With Peter Van Onselen & Paul Kelly
Sky News Melbourne
23 October 2016
Here’s the Minister I speak of, Senator Mitch Fifield, he joins us live
from Melbourne. Thanks very much for your company.
Good morning Peter.
How much worse do you think things are likely to get between the former
Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister before they get better and how
quickly do you think that as a team you have to look to resolve these tensions?
Peter, as a Government we’re focused on the people’s business. We have a
big agenda before us. We got through the House of Representatives, last week,
legislation on the Australian Building and Construction Commission. To
re-establish that. Legislation to reintroduce, or introduce I should say, a
Registered Organisations Commission. We also put through the House of
Representatives our legislation for a plebiscite for same-sex marriage. We’re
getting on with the people’s business. We've got a bit of a break from the
Parliament and we'll be back with the Senate resumption in a fortnight where we
will endeavour to secure the passage of those important pieces of legislation.
So that’s what we’re focused on.
I would argue the amount of achievements you refer to Senator highlights
what Paul Kelly talks about, with things being overshadowed by this
disagreement between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull because that’s where the
focus is. Do you disagree with Paul’s analysis that this is a serious problem
going forward that needs to be resolved?
I’ve got to say, looking at the period since the change of leadership,
looking at the period since the election, I think given the significance of
that particular event, that things have gone incredibly smoothly. It’s very
easy to be distracted by commentators. It's very easy to be distracted by those
things that interest the Canberra Press Gallery. But as a Government we’re
determined that that won’t be the case.
Senator, was this a good and smooth week for the Government?
Paul, I think we’ve had more elegant weeks as a government, but the
important thing is that we are transacting business.
We are well placed now for the final three sitting weeks of the year. We
have a laser like focus on seeking to ensure that we can re-establish the
Australian Building and Construction Commission. We’ve got a laser like focus
on putting in place a Registered Organisations Commission so that unions and
their officials are subject to the same rules, the same requirements, the same
expectations as company directors. And we’re still going to be arguing the case
that the Australian people endorsed our approach to have a national plebiscite
on same-sex marriage. They will be some of our focuses, but we've also got a
big legislative agenda ahead of us. There are things like media reform which
are important. So that’s what we will be doing.
We’ll get to those Senator, but I feel like I’m in a skit from a déjà vu
sit-com because this was exactly what the Gillard Government were telling us
when there were tensions between her and Kevin Rudd. They were talking about
their number of legislation that they got through the Parliament, the agenda
they were running looking forward, it was a media distraction. Can you see what
Paul Kelly says as a serious situation that could be brewing here that needs to
be addressed somehow?
I take what the former Prime Minister Mr Abbott says at face value. A
couple of days ago on the 7.30 Report he said that he wanted to see the
Turnbull Government re-elected and he wanted to see it re-elected with a good
majority. So I take what he says at absolute face value.
I think it’s important that as a Party we treat former Prime Ministers
with respect, but the obverse of that is that there is a particular duty that
former Prime Ministers have to look to the welfare of the Liberal Party.
Let’s talk about the Senate, given your position in the Turnbull
Government. One of the issues this week has been whether or not there should be
horse trading on issues. That is, when particular legislation is before the
Senate, whether there should be deals done with particular Senators outside the
ambit of that legislation on other issues. That is essentially cross trading.
And that of course would be the situation if we’re talking about guns in
relation to Industrial Relations. Is it your view that the Government should
entertain the process of horse trading or is this the wrong thing to do?
I don’t think you can have a clear and simple approach to that, you
really have to look at things on a case by case basis. The starting point, I
think, should be that the Parliament should look at the merits of a particular
piece of legislation. And that is, by and large, the approach that is taken.
We have seen in the past, under governments of all persuasions however,
that there can be things that individual crossbench Senators ask for the
Government of the day to entertain in return for their support for a particular
piece of legislation.
I guess Brian Harradine was an absolute classic. The number of call
centres that he secured for the state of Tasmania in relation to various pieces
of legislation. At one point there was a genuine concern that Tasmania was
going to sink under the weight of all those call centres that he had secure for
them. You can’t say never. What we try and do is deal with crossbench Senators
in an open way. If a crossbench Senator says that they want to talk to us about
a particular proposition then, sure, we will sit down and we will listen to
The starting point, as I say, should always be the merits of a particular
piece of legislation. But in terms of where discussions end up, look, you’ve
really got to take that on a case by case basis.
Would you be open to horse trading in the Senate on the case of the
same-sex marriage plebiscite?
I don’t think that there’s a proposition that has been put forward in
relation to that.
