Sky News PVO Newsday

Interviewer:

Peter van Onselen

E&OE

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Talking to Assistant Minister for Social services in a moment Zed Seselja. I want to ask him about this, one of the issues we‘re going to look to do, not just his portfolio, there are some issues around his portfolio but there are also these issues around media reform and we’ve also got to get to the issue of what on earth is going on in this stoush between Malcolm Turnbull and of course Tony Abbott as well. Because you see it on the front page of the Australian newspaper today, this ‘war of words’ between the pair, the suggestion from Greg Sheridan  that Malcolm Turnbull must put Tony Abbott back on his front page, back on his front bench I should say, let’s ask the good senator about all of this.

Senator Zed Seselja let’s just get this out of the road first up. Malcolm Turnbull versus Tony Abbott, how do you avoid this descending into the madness of the Rudd-Gillard years?

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, thanks very much for having me on, Peter.

Look, I don’t accept that characterisation at all. I don’t think that’s what is going on here at all, I think that both obviously the Prime Minister is getting on with the job of governing the country and the former Prime minister in Tony Abbott will speak on things from time to time, and we can have our views on that, but Tony Abbott wants the government to succeed as do all members of the coalition.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

What do you make of Greg Sheridan’s suggestion, I’m sure you’ve seen it on the front page of the Australian, if Turnbull doesn’t restore Abbott to a cabinet position, this is the important bit, he is guaranteeing – guaranteeing, senator - more or less continuous trouble for his government. That sounds like if you don’t negotiate with terrorists there’ll be problems that follow.

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, look, Greg Sheridan is someone I respect a lot, but I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusion there except to say I’m not in the habit of giving public advice to the Prime Minister on who he should have in his cabinet and who he shouldn’t. In the end, as you know, the Prime Minister chooses the cabinet and I think he’s chosen a very good one and if at some point he wants to make changes in the future that’s completely up to him but I’m not going to give him any public advice on that.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

‘If at some point he wants to make changes in the future’ sounds like you’re lobbying for a promotion, but we’ll leave that, we’ll move on.

I want to ask you about some other issues, particularly in your portfolio area of social services. Do you accept that what the government, the terminology I suppose is the key here, that what the government is looking to do around paid parental leave is remove ‘double dipping’, is that the right term ?

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, look, I haven’t gotten into that kind of language necessarily, we can get caught up in the particular language but what the government essentially is seeking to do is make the system as fair as possible. The vast majority of mothers would see no change under these proposed changes but there is a fairness question around when people have access to very generous paid parental leave schemes as to the contribution in addition to that from the taxpayer through the 18 weeks and I think what Mr Christian Porter is seeking to do is to try and make sure that it’s as fair to everyone as possible. Now obviously not everyone will be happy with that and we acknowledge that but when you’ve got a situation where you do have very tight fiscal circumstances then you have to look for ways to make things absolutely as fair as possible and that’s what the government is seeking to do.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

You’d understand wouldn’t you that a lot of women, and men for that matter, would be extremely disappointed because this was the government that upon coming into power a little over 3 years ago was advocating a far more generous scheme than what currently exists and now what currently exists you’re looking to pare it back for some women.

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, a couple of points on that, obviously in relation to the former policy that we had, we lost that, I guess we lost that public argument and so it’s fair to say that I think the community feedback on that was –

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

But did you really lose that? You won an election with it.

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, I think that the very strong feedback right across the board, and we had a lot of blockage from our political opponents as well, in Canberra as well, was that it was seen as being too generous. Now, I think when you look at that, when you look at what Bill Shorten has argued, what the Greens and others have argued in regards to that proposal, I think it is a bit rich for Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to now be saying ‘you’re not being generous enough’ when what we’re seeking to do is have a system which is pretty fair to everyone. In the past it was going to be treated as a workplace entitlement, so obviously that would mean if you earned more you would get more, but what we are saying now is that when it’s a taxpayer funded 18 weeks there is the ability of people who have their own schemes, whether it’s government schemes or private sector schemes to effectively get more, well certainly there is the ability to continue to receive that depending on the actual amount. So what we’re seeking to do is see that everyone has access to 18 weeks. That’s what the scheme was that was left in place and we’re just looking to make it as fair as possible. 

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Your colleague, Dean Smith, I spoke to him a little earlier today, he’s very keen to see some amendments to s18C. Once upon a time, you were a big fan of making some amendments to 18C, what happened Senator Zed Seselja? Is that what promotion does to you, you have to leave behind, in the name of front bench solidarity, your strongly held convictions?

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, as you say, I made comments as a backbencher in relation to 18C, the government made a decision not to pursue changes to 18C and that remains the government’s decision.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

We’ll move on, I want to ask you about party reform.

You batted around my questioning around Tony Abbott versus Malcolm Turnbull from last week in parliament, there were some disagreements there, and there’s nothing wrong with that in a democratic party, over party reform on the weekend in NSW. Tony Abbott’s argument is that this is not the end; this is the end of the beginning. There is inevitability about one vote one value when it comes to party reform, are you in favour of that kind of reform?

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

I think it’s really pleasing that what we saw on the weekend was all parts of the party, and there are very clearly differing views within the NSW division, but all parts of the party effectively coming together to support reform. All have now said we do want to see reform, we do want to see greater participation by the membership, and that is, that has now basically unanimous approval, and I think that is a really positive development. Can I say that here in the ACT we do have one vote one value, as we do in a number of states, and what I’ve seen is that that does give us a lot of diversity.

