Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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7 August 2023

SUBJECTS: Consultants; Four Corners reporting on KPMG; Veterans’ support; China relationship; Voice to Parliament.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Joining us today, we have Assistant Defence Minister, Labor frontbencher Matt Thistlethwaite. Welcome, Matt. And Liberal MP Russell Broadbent. Welcome to you too, Russell. We'll come back to parliamentary matters in a moment, but on big four consultants, Matt Thistlethwaite, Four Corners tonight will look at what it describes as a cosy relationship between KPMG and Defence, to the department that you are involved with at present. Are you satisfied, based on the public reporting, that all contracts in the past have represented value for money and were appropriately linked?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, I want to see the report first. I'm looking forward to seeing that tonight. I think I'll have to watch it on iview. That's conflicting with the Matildas’ game, that will get priority, but I look forward to the report and seeing what's uncovered there. Obviously, there's been issues with the use of contractors across government that we've been uncovering with PWC and other contractors. And unfortunately, I think in the past there's been a default approach of when there's an issue or a problem in government, we immediately go to a contractor to look to them to do some sort of report or do some work for the government to try and work out where the issues are. We've got a highly skilled, capable public service and taxpayers’ dollars and resources are put into ensuring that that public service is there to serve the Australian people. So, we're keen to try and see if we can use contractors less and use the public service more. And that's why some of the announcements that we've made today around PWC and improving tax transparency, giving regulators more powers, are aimed at ensuring that we're getting better value for money from the Australian public service and using contractors as a last resort.

JENNETT: I think you've indicated in previous discussions on this program, Russell Broadbent, that you actually think PWC will lead to some fairly monumental changes in the way governments, plural, over the years, go about their business. Where does this leave the Audit Office, though? I mean, when we see allegations of the sort that will be made on Four Corners tonight, does that suggest that the ANAO hasn't been as scrupulously monitoring these things as it's meant to?

RUSSELL BROADBENT, MEMBER FOR MONASH: No, they pick particular subjects to have a look at each year and I've been on committees that worked with the Audit Office on those things. Look, today, Greg, the government is actually asking a consultancy firm to look at how we might deal with consultants. That's what's happened. They've put out a bid for consultancy firm to come back to the government on how they should deal with consultants.

JENNETT: This is a reference to the tax office, isn't it?

BROADBENT: It's crazy stuff. So, governments have been doing this for a long time. This isn't brand new, it isn't new to this government or the previous government beforehand, but it has grown exponentially to things that we I'm sure I didn't know how much was being spent with consultants and how diminished the public service had become. It wasn't front of mind until something like has happened is happening now and people are being called to account and they're being called to account big time.

JENNETT: Wouldn't a large public service sit uncomfortably with you if it has to be regrown to do some of these functions?

BROADBENT: Well, I absolutely think there is a place for the public service in this country to fulfil the role that they're required to do and that the public expect them to do. And so, yes, if they can't fulfil the role, I believe, especially in aged care, that there are just not enough public servants in there feeding back the information that governments need to get the right, absolutely correct decisions made at a very local level, because, after all, it's about people on a local level that's very important. Now, what has happened with defence? I don't know. There has been allegations, Four Corners tend to blow these things up. It's very hard for Defence in the type of procurement they do to make sure that every contract is perfect. And I'm sure they would believe they had.

JENNETT: Yeah. Just on the public service as it sits within Defence. Do you see gaps there, Matt Thistlethwaite, that might have to be addressed through new hires?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think that there's definitely scope for ensuring that we have a strong public service in the Defence Force, in particular areas supporting our Defence Force personnel, I think, and veterans as well. It's well known that we've got a backlog of claims for support for veterans that have built up because a lot of that work was contracted out rather than done by the public sector. And one of our election commitments was, if we were elected, we'd employ 500 staff, put them in the public service in the Department of Veterans' Affairs to do the work that's been contracted out, and we're doing that, but it takes time. You’ve got to train people up, you got to employ them in a tight labour market. It's difficult, but we are making a difference in terms of Defence. We've got some pretty thorough investigations going on at the moment in terms of the investment program going forward and making sure that we're getting taxpayers value for money there. There's some reviews going on into the surface fleet and other areas where there's been contracts awarded. We want to make sure that Defence is agile and value for money as possible.

JENNETT: As you say, there is a live and current example happening in Veterans' Affairs as we speak. Why don't we move on to China trade and barley, we can cross off the list as a subject of dispute with Beijing. Wine probably comes next, by all accounts. Where does that leave, in your view, the Prime Minister's planned travel, or at least he's been invited anyway to China?

