TRANSCRIPT - THE CONVERSATION, POLITICS WITH MICHELLE GRATTAN

E&OE

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Here we are at last in election year, although it does seem that the campaign has been going on for months and months and months. We know the poll will be in May. Next week the Parliament will resume, albeit briefly, and there will be a Budget on April 2. This week we’ve had the report of the Royal Commission into the financial sector with its indictment of the behaviour by banks and other institutions. We begin this year’s politics podcasts with the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals’ Leader, Michael McCormack, to talk about the banks and other issues.

Michael McCormack, The Nationals, at least some of your backbenchers, were instrumental in the Government finally agreeing to the banking royal commission. Do you regret that it didn’t get to appointing that commission sooner?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

No, I don’t have regrets, but I do commend Llew O’Brien, the Member for Wide Bay and George Christensen, the Member for Dawson and certainly Senator John ‘Wacka’ Williams for the role that they played in getting a royal commission up. But the fact is we extended the royal commission’s Terms of Reference because originally it was just going to be the banks. We extended that to include superannuation and I think what we’ve got is a lot better outcome and a blowtorch on where Commissioner Hayne believed it should have been applied and indeed the public think it should have been applied. So I think what we’ve got is a far better outcome.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

How much feeling is there against the banks in regional areas, because quite a few of the victims were from the country.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I have sat through many mediations with banks and with people who were going to have their gates locked, the keys taken away and their whole livelihoods ripped from under them. They are very very troubling meetings, let me tell you. I’m really pleased there will be major changes to the way banks deal with distressed agricultural loans. I think the new national farm debt mediation scheme is not only necessary but overdue. Yes, there is a feeling in the bush that the banks have betrayed by shutting up shop and centralising services. The fact is, for a lot of people when they go into a bank they want to have the same manager that they had when they were last there, whether it was a month ago or six months ago. When there’s a revolving door of young people that doesn’t inspire confidence in an old cocky who goes in and wants to extend the loan and buy the block next door, or something like that. They’re told ‘no’ because their credit is not good enough - and they are sitting on a multi-million dollar property. Now a requirement thanks to the royal commission that banks don’t charge default interest on ag loans is good, where a drought or natural disaster has occurred, because we all know that those happen often. As well, the valuation of ag land will need to be independently determined for the lending process. All those things are good. Banks are going to be required that distressed farm loans are managed by people experienced in agriculture and I think that’s really important.

I mentioned young people. There’s nothing wrong with young people. I don’t have a problem with young people, rising stars in the financial sector, but if people are experienced in agriculture, and receivers can only be appointed as a remedy of last resort – they are good measures.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Let’s turn to some wider questions: The Coalition is opening the year still in poor shape in the polls and The Nationals had Andrew Broad forced to say he won’t recontest because of a personal scandal; that was late last year. Also the year ended with criticism of your leadership from within your own ranks and you appear at risk in the coming election of losing the seat of Cowper to former Independent Rob Oakeshott.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well I’m not going to write Cowper off yet, and I know that within my own Party I have solid support. Pat Conaghan is doing an outstanding job in Cowper of making sure the people of Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour and everywhere in between know that he’s the one. I don’t think people in Cowper have forgotten what Rob Oakeshott was like, particularly during that 43rd Parliament. But the polls certainly are one thing but I don’t ever look at polls, I’ve got to tell you. And if you don’t like one poll well a fortnight later there will be another one that might be a little bit better. If you take polls for absolute truth then we wouldn’t have Steven Marshall’s Liberals governing South Australia; Will Hodgman wouldn’t have been re-elected Premier in Tasmania; Brexit probably would not have occurred; Donald Trump wouldn’t be President of the United States and John Alexander certainly wouldn’t have won the seat of Bennelong. The polls were all against – in every one of those cases I mentioned the polls were against what actually transpired on ballot day.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Well I think at the last election the Nats had a look at the polls and they saw that if they didn’t differentiate themselves from the Liberals they might be in a lot of trouble. Your electoral strategy then, your Party’s electoral strategy was to chart your own course, to be different from the Liberals. Will you apply that same strategy this time 

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We probably differentiate from the Liberals in the fact that we are there for rural and regional Australia, but in the national interest. The fact is election campaigns are always electorate by electorate. Quite frankly they are city by city, town by town, suburb by suburb, district by district. That is how the Nationals fight our campaigns. I will fight a campaign in the Riverina way differently, I suspect, than perhaps some of my LNP colleagues will in North and Central Queensland – the likes of Michelle Landry, Ken O’Dowd and George Christensen. We have similar messages but they are different local issues. I have to tell you, Michelle, as you would know, you’ve been around long enough, that all politics is local. So what might be playing out particularly in a seat like Page, Kevin Hogan – the sorts of things that he campaigns on and fights hard for are way different to some of the things for others because they are different local issues and different local people. They are still rural and regional people. They still expect education and health services and everything else to be on a par with city services.

