue that whether it is good, bad or indifferent, but to try to say that this was a party-political decision as to the choice of the date – that is absolutely and utterly wrong. 

COMPTON: And Senator Abetz, do you agree that the TAZREACH program needs more funding to address that issue specifically that Lisa Singh raised?

ABETZ: What you've got to do is have a look at the total health budget. What Senator Singh won't tell you is that last night at Senate Estimates, the Health official told us that for Tasmania, public hospital health funding in the last year of Labor was $291 million. Today as we speak, it is well over $400 million. And yet the Labor Party run around with this false campaign of cuts to public hospitals when there has been a substantial increase – a continued substantial increase – and the figures I've just provided don't even include the Mersey Hospital funding of over $700 million dollars over a decade, which is on top of the over $400 million to which I've referred to. Labor can try to run their Mediscare campaign-

SINGH: It's just not true, Eric.

ABETZ: My simple question-

SINGH: It's a slow, incremental climb from the big cuts Tony Abbott put in place when he was first elected.

ABETZ: My simple question is how can you have cuts when the funding has gone from $291 million to over $400 million in a matter of four years? There has been an increase.

COMPTON: What is the answer to that Lisa Singh?

SINGH: I don't know where Eric is pulling those figures out from-

ABETZ: From Senate Estimates last night, from the Hansard.

SINGH: What we know is that since Tony Abbott was first elected as Prime Minister there have been massive blows and cuts to Tasmania's health system. 

ABETZ: That is simply false.

SINGH: These slight increments that Eric puts forward now are slow make-ups for the massive cuts that we've had over a very long period of time.

ABETZ: Slight increments? From $291 to $400 million. I think everyone would say in the space of four years that is a lot more-

SINGH: You don't want to talk about Braddon though Eric, do you? Or the TAZREACH example?

ABETZ: I do want to talk about Braddon-

COMPTON: I do want to move on!

ABETZ: Because in Braddon they have the highest bulk-billing rate of Medicare. Well above the Tasmanian average. Well above the national average. 

SINGH: If they can access a doctor!

ABETZ: They are particularly well-looked after in the health space.

COMPTON: I want to move on for just a moment. To both of you, do you think Barnaby Joyce should stand down at the next election in New England?

ABETZ: Those sort of questions, Leon, are matters that I don't want to canvas publicly. It would be fair to say that Barnaby himself has acknowledged he has failed in his personal life and I think...it is best left for Barnaby and his now-partner Vicki to deal with these matters in private. Discussing them on the airwaves I don't think is of benefit to anybody.

COMPTON: Lisa Singh?

SINGH: That's a matter for Barnaby – what he chooses to with his future political career. I understand from this morning that he has taken some personal leave till August, and Labor has done the right thing in offering a pair in the Parliament so that won't change the make-up.

ABETZ: Labor has done the right thing.

SINGH: These are personal matters and Barnaby's future’s up to him.

COMPTON: On Mornings around Tasmania, I know both of you have to get back to the Senate. Thank-you for coming in this morning.

ABETZ: Thanks a lot, Leon.

SINGH: Leon, before we go can I just give a shout-out and blow a kiss because I'm up here in Canberra to my partner Colin Grubb? It's our ten year anniversary today and we're often away – as I currently am – from each other as the life of politicians leads us to. 

 ABETZ: Lisa, happy anniversary to you and Colin.

SINGH: Thanks Eric.

COMPTON: Blowing a kiss! Any kisses to blow to anybody in particular Senator Abetz this morning?

ABETZ: Always to my darling wife, but I have been exceptionally careful to keep my personal and private life out of the public eye and I continue to try to do that.

COMPTON: To both of you thanks for coming in this morning on Mornings around Tasmania. Senators in Space.