Jeff Kennett Press Conference In Response To Independents’ Charter

This is the full text of the press conference held to present the coalition’s response to the Charter of Demands presented by the 3 Independent members of the Legislative Assembly.

Transcript of Victorian coalition leader’s press conference.

SPEAKERS:

  • JEFF KENNETT, Premier of Victoria
  • MARK BIRRELL, Minister for Industry, Science & Technology, Government Leader in the Upper House
  • PAT McNAMARA, Deputy Premier, Minister for Agriculture and Resources
  • GEOFF CRAIGE, Minister for Decentralisation, Minister for Business & Employment

JEFF KENNETT: All right. Well, thank you very much. We are officially releasing the Coalition’s response to the Independents’ Charter this morning. Can I just make the point we’re releasing it now, because during the discussions we had with the Independents, they requested that we give them time to consider the document before we released it publicly. And we have honoured that undertaking.

Can I just make the point, in a very general way — and then I think it might be best if we just throw it open to questions and answers — our response, as you can see, is a substantial response. It has been worked on as a result of discussions with the Independents, going back to them, et cetera.

It, in one sense, is not greatly dissimilar, in some parts, than that response offered by the ALP — except in a couple of areas. Firstly, we have actually gone further than the Independents’ Charter in several areas because we have actually, we hope, been able to constructively assist, improve the quality of the outcomes that they want.

There is additional scrutiny by the Auditor General. There is broader access to documents and further improvements associated with the FOI legislation. That’s particularly the case given new technology, IT, multimedia that exists today.

There’s an expansion of the work of parliamentary committees. There is greater independence for the Speaker, which we think is going to be terribly important in this parliament. It’s going to be a hard parliament to manage. And our nominee is Rob Maclellan, who is the Father of the House — probably the best qualified by a country mile.

But he’s also made the suggestion that in order to do his work well, he thinks he should be free of the responsibility of attending Coalition meetings. So that as he listens to the debates from the chair he can form his independent view, without having been part of the process that arrived at that Coalition decision.

There’s greater community consultation and there is greater community input into constitutional reform. The issue that does in fact set us apart from the ALP response, in the main — although there are important changes in the area of FOI et cetera — is this issue of constitutional reform.

Can I remind you that for most of Bolte’s years as Premier, he faced an upper house of a different political persuasion. Any political party can secure the majority of seats in the upper house, if they win public confidence.

And I think what the Independents, the three of them in the lower house, have shown … in the much tougher test of public winning support, that is on a two-party preferred position of gaining 50 per cent plus one vote, they have been able to secure their position in the lower house.

The difficulty we have with substantial constitutional reform is not to hold the system as it is now because we think we will win it. That is not the case. That is left to the electorate and we’ve seen in the past where that hasn’t been the case.

But the spread of seats, at the moment, gives the best representation for rural Victoria. And currently there are 16 members from rural Victoria who not only represent rural Victoria but reside in places around rural Victoria. For instance, Roger comes from Hamilton, Barry Bishop from Mildura, Philip Davis from Sale.

Under Labor’s proposal that they’ve put forward, which is the only other proposal on the table at the moment that I’m aware of, apart from the current arrangements, there would be immediately a reduction in the number of country upper house members representing rural Victoria. An immediate reduction from 16 to 14.

But because with five electorates you need 20 per cent in each of the five electorates, the Victoria West and Victoria East upper house seats, being half the state of Victoria, would mean that their boundaries would come very close to the GPO.

Victoria West would include Geelong. Victoria East would include, potentially, some of Cranbourne, Berwick, et cetera. And therefore, the representation in those two electorates would actually come from what we consider to be either metropolitan or Geelong-type areas.

So there is this substantial reduction. And if you have a look at the New South Wales upper house, all of their members … they don’t have electorate offices. They’re all based in the Parliament of New South Wales. So there are no people living out.

So what we’re saying in this area is, look, we’re not opposed to considering these issues of terms of the parliament, changing the voting system, public servants speaking more than is already allowed for — even with the repeal of that area in education because it will mean a substantial change of the constitution — and maybe four year terms, we don’t mind that going to the Constitutional Commission that the Independents are suggesting.

