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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4 September 2023

SUBJECTS: SPA reporting & international travel; Decision on additional Qatar flights; Voice to Parliament.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's bring in our political panel now. And joining us right here in the studio this Monday, Labor frontbencher Matt Thistlethwaite and Liberal Aaron Violi. Welcome to you both. Why don't we start on the matter we heard before, Jacqui Lambie, and that was the opening questions in Question Time. Matt, you have Assistant Defence Minister responsibilities. Obviously, the Opposition has some interest in pursuing Richard Marles over this. But on the question of transparency, are all trips adequately reported publicly when these VIP RAAF jets are used?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I think it's worth remembering, Greg, that this is a particular squadron of the RAAF, 34 Squadron, who do a wonderful job that operate this fleet of airlines. And it's specifically there to transport VIPs around the country. And there are guidelines that are published by Defence about the use of those Special Purpose Aircraft. And at all times, the government's following those guidelines. I understand the changes to the guidelines that have been the subject of some debate came in under the previous government and the changes that were introduced were based on national security considerations. So, ensuring the safety of people who might be a target that fly on those Special Purpose Aircraft, we're following those guidelines.

JENNETT: Okay, I guess that was a point of my question. We can't wind the clock back to those wider transparency guidelines that once related to these flights. You're saying there are legitimate security grounds. Why that can't revert?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, across a number of areas of government policy, there's been more rigorous tests and guidelines applied when it comes to national security and protecting the safety of public officials. And that's what's occurred in this case with the changes to those guidelines. And we've accepted the advice of the national security agencies and said that what's in place is appropriate. There is still reporting through IPEA. There are opportunities to ask questions through Senate estimates. If information is requested by officials, then that will be published. But it's subject to those national security guidelines.

JENNETT: All right, so what's the Opposition actually seeking here, Aaron Violi, what are you driving at? You could use these other fora that Matt's just outlined there to get granular detail about these flights. But what's the suspicion that you're casting over Richard Marles?

AARON VIOLI, MEMBER FOR CASEY: Well, there's some significant questions that the Defence Minister needs to answer. I mean, if flights and there's been reports that the VIP is being used to go to Avalon to go home after a parliamentary sitting week. Now, if that is the case, and we all remember the Defence Minister's feedback to Bronwyn Bishop at the time about how taxpayers’ money should be used in the expectation of the community. And if we look at his words in a cost of living crisis, we've got a Defence Minister that has spent $3.6 million on VIP flights. And if they're being used to go home effectively, that's a question that he needs to answer and explain to the Australian people.

JENNETT: Okay, but are you unduly singling out his Defence Minister role here? Because if you look at him in an altogether different light, he is Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. And, of course, in Coalition governments that were always Nationals MPs who lived in places like Tamworth, places like Wagga Wagga, they made routine use of these flights. What's different?

VIOLI: So, I think that there is legitimate use for the VIP as Defence Minister, as acting Prime Minister, absolutely. And no one's arguing there's not. But it's that question of, as I said, a commercial flight to Melbourne and then a half an hour to 45 minutes’ drive down the highway to Geelong is something that many people do, the Minister has done previously himself. That's a significant question. And given his commentary around Bronwyn Bishop and her use of a helicopter, if that's a standard he's willing to apply to Liberal MPs, he needs to answer to the Australian people why that standard doesn't apply to him. And does that pass the pub test that everyday Australians are asking at the moment.

JENNETT: All right, let's move to another arm of aviation policy, I suppose, Matt Thistlethwaite, the constant questions haven't stopped, really on Qantas, Qatar airways. Is it clear to you what the real reason was? Was it national interest? Was it the profitability of Qantas? Why can't the government clear this up once and for all?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we have, and the decision was based on what's in Australia's best interest. And I think it's worth pointing out that the airline industry is still recovering from COVID. That was the one industry that really was heavily impacted. It basically shut the industry down. Lots of people lost their jobs. It's starting to get back on its feet. There's more competition coming into the market and that will progress over time.

JENNETT: But national interest and consumer interest, are they two different concepts here when evaluating these approvals?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, I think that they can be complementary. And when you look at particularly the Middle East market, there's six operators that fly into the Middle East. So, there is some competition on that route. We could always do with more competition. We understand that. That's why the government's undertaking the process of an aviation green paper and a white paper, and that will delve into whether or not there's adequate competition on the international sector in particular. In Australia, we've got 57 different airlines that fly into this country. So, there is quite a bit of competition in the market. There always can be more. And that's what the process of the green paper and the white paper is all about.