BROADBENT: Australians and particularly farmers are best when their backs are to the wall and the barley farmers had their backs to the wall and what they did, they went out and found other markets. So, for their barley and they sold that barley, there would have been a detriment into the short term. But what have we come out with now? We have the opportunity to go back into China, but we also have the opportunity for those new markets that we've found. I don't know how far the wine industry's gone with finding new markets or others, but I think my view is the Prime Minister takes advice from all of his departments as to how Australia should be approaching this piece by piece by piece. I think it's being done respectfully and very importantly. I think we do have to respect our neighbours, who we deal with, the Chinese, whoever they are. I'd like to think Australia does it with respect and with language that is reasonable always and not confrontationalist, because we have a lot of people at stake. These are real people on the ground that derive their living from exports and so important to our agricultural sector, which my electorate, of course, is a major part of. If we have a glut of red wine, I think Australians have been very happy with that glut of red wine over the last few months.

JENNETT: Maybe that's the case. I do know they're looking to diversify their markets as well. But listening to other Ministers, Matt, in the government, they are making it sound, Don Farrell being one, making it sound more likely that the Prime Minister will go. Do you agree with that assessment?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think that it's looking positive and we certainly are keen to make sure that that reengagement process continues. The Prime Minister met with Xi Jinping last year in the wake of a multilateral engagement. You've had the Defence Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Trade Minister have regular meetings. That reengagement process is occurring and it's pretty important for Australia, not only in terms of our diplomacy within the region, which is the key to peace and stability, which we all want, but importantly for Australian workers and suppliers of services and manufacturers. And it's great to see that the controls on barley have been lifted. Hopefully, we can now proceed to look at the other products that are still subject to those controls and we reengage on a fulsome basis.

JENNETT: All right, let's move on to the Voice. The Prime Minister upped the stakes significantly at the weekend when he said he put it all on the line, didn't he? It's all or nothing for reconciliation with this Voice proposal and constitutional amendment that goes with it. Is that abrogating ambition on reconciliation? Couldn't the Government come back and have a second crack at reconciliation at a future time?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I don't believe so, because that's what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want. This idea hasn't come from government, it's come from First Nations Australians through the Uluru Statement from the Heart and they were very clear in that statement. A constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament as the first step. And that's what the government is trying to deliver on. And it's really an offering from First Nations Australians to say, work with us, join with us to try and help solve some of these deep seated problems that we've had in Aboriginal Australia for many, many years. And the current system's not working, so we need to try new approaches.

JENNETT: All right, Russell, upping the stakes. It's somewhat reminiscent, I suppose, of Paul Keating against the GST, saying, look, if Hewson and co get elected, we won't stand in their way. You'll be getting it all right. That's kind of the Prime Minister here.

BROADBENT: What Keating said was, if you don't understand it, don't vote for it. That's what he said. Greg, I know you've picked another line that he said, and that was part of his argument. But the main line, he said, if you do not understand it, who understands tax policy? He knew exactly what he's doing, especially from the man. From the man. I remember this very well because I lost my seat in that election one of the couple of times that I lost my seat. They were both GST elections. So, you've sort of clicked something in me that's very raw. So, it's very raw. But I've got to say, the parallel is this, that if you do not understand the Voice, what the Australian people are now telling everybody through those polls that you've seen is we haven't got enough information, we don't understand. It's the same as my local indigenous people, Matt, I've got to tell you, they're not in favour of it. They're not in favour of it and they're strongly not in favour. And they're taking their message to the people. Very unusual for quiet elders to take their message to the people front pages of local papers. They've gone to every group that wants to speak to them, to say that they're opposed to the Voice.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, can I just say, very different story in my electorate. The La Perouse Aboriginal community have voted overwhelmingly to support the Voice and they're out there campaigning for it. A couple of things if you don't know and you want more information, get more information, visit, the information is all there. People can go and get the information. The last thing I'd say is, as you are well aware, Russell, you don't put the detail in the Constitution. Section 51, which grants the Commonwealth the power to make laws for income tax, say, for instance, doesn't contain the Income Tax Assessment Act, that is left to the Parliament. The detail that goes in the constitution is the power for the Parliament to make the Voice. The detail will come later on.

JENNETT: All right, we're going to return to the Voice debate later, time has beaten us. We don't get your reflections on being kicked out of Parliament. I think it's happened to most over time, but we're going to wrap it up there. Matt Thistlethwaite, Russell Broadbent. Thanks to both.

BROADBENT: Sure. Matt, a cleanskin.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's been a while, but I have been booted out.

JENNETT: It's good to hear you both have.


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