We’ve made clear as a Government that we’re open to talking with the Labor
Party, we’re open to talking with crossbench Senators about our marriage
plebiscite bill. But, as I say, we haven’t received any submissions. And it’s
just really not possible to speculate on a hypothetical basis what we might do
in relation to a scenario that hasn't been presented.
Well let me maybe put it the other way around then, which is what you
know, you say it’s a case by case basis when it comes to horse trading you’ve
given us some historical examples of horse trading by both sides that have long
gone on. What are the areas that are off limits when it comes to horse trading
from a Government's perspective?
Again, that’s a very difficult thing to answer across a range of hundreds
of pieces of legislation in relation to hypothetical scenarios that have yet to
Isn’t the reality here that while we’ve had horse trading in the past,
it's invariably a bad process. And that the real focus should be, for the
Senate to evaluate legislation on merit.
What’s wrong with evaluating legislation on merit?
Absolutely. And that is the starting point. Is that we argue for
legislation on its merits. That’s our starting point. That's how we engage with
the various groupings in the Parliament.
On occasion, you will have crossbench Senators who will raise an issue
that might be in the same general portfolio area. It might be in some way
indirectly related to the bill that is before the Parliament. And Senators will
use that as an opportunity to raise an issue. To see if they can get the
Government’s agreement on that. I think that’s something that would be
expected. And that’s where most of the situations manifest themselves in terms
of other arrangements, is where it’s something that might be in the general portfolio
area of the piece of legislation that’s before the Parliament.
Are you confident the Government can get these two critical industrial
relations bills through the Senate?
There’s every reason why the Senate should support the ABCC Bill and the
Registered Organisations Bill. We took them to a double dissolution election.
We have a mandate. We have the endorsement of the Australian public. And that’s
something that my Senate colleagues should keep in mind. The Australian Labor
Party should absolutely support this legislation. If they care about their
union members, as they claim they do, then they should be at the front of the
line of people wanting to clean up the trade union sector. So we don’t give up
on the prospect of Labor perhaps supporting the Registered Organisations Bill.
On ABCC they seem to be pretty intransigent. But we’re very hopeful that the
merits of the case in relation to both those bills will see the crossbench in a
position where they support this legislation.
We’ll jump into your portfolio area in a moment Senator, but I wanted to
ask you about Senate Estimates during the week. There was a revelation I think
it was on Friday. Around $640,000 that was granted to Bjorn Lomborg for a book.
An edited collection, self-published, not refereed, didn’t go through a peer
review process and you know, it was contra conventional wisdom if I could put
it that way in the scientific community with the subject matter. Which would be
fine had it gone through something other than a self-published process with no
peer review. $640,000 for one edited collection, what on earth is that all
Peter, I’ve got to be honest, that particular issue completely bypassed
me in the course of this week. There were eight Senate Estimates Committees
meeting. I was in, and focused on, the Communications and the Arts Senate
Estimates Committee. So I can’t help you on that particular subject.
Let me ask you another question which arose from Estimates this week.
We’ve seen yet again another example of the President of the Human Rights
Commission Professor Triggs being caught out giving misleading evidence, which
she’s then got to correct. This has happened before.
Does the Government have confidence in Professor Triggs, in her capacity
as President of the Human Rights Commission?
It’s extremely important that statutory office holders, when they are
before committees of the parliament, weigh very carefully every word that they
use. Obviously those officers should conduct themselves in an upfront, honest
and a transparent way. But it’s particularly so when they’re giving evidence
before a Senate Committee. And if a Senate Committee feels that that hasn’t been
the case, then there are options for that Senate Committee and they include
calling the particular officer back to give an explanation and an account of
I asked you though on the question of confidence. I mean we’ve had a
repeated series of conflicts between Professor Triggs and the Government. And
some of these have related to Professor Triggs having to readjust or correct
I ask again, does the Government have confidence in her?
I’ll leave statements in that regard to the Attorney-General who has
portfolio responsibility. When it comes to expressing confidence in terms of
particular office-holders I’ll leave that, in my case, to those who are within
my own portfolio.
But on the broader issue though, of her, whether what she says, you can
take it as something that you have confidence in when she’s addressing these
committees. As I understand it Professor Triggs was only willing to retract her
statement once she came to the realisation that the journalist in question
actually had an audio tape that proved the situation. It was only after that,
that she was prepared to reflect on what she’d said. How much confidence do you
therefore have on everything else that she might be saying in these committees
and how accurate it is or isn’t?
People should mean what they say and say what they mean. And they should
be upfront and honest in their presentations to the committees of the
Australian Parliament. As I say, it is open to the Senate Legal and Constitutional
Affairs Committee, if they’re not satisfied, to ask statutory officers to give
an account of themselves, to explain themselves.
