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ABC TV Capital Hill Greg Jennett 8 February 2016

08 February 2016

ABC TV News Capital Hill 8 February 2016





SUBJECTS: Stuart Robert; GST

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus who is also Deputy Manager of Business in the House joins us. Mr Dreyfus you heard it there, from Julie Bishop a private trip by Stuart Robert who was on leave. How can you breach the ministerial code when you're not wearing a ministerial hat?

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Greg this seems to us to be the clearest possible breach of the ministerial code of conduct which in two places talk about this. First saying that a minister is not to use public office for private purposes and the second in more detail saying that it's not appropriate for a minister to accept pay or any kind of contract with any private organisation or on a voluntary basis provide assistance to a private company. If Mr Robert is saying he did this in a private capacity, that doesn't cure the problem. Hes the Assistant Defence Minister at this time and he has allowed his office to be used. He is responsible for what appeared on this Chinese mining company's website.

JENNETT: How can he control the way he is presented in that room? If he went as a private citizen, how is he reasonably to be able to stop the Chinese presenting him as the Assistant Minister which apparently they did?

DREYFUS: That's almost a nonsensical proposition. This is going to China to a signing ceremony for his mate, Paul Marks, who has given $2 million or more to the Liberal Party of Australia for a signing ceremony, in which he is dressed in a suit, standing behind an Australian flag, the photos tell the story. He is there in one of the photos presenting a certificate to one of the senior Communist Party officials who is there. Hes there behind the Australian flag and extraordinarily there in the setting that we've become accustomed to seeing Australian diplomats and ministers one-on-one talking to a senior official.

JENNETT: Is it Labor's assertion that Stuart Robert was freelancing on this expedition or that because of the donor status of the chairman that it might have been authorised?

DREYFUS: All of those questions are questions for Mr Robert and Mr Turnbull to answer and they should answer them as soon as possible because on the face of it, it's a clear breach of ministerial standards. We need to know for example was the Minister for Defence or the then Prime Minister or the Department of Defence informed about this trip? Did the Ambassador in Beijing or our Embassy in Beijing extend consular assistance or the ordinary assistance they would to a visiting Minister, to Mr Robert on this occasion? Did he go on a tourist visa or did he go saying this was for business purposes? Who paid for the trip? Who paid for his accommodation? None of these questions have been answered and I say again that on the face of it, it looks like the clearest possible breach and misuse of his public office.

JENNETT: Even were he not a minister, do you think there are pitfalls for even an Australian MP to try to go in the capacity as a friend of a company chairman to a place like this and a meeting like this?

DREYFUS: Lets not focus on the travel. If Mr Robert had done this here, in Australia, without travelling anywhere, it would have on the face of what we know been a breach of the ministerial code of conduct because he is lending his public office. He is the Assistant Minister of Defence, hes lending the trappings of office to this private company event, presumably to seek to get some advantage for his mate Paul Marks, the great donor to the Liberal Party.

JENNETT: Well Labor seems to have made up its mind, are you going so far just yet as to demand his resignation or sacking?

DREYFUS: Well Mr Turnbull needs to be explaining why it is that this isn't a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. At the moment, on the face of what appeared in a number of the morning papers, it looks like a breach of the ministerial code of conduct and a pretty clear one at that. It's a simple principle it's not about entitlements, it's not about travel, it's not about a pecuniary interest as such, but just the misuse of public office. When you become a minister Greg you accept certain restrictions on your behaviour and Stuart Robert appears not to have accepted those restrictions.

JENNETT: A process was put in place by Malcolm Turnbull and his government in the case of Jamie Briggs and his antics in Hong Kong. Would you quibble if such a process was set up again? A cabinet sub-committee and some investigatory work done by the departments including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet?

DREYFUS: Well actually I don't think you need much of a process. All of these matters are within the knowledge of Mr Robert. We don't have the situation of needing to protect a public servant from any harm which of course was the position in the case of Mr Briggs and I can understand why that process took a little bit longer because of the need to protect the public servant concerned. None of that arises here. Mr Robert knows what went on, he knows who paid for his trip, he knows who paid for his accommodation, he knows what his relationship is with Paul Marks, he needs to explain publicly what are the companies he has invested in in this mining company group, what exactly is his connection, and what happened when he went to Beijing? Who did he meet with? Did he take his phone for example in breach of security protocols? I could go on there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered.

JENNETT: There are indeed and I'm sure we will hear those in Question Time today. Just to branch out into some other politics of the day it's widely perceived now that the GST will not be proceeded with not a 15 per cent tax hike. Has that robbed Labor of its best chance for a campaigning issue?

DREYFUS: The crippling indecision in the Turnbull Government means that I don't quite know how to answer that question Greg because we don't yet know if the GST has in fact, as the papers suggested, been ruled out or whether it is still not off the table.

JENNETT: All the signs are that they are drifting towards abandoning.

DREYFUS: I was struck by the fact that the media are prepared to report on the basis of a hint from the Prime Minister. But this morning on air we've heard from both the Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer seemingly trying to keep it alive. And I would call on the Prime Minister to say rule out, or rule in, say what is happening because it's agonising. To have this debate where we made our position clear, Labor has made its position clear on a whole range of tax matters particularly the GST, but we don't know what Mr Turnbull wants and it's not exactly economic leadership, is the way I would put it.

JENNETT: And if it was ruled out, lets say sooner rather than later, that's one less feather that Labor has to fly with isn't it?

DREYFUS: No, then well move on to the real core of this debate which is how this country is going to fund adequate health systems and adequate education systems which are primarily delivered by the states and from whom the Commonwealth government has cut away $80 billion. That's what underlies this debate about what is to be done.

JENNETT: Labor's not fully committed to restoring all of that it has a package up to a certain date on the calendar but your'e not committed on that either.

DREYFUS: We have unveiled a policy in full in relation to schools funding which commits a Labor government to properly funding schools on a needs basis, implementing in full the Gonski recommendations, implementing those extra two years which the Abbott-Turnbull government has cut away, and on health were still to announce our further policies. I was simply making the point that you've suggested there would be nothing to talk about if the GST is taken away. We'd say that's a very good thing because we've called for it not to be introduced. We would still have suspicions that harboured in the breast of the Prime Minister is a desire to go ahead with the GST if he were successful at the election. And we need to be talking urgently. And that's what has driven the state Premiers here, we need to be talking about how health and education are going to be funded in the future.

JENNETT: Well in that sense we haven't heard the end of this but Mark Dreyfus thank you for your time today.

DREYFUS: Thanks for having me Greg.