To set it up in the same way that the Australian Constitutional Convention … Commission was set up, under Sir Ninian Stephens, which had a life of two years, for then it to report back to the parliament and the parliament to decide what should obviously go before the people in the way of a referendum.

But to actually make change when it was not part of the discussion of the election, and for which no party has a mandate — that is because it wasn’t discussed — we think is absolutely inappropriate. And we should not move simply to change, because of the new arrangement in the parliament, without the public being involved in the discussions.

So we have suggested, through this response to the Independents, that it be forwarded to a commission. That the commission be set up by the parliament. That the parties and Independents agree on the personalities. It must be a pre-eminent commission. And we will agree on the terms of reference and then a reporting back process.

If the commission needs a bit longer, as is normally the case, we’re in favour of it.

Now, in most other areas we have accepted the suggestions of the Independents. A lot of them are still going to have to be worked through, in terms of detail and application. A lot of it, of course, is about intent and goodwill. It doesn’t require legislation.

So we have offered it to them. They will consider it. Whether they’ll come back to us or not I’m not sure, before they make their announcements next week. Suffice to say they have indicated to us that their charter is not a take-all or leave-all document. That it is open to negotiation and to discussion.

And that their fundamental tenets themselves are firstly to represent their electorates, secondly to represent rural Victoria.

There were some not-negotiatiable aspects. Attorney-General was one. FOI was another. And we have obviously agreed to their changes and we have gone further. The third issue that they were keen on is the issue of the inquiry into Intergraph and MAS.

Again, this has been subject to rigorous independent tests already, by the police and by the DPP. We are happy that that go forward to a further inquiry, if they wish. But we do point out, of course, that a judicial inquiry is very much the same as a royal commission. It will cost between $1 and $1.4 million a month to conduct. It could cost up to, therefore, $7, $8, $9 million.

And unless that commission is able to secure additional information then they will probably come to the same findings of the work that’s already been done. And even then, they’ve got to refer it back to the police and back to the DPP.

One aspect is to do with the Intergraph contract itself, where between $400 and $600,000 was lost to the state through non-compliance with the government rules. Whether we’re able to secure any of that money back or not, we obviously don’t know. But the advice we got at the time was it would cost about 250 and you’d be lucky to get 250.

Secondly, the other aspect is whether two ministers mislead the parliament, and maybe a staff member. Again, unless you got different information that would counter … contradict everything that’s been said to date I think you’re going to get the same response.

And even if, at worst, you were able to prove that that was not the case, there is no penalty except to say that two ministers did. So the Independents will have to decide, obviously, whether that expenditure is justified or not. But we’re happy to go along with the inquiry.

Now look, I mean, obviously I could talk at great length, my colleagues could. I think it might be best if we just throw it open to you to ask questions. And if you would just like to direct your question at one of the four, we’re here as a group because we are the ones who’ve been negotiating with the Independents.

And we are signatories on behalf of our parties, as per the Coalition to the response.

QUESTION: Does the Premier have a proposed model for how to reform the upper house?

KENNETT: No, that would be subject to the inquiry.

QUESTION: How would you perceive that you don’t have to live in the electorate to stand in the electorate? Somebody who lives in Kilmore could stand in the Western Province, someone who lives in Albert Park could stand for North Western [indistinct]

KENNETT: Yes, but I think that only proves up the real risks to rural representation. You could actually live in Surrey Hills and stand for the Victoria West.

QUESTION: Live in Mildura and stand for…

KENNETT: That’s right. But at the moment that isn’t what happens. What you’re actually finding is people who are committed to their electorates are living and working within their electorates.

What this does is that you could find, under the Labor Party proposal, not only is there a reduction in the numbers but you might find if you move to proportional representation you might get a One Nation person up.

But they’re not necessarily based in Mildura, Jeparit or anywhere else. They may be based in the city and have their office in the city — as has happened with most senators. If you have a look at most senators and where they work, it’s actually from the city areas of the state from which they’re represented.

So your point only proves up the real risk to rural representation.

I don’t know if anyone else wants to comment?