Following a complaint under section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act,
the Australian Newspaper and our cartoonist Bill Leak are now the subject of an
enquiry, of a process under this particular provision of the Act. Is the
Government at all concerned about the operation of section 18c?
As a general rule I think we need to have a broad range of tolerance when
it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Whether that be for
photographers or cartoonists or journalists in terms of what they produce. 18c
has been a matter of public debate for quite some time. It’s not something that
is currently at the forefront of the Government's agenda to address. But in a
sense, all legislation is under ongoing review in the light of lived experience.
And if there are decisions of courts that the public see as beyond what they
see as appropriate, then that can lead to further review of legislation. But
we’re not presently examining 18c. It's not at the front of the Government's
agenda. But over time, in the light of how legislation actually works, things are
examined from time to time.
I know it’s not being formally examined at the moment and that’s why I’m
asking the question. Is the Government troubled? Are senior Cabinet Ministers
troubled about what is happening at the moment, which is clearly an effort to
silence the Australian newspaper and our cartoonist Bill Leak on this issue?
So are there concerns in the Cabinet about what’s going on?
I think Cabinet ministers do need to be careful when issues are before
bodies such as the Human Rights Commission. We need to the careful in the
comments that we make. But I make the point again, that whether something comes
onto the agenda for re-examination is partly a function of the way that laws
work in practice. And that if a court took a decision that the public saw as
beyond the pale, then that could well be something that caused a matter to be
Surely, surely ministers in the Government are not just going to do
nothing until this issue might end up in court. I mean surely that’s an
untenable situation isn’t it?
I’m not sure that you want ministers intervening in issues that are going
through complaint processes within government...
Minister I’m not talking about, I’m not talking sorry, you misunderstand
me. I’m not talking about Government ministers intervening in this particular
process. I wouldn’t suggest that for a minute.
What I’m talking about here is the operation of section 18c. As you said,
we’ve got a public debate in this country about section 18c. We’ve got the
Australian Newspaper and our cartoonist now being subject to enquiry in
relation to this. This is a public debate about 18c. I’m asking if there is any
concern on the part of senior ministers about this?
This is a matter that is being examined, as I understand it, by the Human
Rights Commission. There is a public debate. And we don’t try and prevent
members of the community putting their views forward. But what I’m saying is that
as a Government what we would do is to look at the real life out-working of
legislation. How it’s actually working in practice...
If I could just ask the question another way. Given what’s happened, do
you think there is a risk to free speech in Australia as a result of the
operation of 18c?
Free speech is something that we take very seriously as a Government.
It's something that I take particularly seriously as the Minister for
Communications and the Arts. The Arts is one of the great underpinnings of free
speech. It’s one of the important underpinnings of a robust and pluralistic
democracy. So I wouldn’t want you for a moment to think that it’s not something
that we take seriously. That it’s not something that we think should be
defended. But in the case of this particular legislation I can’t really add to
what I’ve said already Paul, which is, while 18c isn’t something that is top of
the agenda for the Government, we’ve got other priorities, never the less we do
always keep a watching brief on the way that legislation works in practice.
Minister can I ask you about anti-syphoning laws and get your thoughts on
this. What are the big cultural differences between New Zealand and Australia?
We have them, they don’t. The All Blacks which are an absolute institution in
New Zealand are on pay television with no anti-syphoning laws, where you
wouldn’t see anything like that occurring here. What’s the cultural difference?
There are many things that we do in Australia which are unique. There are
many uniquely Australian solutions to issues. Some of those are really great
things. Like Medicare. Medicare is a pretty unique arrangement. The NDIS is a
pretty unique Australian policy solution. And they’re good things. Historically
the anti-syphoning list is something that has evolved here in response to
community concern that iconic Australian sporting events might not be on
Free-Air TV. It came into place when we had subscription TV coming to
Australia. And it was put there so that there was a degree of comfort in the
Sure but Senator, you know as well as I do the list goes well beyond
iconic Australian sports I mean like me you absolutely would have had a read
over this list and you don’t have to think that the AFL Grand Final or the
Rugby League Grand Final or anything of that sort should be taken off the
anti-syphoning list to still look at it and say, well hang on, there’s a whole
host of things that seem to be there that don’t strike me as being particularly
iconic to Australia.
Well the list isn’t something that’s absolutely set in concrete. It
changes over time. There are things that go onto it. There are things that come
off it. There are some misapprehensions, I think, about the anti-syphoning
list. It does provide a degree of comfort for Australians. But it’s not an
The anti-syphoning list doesn’t mandate that Free-to-Airs have to
purchase events. It doesn’t mandate that even if Free-to-Airs purchase the
event, that they have to show them. And it doesn’t mandate that they can’t
on-sell them if they purchase them. So a few misapprehensions abroad about the
It’s not something that we’re currently examining. I think that there
would need to be broad parliamentary support before there were significant
changes to the anti-syphoning list.
