Transcript – Breakfast with Fran Kelly – ABC Radio National

Topics: foreign political donations, Statement of Ministerial Standards

 

E&OE …

 

FRAN KELLY:

Scott Ryan is the Special Minister of State, he joins us in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

 

SENATOR SCOTT RYAN:

Good morning Fran.

 

KELLY:

In March, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended foreign donations be banned. All sides of politics support this position. Why hasn’t it happened yet?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

Well we are working on it. I am working on legislation and the Prime Minister made that point yesterday. There was a difference in the electoral matters committee recommendations, as you might remember Fran. The Government’s made clear that if we are going to ban foreign donations, as we should – it is important to restore and continue to build public trust in our democracy – that it is going to be comprehensive. We don’t want to create a loophole where we look like we are fixing a problem by saying ‘political parties can’t accept foreign money’, but then create a loophole where foreign money could pour into third parties, activist groups and others who are just as politically active and have just as much influence over the political and electoral process.

 

KELLY:

Well hang on. Do they have just as much influence? I presume you’re talking about a group like Get Up!? Get Up! if we try and put that in perspective, has received about $300,000 in donations over the past two years, well shy of the $6.5 million donated to the major parties by just two Chinese businessmen. Get Up! is not a political party, it is never going to have the influence over policy that government does or even an opposition can have. Isn’t there a difference here?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

We can’t have a system where one TV ad can be paid for by foreign money in an election campaign and another TV ad can’t. Get Up! and other groups hand out how-to-vote cards, I don’t want to restrict that, but we do need to ensure we don’t have a situation – as has happened in the United States – where there is great restrictions on political parties, but money gets funnelled into third parties that can have – and I disagree with you –quite a dramatic influence on the political process.

Now, we’re a democracy. I’m not seeking to restrict that, but when it comes to money, it needs to actually treat all people equally.

I might say, you played the grab from Bill Shorten there. As far as I’m aware, the stunt of a bill that he introduced earlier in the year that had some mistakes in it, that Labor had sitting on the Senate Notice Paper for quite a period of time when they were in government but didn’t progress, wouldn’t have addressed all of the donations raised on Four Corners on Monday night.

So I’m working on legislation.

 

KELLY:

That’s all very well, but people listening go, I think you told us some months ago you were working on legislation, the point is, I think people listening say ‘well, when are we going to see the legislation?’

 

SENATOR RYAN:

Later this year …

 

KELLY:

Later this year? So how long can we wait to ban, given what we’ve heard and what our political leaders heard in 2015 from ASIO. How long are we prepared to wait to ban these political donations? Why not start the first bit and then follow on?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

Because I’m going to do it properly. The last thing that should happen here is that we pretend we solve a problem and we create loopholes through bad law. That’s not what I’m about. Whether it’s dealing with parliamentary expenses or the issues of eligibility of senators last year, I deal with things comprehensively. The legislation will come forward later this year.

 

KELLY:

And are you sure this isn’t just the Government stalling because it is angry at Get Up!? Because it did campaign against Liberal MPs in a number of seats?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

Well Fran, that’s quite frankly an allegation with no basis at all. The electoral matters committee recommended itself that this ban apply to all people seeking to influence the electoral process. I don’t want to hit up the local community group that is doing some local activism work on particular issues they’re concerned about, but where you’ve got groups like Get Up! that do spend millions of dollars on election campaigns, the idea that we would say ‘well it’s ok for you to receive foreign money’, that’s bad law and you would have me on this program in 12 months criticising me quite rightly for creating such a loophole.

 

KELLY:

OK so you’re trying to shut this loophole, but it is taking a long time if we’re still waiting till later this year. Why is it taking so long to draft that?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

I might say, the report only came down in March. A report came down earlier in the year …

 

KELLY:

It’s June now.

 

SENATOR RYAN:

We’ve still got legislation in Parliament dealing with the previous report on electoral authorisations to ensure that is all comprehensive and treats everyone equally, that’s in the Parliament at the moment. This is quite a complex legal and constitutional issue and, for example, the issues raised in Four Corners the other night, one of those people is an Australian citizen, one is a permanent resident and they’re not just matters that can be easily dealt with via the Electoral Act. When people talk about foreign influence, that’s why the Prime Minister has called for a more wide-ranging review into other laws that apply to foreign influences in Australia. The Electoral Act is really only one measure and it is very difficult constitutionally to target one class of Australian citizen.

