ABC News Afternoon Briefing

25 September 2023


Greg Jennett, Host: Let's bring in our political panel now. And joining us today, Labor frontbencher Tim Ayres is in Adelaide. Welcome, Tim and Coalition frontbencher Michael McCormack is in his hometown of Wagga Wagga in NSW. Welcome to you, Michael. Yes, we might come back to the Voice. Why don't we start out on what I think is the emerging news of the day? Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo stood aside pending investigation. Tim, I might start with you. You both have Ministerial experience, but prima facie, this would have to be a breach of the public service code, wouldn't it? Don't you find those sort of insights alarming?

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, I will not comment on the circumstances that have been outlined here. Obviously, the Minister has asked Mr Pezzullo to stand aside while this investigation is happening. The Prime Minister said that this investigation will occur expeditiously. It would not be the right thing for me to do to comment on the details of this while that investigation is happening and that's because these kind of processes matter, getting them right. I'm not a commentator, Greg. I've got responsibilities here.

The government takes the independence and impartiality of the public sector and the public service very seriously and that is reflected in the way that we talk about the public service. It is reflected in the way that I and all of the other Ministers and Assistant Ministers deal with the public service on a day to day basis. And it's going to be reflected in my comments today, which will be not to deal with the ins and outs of this – the reporting in this morning's newspapers, but to allow the process to happen in itself in an independent and impartial way, in the best interests of the public service.

Greg Jennett, Host: Now, I understand and appreciate your reasons for observing due process here, Tim Ayres. Michael McCormick, you're in a slightly different boat, though, because as far as we can tell, through Nine Media publications, most of these messages were transmitted at a time when the Coalition was in Government. You had Mike Pezzullo offering views on the competence and desirability of Ministers on his patch. So, same question to you, prima facie, this is trampling across the apolitical nature of the public service, isn't it?

Michael McCormack, Member for Riverina: Well, Tim is right and let's let the due protocols and the due process take its necessary course. The right decision has been made for Michael Pezzullo to stand aside while these investigations are conducted. I only ever found Mike Pezzullo to be thoroughly professional and the information that he provided when I was in Cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister and certainly during that very difficult COVID period was only ever of the nature that you'd expect it to be.

Greg Jennett: Would it be normal back to you again, Michael McCormack, for a Prime Minister or a senior Minister in Government to either seek or have solicited to them the views of a secretary about forthcoming Ministerial appointments?

Michael McCormack: Well, I wouldn't think so, but that would be a matter for others to give their own views on. But I didn't even have Mike Pezzullo’s as I just looked at my phone then. I didn't even have his number in my phone.

Greg Jennett: He might be lucky.

Michael McCormack: Well, look, like I say, I only found him to be thoroughly professional. His advice was as what you'd expect it to be. I know he served under both Labor and Coalition Governments. I know he was a former high ranking Labor staff member, deputy Chief of Staff to Kim Beasley, no less. I only ever found his advice to be what you'd expect it to be. And let's see where the investigation takes us.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, well, I don't think he could be taken down for expressing impatience with Senate Estimates processes, because goodness knows, Tim Ayres certainly knows many people have felt that impatience before. But anyway, let's move on. I appreciate that there's not much more you can say, Tim, about the Mike Pezzullo matter. So, why don't we move on to the Voice? Because it seems, Tim Ayres, that there have been many false dawns for the Yes Campaign. That is, they were always going to turn around the corner to that moment when momentum was found and their stocks lifted in this campaign. But at 36% for Newspoll, do you now not start to contemplate, Tim Ayres, that that moment is not going to arrive?

Assistant Minister: Well, let me say three things about it. Firstly, you would expect me to observe this, because it's true the poll today, or any of the other polls, there's going to be a poll on October the 14th. It is going to be a matter for Australians to make their decision. It's a decision that's not about the political party they support. It's not about partisan politics in Canberra, it's about Australians in country towns and suburbs right across the country making a decision about this question.

Secondly, of course, all this commentary sets out how change through a referendum is difficult in Australia. And what we've seen from Mr Dutton and his friends in the no camp, he is the most extreme right-wing leader of the Liberal Party and the Federal Opposition. And on one hand, he endorses and engages with an extremist and divisive campaign, but on the other hand complains that there's division in the community. Australians have a perfect right to vote yes or no in this referendum. That is absolutely the case. But people who occupy positions of political leadership need to take responsibility for the leadership position they take. And I noticed that Mr Dutton is saying very much the same things about the Voice referendum today that he said about the apology to the stolen generation ten years ago, which he subsequently apologised for and has recognised was the wrong thing to do. And he's making the same mistake in 2023 that he made in 2009.

And finally, let's focus on what this referendum is actually about. It's about giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in every corner of the country a voice in Canberra over the issues that affect them in a way that can't just be annulled or swept aside by future governments. That is, it'll be a right in the Constitution. It doesn't change a single element of our parliamentary democracy, not one iota. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by voting for the Voice proposition. And it will be a matter for Australians in just a couple of weeks.

