Release type: Transcript

Date:

Interview — Sky News Sunday Agenda with Andrew Clennell

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business

Topics: Religious freedom legislation; COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates; politicians retiring; Australian labour market

E&OE-------------------------------------

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Here is my interview with Employment Minister Stuart Robert where I begin by asking him after three years for the PM in office: Why is the Religious Freedom Bill being brought on so close to the election? Three years into the term. 

Is this an attempt to wedge Labor as Parliament ends for the year?

STUART ROBERT:

This is simply fulfilling one of our election commitments, Andrew. We said we’d come forward with a bill. We’ve consulted extensively and widely on it, and we’re now bringing it forward.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Seems pretty obvious, though, that this won’t do everything you need to please religious groups. That people really wanted this Folau clause in. Do moderate MPs have a say there in having that taken out?

STUART ROBERT:

It’s one of those things in public policy, Andrew, that if you are not pleasing everyone, you’ve probably landed the policy option in the right place. There’s always different voices in a debate. You’ve always got to try and find a balance, which can be really difficult. I’ve sat there and listened to the Attorney-General present this. I think she’s presented it well, I think she’s put it together very well. No one gets everything they ever want in public policy. I think that’s a given on all sides of debate. But in this case I think the Attorney-General’s done an excellent job.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

What’s the key thing in here that you think religious Australians will find changes their lives, or is most important to them?

STUART ROBERT:

Goodness, it’s a question about what is of value to individuals, and the question is as wide or as long as you get. So people will find value right across the board. If we take schools, for example, I think you’ll find that schools will find the opportunity to teach according to their faith adherence. What they put forward to say this is what they’re going to teach, and who their teaching staff will be, I think you’ll see a consistency through that. But people will find value in it depending upon what their own predilections are. I think it’s a fairly obvious thing to say.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Now, we’ve had a number of election promises, I suppose, not delivered. There was the federal ICAC, there was religious freedom, there was the constitutional referendum on the voice to parliament, there was even commuter car park grants. Would you just say that’s because of the pandemic these things haven’t come to fruition?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, I’ll disagree with you in terms of election commitments not being kept. We’re continuing to consult extensively in terms of an integrity commission. In terms of the voice to Parliament, we’ve always said we want the voice to be something that is a bipartisan commitment. We want something that all Australians can embrace and Ken Wyatt is doing an extraordinary job, working with 51 Indigenous Australian peak bodies to try and bring something to the table that we can all agree with. So those processes are ongoing, the election’s still a good six months away, Andrew, in that respect. So there’s plenty of time for us to continue to move forward on what we took to the Australian people three years ago.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

But, Mr Robert, they seem sort of stuck in Yes Minister land, don’t they? You know, consultation drafts, consultation periods, probably a Senate Committee for the religious freedom bill. They all look like it’s just a little bit too hard before the next election. Then they become the commitment for the next election, don’t they?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, that’s a courageous statement of yours, Andrew.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

[Laughs]

STUART ROBERT:

When it comes to Senate Committees, outside the purview of the government, of course, the Senate decides that in their own right. But the whole point of consultation, the whole point of drafts, is that people have got ample time to consider the detail and the merits. If we didn’t have the consultation or the respective drafts, people would argue, and the Opposition certainly, that government’s trying to railroad something through. So a considered process is actually your friend here, to give everyone the opportunity to consider things. So I probably wouldn’t agree with how you’ve couched it.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Well, courageous is one of my favourite Yes Minister words. Now, how are you feeling about your chances at election time? And are we more likely to see an election in May or March at this stage?

STUART ROBERT:

Goodness, a week’s a long time in politics, let alone six months, Andrew. We’ll wait and see. The Prime Minister has always said he intends to go full term, and I think you should take the Prime Minister on his word at that.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Are you expecting the likes of Greg Hunt or Christian Porter to retire? Are you expecting more retirements along the way?

STUART ROBERT:

Great questions, Andrew, for you to ask them, number one. Number two: you always have a number of retirements in politics. The 151 members of the House, I think it’s over 10 or 11, don’t quote me but something in that order, of people that retire at each election. And at each election these sort of similar questions get asked as some predilection of impending doom and otherwise. There’s a normal course of events of people coming in and out of public life, as it should be, and I think those are healthy things as people enter and people leave.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

It seems clear now that one of the strategies that might be employed by the government in its electioneering is: we are the party of freedoms, they are the party of lockdowns. Does that seem fair?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, judge it on its merits. We’re the party who can actually manage the economics. Mr Albanese certainly isn’t. We’re the party that’s balancing lives and livelihoods. Mr Albanese certainly isn’t. We’re the party that actually sticks to our economic guns and credentials. Mr Albanese has a bob each way and flip flops. So we’ll run forward on our merits and we’ll put the case to the Australian people as it is. 

