ABC News Afternoon Briefing

31 July 2023


Greg Jennett: All right, time for our political panel to join us and we have today Labor frontbencher Senator Tim Ayres and Nationals frontbencher Michael McCormack. Both very welcome guests here in the studio after a winter break. It's good to have people back on our patch. Why don't we go first of all, Tim Ayres, to the announcement that was made slightly before Question Time and reiterated by the Prime Minister. There is to be an inquiry into Home Affairs contracting arrangements as they relate to Nauru and to Papua New Guinea. This follows reporting by Nine Media. Is this a get-Peter-Dutton exercise? We have the – effectively - the terms of reference in a written statement today. Is it limited in its scope to any particular era?

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: Well, it doesn't seem on the face of the material, it's limited to its terms of reference and it's going to be conducted by one of Australia's most eminent public servants, former Director-General of ASIO, Dennis Richardson. We are determined as a government to get to the bottom of what has happened here for good public policy reasons.

Greg Jennett: Even if it happened under the watch of multiple Labor ministers who oversaw offshore processing? Peter Dutton named them this morning they include Tony Burke, Chris Bowen and Julia Gillard even at one point.

Tim Ayres: Well, there's some extraordinary allegations that have been made here and, as a government, we've got to get to the bottom of what has happened. Now, Mr Dutton should explain what has occurred here. That is a matter for him in the Parliament to do that. But we are determined to have a proper public - a proper inquiry that will be deliberated on properly under the cabinet system, including consideration by the National Security Committee of Cabinet and we will make sure that the policy lessons are learned here, that we get to the bottom of it, that there's proper accountability and that's the way this government's going to approach the question.

Greg Jennett: What might those lessons be, Michael McCormack? I mean, is there a cloud that hangs over the vast amounts of money, even to this day, vast amounts of money spent in these overseas countries on offshore processing?

Michael McCormack: Well, any of these deals or procurement is done by the department, so let's just park that to the side for the moment. The inquiry will look into all of those aspects, but as Peter Dutton has quite correctly indicated, the department does these arrangements, the department makes these negotiations and let's see what the inquiry comes up with. That's probably all that needs to be said as far as we're concerned at this stage. Let the inquiry do its work and let the proper processes take place.

Greg Jennett: So, should officials, you know, really senior ones at Home Affairs be worried then, if it's not going to claim any ministerial scalp, we're not suggesting it is, could the pieces land around the department?

Michael McCormack: Time will tell.

Greg Jennett: All right, okay. Well, we don't know much more about it other than Dennis Richardson is running all of this, so keep across that. I don't even know what the reporting date is, but that'll become apparent before too long. Why don't we move on to 'Double D' triggers and the Housing Australia Future Fund? Why is racking up this potential trigger by reintroducing it into the House such a priority now with all the rest of it that's going on? Budget measures to be delivered, Tim Ayres, are you intent on getting this and using it?

Tim Ayres: Well, the reason there is so much focus on it is this is a scheme that will build 30,000 homes in our suburbs and in our regional towns. This is a key part of the government's policy architecture in the housing area. It's effectively a fund that the surplus of which will be deployed into more housing supply. It is good policy. Now, I understand that there's the negative politics of the 'No-alition', a refusal to engage with any idea, I mean, the government has a mandate for this position.

Greg Jennett: It's the Greens that are standing in your way.

Tim Ayres: Well, everybody's got to take responsibility for their vote in the Senate and in the House. Now, the Liberals and Nationals are determined to vote against it. The Greens political party, their spokesperson, Mr. Chandler-Mather, said over the course of the weekend, this is all about them being able to generate a political campaign on the ground. Well, the problem is that you can't live in a slogan. You can't use a slogan to pay the rent. You can't find housing with a slogan.

Now, I appreciate that there are people who want more from the government. I understand that is the point. But what I don't understand is campaigning in a way that wipes out the potential of building 30,000 homes. The government's absolutely determined to proceed with this. As the double dissolution triggers, there are consequences that flow from relentless negativity and the gamesmanship that's occurring in the Senate this week.

Greg Jennett: Well, some of those consequences could well end up in your lap. Do you fear a potential early election, Michael?

Michael McCormack: Well, for a start, I don't disagree with Tim on the Greens. I mean, here's the 'Banana Republic Party' build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, that's what the Greens stand for, banana. You can use that if you like.

Tim Ayres: Thanks, Michael.

Greg Jennett: Don't touch the green bananas, only the yellow one.

Michael McCormack: Well, they're all bent. But as far as the housing policy is concerned, I mean, here's $10 billion, ten thousand million dollars of additional borrowed money and will it see any houses built? I mean, you can't find a labourer or indeed supplies at the moment in regional Australia to build a house, let alone social housing, let alone any house.

Greg Jennett: So that's your primary criticism, is it? It's inflationary?

Michael McCormack: Well, there's a whole raft of criticism. I don't have time enough to detail all of them. But housing - new housing starts have slumped six and a half per cent under this government, under Labor's watch. And you've got people homeless, but you haven't got the labourers or the building supplies, timber, iron brackets just to put the house together. And here we've got a Labor party in Tasmania who want to stop the timber industry full stop. Want to stop gas appliances in new homes. I mean, where do we start and stop with all of this?

Greg Jennett: Well, by that argument you'd never do it, right? There'd never be a good time.

Michael McCormack: Well, they're not going to do it. They're not going to do it. And the other thing, too is what is the government doing as far as getting all its Labor mainland state mates on board with its housing policy? What is it doing, indeed, with local government through the states to make sure that there is subdivision supply? That's a big issue, too, when we're talking about housing, they are huge issues. Have a housing summit, do those sorts of things, come up with real sensible ideas that aren't going to cost $10 billion and not build a single home?

Greg Jennett: All right, another summit. I don't know about that, but we'll take your suggestion all the same. Quick one to both of you, but I'll put this to you because it's in your shadow area, Michael McCormack, this exploration of the idea of a defence force being raised for Solomon Islands and Australia supporting it. Good idea? How deep should we get?

Michael McCormack: I don't disagree with what the Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles has said on this, and we always remain absolutely supportive of the Pacific, of Vanuatu, of Solomons and our defence force is ready to help in any which way. We need to make sure that Prime Minister Sogavare and others know that we're fully behind them and that we do everything to support every effort that they're making.

Greg Jennett: It is conceptual at this stage, Tim Ayres, but are there not risks in standing up yet another - I know they're not uncommon in Pacific Island nations, standing up new defence forces, particularly given some of the recent friction around the Solomons. Is there risk?

Tim Ayres: Well, this is just part of the new government's approach to engaging fully in the Pacific. Part of making sure that in case of the Solomon Islands, for example, that they acknowledge that Australia is their security partner of choice. We're determined to engage with them about new propositions and old propositions, making sure that we're part of the story there and that's what Minister Conroy and Deputy Prime Minister Marles have been doing over the course of the last few months. Recent announcements, of course, by the Solomon Islands government, the Prime Minister has been very clear about Australia's position about that, and so have other Pacific leaders.

Greg Jennett: Doesn't sound like there's much argument domestically, but let's see where it takes us. Tim Ayres, Michael McCormack, we're going to wrap it up today. Thanks so much for joining us once again, right here in the studio.

Michael McCormack: Thanks, Greg.

Tim Ayres: Thanks, Greg. Thanks, Michael.