MARK BIRRELL: There’s just a point on it … for the ALP to make its system work, it has had to cut the rural area into two halves of the state, which include outer suburban parts of Melbourne. That is the only way that their system — which of course is designed to get an ALP win in the upper house — can actually work.

So the western suburbs of Melbourne would be in the so-called country seat of Western Victoria. And part of the eastern suburbs of Melbourne would be in the so-called country seat of Eastern Victoria. That’s the only way you can get 20 per cent of the population into country … into those country seats, given that 40 per cent of the population of Victoria does not live in the country.

So where would you service you eastern Victoria electorate from? Well, you wouldn’t be like Philip Davis and be in Sale. You’d, at very best, live in your electorate in Cranbourne. But more likely, if in the Labor Party, you’d have your office in West Melbourne and regard that as being a country seat.

It would be a blow to country Victoria to lose the country MPs which is part of the ALP plan. And the ALP does not want to alter its plan because then its true ambition would be exposed. And that is that they wouldn’t win control of the upper house permanently.

QUESTION: You’re happy with the current system, obviously.

BIRRELL: The current system can be reviewed. And that’s why we’re suggesting a Victorian Constitutional Commission to do it. But remember, we win in the upper house on a popular vote which is consistent, or which changes and then we lose seats. We’ve just lose the two Ballarat Province Seats because of a popular vote.

We didn’t control the upper house for part of the 1980s because of a popular vote. And our predecessor Coalition or Conservative Governments didn’t control the upper house because of popular vote. And we know that we can lose the upper house. That’s up to the electorate.

What we’re saying is we’re happy to see constitution change before this Constitution Commission. It will be eminent Victorians and I think it’s a highly desirable forum to have informed debate. And certainly we’d have more debate than we had during the state election campaign.

Everyone concedes it wasn’t a topic. But more significantly than that, even if it was a topic, no party gained a majority of seats to claim a mandate for major constitutional alterations.

QUESTION: Premier, from your remarks here about Henry Bolte, and your [indistinct] can we assume that you basically favour status quo or…

KENNETT: I think the current position has worked well because, as Mark indicates, it reflects a popular vote. I mean, we’ve just lost the two country seats in Ballarat to the Labor Party. If the Labor Party worked hard in rural Victoria they might win the two in Bendigo, they might win the two anywhere else. But they’ve got … they’ve just won one in Geelong. They’ve got to actually do the work.

So it’s not beyond them to actually win a popular vote. But having said that, we are very much in favour of it going to a commission. And I think … I mean, it’s probably a good time for it to be done. It’s been a long time since anyone has properly looked at it. But we don’t think it’s right, just because of the mix of the parliament right now.

And without there having been a public debate, the parliament should agree to it. There are some very major potential down sides for rural Victoria and that is the second biggest concern of the Independents. But we’re more than happy to have it looked and report back to the parliament in due course.

QUESTION: Mr Kennett, where’s the $65 million coming from for the New Horizons…

UNIDENTIFIED: It’s already committed [indistinct]

KENNETT: It’s already there in the budget.

UNIDENTIFIED: 99-2000 budget.

QUESTION: New money, or is this…

UNIDENTIFIED: This is forward, forward commitments. It’s over the next four years.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] to the charter, how much has been done because you believe in the policy merit of it, and how much has been done because the Independents want it?

KENNETT: Well … and I’ve been watching your articles as they’ve unfolded, day-upon-day and week-upon-week. But you’ve got to say that we are reflecting and responding to the charter because the charter exists.

The charters exists because the nature of politics in Victoria has changed. That we were not able to secure a mandate, nor was our major political opponents. If we were not prepared to be flexible and to adjust, based on some fairly clear criteria, I think you would be writing articles … not that ‘Kennett backflips’ as you seem to be getting great pleasure from, but that ‘Kennett is arrogant and not listening to the electorate’.

You can’t have your cake and eat it. Either you admit that … and recognise that there’s been a change through the popular vote, as we recognise it, and then you’ve got to work with it. Now, having said that, this is why this document — right up until last night — has taken us so much time.