So one of the great challenges we’re wrestling with is not having enough women representing  the Liberal Party in the federal parliament, there’s no doubt about it we would all like to see more women representing the Liberal Party in the federal parliament and in state parliaments. And in the ACT with the plebiscite system 11 of 25 candidates were women at the recent election and while that was overall a disappointing result, 5 of the 11 in the party room are women and that’s without a quota, that’s better than 40% and we’ve delivered that, I think, through a pretty democratic party system which has enabled good, impressive women to have the opportunity to put their hand up and to be elected by the electorate. So that’s got to be a positive and I think that’s one of the dividends of when you have a very democratic selection process for your candidates.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

One of the risks though, which I think has to be balanced doesn’t it , is this idea that if it’s one vote one value, in principle, at first principle at least,  it sounds very hard to argue against but one of the arguments is that it helps branch stacking and can help branch stacking. And actually, and I think this is actually not a bad argument, it can discourage active party members, people who don’t just join up and get seen every year or once every three years for a preselection showdown but actually look to be involved, actually look to do a lot of the heavy lifting around fundraising, around doorknocking, around all those activities that a party needs. If they are going to get no more say, if I could put it that way, than someone who only shows up every three years for a preselection vote that can be pretty disheartening for active party engaged people

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

I guess I would say that we haven’t seen evidence of that in the states and territory which have plebiscites.  I don’t think that anyone would say that somehow branch stacking is more of a problem in say the Victorian division than the NSW division and they do have plebiscites for the lower house in Victoria.

In terms of active membership I think there are ways that you can design the rules to make sure that it is an active member who gets a say in preselection, so there’s all sorts of ways to do that…. people show a commitment over a period of time to the party they don’t just come in at the last minute to vote in preselection, so how you design those rules I think is important, to get that right but we haven’t seen... I mean, I would put back to you, certainly branch stacking can be encouraged in any system and if you have a system where the delegates all make the decisions then getting control of a branch by branch stacking is one of the ways you can do that.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

What’s so bad in NSW for the Liberal Party that it needs to reform? I mean, the last three Liberal Prime Ministers have all come from NSW, arguably the most successful state government in the country is the NSW government, returned at the last election with a thumping majority, what‘s so rotten in the borough of NSW that it even needs to waste its time talking about reform?

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, I wouldn’t characterise it as rotten in the borough. I think you’re right to point to a lot of successes coming out of the NSW division but I think it’s also fair to say that if large chunks of the membership are calling for a greater say, if the Prime Minister, the Premier, the former Prime Minister John Howard, the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Arthur Sinodinos, and other senior figures, Angus Taylor, are saying let’s have reform, the party has voted for reform… I think there’s recognition that empowering party members is a good thing. We’ve had great successes in NSW; we want to continue to have great successes. And the ongoing success of the NSW division is of course critical to the success of the Liberal Party nationally so it’s a very important issue.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

So if by definition the argument for party reform is to give people a greater say presumably that will change preselection outcomes. If that will change preselection outcomes can we point to who are some of the people that have been preselected that we don’t want preselected when the party reform goes through

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

No, Peter, nice try.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

I’m amazed that you don’t want to engage with that question, I’m amazed.

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

No, no. Look, we’ve got some wonderful representatives from NSW -

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

But senator, you know you can’t have it both ways, you can’t tell us everything’s hunky dory we’ve got the best of the best  but then also tell us we need party reform. Surely either we can start naming names McCarthy trial style and say who’s got to go, or we say everything’s hunky dory, why reform. Well this is a very conservative argument Senator Zed Seselja, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

What I would say, and I haven’t looked at the specific numbers in NSW in terms of representation of women but I would certainly say that if you have a more democratic party you will have a more diverse and representative representatives in parliament on behalf of the Liberal Party. That is one of the strongest arguments in reforms. It’s not about any individual member it’s about saying well, if we want more women, we want to empower more people, if we want people from backgrounds that better reflect the community in NSW and right around the nation then we’ll make it as democratic as we can.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Quick final question, you’re a former leader of the Liberal Party in the ACT. The Liberals lost that election and they campaigned very hard against higher taxes for bigger government services, is that an indication that at least in the ACT they want higher taxes with the government services that brings.

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, look, there was a number of factors at play, obviously some of the northern parts of Canberra voted for the train or the tram, and in the end there was a lot of money going into that, or promised to go into that, and many people in the northern part particularly responded to that. I don’t think that the tax changes are popular, but obviously there’s a range of factors that go into any election and perhaps that case wasn’t put as strongly as it could have been but in the end the local party will review what didn’t work in terms of the message but I would say –

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Would you have won?

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Well, you know, I had my go. I had my go and I didn’t quite get there, so in the end it’s up to other people to take the party forward in the ACT. I think we’ve got a really good team, I think that they aren’t far off, they’re not too far off the base, they’re two members away from an absolute majority in their own right so there’s an opportunity for them to get there next time.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Senator Seselja, always appreciate you finding the time to chat to us on News Day, thanks once again.

SENATOR ZED SESELJA:

Thanks very much Peter.