TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 30 MAY 2013
TOPICS: Electoral Reforms; US Marines; Shangri-La Dialogue.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We're joined now by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Stephen Smith, welcome to ABC News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.
LYNDAL CURTIS: I know you've come up to talk about a couple of other issues, but if I ask you a question about this- the heads of both parties and politicians - you're supposed to be the best in the business. Did anyone not think that raising the issue of both parties getting an increase in public funding at this time, when budgets are being tightened, was not a good idea?
STEPHEN SMITH: There are some fundamentally important issues here. We've seen over the last two or three decades community membership for political parties, community support for political parties, fall. And that has left the political system at risk of large donations, whether it's the Labor Party or the Liberal Party. Labor has always-
LYNDAL CURTIS: That's the fault of the own parties isn't it? That you haven't done enough to increase membership?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's not novel to Australia. There was a time when people got their information from political parties and political meetings. They now get their information from ABC 24 and online and digital platforms.
So you've got a less of a community interest in political affairs. That leaves political parties not just in a campaigning sense but in an administration sense, at risk of large donations. We've always supported transparency. We want to make political donations, whether for administrative purposes or campaigning purposes, disclosable and transparent. The Liberal Party have opposed that.
We got a Bill through the House which reduced non-disclosable donations to $1000, that's a good thing. The Liberal Party absolutely refused to support that in the Senate. So a long period of negotiation came to a compromise which was disclosure at $5000, and bipartisan support for giving political parties support from taxpayers' funds - and I can understand the community reservations about that. But we're better off having political parties sustained by taxpayers' funds than by large donations from a small number of people.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Isn't the problem that the argument about the worthiness of increased taxpayer support for political parties were lost because the optics, if you like, look like - at a time when the Government's cutting payments to families, the Opposition's declaring a Budget emergency, you find the room to give yourselves an extra $20 million. And the Labor Party doesn't stick to its long-held view that the disclosure threshold should be $1000.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly we would have much preferred to have passed legislation through the Senate with Liberal Party support, with a disclosure threshold of $1000. The Liberal Party implacably refused that. We wanted to do two things to make ground up, to get a better advance on disclosure and to see if that could be done in a bipartisan way which would see a long-term enduring outcome. And after tortuous negotiations between the relevant Ministers and Shadow Ministers, and between the party officials, a compromise of $5000 was agreed. Which Mr Abbott said he fully supported. And we've now got Mr Abbott, who used to say, don't believe what I say, but take account of what I write down, now telling us that what he writes down is not worth the paper it's written on.
He has been, in this matter, completely disingenuous, deceiving, deceitful and misleading.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Was there though, a lapse in political judgment on both sides to press ahead with this legislation at this time? When really, for quite some time, no Ministers have been out talking about the problems that there are with the funding of political parties and the need to increase that. There was a green paper the Labor Party put out in 2008, much of that has never been enacted in legislation.
STEPHEN SMITH: We have been strong supporters of public funding for political parties to avoid the adverse consequences of political parties, whether it's Labor, whether it's Liberals, whether it's Greens or whether it's Nationals, being dependent upon large donations from private sources. We wish the Liberal Party would agree with that view. We would have much preferred to have enacted legislation that went through the Senate in 2010 than to do this with two or three weeks sitting to go but it is fundamentally important to the sanctity of our democratic processes that we do it.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Can you understand though the public anger over this, the public concern?
STEPHEN SMITH: I can understand the public having reservations about taxpayers' money being spent on political parties. But that is much less of a difficulty than political parties being beholden to large donors in secret, and that is the mischief that we're seeking to overcome. Now, we believed, legitimately, as late as the 24th of May, because we got the letter in writing from the Leader of the Opposition, that we had bipartisan support to effect a desirable structural change to make sure that there was transparency of donations and that neither the Liberal Party nor the Labor Party were beholden to large donations in secret. Tony Abbott has walked away from that, and he's walked away from that in a deceitful, disingenuous, misleading way which should cause people to question his capacity as a leader.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move-
STEPHEN SMITH: If he was Prime Minister- no, well you started on this, so let me finish on it. If he was Prime Minister, this could be a letter to the Prime Minister or President of another country. This could be a letter to the Premier of a State or the Chief Minister of a Territory, and less than a week after he's written it, he's walking away from it. You can't now believe a word he says, nor can you believe anything that he signs, because it's not worth the paper it's written on.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on to the couple of issues you came up to talk about, you've received a report about the-
STEPHEN SMITH: I was starting to enjoy that, but I'm happy to move on to some portfolio issues.
LYNDAL CURTIS: You've received a report on the impact of the increased US Marine presence in Darwin. Is it your view now that it will have a beneficial economic impact and little downside, little social impact?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we committed ourselves to doing social and economic impact assessments of the increased rotations as we went. That was done by agreement with the Northern Territory Government. There was little to no adverse impact of the rotation of 250. We've today released a study of a proposed rotation of 1100. That shows little to no adverse social impact, and a modest positive economic impact - anywhere between $5 and $7 million. We are now going through the formal deliberative process of making a decision about approving a rotation for 2014. We're looking at 1100. I expect in the next few weeks to be able to make an announcement about that formally.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And finally, you're going off to the Shangri-La Dialogue, a major meeting of Defence Ministers. Is everyone now pivoting towards Asia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Shangri-La Dialogue's been going for 12 years, it's a very important part of the multilateral and regional engagement that Defence Ministers do these days. Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of Defense, is going, that's a very good thing, he follows the tradition of Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. He has association with the Dialogue since its inception. But all of the key players from the Indo-Pacific now go or are represented, and it's a good opportunity to share views about the challenges and the opportunities that we have in our region.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, we've run out of time. Thank you very much for joining us today.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, thanks very much.