We haven’t just tried to respond to the document, we’ve actually tried to identify areas where we can do better. And that’s particularly the case in FOI et cetera. So this is a very constructive contribution, we haven’t just acquiesced to all the demands.

This document, we hope, will form the basis of our relationship with the Independents for the next four years in government. It is not a document just to secure their support next Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It is the basis of a working arrangement with three Independents for good government for the next four years. And I think that’s what the people of Victoria want.

QUESTION: Can we just clarify that point. I didn’t quite it right [indistinct] … this document applies whether you go into opposition or in Government [indistinct]?

KENNETT: We have given an undertaking that on … sorry, let me start again. This document is our … the basis of an agreement between us and the Independents to form government.

QUESTION: If you don’t form government?

KENNETT: Well, we’ll wait an see what happens. We hope that we will. But we have said, and I have given this undertaking — particularly to Mr Savage — on a personal basis, that regardless of what happens we will honour the undertaking in here for the Auditor General. Right?

QUESTION: So you’ll block things that [indistinct]….

KENNETT: No, no, we are not blocking things, so don’t … please don’t put words in our mouth. What we are saying is that this a document that has to be agreed by both sides for the formation of government. If the Independents decide they do not want to sign this and work with us, then they are rejecting it.

In other words, this is our side of the package to form government — with one exception. I have ceded that we will honour the commitment in terms of the Auditor General. Now if the Independents say they are not prepared to accept the package, then we’ve got to accept that.

QUESTION: Does that mean you’re not committed to strengthening FOI laws in opposition, if such legislation goes through?

KENNETT: David, all I can say to you and I can’t keep … I mean, I can repeat it as many times as you like, this is our response … well. This is our response to their charter, right, it’s part of a package.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’re preparing for government we’re not preparing for opposition.

KENNETT: This is what we believe will be the basis for government and good government.

QUESTION: I’m asking the question because it’s a measure of your commitment to freedom of information. It’s all right if you get in, but if you don’t you’ll stop…

KENNETT: No, no. What we’re saying … and we don’t know … can I just make this point. We here have outlined our intent. If signed up we will move very quickly on all of these areas, as we’ve indicated. But we can’t say, if the Independents give government to Labor, the form of legislation that they are going to put forward.

If they are going to put forward legislation that meets our test and our criteria in the interests of Victoria, we will stand with it. But if in fact — and you have a look at the ALP’s detail, it’s very very sparse.

What they’ve fundamentally done is say, ‘Look, we accept all of this. We’re with you all the way. So be it.’

UNIDENTIFIED: Whatever you want.

KENNETT: We haven’t said that. We’ve said there are ways we can improve it, there are things we have concerns with. So until we see the legislation…

QUESTION: So you don’t genuinely believe in the policies which [indistinct], you only believe in it — with the exception of the Auditor-General — if you’ve got the three votes…

KENNETT: No, Brendan, no, that is not so. We genuinely believe…

QUESTION: [Indistinct]

QUESTION: Does that mean you’re not committed to strengthening FOI laws in opposition, if such legislation goes through?

KENNETT: David, all I can say to you and I can’t keep … I mean, I can repeat it as many times as you like, this is our response … well. This is our response to their charter, right, it’s part of a package.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’re preparing for government we’re not preparing for opposition.

KENNETT: This is what we believe will be the basis for government and good government.

QUESTION: I’m asking the question because it’s a measure of your commitment to freedom of information. It’s all right if you get in, but if you don’t you’ll stop…

KENNETT: No, no. What we’re saying … and we don’t know … can I just make this point. We here have outlined our intent. If signed up we will move very quickly on all of these areas, as we’ve indicated. But we can’t say, if the Independents give government to Labor, the form of legislation that they are going to put forward.

If they are going to put forward legislation that meets our test and our criteria in the interests of Victoria, we will stand with it. But if in fact — and you have a look at the ALP’s detail, it’s very sparse.

What they’ve fundamentally done is say, ‘Look, we accept all of this. We’re with you all the way. So be it.’

UNIDENTIFIED: Whatever you want.