JENNETT: All right, so we might get there. For argument's sake, Aaron Violi, we might get there eventually. What's wrong with doing it properly through process?

VIOLI: Well, this cost of living is the most significant issue that Australians are facing today and we've seen many reports, incredible reports saying that this decision is keeping prices higher by about 40%. So, prices are significantly higher, about 50% higher than pre-COVID. Seats are about 25% down on pre-COVID. So, there is demand there. We've seen the tourism industry, we've seen Flight Centre come out today wanting this decision to be reviewed. Wayne Swan, the president of the ALP has come out, State Labor Premiers and we get four or five different answers. We've got the Assistant Treasurer telling us that at a time when Qantas are making a $2.5 billion profit, that it's a good thing that they're so profitable, it's not great for the consumers that have to pay that. So, these are the questions that the government haven't been able to answer in question time and we're confused about why Qatar aren't allowed to and why Qantas seemed to be getting this preferential treatment at this stage.

JENNETT: What difference would one admittedly profitable and successful airline make though against I think Matt uses the figure 57 airlines accessing?

VIOLI: The reports have shown that it would bring prices down 40%. That's a significant difference. And we've got to understand that when people are in other countries and looking do we come to Australia, do we travel to the US for our holiday? Price is one of the factors they look at. So, there is an opportunity to grow the pie here. It's not a zero sum game when it comes to flights and we know there's a shortage of flights and we know that's pushing prices up, this was an opportunity for the government to act decisively, to bring prices down, to support tourism, to support our industry and they didn't take that opportunity and they can't answer why. And many people, many ALP premiers and as I said, Wayne Swan, the national president, are calling for a review and this government has to review this decision.

JENNETT: All right, let's go over to the Voice because we did witness Jacqui Lambie in full flight there. There is this growing sense and it's backed by some polls, Matt Thistlethwaite, that things aren't travelling particularly well at this stage for the Yes campaign. There'd be great disappointment if the referendum failed in large sections of the community. Would the government be open to a quick fire discussion with Peter Dutton about a recognition question being put to the people, let's say in conjunction with the next general election?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It'd be a huge disappointment and it'll set our nation back if it goes down. I did some door knocking with the Yes campaign in my electorate on the weekend and I was surprised by a large number of people that didn't know much about it and were seeking information and that was a good opportunity to explain what it was all about.

JENNETT: Isn’t that disturbing in itself, though?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, not really, because I think people have got busy lives, tended to be people that are in that working age bracket. They got busy lives, they're dealing with cost of living pressures and getting on with their lives, particularly if you're raising kids and you got both partners working. I understand that, but what I find, Greg, is once you sit down and explain it to people, 80% of them will say, yes, I'm voting for it, because they understand that it's about listening. It's an idea that comes from First Nations Australians and it's about getting better results, because the current system is not working on Peter Dutton's suggestion that he'll hold a referendum later on. Haven't we heard that before? I think we heard that in 1999. Remember people saying, just vote no and you'll get another go in a couple of years’ time. 24 years later, we still haven't had another referendum. We're about to have another one. Don't blow it, Australia. Don't blow the opportunity that you have. You're not going to get another go at this anytime soon. This is the one opportunity that we have to finally recognise Indigenous Australians in our constitution and to get better results and listen to them.

JENNETT:  All right, Matt, that just probably saved you a couple of hundred door knocks on the way through using the airways. Aaron, are you clear in your own mind about what and when Peter Dutton is proposing to address, what the question would be and when he would address recognition if this one fails?

VIOLI: So, Peter hasn't outlined, obviously, the actual question and the timeline yet, but what we've committed to, that if successful, at the next election, we will hold a referendum for Indigenous recognition in the constitution, which is that's what Peter said. So, it's really important to understand that this was an opportunity for this government to bring our nation together. There would have been 80, 90% support for constitutional recognition and the voice in the constitution with the lack of detail, I've got Indigenous Australians in my community. Just today, we saw reports in Tasmania of two Indigenous organisations both voting no because they don't know how their voices are going to be heard. So, this detail that people are asking for, many Indigenous Australians do support the Voice, but many also don't and have questions. And this government has refused to give the detail around how their voice will be heard at a local, regional and national level. And until that's, provided we're seeing it in the polls, it's looking like Australians aren't prepared to change the constitution without having that important detail.

JENNETT: All right, well, five weeks to thrash that out and to inform or push your arguments against, Matt Thistlethwaite, Aaron Violi, really appreciate both for joining us.



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