Greg Jennett: Yep, 19 days, I think, until the actual voting day on the 14th. Michael McCormack picking up on Tim's Point. It's obvious that if the Voice proposition fails, there will be division and even bitterness left in its wake. What happens on the 15th? Do you, Michael, see any logic in a parliamentary process to begin as almost a healing mechanism to start looking at a legislated voice pretty quickly?

Michael McCormack: Well, I think what we've heard from the Prime Minister today is the last desperate roll of the dice, knowing that the polling isn't good. But I've always believed that if you don't like one poll, well just wait, there'll be another one next week or next month. Situation is this, it's not a modest change to the system of government under which we now operate. We have 11 very good and capable elected Aboriginal members of the Parliament as it stands. Labor could be doing lots of the sorts of things that they talk about, closing the gap, right now. They don't need a voice to be able to do that.

What I'd like to see on October 15 is people to put aside what has happened over these divided weeks and months to stop the abuse of Linda Burney, to stop the abuse of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and to move forward as the nation should, to have that healing process, but to do everything that we can to help bridge those mental health and dental care and health care gaps in remote Northern Territory and elsewhere. To make sure that there is a brighter future for Aboriginal people seeking work. To make sure that we do stop and reduce the incarceration of Aboriginal youths in our jails. To make sure that we can work together as a united Australia, irrespective of how the vote goes.

And Tim's right, I'll agree with him on one thing. We all get a vote. We can vote yes or we can vote no. To be honest. I know how important an issue this is for many people, but so is cost of living. So, are many, many other issues which are at the moment being forgotten and being swept over by this Government and they should be addressing those as well.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, I think that seems to come forward in a lot of the pollings that people are wrestling with this competition between issues for their attention right now. I wonder in the wash up, whether we'll have further analysis on that. Now, can we close out by a bit of an examination about something I don't approach frivolously. I actually think it's pretty important. Our national team, the Wallabies, Tim Ayres, should we, or do you despair for Australian rugby after what looks to be a pretty disastrous World Cup campaign? It could be easily shrugged off, but do you think there are some bigger failings here that might need to be addressed, Eddie Jones' employment being one of them.

Assistant Minister: Well, it's pretty grim watching this morning for people who love Rugby Union. And I think putting aside the issues of now and the future of the coach of the national team, there is, I think, an important need to address grassroots rugby for Rugby Australia and the state organisations. Rugby Union, Rugby League Football, Aussie rules, played by lots of boys and girls all around the country. In all of those codes, they are great sports for young people to get engaged in. I'd like to see the reflection on this. Of course, it will be focused on the terrible events of this morning. Understand that. But of course it's grassroots sport that makes all the difference and I hope that Rugby Australia and the various state organisations are really focused on that.

Also, the final thing I'd say on it, Greg, before I hand over to Michael on this is you’ve got to feel for those young men over there in France who've tried their hardest. They have done the best that they can. They've still got a few games to go and they want to know that Australians support them. They'll be having a very tough time today and they've just got to front up for the next couple of games and keep their heads held high and get back to the grindstone.

Greg Jennett: No, that is no doubt well said. They will be gutted, I'm sure, with a couple of matches, or at least one, I think, to play out before they would eventually come.

Michael McCormack:Yeah, it's Portugal.

Greg Jennett: Yeah. Michael, do you think the warning signs were there at the grassroots level, as Tim Ayres says, but just a general weakness and malaise for a long time, running through Rugby Australia, not just through the Wallabies camp.

Michael McCormack: I'm sure the rugby officials will be looking at how they can improve, but you can't win everything. We won the Ashes, both at women's and men's level. We're the world champions in netball, the Matildas. How good were the Matildas? AFLW is the fastest growing sport across the nation. We've got plenty to celebrate. We've got our AFL and NRL grand finals coming up this weekend, and may the best teams win. Hopefully the umpires and referees don't get too much of a say in which team ends up winning those Premierships. But, look, the Wallabies and rugby in general will be very much looking at where they can improve. Eddie Jones, well, he's done his best, as have the players. And I agree with Tim. They've done their best, they've come up short. It's always unfortunate where's Australians, we like to win everything. Unfortunately, we didn’t on this occasion. And let's see what happens as a result of this as Rugby conducts its investigations into how it can improve both, as Tim says, at a junior level and state as well.

Assistant Minister: All right, well, Michael's got the right attitude there and it is true that Australian sporting teams have done pretty well across the board. And I just reflect on the fact that Michael's dialing in from Wagga there, which is one of our great sporting cities. All of the codes that we've just talked about, it is one of the great sporting cities. And when I lived in the Riverina, you could always count on a good game of local rugby league to go and see on a Saturday or a Sunday.

Greg Jennett: We might all have views in common on that. I just hope that someone clips this little sequence together and sends it to the Wallabies camp there in France. Chin up.

Michael McCormack: Wagga Wagga’s so, nice they named it twice.

Greg Jennett: Exactly. Well, what we discover is inside every malevolent black cloud, Michael McCormick finds a really bright silver lining, as best I can tell, anyway. Thank you, Michael. Thank you, Tim.

Assistant Minister: Thanks Greg. See you, Michael.

Michael McCormack: All the very best. See you, Tim. See you, Greg.