KENNETT: We haven’t said that. We’ve said there are ways we can improve it, there are things we have concerns with. So until we see the legislation…

QUESTION: So you don’t genuinely believe in the policies which [indistinct], you only believe in it — with the exception of the Auditor General — if you’ve got the three votes…

KENNETT: No, Brendan, no, that is not so. We genuinely believe…

QUESTION: [Indistinct]

KENNETT: Pardon?

QUESTION: You won’t fully support it in opposition [indistinct]

KENNETT: No, sorry. I mean…

UNIDENTIFIED: We aren’t planning for opposition.

KENNETT: …we are planning for government. And we very much believe in what we are putting forward and we’re prepared to activate it and move very quickly on it. But we can’t anticipate if the Independents give government to Labor, the form of legislation that the Labor Party is going to put up. Right.

So we stand by this, in government, this is part of the package.

QUESTION: Would you still think a judicial inquiry is a waste of time?

KENNETT: No, look, we’re happy for it to be done — because we don’t think it’s going to find out anything more or different from what’s already been found. And even when it has it’s going to have to be referred back, whatever it finds … I think to the police is the process, and then to the DPP, who have already independently looked at it.

Now unless they can get new information, as a result of their powers to subpoena people and documents, they’re not likely to find any more. But the Independents, particularly one of them, feel very strongly about it. And we’re not standing in the way of it.

QUESTION: That sounds like you’re saying it’s probably a waste of money [indistinct]

KENNETT: Well, again, this is part of — and you keep, everyone keeps referring to — openness in government. We’re happy to be part of that process. But when you make these demands you’ve also got to understand, particularly as we’ve had a police inquiry and the DPP, right, that they may not find anything else. So it could be a bit of a fishing expedition.

QUESTION: [Indistinct]

KENNETT: Pardon?

QUESTION: Why couldn’t you argue the toss with the [indistinct]?

KENNETT: Well, we have discussed it with the Independents, in our discussions. But they still want this to go ahead. And they, in one sense, in this area, have got to be convinced that we are prepared to move towards a more open form of government.

We are prepared to do it. We’ve pointed out to them the potential downside, that we might have spent $7, $10 million and in fact got nowhere. But if that’s what they want, if that’s the price you’ve got to pay to prove up the concept of open government, we’re happy to be part of it.

QUESTION: [Indistinct]

KENNETT: Pardon?

QUESTION: Have you pledge any extra funds to country Victoria?

KENNETT: Well, I’ll let Pat answer that in terms of the general thrust.

PAT McNAMARA: We’ve obviously made a big commitment in a range of areas over the last seven years. But this program will continue that program and probably accelerate it — particularly in terms of investment, infrastructure and the water area.

We’ve addressed another area that needs work in upgrading country powerlines and a range of other government services. And they’re detailed in the documents. And I think it reinforces the commitment we’ve had for the last seven years.

We’ve had … I think we’ve had some very good discussions with the Independents. And I think a lot of the issues that they’ve raised are views that we held … we hold very strongly, ourselves.

QUESTION: Is this a recognition that you have been too secretive as a government?

McNAMARA: No, I don’t think it is at all. I think this document, as I said, responds to a political situation that we, obviously, have to address. We still believe very strongly that we can provide the beset form of government for Victoria, as a whole. And we’re dealing with the political status quo that is in place at the moment, and dealing with it responsibly.

As the Premier said, we haven’t gone into this half baked, we haven’t gone in and said, ‘Well, look, yes whatever you want you can have.’ We’ve gone through in a very detailed process. Explained what we’ve actually been doing in government, which I think has been an interesting process for the Independents as well.

But also explain our targets and ambitions in a range of areas and I think it’s been a very fruitful process.

KENNETT: Can I just add to that, I think … you’ve heard me say before — and I’m more convinced of it than ever before — that everything happens for a reason and everything turns out for the best in the end. And I say that in this case, because if you just have a look at what the debate in the last three or four weeks, over water … the issue that Craig Ingram has raised.

Pat and the government, over the last few years, have put into place tradeable water rights which has given security to all of our irrigators in a way that the people of New South Wales would bend over backwards to have.