I assume you always take note of comments made by your ministerail
colleague Peter Dutton. As Communications Minister are you satisfied with
editorial standards, integrity and impartiality on the part of the ABC
particularly in relation to the issue of detention centres and offshore
Well we had a very good session at the Senate Communications Estimates
Committee on this subject. On the issue of the Four Corners program. Senator
Hume was very forensic in her examination of the officals from the ABC who were
at the table. And I think Senate Estimates is one of the good accountability
mechanisms for Commonwealth funded agencies, including the ABC. As a result of
that questioning the ABC decided that they would receive that as a complaint
about the program and examine it. I understand that Peter Dutton is also
writing to the ABC about that particular program. And that’s appropriate.
One of the things about the ABC having statutory independence is that
that should mean that there is a freedom for Members of Parliament to express
their views in the knowledge that in expressing their views, in terms of making
those known, that that does not compromise the ABC's independence. So I think
it’s a good thing.
Can I just ask whether as Communications Minister, you are quite relaxed
and confident about ABC editorial standards, or do you think Peter Dutton’s got
Well I don’t have a role, as you know, editorially at the ABC. That’s a
matter for the board and management of the ABC.
But I make the observation that the ABC isn’t one monolithic culture. I
think there are many different cultures within the ABC. I think historically
the ABC Parliament House Canberra bureau has been seen as a pretty good and a
pretty straight outfit.
ABC Regional Radio has a culture of its own. Current affairs has again a
culture of its own.
Minister you are avoiding the question, let me put the question again.
The allegation made by Peter Dutton is that the ABC is a campaigning media
organisation on this question of offshore detention centres and processing.
That is, that it has a campaigning ideological position.
Do you think there is a point in that or is the Minister completely
I guess this does relate to the point I was making. Firstly, I think
there are a range of different cultures in the ABC. But it’s appropriate that the
ABC continually examines itself to make sure that it is meeting its own
standards. The standards of objectivity. The standards of impartiality.
Ensuring that a range of different perspectives are put forward. But look, I
was certainly troubled by the fact that Minister Dutton, who offered himself
for a live interview at the conclusion of the program, that that offer wasn’t
accepted. There is no reason why that shouldn’t have been accepted. So the ABC
needs to continually examine itself. I think it's good when Ministers and
Members of Parliament raise their concerns with the ABC. But in relation to
that particular program I did think it was odd that Minister Dutton’s offer to
give a live interview was not taken up.
Now have you raised that yourself with the ABC?
Look I raise a lot of issues with the ABC.
But have you raised that issue, you’ve just told us that you were
troubled about this program and you’re troubled on the basis that they didn’t
interview the relevant Minister which seems to be a pretty serious issue. Have
you raised this with the ABC, if not will you?
I haven’t yet raised that with Michelle Guthrie, but I...
But I certainly will be, Paul. Absolutely.
Can I ask you on broader media reform, there’s been a lot of talk about
two out of three and reach rules and so forth but it’s unclear to me at this
stage firstly what the Government's timetable is and secondly how you think the
opposition is likely to respond to this. When we’ve spoken to them in the past
here on this program there seems to be a sympathy there for the reach rules but
not necessarily the two out of three, how’s that whole process of media reform
You’re right, the 75% audience reach rule does have the support of Labor,
the abolition of it. The two out of three rule, Labor have reserved their
positon to date. I think Michelle Rowland as a new Shadow Minister is wanting
to do her due diligence. There is every reason why the Australian Labor Party
should support the abolition of both of these rules.
As we’ve discussed before, they were crafted for an era before the
internet existed. They don’t reflect the way that our media is structured
today. They don’t give media organisations the freedom to configure themselves
in the way to best support their viability. We now have a lot of diversity,
courtesy of online platforms, which means we don’t need to be as troubled about
risks to diversity through media ownership in Australia.
So I’m still making the case with the Labor Party and also with my
Is the Government prepared to go it alone on changing two out of three
and look to get the support of the crossbench and, if so, how are discussions
with them going on this? Is there a chance that without Labor that you could
get that change through?
Well I’m keen to pursue 75% audience reach and two out of three as a
package. You’ve got to pursue a couple of tracks at the same time, so while I
talk to the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens I also talk to my
crossbench colleagues. You don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket.
The Senate is a dynamic place. So you make your case to all your colleagues.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield you’ve been generous with your
time, as always we appreciate you joining us on agenda, thanks very much.
Good to be with you.