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Interview with Fran Kelly, Radio National: Craig Thomson, Education and Health Funding

Ministers:

The Hon Christopher Pyne MP
Minister for Education
Leader of the House

FRAN KELLY: Christopher Pyne is the Manager of Government Business and the Minister for Education, he joins us now in our Parliament House studios. Minister, good morning.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Why should the Federal Parliament say sorry for Craig Thomson’s lies?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Because the Parliament, in spite of being criticised over decades for harbouring politicians that sometimes are accused of gilding the lily, does take telling the Parliament the truth very seriously. It is part of our tradition that you mustn’t lie to the Parliament. And Craig Thomson’s statements to the Parliament, which he then didn’t dispute in the court case, suggest that he most grievously misled the Parliament in an attempt to salvage his own political career. He defamed, under Parliamentary privilege, people who couldn’t respond on their behalf in the chamber.

FRAN KELLY: And that’s why he will be called before the Privileges Committee. I mean a parliamentary apology is a national event in this country - the Stolen Generation, the forced adoptions, the British child migrants. Does an HSU official, maligned though they may be, really belong on that list?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I think you’re making a quantum leap, Fran. Nobody has suggested this is an apology along the same lines as the Stolen Generation, except you.

FRAN KELLY: I’m just reading your motion, that this House expresses its regret and apologies to those individuals named in the speech. I mean, it is an apology from the Federal Parliament, isn’t it?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We are apologising on behalf of the Parliament for one of our members egregiously misleading the Parliament and telling what appears to be lies in the Parliament which, then, when the court case occurred, he didn’t dispute the facts of the case.

Now, it wasn’t possible for him not to despute the facts of the case and for that statement he made in the Parliament to be both true. And as far as we’re concerned, the Health Services Union members, who are amongst the poorest workers in the country, were severely ripped off by their national secretary to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, $270,000 of which were used for his re-election campaign, which we believe Labor should pay back if they want to keep faith with the Health Services Union workers - and that’s a matter that Bill Shorten will need to answer for. But I don’t think you need to elevate this motion to the same status as the Stolen Generation. I think that is a massive exaggeration and it would be peculiar if, because we made an apology to the Stolen Generation, that we could never ever again express regret without it being compared to that apology.

FRAN KELLY: No, but wouldn’t it be peculiar, too, if the Parliament now expresses statements of regret and apologies, and these words do have a particular place in the lexicon of the Parliament, to every person who misleads somebody in the Parliament. As I say again we have the Privileges Committee for that, Craig Thomson will be referred to the Privileges Committee, which is how these things are done. You’ve included in this apology the spending of $267,000, or more than that actually, of those HSU members' funds on Craig Thomson’s re-election campaign. Again, to apologise for that in this way rather than just refer it to the Privileges Committee, is this an attempt to draw Labor and Bill Shorten into this debate again?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think it's an entirely appropriate response of a parliament that wants put behind it the three hideous years of the hung parliament under Labor when Craig Thomson’s vote was kept by Labor, they paid $350,000 worth of his legal fees in order to keep his vote, and Senator Dastyari admitted as much in the newspapers.

They suborned Peter Slipper to move from the Liberal Party to the Speakership in order to remove that vote from the Coalition.

This was a very tawdry parliament and this apology motion, expressing regret to the health services workers' union and apologising to those people defamed under parliamentary privilege, is an appropriate response for a Parliament that wants to be taken seriously and wants the people to understand that we believe lying to the Parliament is unacceptable.

FRAN KELLY: Again Minister, and I will move off this, you talked about the hung Parliament and this being an element of that. There was a time of course when the Howard Government for a while relied on the vote of Mal Colston, former Labor then Independent Senator. He was found guilty of rorting. The Senate never apologised, that I can recall, for him rorting his entitlements.

This is a new behaviour for the Parliament. Is this going to be a new standard?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Fran, the very nature of a precedent is that it’s done for the first time. Now, in 1955 two journalists were jailed, Fitzpatrick and Brown, by the Parliament. It’s never happened since. It happened once but it was a precedent.

This is an apology which we think is appropriate. Just because it hasn’t been done in this circumstance before, doesn’t mean it should never be done.

FRAN KELLY: The Privileges Committee can impose jail terms of up to 6 months and fines of up to $5,000 if a breach of privilege is found. Is that what the Government wants to see if Craig Thomson is found guilty of a breach of privileges and misleading the Parliament?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that is very much a matter for the Privileges Committee and I wouldn’t want to comment on their deliberations. This motion is quite a separate aspect of this issue. The Privileges Committee had a referral yesterday to it, a motion that I moved which was supported by the Labor party. It wasn’t quite as Tony Burke put it, they supported it last time and they’ll support it this time. In fact they didn’t oppose it last time. But nevertheless, the Privileges Committee will investigate this matter they will then recommend sanctions if they decide that there has been a deliberate misleading of the House, which is in their gift to decide, then the parliament will act on those recommendations.

FRAN KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast, it’s 18 minutes to eight. We’re speaking with Education Minister and Manager of Government Business Christopher Pyne. Minister, in your own portfolio you have promised no education cuts before the election. now the Prime Minister has signalled very clearly there will be cuts to education spending in the long term. Where are you going to cut?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Fran that’s not what he said. I have read the speech. He said that the current growth in education and health expenditure is unsustainable, and that is true. Labor has been spending massively beyond our means for the last six years. He didn’t flag that there'd be any cuts to health and education.

FRAN KELLY: He said we must reduce the rate of spending growth in the long term.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Correct.

FRAN KELLY: Well that suggests things will have to be cut to do that, doesn’t it?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No it doesn’t. It suggests that the growth in health and education spending needs to be arrested.

FRAN KELLY: Ok, so what does that mean? What will it be limited to do that.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It means rather than what Labor has done for the last six years, which is grasp every idea floating past and fund it with borrowed taxpayers' money, we will be much more careful about how we spend taxpayers' money. And that’s what we were elected to do.

FRAN KELLY: Does that mean the money set aside, for instance, to match the Better Schools funding model will be reduced after the next three years?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Labor has left us with $123 billion of accumulated deficits, a debt rising to $667 billion, Fran. It’s not possible, simply isn't possible, for the economy to keep absorbing that massive level of debt and deficit that Labor envisaged.

FRAN KELLY: I understand that, Minister, I’m just wondering what you see will change, then?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we’ve already indicated - we have found $1.2 billion that Bill Shorten ripped out of the school funding model for the next four years, and I delivered the national school funding model by bringing Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland into a model that they weren’t part of. So we’ve already added $1.2 billion to education, Fran. We’re not cutting it, we’ve added it.

FRAN KELLY: All right, Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:  It’s a great pleasure.