VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The Education Minister Christopher Pyne joins us now from Parliament House. Christopher Pyne, good morning. Thanks for making time for us.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning, Virginia. Nice to be with you again.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Let's start with the leadership speculation. It's impossible to avoid at the moment. Dennis Shanahan of The Australian reports that you're part of a conservative plan B, as it's being described, considered to take over from Tony Abbott. Are you being or have you been sounded out by your colleagues?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I'm not sure Dennis Shanahan reported that I was any part of conservative plan B; I think he was speculating, and speculation, of course, is a far cry from fact. But no, I haven't been sounded out by anyone, because I am 100 per cent supportive of the Prime Minister continuing in that role and that's exactly what I intend to help make happen.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Any of your proxies, are they being sounded out or are they having conversations on your behalf?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Virginia, I don't get involved in all those kinds of discussions. Every discussion that I've had with anyone about the leadership since 2009 has been to be loyal and supportive of the leader and now the Prime Minister because that's what the Australian people want. They want a serious government with serious people. Politics is not a parlour game. I know that a lot of people in politics and in the corridors of power and the media sometimes treat politics as a parlour game, but the Australian people expect us to get on with the job of making their lives easier and that's exactly what I intend to do.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: There are reports around today that describe Tony Abbott's leadership as unrecoverable. That's according to some Government MPs. Is that an accurate description? Is that a fair description?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Look, I think there are some grumpy Government MPs. Clearly that's been the case. We've seen that over the last week. I think Tony Abbott yesterday reset the government. He outlined a positive conservative agenda for the next 18 months built around child care, small business, national security, working to create jobs and support families and that's exactly what the government needs to do, and that will be clearly outlined in the budget and before that time and I'm very glad to see that the Paid Parental Leave scheme will morphed instead into more support for families through child care, which is a barbecue stopper - if I can use that expression - in the communities in which I represent.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Look, it's refreshing to hear you acknowledge the grumpiness of some MPs - it's good to have that honest declaration. And I wonder, in that spirit, what is the best way, then, of allowing those grumpy MPs to have their say, to be heard, to feel like their concerns are being listened to and at the same time trying to get your ship back on course? What's the most realistic way of doing that?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I think there's a couple of good points to make there, Virginia. Number one, it is important to recognise that there are MPs who've been feeling left out and not consulted. The party room is one way for them to express their frustrations, their views. But also I think we need to use the backbench committees better. As a Cabinet minister - and I'm sure the other Cabinet ministers would also attest to this fact - we've been incredibly busy for the first 18 months of this government trying to repair the damage left to us by Labor, trying to set the country on a more positive future course, and perhaps we haven't been as engaged with our colleagues as we should have been. I think that one of the lessons from the last week is that we need to very much put the thoughts of our colleagues front and centre, and as a Cabinet minister that's exactly what I intend to do.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tony Abbott admitted yesterday that he needed to listen more and consult more, but given his long-time lack of personal popularity with the electorate - and when it comes to politics and prime ministerships, that's a crucial part of survival - can he really change enough? Is anyone really, at this point - this age and stage in their life - capable of changing that much that he could turn that lack of popularity around?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Virginia, you've been around politics a long time and you know that politics is not a celebrity reality TV show.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: No, no, no, no, but I also know that popularity, whether you like it or not, whether you're comfortable with it or not, is a central part of it, and you do, too.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I don't think popularity of itself is the most important characteristic that's required of a prime minister or a leader. Respect…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Interrupts] No, but - and I'm just going to jump in again. I'm sorry, Minister, but you also know - we both know here, without playing ducks and drakes - that the lack of popularity is the thing then that scares your colleagues around you into doing stuff that you might not want them to do.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that's certainly true. Some people do become jumpy…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …about the polls and I think that does create difficulties at times. But as a seasoned politician myself, as a veteran of 22 years, my view is that respect and effectiveness are always more important than popularity, and I point simply to people like Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating, even Robert Menzies, even John Howard. These people weren't always popular but they were effective and they were respected and that's what real leadership is about, not trying to win…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay. Well, does Tony Abbott have that?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …a celebrity reality TV show.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay. But at this point in time, does Tony Abbott have that? Does he have respect and is he considered effective?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Not - not by you, but by the other people who might bring on the chaos that you want to avoid?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Virginia, I think he has led a very effective government in the last 18 months. We have done the things that we said that we would do like abolishing the carbon tax, the mining tax, stopping the boats, beginning the infrastructure program for roads and bridges and ports that we said that we would do. We have led an effective government. We have recalibrated our national security to meet the challenges that we've seen over the last 18 months in terms of what's coming out of the Middle East and even in our own country. So we have had a very effective government doing some very good things.