We’ll point out the flaws of the Labor Party because they’re obvious for everyone to see. That Labor wants to put more and more in government control through taxation, and we want more and more of citizens to control their own lives with lower taxation. 

They’re statements of fact, Andrew, it’s as simple as that.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

I want to ask you about this comment by the Prime Minister about if you have 80 per cent double vaccination, the unvaccinated should be able to get into a coffee shop. Should that have been the case in Sydney the past five weeks?

STUART ROBERT:

The Doherty modelling makes it clear, and it’s locked in place with the national plan, that at 80 per cent we want freedoms to open up. Now, businesses will always have the right to determine who comes into their venues. They’ve got to comply with their occupational health and safety requirements at a state level. So that’s up to them to determine. 

Our view, the Federal Government’s view, and the Prime Minister enunciated that very clearly on Thursday morning, is that governments shouldn’t be telling Australians how to live their lives. We’ve had a lot of that, by necessity, the last 18 months. Public health orders exist, and they’re being used for areas of aged care and disability. But apart from that, it should not be government saying who can, in the Prime Minister’s words, have a cup of coffee in Brisbane. Let business determine their own risks and let’s get government out of people’s lives.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

But some of that statement has to be fear of Clive Palmer, One Nation and those preferences not coming back, doesn’t it? It’s a sign that you’re concerned about those, I guess, so-called anti-vax candidates in Queensland. 

STUART ROBERT:

I think it’s a sign that the Federal Government, the Morrison Government, backs in the freedom of Australians, it’s a sign that we’re true to our word, that we’re not here to mandate vaccinations. It’s a sign that we believe in the Doherty modelling that at 80 per cent we should be getting back to normal. That’s what it’s a sign of.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

What about Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic, and no doubt Matt Canavan and George Christensen? That’s a real pressure point, isn’t it, this Gerard Rennick threat? What do you make of that, that if you don’t step away from vaccination mandates he wouldn’t vote for the government in the Senate?

STUART ROBERT:

Most of us in the House don’t quite understand the vagaries of the Senate at the best of times, so we’ll leave the Senate to speak for themselves. Government’s formed in the Lower House, it’s where the vast majority of legislation enters, through the Lower House. That’s what our focus is in terms of governing and getting good legislation and, of course, completing and continuing to put through our election commitments. That’s our focus, not so much on what individual Senators are thinking or saying.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Now, Peter Dutton said last weekend he would still be interested in the Liberal leadership, should Scott Morrison retire. Is that something the PM could do mid-next term? You’re very close to him.

STUART ROBERT:

Again, that’s a good question for the Prime Minister in that respect, Andrew. I fully expect the Prime Minister to contest the next election. He’s an extraordinary Prime Minister, he’ll contest it, the good graces of the Australian people, all going well, we’ll have the opportunity to serve them once more, and then the Prime Minister will continue to serve them to the very end. That’s the sort of consistent government you can expect from Prime Minister Morrison, Andrew.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Now, you’ve been talking up apprentices and jobs. But how concerned are you about the Labor shortage from not having immigration? It seems jobs is the least of our worries. It’s more businesses not being able to get workers.

STUART ROBERT:

There’s no question that there is a shortage of workers. The last ABS numbers said there’s 818,000 Australians unemployed. I know from the case numbers, the Jobactive case numbers, Australians on payment, there’s 350,000 Australians with a vocational education qualification or higher, so, university degree, trade or traineeship. That’s 350,000 right now. There’s 94,000 young people who are on Youth Allowance Other, which means they’re 15 to 22, not working or not in training. Those young people should be straight into a job. 

So there’s a perfect opportunity, Andrew, for young Australians and Australians writ large, to get into work. 

Yes, we’re short of skilled workers because of borders being closed, we’re short a couple of hundred thousand students that normally do 20 hours a week. All of that is true, which means there’s never been a better time for Australians, right now, to get into work, and I’m expecting the Jobactive providers to be actively encouraging and pushing those Australians into the workforce.

ANDREW CLENNELL:

Mr Robert, thanks for your time.

STUART ROBERT:

Andrew, any time.