But the fact is they are different communities. You have to be in touch with your local electorates and that’s why I’m proud to lead a team where my people get out on the ground every weekend in a non-sitting week. I know they have been very very busy and working hard over the summer months to show to people as they always do – it’s not just because we are in a campaign year or an election year – they’re always out there. They turn up. They deliver.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Of course in the core of your electorate in the State seat of Wagga Wagga we recently saw an Independent have a dramatic win.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We did but the fact is the Liberal candidate, Julia Ham, was not from Wagga Wagga; she still topped the poll and it was preferences that went against the candidate there. But she wasn’t well known and Joe McGirr who won the seat had run against Daryl Maguire the sitting Member in 2011 and there was backlash against the fact that Darryl had been mentioned in ICAC. That of course went against the Party that had held Wagga Wagga since 1957, that being the Liberal Party, and the fact that The Nationals didn’t run a candidate because of a deal arranged between the Premier and Deputy Premier – more’s the pity because I think had we run a candidate the Coalition may well have retained the seat.

I know that The Nationals are running this time and the Liberals are not. We have an outstanding candidate in Mackenna Powell who understands agriculture, understands business, understands family and all the rest. She has been working hard ever since was preselected, and before that. I have every faith that she will give it her best shot and hopefully win the seat.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

At the start of this Parliament The Nationals had two NSW Senators. Fiona Nash was knocked out in the citizenship affair and Wacka Williams is retiring at this election. Your candidate is in third place on the NSW Coalition ticket which means that she will be…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Perin Davey. Yes.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

…struggling. It’s going to look pretty bad for the Nats, isn’t it, if you end up with no NSW Senator in the next Parliament.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It won’t be a good outcome for rural and regional Australia and certainly for rural and regional NSW, and that’s why I always encourage people to make sure when they are voting to really carefully consider what they are doing in the Upper House – and whether that’s the State election with the Legislative Council or indeed the Federal sphere with the Senate. You often find that people will vote for the person they know and the person who turns up to their little flower show or their agriculture show and whatever the case might be, the footy, because they know them, they respect them, they like them and then they think: Oh, send the Government a message in the Upper House. Well people really need to look closely at how they do it, what they do and where they put their mark.

We’ve seen just how obstructionist the Senate can be. When you have a Government – and a good Government; we’ve been a good Government, we are a good Government – finding it very very difficult to get things through the Senate because of an obstructionist Senate then I think people should be very careful as to where they place that Senate vote.

Yes, Wacka and Fiona are going to be difficult to replace. Wacka is retiring. Perin Davey is an outstanding candidate for us, from Deniliquin, who understands irrigation – but not just that, for all of southern NSW and indeed all of the State, I really hope she gets in because she will travel the length and breadth of NSW making sure that rural and regional voices are heard.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Wouldn’t you be better off running your own ticket?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We have four candidates. It is yet to be decided whether we will run our own separate ticket. We may well do that. That will be decided by Central Council, but we’ve preselected four candidates and we’ll see what happens there.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

When will that decision be made?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Very soon.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Just on a specific issue: We’ve seen intense heat this summer and indeed I was out in your area of Wagga and it was very hot. We’ve had terrible bushfires. This has once again focused attention on climate change. Do you find that people in the bush are more aware of climate change these days and what are they telling you that the politicians, the Government, should be doing about it?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I will tell you what they are not telling us to do, and that is put a carbon tax in and put emission targets in that are going to de-industrialise the nation and send jobs to the wall. That’s what they are telling me they don’t want. Yes you will get some people who go down the Greens’ agenda. They are in every town, I understand that, and there are many different opinions. But the fact is we are doing everything that we can without actually closing down farms, without belting agriculture and without stopping manufacturing and the like, and making sure that we also keep a close eye on power bills. What we don’t want to do is put policies in place that are not going to reduce the world’s emissions or world’s temperature by one iota and yet charge people – particularly people who can’t afford it – way too much for their power. And when I say way too much for those people who can’t afford it, like retirees, people who are struggling to meet the costs of living: We don’t want to whack them unnecessarily. So what we want to do is have sensible climate policies. That’s what we’ve got. We are meeting our emissions targets that were set. We’re more than meeting that. What we do need of course to do is always give the planet the benefit of the doubt. We are doing that. We’re investing in soils. We are making sure we don those sorts of things.

And I have to say we are also investing half a billion dollars in more dams, more water infrastructure, because when it rains – and it will rain – people will curse the amount of rain we are going to get in the future – we want to store that water for times of drought.

So we’ve seen hot temperatures before. We’ve seen droughts before. We’ve experienced floods before – goodness knows, look at what’s happening in Townsville at the moment – and we just need to better equip ourselves for the future.