Most of the budget is through. Seventy per cent of the budget is through. We are trying to reform universities. There are important things that need to be done so I think he has been effective and I think he is respected. We do need to listen to our colleagues very carefully and that's exactly what I intend to do, and as a person who knows my colleagues well as Leader of the House, I think I know them pretty well and I think I know that they don't want to see leadership speculation. They don't want to see these stories appearing in the media. They want us to settle down and get on with the job.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Is - do you think, reflecting on it, are they policies that have been wrongly set and incorrect or personalities - problems with personalities - that have led the Government into the doldrum [sic] that it's in at the moment, do you think?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think most new governments have a period of settling in and I think the Australian public recognise that. The first - I was part of the Howard government. The first year or two of the Howard government were very tricky and in fact people were saying that they thought we might lose the election in 1998, and we almost did lose the election in 1998. Three ministers were lost in the first 12 months of the Howard government, so one can't always assume that it's going to be plain sailing. New governments do need a period of settling in and I think we're seeing that but I think the Government recognises that we need to step back from the brink and do what the Australian people want us to do, which is to improve their lives and not think about our own jobs.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: When it comes to government woes, failing to secure the passage of the higher education legislation - your portfolio - is a key problem. Looking at the contenders, Julie Bishop is conceding, Scott Morrison has fulfilled his brief, but with your failure to win over the crossbenchers aren't you one of the real drags on government right now?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, I think it's quite the opposite, actually. I think the fact is that governments do need to be seen to be fighting for things they believe in. I think the fact that I…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Interrupts] Yes, but they need to win the fight at some point.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Virginia there's a lot to be said for people who are prepared to have the courage of their convictions. I have the courage of my convictions. I believe in the higher education reforms. I believe they're going to be good for students and universities. I was prepared to fight for them last year, I was prepared to put them to the Senate, I was prepared to see them defeated, and the next day I bounced back in characteristic mode and put them straight back into the Senate, and that will be our first item on the legislative agenda in February.
So nobody could accuse me of running away from the battle. I've never run away from one before and I'm not going to start now and that's because it's right for Australia. So I think I've had a lot of kudos from my colleagues and from the Australian public for not being seen to simply slink away from the camp in the middle of the night and hope I can avoid the battle. I am pleased to be in a real battle over the future of our universities.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yeah, okay, well you may have won plaudits from your colleagues, I'm not sure, but you're certainly not getting any plaudits from those who count - the crossbenchers - for that fight, and here's the direct quote this morning that we've been given from Nick Xenophon: I admire Christopher Pyne for his doggedness but that doesn't mean I'm going to throw him a bone. So…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs]
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Nice line.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Nick's always got great lines. I've known him for over 30 years…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yeah, but the point of that is that you may be - all the doggedness in the world, you haven't managed to persuade the crossbench. And now, that's your job as a minister in a - with a tricky Senate. You've got to persuade these people. So will you take a leaf out of the Prime Minister's book and will you rethink your approach?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, we have a politically opportunistic Labor Party with no plan other than opposition. We have a…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: No, no, no I asked about you and your approach. Now, in the 24 hour period where the Prime Minister said okay I need to rethink my approach, how about you? In order to get these reforms through and to persuade these people, maybe you need to rethink yours.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: And maybe you should let me answer the question.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Go ahead.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We have a politically opportunistic Labor Party, we have economic vandals in the Greens, and we have crossbenchers who don't want to do anything that's unpopular with anybody. Now, that makes it a very difficult Senate. The reality is, Nick Xenophon in that comment this morning is not saying that he will be voting against our legislation.
I have said I'm open to negotiation and I'm not going to give a running commentary from day to day about whether we're up or whether we're down, whether we've got our nose in front, whether we've got our nose behind. We will have a mature, sensible debate about this and we will negotiate with the crossbenchers, and it's a pity that Labor has ignored the advice of John Dawkins and Gareth Evans and Maxine McKew and Andrew Leigh and taken themselves out of the serious debate about policy in this country.
But I will work with the crossbenchers. And I have to say, Virginia, I am confident - in spite of every report in the media to the contrary - I am confident that we will get a reform because that is what is necessary. The status quo is not an option in our universities and if we end up with the status quo, it won't be because I didn't try and change it; it will be because the crossbenchers didn't have the stomach for macro-economic reform.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Sky News was reporting this morning that Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, tried to secure from Julie Bishop and also from Malcolm Turnbull an assurance that they wouldn't challenge and that assurance from either of them was not given. How do you think that leaves the speculation and the situation in relation to the leadership without those reassurances being given?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, look, Virginia it's very hard for me to comment on private conversations. I wasn't party to those conversations and I don't know what was said or what wasn't said. So it's really quite impossible for me to comment. I know Kieran Gilbert; I'm sure that he is accurately reporting in his own mind what he's heard, but it is not sensible for senior people in the government to respond to gossip.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Alright, just a final question for you, and, as you say, you and I do go back a few years.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yes, we do.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: And…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We've had our ups and downs, Virginia.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: We've had our ups and downs and a few conversations along the way and I reckon I privately know the answer to this question but let's try it anyway. Do you harbour leadership ambitions yourself? One day, would you like to be prime minister?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs] Well, Virginia, I'm Leader of the House, and I'm very happy being Leader of the House. I'm a senior Cabinet minister in the Abbott Government and I'm very happy being the Education Minister. I think the lesson I learnt a long time ago during the Howard era was that you should be happy in the job that you've got and do it as well as you possibly can and other things follow from that and that's exactly what I intend to do. Keep working hard at the job that I've got.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So one day, maybe?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I'm not going to be drawn.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Always good to talk to you Christopher Pyne, thank you.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Pleasure.