17 January 2017
Transcript - #2017002, 2017

Interview with Luke Grant, 2GB

SUBJECTS: Entitlements

LUKE GRANT:

The Special Minister of State is on holidays but Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, is the acting minister while Scott Ryan, the Senator, is on leave and I’m delighted to say that Kelly O’Dwyer is on the line. Nice to talk to you again, Happy New Year.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Happy New Year Luke and Happy New Year to your listeners as well.

LUKE GRANT:

Did you have a break?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

I had a little break before Christmas, which was lovely, with my family and I’m happy to say that I’m recharged and ready to go.

LUKE GRANT:

Beautiful stuff. Now first off, in terms of entitlements, we had the former Prime Minister Abbott put a group of independent people together, review the whole thing and they came up with 36 recommendations. That was a year ago. I know this isn’t you, but I need to ask you some of these questions. The first one is, a year on, nothing was done, no wonder we’re in a mess?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well the report was actually released in March or April of last year and then, as you know, there was an election period in between that. But we did accept, in principle, all of the 36 recommendations made by the independent review that looks at parliamentary expenses. We did accept that there needs to be a fundamental change to the system as it operates because as you quite rightly pointed out before I came on air, people are very angry about it and I understand why they are angry. We have heard the message loud and clear that you need a very clear, accountable system that people can have confidence in because every taxpayer dollar that is spent on parliamentary expenses is hard earned and people have a right to know how that money is properly expended.

LUKE GRANT:

But if you, and I believe you because I know you and I trust what you told me, but if you want the people to embrace the notion that you’re fair dinkum, it wouldn’t have been many months, it would’ve been look, I haven’t forgotten about this, Tony Abbott did the report, we’ve got the report, we agree on them, when we come back in the first week or two, these things will be put to the parliament, we’ll make sure they get done and now they seem to be a distant memory. Instead, we get from the Prime Minister some new overseeing body that doesn’t currently exist and that the expenses go to monthly and somehow that’s going to fix everything.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well the Prime Minister’s actually strengthened the recommendations. I think it’s not fair to say that there wasn’t work being done on this, in fact there has been a lot of work done by the Special Minister Of State, Senator Scott Ryan, on this whole issue, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and the independent remuneration tribunal. So this is very well advanced. But on top of that, the Prime Minister has looked at the UK system, and they have a system that works over there with an independent agency. They’ve got a system over there that in effect has real time reporting so that people can actually search their local member, find out what they’ve been spending their money on, and there is, in effect, real time accountability to the general public.

LUKE GRANT:

Some of you and your colleagues manage billions and billions and billions of dollars, and I know one of the recommendations by the independent group was to have you certify your return. If you’ve got the ability to, you know, look after billions of dollars, surely you’ve got the ability to certify a claim for $1000, or $5000, or $10,000. It seems to me that the Prime Minister’s taken that out of the members’ hands.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

No, members do actually certify their statements, currently every six months.

LUKE GRANT:

But in the new system they will have to certify?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well in the new system I imagine there will still be a certification process involved in that, although I’m only the acting minister and I know that these issues will be worked through by the minister himself in presenting the final proposal. But can I say that if we’re going to find some silver lining here on what has been a terrible start to the year on this whole issue, what I would say is that we have at least got the full support of the opposition and the crossbench to actually make these extensive changes, which are the most extensive that we’ve had in modern history to the expense system. And I actually think that is actually a good thing, that we will be able to proceed at pace with getting these reforms through, no later than the first half of this year.

LUKE GRANT:

See I reckon with the recommendations you had before, you go to the parliament and you present them, and you see who’s going to back them. And I tell you in voterland, Kelly, we would’ve noted who didn’t back them and we would’ve sent them a message at the next poll. Prior to this new announcement, were there any in the parliament who weren’t going to support those recommendations?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well I know there have been extensive discussions that the Special Minister of State had been conducting with all political parties and crossbenchers about these issues. I’m not privy to those discussions but what I can say is that I absolutely welcome the fact that there is very clear support for these changes. They are very extensive changes and frankly, they are changes that quite rightly are demanded by the Australian public because we need to spend their taxpayer dollars as preciously as we would spend our own money. Just as people spend their own money very, very carefully, the Government also needs to be very responsible with people’s money.

LUKE GRANT:

Under the changes, if I was an MP and wanted to go to Broome for a holiday and I said to my office, quick get me a meeting at a hospital and get the Lions Club to host a dinner on a Saturday so I can spend the weekend with my missus in Broome, will that be able to happen under these changes?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well I very much doubt that, because you’d need to be very clear that the purpose for which you are travelling is a legitimate purpose and it is for your parliamentary official business. So the idea that people would take holidays at the taxpayer expense is not one, frankly, that could or should be tolerated. I think it is very clear that people quite rightly view that very, very dimly and this is a big, big shakeup of the whole system. And as you say, it might be long overdue but it is happening.

LUKE GRANT:

So the Tony Burke situation, the family to the middle of Australia, or when Chris Pyne brought his kids to see the fireworks in Sydney, and they were just holidays, that’s gone?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well I don’t know what the circumstances are that surrounded those trips, but let me tell you this. What we are doing is putting an independent agency in charge of it, which will be able verify whether or not it was official business, and they will be able to make sure that not only can that be checked off before someone actually takes the travel, but after the event as well. It will be searchable. It will be, if people want to try and abuse the system, it will be front page news and frankly, at the end of the day, people do pay for these sorts of things with their jobs.