That’s why we’ve also put in place that $3.9 billion Future Drought Fund.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

And do you think there will be more money for the Direct Action emission fund?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well I think there will be more money for climate action in general and we need to make sure that we do that. But what we don’t want to do is place all the emphasis on something which is not going to reduce the global temperature and certainly not Australia’s temperature by as much as point one of one degree. What we want to make sure is that there are jobs for the future, that there are renewables and they have a future. You look around the countryside and there are big solar projects going in and the Government is backing those. What we are wanting to do is make sure there are jobs in the renewables sector, that there are jobs in country NSW, country Australia generally, and to make sure that we don’t de-industrialise Australia for the sake of nothing.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

The Government at the moment is looking at potential projects for so-called firm power, base power, to underwrite – will those include coal, the ones selected?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

What we have with our very sensible and reasoned and measured policies is investment opportunities for all types of energy sources. Coal has a future in this nation, it does. I would like to see Richard Di Natale or anybody else who thinks that coal should be (inaudible) to go and face those miners in North Queensland, Central Queensland, those hi-vis vest workers. But not only those, those people who actually have white collar jobs in the mining companies who do a very very good job – they have been demonised by The Greens and others for the job that they do. The fact is, with the technology available today, you can utilise coal in a way very friendly to the environment, to make sure we continue to get the reliability in the system. Let’s face it: 60% of our energy needs are still being met by coal and until I can be shown otherwise, that renewables can supply the total needs of our energy for our manufacturing, for our farms, for our irrigators and indeed for our small businesses and families – until I can be shown that they can be so reliable and so affordable then coal is going to have a big part to play in the future.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Now you were mentioning water. The South Australian royal commission into the Murray Darling has been scathing about legal breaches and bad administration. What’s your take on the findings and what should be the Federal Government’s response?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

If they can find that illegal activity has in fact taken place well those sorts of things should go to the police. The fact is our irrigators and our cotton growers in particular, and ricegrowers too, have been absolutely maligned by people saying that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, they’ve taken too much water out of the river in recent months and years – the fact is they haven’t had an allocation for three years in many parts. So I’m not quite sure how that equates to fair and reasonable argument.

The fact is we need to grow food and fibre. We do it for exports. We do it for domestic supply and we do a damn fine job. Our farmers are the world’s best environmentalists. Unlike the environment they have to account for every single drop of water that they pay for – not that they just use, but that they pay for, and they pay for some besides. The fact is too, you can look at any number of historic photos and you will find the Darling, the Murray and other rivers besides, in times before the rivers were regulated as they are now when they quite frankly dried up. You could just walk straight across them. There are many photos in past droughts that show just that. Now the rivers are regulated under the Murray Darling Basin Plan which I might add is a bipartisan plan and which I might add has seen that the measures put in place have helped the flow to the environment in a way that would not have been possible before. The Murray Darling Basin Plan is largely an ecological, environmental document. It always was. Apart from the 450 gigalitres of water signed away by Julia Gillard back at Goolwa in December 2012, that was the only portion of water that actually had a triple bottom line approach. So they take that water out provided there’s social and economic implications balanced with the environmental implications. But apart from that it is largely an environmental document. So the farmers make do with the water they get. They pay dearly for it. But to point the finger during time of extended drought and say that the farmers are not doing what they should be doing, well I think it’s a far cry from what these people should be saying and it’s a far cry from the truth.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

So how will the Government response, how should the Government respond to this report?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has tasked Rob Vertessy, who is an expert in this field. He’s getting together a panel of experts to look at the recent Menindee situation, the fish kill there, and what else has happened besides. They will report back to the Government in March. I have every faith that that process will be done in the right and reasonable way. Of course it is going to be independent of any political interference. The fact is, the royal commission from South Australia, which was established by Ian Hunter - and we all remember Ian Hunter and how he abused Lisa Neville, his Labor colleague the Victorian Water Minister at that famous stoush at the restaurant before telling the Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce the fact that he could go forth and multiply as well – this is a royal commission set up by South Australia to get an outcome for South Australia. It was state-based and state-biased and I don’t mind saying that. What we want to do on a national level is to be way more balanced and to take into account states, take into account communities and take into account environment as well as the farmers. We don’t want to play favourites with this and we want to make sure we get the best outcome.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

The Government will already be looking to the April 2 Budget which will be an election one. There’s been speculation about some dollops of money for older people but what about rural and regional voters? Will they be winners in this Budget? Are you fighting to get some specific…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

While The Nationals are in Government with the Liberals, rural and regional people will always be winners and of course…

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

I think they want something more specific.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I’m not going to pre-empt any pre-Budget discussions. In certainly wouldn’t do that. That’s Cabinet-in-confidence. But I know that Josh Frydenberg is determined to have the Budget in surplus. That’s a word foreign to Labor. It hasn’t happened under them since I think about 1989. The fact is we will produce a surplus Budget. The fact is it will be a good one. And the fact is it will be good particularly for rural and regional Australia because The Nationals led by myself and with fine representation throughout Australia will make sure that we get our fair share, in fact more than our fair share for the electorates that we represent and for those who are in regional Australia besides.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

That’s a promise?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Absolutely.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

The Government next week, when Parliament meets, could face a defeat in the House on the legislation about medical evacuations from Manus and Nauru. This is not a confidence vote but do you think that if you do lose…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

No it’s not.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

…this will be seen by...

