SUBJECTS: Parliamentary Reform; NSW school funding
Graham Richardson: Welcome back. I always enjoy interviewing Christopher Pyne who is of course is the Manager of Opposition Business in Canberra because if there is a colourful character on the front bench of the Liberal Party it is that gentleman and he is with us now. Good evening Christopher Pyne.
Christopher Pyne: Good evening Graham. You could almost sue people for calling them a colourful character in politics these days.
Richardson: I didn’t say you were a racing identity. So I stopped short of going too far, don’t worry.
Pyne: Thank you very much
Richardson: I want to talk to you about this whole idea of parliamentary reform. I made the point to Anthony Albanese, in an interview I will be showing shortly that I pre-recorded a couple of hours ago, that it really did seem to me that when it came to the operation of the Parliament despite all of the hope and joy of a hung parliament and we were all going to be nice to enjoy, not much has changed. That relentless, in fact I am bored of Question Time. It is the same every day and then it stops and there is suspension of standing orders. It just doesn’t seem to get better.
Pyne: Well Graham, there are two things I would say to that. First is, it is the government’s job to manage Question Time. I mean they are the ones who are apparently have the numbers and when Question Time is chaotic it reflects more badly on the government than it does on the opposition. It is not the opposition’s job to make the government’s life easy in Question Time. It is the opposition’s job to hold them to account. And I think we do that very effectively. The one thing I would say is that this government is not legitimate in the eyes of the opposition because it holds power with conservative seat members like Tony Windsor and Robert Oakeshott who represent traditional Liberal seats. And as you know, in both of their seats the Labor party got less than 10% of the vote from memory in both of those seats. And yet they are supporting a Labor government. So it makes for a very fractious house, that’s true. I think Question Time would be better if the government led by the Prime Minister tried to actually answer questions rather than slagging and bagging the opposition which they do every day.
Richardson: Well I think it is a bit rich to say that given the way the opposition has been behaving in question time. I am finding these suspensions of standing orders, this daily ritual of it, I am finding that really irritating. I mean I don’t think that is an edifying spectacle for anybody who is watching.
Pyne: Well we don’t do them every day. In fact I don’t think we did it at all last sitting week and we did it today which Anthony Albanese shut down because he was obviously embarrassed about the fact I was about to give him a pasting in the chamber. But if he is too sensitive to take me on, then that is a matter for him. But I think he should let the debate flow.
Richardson: Well I think he is big enough and uglier enough for that, you know.
Pyne: Well sadly uglier enough.
Richardson: That’s what I am talking about you see, it is the standard.
Pyne: Oh, well, I have a soft spot for Albo. He is half the problem in Question Time because he stands in the dispatch box and slags the opposition and the opposition isn’t just going to sit there and take it. You know our job Graham is to stand up for ourselves.
Richardson: How many times do you get up and with a spirituous point of order which is simply to make an evading point; I watch you. You do that a dozen times in Question Time, at least.
Pyne: Well every day I try to get the Prime Minister and her Ministers to simply answer the question, to be directly relevant to the question they are being asked. Unfortunately I keep having to stand up to point that out to them. Now if they would answer the question, you wouldn’t see me at the dispatch box and you would miss me but you wouldn’t see me.
Richardson: I can tell you what I can always see because you always get there. I said recently about you that you would crawl across the Simpson Desert with your hands and knees to get the microphone and you would certainly do it to get to the dispatch box. But can I just broaden this a little bit, I have heard the comments of Malcolm Turnbull a week ago, and then Peter Costello has joined the debate today, there is a whole lot of suggestions on how things might get better. What do you think of the idea of, the same as they do in Great Britain, Prime Minister Question Time? Is that a good or bad idea?
Pyne: Well I have a variation of that idea. And I put a reform to Anthony Albanese in February 2011. I wrote a letter to him suggesting that what we should actually be doing is having a part of Question Time, like half an hour a day, where the questions were from backbenchers or the relevant Shadow Minister to Ministers about local issues in their electorates or about a portfolio that isn’t always in the news. I agree that it is unfortunate that backbenchers don’t get an opportunity to talk about important issues in their electorate that their constituents want a response to. Because obviously for the opposition we only get 9 questions a day. The government gets themselves 9 questions and they are all Dorothy Dixers. And we have to make every post a winning post but if there was a half an hour period every day where backbenchers could question Ministers about local issues I think that would be a very welcome reform.