LUKE GRANT:

Why don’t we now have a forgive period of maybe a couple of weeks, where we say look, if you’ve done something in the fullness of time and maybe the events of the last week has caused you to rethink, you might resubmit something and want to pay something back. We’ll have an amnesty for a fortnight, then it’s fair game? Because I reckon this, and I could be wrong and I respect your view, but I reckon the PM said what he said to stop investigations and to kind of make the issue go away. And I think other than you and I chatting today I couldn’t see it covered in the national press. So why can’t we have something like an amnesty and play catch up? Because there must be others, Sussan Ley wasn’t the only one.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Can I say I’ve got great respect for you Luke, but I absolutely take issue with the idea the PM is trying to sweep it under the carpet because he’s doing anything but that. He has been the one to take strong action in relation to making these changes and making them more extensive even than what was recommended by the independent review that was conducted last year. So I think the PM is very, very serious about this and he’s very serious about implementing it at the earliest possible time. In terms of people who’ve made bad judgements or who might’ve made a legitimate mistake, under the current system now, if you make a legitimate mistake, you can go back to Finance and say look, I’ve realised that I’ve claimed for something I shouldn’t have claimed and you can actually, under the existing system, pay the money. So there’s nothing prohibiting somebody to do that right now if they actually feel that there is something that they claimed for that they shouldn’t have claimed for. So, you know, it’s a matter of judgement and as you know, everyone’s judgement is always slightly different on these sorts of things.

LUKE GRANT:

Yes it is. Let me ask you a couple before I let you go and I appreciate you doing this as the acting minister, but in relation to Sussan Ley, I can’t find out that she’s done necessarily anything that broke the rules as they were when she took the travel. Was there a, can you tell me the specific rule that she broke or did she just get found out doing something that probably didn’t pass the pub test only?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well, as you say, I’m the acting Special Minister of State and look I think the issues regarding Sussan’s travel have been very well ventilated and ultimately, she has resigned. She’s no longer Minister for Sport and Aged Care, she’s no longer the Minister for Health and the Prime Minister has announced sweeping changes to the expense system so that these sorts of issues will not be issues going forward, that people can have confidence in the system that is in place, that it is accountable, that it is transparent, and that taxpayers are going to get, and make sure that they get, value for money.

LUKE GRANT:

But in relation to Sussan Ley, see the PM does the investigation and the media say oh what did you find and he says well I’m not going to tell you that, and then Sussan Ley resigns and she says oh I really didn’t do anything wrong. So I mean, we, the people, again Kelly this is you’re an, not you but the body politics, are on one planet and the rest of us mugs are on another. If she did something wrong, what did she do wrong? The PM’s investigated, she says she’s done nothing wrong, who’s right who’s wrong? Why did we lose the health minister? Because I’m here to say I thought she was reasonably effective.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

She has made her own decision, she’s resigned, that resignation has been accepted, she has said in extensive statements that she accepts that the travel that she undertook when she made those statements was not in keeping with community expectations. She did apologise for that and she’s resigned.

LUKE GRANT:

So it was the way it looked, in other words, because I don’t know if you’ve ever travelled and bought a handbag and I hope you have I hope you bought a dinner set –

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

My husband doesn’t like me buying too many things.

LUKE GRANT:

Or I hope you, I hope to be fair, I hope you bought yourself a whipper snipper or something. I don’t mind because it’s wrong to expect that when you’re on our dime, all you do is work. You got to have time to yourself and that might include buying stuff. I have no problem with that. We have been a bit tough here. I know it’s an $800,000 apartment and the Labor shadow spokesperson kind of went to town on Sussan Ley and I thought some of the claims she made, which became news, people saying she said certain things which she certainly did not, is scandalous in itself. But to be honest, as a taxpayer, it you want to go and buy a Mars bar or a whipper snipper or an apartment, while you’re doing a very good job, go your hardest.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well look I think most people reasonably expect that parliamentarians are not purchasing property when they’re traveling for the dominant purpose of conducting their parliamentary business, I think that’s pretty clear. So as I said, I don’t want to get into commentary in relation to past matters –

LUKE GRANT:

You’re good at that, come on.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

The truth is that we’re actually fixing up a lot of the problems that have existed for quite some time. And I know that have been lots of urban myths around the sorts of entitlements that parliamentarians have been able to access and I think you were dealing with some of those last week in relation to points, you know, for–

LUKE GRANT:

Frequent flyer points. Well there we go. I reckon that there are political staffers who travel on the taxpayers’ dollar that get frequent flyer’s points and still have them and use them for what they like.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well I can assure you that the frequent flyer program was abolished in 2010 and that parliamentarians and their staff don’t receive frequent flyer points for their work related travel. So that was abolished some time ago and while there might’ve been some parliamentarians in the parliament before that period who had accumulated points, certainly from that point on, there was no ability to accumulate frequent flyer points.

LUKE GRANT:

So there’s no way, no way a staffer could be accumulating points and even suggesting to me that maybe they don’t really police this?

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

Well not now, not under the existing system, no. Not from 2010 can a parliamentarian or their staff accumulate frequent flyer points.

LUKE GRANT:

Alright, good to talk, look after yourself, hope to see you soon.

ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE:

You too. Thanks.