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Labor lost I think it was with 64 votes on the floor…

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Not big ones, though.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

There were some big ones as I recall between 2010 and 2013. So there has obviously been a new paradigm set by the media that if we lose one then the sky’s going to fall in. What we want to do is be strong on our borders. What we want to make sure of is that Australia’s national security Australia’s border protection is what it ought to be. That’s why we have the policy we have in place. If others think that it should be altered then in this Parliament, in this very much I suppose you could almost argue the hung Parliament that we have now where some people are looking to bignote themselves, all in a hurry to perhaps secure their seats or perhaps win another seat that they were not sitting in previously, well let’s see what they will bring on and let’s just hope that it’s not going to weaken our borders.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

So would you say it’s better for the Government to hang tough on this matter and just take a defeat if it comes rather than make unending concessions or further concessions?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

What I don’t want to see is our borders weakened in any way. What I want to make sure is that whatever policy we take – whether that’s to the Parliament or whether that’s to the people or whether it’s both – that it’s going to make sure that the boats don’t start arriving again. Rest assured if Bill Shorten ever becomes Prime Minister you will see almost akin to the scene in Troy where the boats will resume and they will be in numbers. Australia’s tight borders, which we’ve had now since 2013, will once again be placed at risk.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

So you’re not fussed about a possible defeat, in other words.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The policy we’re taking to the Parliament is the right one, a policy that Labor and perhaps some of the crossbenchers – if they want to weaken border protection then they have the opportunity to put that to the Parliament. We’ll see what happens.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

If the Government is defeated in May, would The Nationals stay in coalition with the Liberals or might they go it alone?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Michelle, that’s a very big hypothetical and I really don’t want to…

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

…interesting, though…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

…well it’s an interesting question. I don’t even want to contemplate that. I don’t want to contemplate it, not because of The Nationals, not because I want to retain the job or retain the seat, but what we are there for is the people we represent. I don’t want rural and regional Australia to start losing out on the Building Better Regions Fund, on the Regional Growth Fund, on the mobile phone towers which Bridget McKenzie and Fiona Nash have seen - more than 860 phone towers either installed or funded – I don’t want to see those sorts of things go. Rest assured if you get a Shorten/Plibersek/Bowen Government, that’s what you are going to get and rural and regional people are going to miss out. So I’m not thinking beyond May at this stage. I’m thinking that we need to get out and sell our message. It’s a good one. Yes, there were some unfortunate things that happened last year which we would have best done without. But we’ve been a good Government; we’ve helped small business create jobs; we’ve lowered the small business tax rate to the lowest it has been in 79 years. We have extended the instant asset write-off in recent weeks to $25,000. If you want a job you will get a job. If you want to have a go in this country we will back you all the way.

There have been some really good things that we’ve done and I would like to think that Australia will repay their faith in us with their vote, to ensure that success and that good Government policy continues.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Michael McCormack, we can’t let you go without referencing your stellar performance, I can only describe it as, at the Parkes Elvis Festival over the summer break. You are obviously a long-term Elvis fan. Does this stretch right back to your youth?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

My late mother Eileen loved Elvis. She played both him and Kamahl all the time, on cassette tapes. When you got home from school it was either the King of rock and roll or dare I say our good friend from Sri Lanka who was playing away on Mum’s cassette player. Yes, Elvis is revived every January in Parkes in Central Western NSW. The festival has been going for 27 years. It pumps $13 million into that economy, that drought-stricken economy now. If wearing a powder-blue Elvis costume with sequins on it and singing Suspicious Minds and a few other tracks is going to bring a bit of joy or mirth or merriment to locals, well so be it. It was a great festival. It was a great weekend. I have to say it is a bit disconcerting when you stand up on the stage, when you are called on the stage, to sing and you look out and there are 10,000 faces out there. You can imagine what a buzz it is for real performers, let me tell you. Now they didn’t go away, though I certainly didn’t perform as well as some of the other Elvis impersonators on the weekend. It was all a lot of fun.

MICHELLE GRATTAN:

Well thank you for talking with us today. We will take this podcast out with your rendition of Elvis. Thanks a lot.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Hannah Maguire