Richardson: Would that be taken out of the current Question Time or would it be additional?
Pyne: Well I suggested that it could be additional. You could negotiate that, you could take it out of current Question Time, just depending I suppose on what happened for the other part of Question Time. But the most important reform you can do to Question Time, Graham, is for the Ministers or the Prime Minister to actually try answer the question. I mean I talk to punters all the time as you would expect and they all tell me how frustrated it is watching Question Time. We are frustrated as well because the government makes no attempt anymore, no attempt to answer the questions at all.
Richardson: I have been watching this for 40 years and I have heard a lot of people talk about reforming Question Time. And I have got to say that apart from myself, I have never seen a Minister who had just answered a question every time. So it is a very difficult thing to do. So I wouldn’t hang by the neck waiting for it to occur. I ask you one other question about the Parliament which is a pretty obvious one, I want your take on this. We have had the Speaker absent from the chair for now a long time. There are inquiries all over the place and on wonders if there is an end point in this because it is doesn’t seem to e coming anytime soon. And can you imagine the Speaker actually resuming the chair?
Pyne: So you mean will there be an end point to the investigation into the current Speaker?
Richardson: Yeah. And the cases, all these things that are going on. The courts seem to be taking forever.
Pyne: Well I think, the courts do take forever. As you know you have been through the court process yourself I think a couple of times for various defamatory proceedings and so on from memory but courts do take a long time and I think that this matter won’ be resolved anytime soon. And we are yet to hear from the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions as to how they are proceeding with the brief of evidence that was given to them by the federal police into the allegations of fraud by the Speaker.
Richardson: And that was some months ago wasn’t it?
Pyne: It was. It was at least a couple of months ago and I don’t see this matter being finished any time soon. I do think that Anna Burke, I certainly don’t want to criticise her, but in terms of being a gentle suggestion to the Deputy Speaker, I don’t want to be punished for it tomorrow, I do think she needs to hold the government to account, the Ministers to account to actually answer the question. The temperature of Question Time would be lowered a great deal, certainly by an election, in which one party had a clear majority that was legitimate. This hung parliament is never going to be much better than it is now because there is a government without a real majority that has to cobble together every day the pantomime that is the crossbenchers of the House of Representatives.
Richardson: And you are probably going to have to wait about another eleven months to have that. And we all know who that majority is going to be. And I have got to ask you this, I want to turn to the Gonski report because I think it is one of the biggest issues. Now as a Shadow Education Minister, what do you think of the NSW government’s decision to cut $400m a year for four years out of education?
Pyne: Well Graham I am not going to defend the NSW government’s budget decision; that is a matter for them. I would say two things. One, when they came to power, they came to power after sixteen years of Labor mismanagement in NSW. And they have got a lot of financial headaches to try and deal with. And secondly they need to defend their budget decisions but the Federal Liberal Party is not the NSW Coalition; we have our own policies and our own approach. We have promised 6% indexation for all schools, non-government and government with federal government money. That is about $4.2 – $5 billion of new spending on non-government and government schools. We are the only political party actually that has made a commitment to all schools to increase funding. And we have said what we will do; we will have a capital infrastructure fund, we will relentlessly focus on teacher quality, the curriculum, genuine principal autonomy and ending the discrimination against children with disabilities. Now I am yet to hear from the government any concrete proposals for what they are going to do.
Richardson: We only have a few seconds but I note that on the 26th of July, you said we would knock over anything, any legislation, passed to implement the Gonski review and then on the 10th of September you said if it works for us we will keep it. Which one is right?
Pyne: On the 26th of July the headline didn’t actually reflect the story. What I said then and I what I said on Sunday and what I will say to you tonight is that I see it that if the government cuts funds to government or non-government schools, if there are losers, if parents have to face rising schools fees both in government and non-government schools at a time with real cost of living pressures, we won’t put up with that if we are fortunate to win the next election. And we will dismantle that. But if the government comes up with a policy, if we ever hear from them a real policy, that doesn’t cut funding to non-government and government schools in real terms then why would I roll that back?
Richardson: Alright I have to leave it there. We will talk again very soon. Thanks for your time Christopher Pyne.