 

KELLY:

I understand that and you’re right, that is just the Electoral Act. Parties themselves have decisions to make. Back in 2015, as we’ve said, the ASIO Director-General warned the major parties about taking donations from two Chinese billionaires in particular. He was concerned about their links to the Chinese Government. Since then, both sides have accepted donations. The Coalition accepted almost $900,000 from these two individuals alone. Why hasn’t your party heeded Duncan Lewis’ warning? That can happen without legislation, right?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

I can’t attest to that because I have had no such discussion. Quite frankly Fran, that is a matter for the party organisation.

 

KELLY:

What’s your view of that? You’re a senior party member, what’s your view of that?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

If I had a view Fran, I’m not going to provide it publicly on radio, I’ll speak to the party organisation.

 

KELLY:

But you’re an elected representative, I think people would like to hear your view on whether it’s appropriate for your party to accept almost a million dollars from someone that the ASIO Director-General says you’d better steer clear of.

 

SENATOR RYAN:

That’s the report, I’ve seen the report but I’m not going to provide comments on that which I am not completely briefed.

 

KELLY:

You’re listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is Scott Ryan, he is the Special Minister of State.

You are keen to ban foreign donations, does that mean you accept the notions that they come with strings attached? Is that really what politicians on all sides are telling us with this? That these donations are made with a specific purpose and could undermine our sovereignty?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

The reason I think the Prime Minister has made clear we are looking at foreign donations is, quite frankly, the Australian political process should be subject to the actions of Australians. I think it’s important. This hasn’t been a significant issue in previous years. I can understand exactly why people say ‘Australians should only influence the political process here and now’. I think it reflects that.

 

The issue of foreign influences is one, as I mentioned earlier, that is much more broad and that’s why the Prime Minister and Attorney General are undertaking that review into other aspects of legislation beyond the Electoral Act. I think we can all accept that donations from overseas to political parties and political activists are really only one element of this broader question.

 

KELLY:

Can you offer people listening any reassurance on this? I mean, we heard earlier James Clapper, the former director of US national intelligence no less, likening Chinese interference in this country to Russian meddling in America. We all know what happened with the Russians interfering in the US presidential elections, it went way beyond donations. Is this overstating the threat or the impact of the Chinese or some residents here and their role in our democracy? Or are our institutions strong enough to withstand this kind of interference even if it is occurring?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

The claims that have been made about the US presidential election, I want to be careful here Fran, lots of claims have been made, some of them are subject to formal or media investigation and there have not been similar claims made against Australia. Our electoral process, I think every Australian can have faith in its integrity. We’ve had two of the three closest elections in my lifetime in the past five or six years. They have been clearly and peacefully resolved one way or the other without any accusations, claims or allegations made afterwards. So with respect to the electoral process, I think Australians can have significant faith that it is run fairly, transparently and everyone can be confident of the outcome.

 

KELLY:

Just one final question Minister, concerning this notion, it’s not a new one, this notion of the ministerial code around former ministers and what work they go out and do afterwards. Now this time, it’s around the former trade minister Andrew Robb who started working as a consultant for a Chinese billionaire the day before, apparently according to Four Corners – I haven’t seen Andrew Robb’s answer to that yet – before last year’s election. That’s not a breach of the Government’s ethics code for departing ministers, it bans them for 18 months from lobbying the Government on matters they previously dealt with as a minister. If it’s not a breach of that code, is it appropriate? Does the code need to change and how hard is this?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

This is a complex issue. We do need to balance two things. There has been no claim that Andrew Robb has in anyway breached the code, you rightly say that, because it does prohibit dealing with officials that you dealt with as a minister, on issues you dealt with as the minister or knowledge you had a minister. There has been no claim about that. It is very different to the claims made with respect to Senator Dastyari and the infamous bill that was paid by the donor that caused him to stand down from the Labor frontbench last year.

We have to find a balance. There is no parliamentary pension, quite rightly, for those MPs first elected after 2004. A retiring Member of Parliament stops being paid, essentially, the day an election begins. But I think we have to be careful where someone has a broad portfolio – particularly someone like Andrew Robb, who was a senior businessman before he came into Parliament – isn’t prohibited completely from work after they leave public life. And at the moment, as I said, there is no claim that any element of the code has been breached or any knowledge has been inappropriately used.

 

KELLY:

I’m not saying that, I’m just really asking, briefly if you can, whether the rules need looking at again?

 

SENATOR RYAN:

They’re not my rules, I don’t provide public advice to the Prime Minister on the Statement of Ministerial Standards, but I think the rules are long standing and strike the right balance.

 

KELLY:

Senator Ryan, thank you very much for joining us.

 

SENATOR RYAN:

Thanks Fran.

 

[ENDS]

 

Author: senatorryan

Share This Post On