We’re now getting the growth in horticultural industry, stone fruit, et cetera, that are happening on our side of the border, not the other side. We’ve put about $450 million into upgrading water quality in rural Victoria and that is probably a third of the total amount of money spent that’s been spent by water authorities, et cetera.

But, on top of that, we’ve also — as you might remember — done the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline with the Federal Government, which is taking a lot of the old irrigation channels and piping it. It’s cost 40 million bucks, federal and state.

What water … I mean, they fight wars over water in other parts of the world. Water is going to be a big issue for Australia in the 21st century and we are a long way down the track to fixing it. What actually is happening now is this concentration by Craig Ingram on the Snowy.

It is focussing everyone’s attention on the way in which we’re going to operate over the next decade. And if in fact we have the capacity to expand the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline concept to other irrigation parts of Victoria, as we would like to do and now our attention has been drawn to it even more forcefully, then there is a wonderful outcome that’s coming out of all of this for our ability to provide water for irrigators to produce crops that we can export, et cetera and employ.

So it’s why … and the intensity of the focus of the discussion would not have been there without the election, without the result. And the good thing about what Craig is trying to achieve is going to be more likely achieved because it’s forcing everyone to think about some of these other elements.

Now it’s forcing us, because we can react. New South Wales still has some very real difficulties in terms of being able to come to the party. But from our point of view, I think you’re going to see some wonderful benefit out of this.

QUESTION: Premier, given that the ALP campaigned on many of these issues during the election and you didn’t — I mean, in fact, a lot of your policies were the reverse of these — why shouldn’t people see this as just some desperate bid for power?

KENNETT: Well, I mean, I know you can put … you can use any words you like to describe it. But if, on the other hand, we didn’t react … if we said, ‘No, we’re standing exactly where we were before the election,’ I think — with due respect — you would be saying the government’s learnt nothing.

Elections are about measuring public opinion. Trying to find a direction for government. And the bottom line is we have won more seats than our political opponents, and that will be the case after Frankston East regardless of the result, and we’ve won a larger percentage share of the vote.

So even with the policies that they’ve put forward, it’s not as though they have won majority control. It’s not as though they’ve won the most seats. It’s not as though they’ve won the largest percentage share of the vote.

You might conversely say because we weren’t talking about constitutional reform, the largest percentage of the public said they don’t want constitutional reform, because the largest percentage voted for the Coalition.

So we are taking on board the electorates assessment and we’re adjusting. Now you might say that’s … whatever you described it as, a grab for power or whatever. Of course we would like to continue in government. We have invested a huge amount of energy and resources into rebuilding this state.

To say otherwise would be absolutely dishonest. This has been our life. We have entered into partnerships with the community and the state is in a substantially stronger position than where it was in ’92. And we’re terribly proud of the way in which Victoria is positioning itself for the 21st century.

So, yes, we want to stay in government. But not any price, which is why we have argued that the constitutional issues should go to a commission; and because we also think it is right that rural Victoria get direct representation. It shouldn’t be lessened.

The one clear message that came out of the election was that country Victoria want more recognition. They want more of the cake, more of the expenditure. But what they want is more recognition — real and perceived.

What the Labor Party is arguing is that there will be less recognition and that there will be less representation. Their front bench has two people from rural provincial Victoria. Ours has eight. I was going to say seven, but eight.

So again, our line-up gives rural Victoria much better representation. But Labor’s plan for changing the upper house would actually reduce it. So, again, we’re trying to listen. We are listening, based on where that change came.

Now if, at the end of the day, that commission advocates change and comes back to the parliament and the parliament might go to the people on a referendum with options — one to five, to ten, I don’t know, it might only go with one option — if you were having a look at what the Independents have put up in their charter, which is similar terms for the upper house to the lower house, I’ve got to say to you there’d be a lot of people who say, ‘Why have an upper house?’

Queensland doesn’t have an upper house, as you know. But if you’re going to have a second house that is based on the same term as the first, the other house, why would you have it? And I think there is a great deal of protection for the public by having two houses that are elected to different terms.

It’s worked very well in this country, over many years. No-one’s suggesting we get rid of the Senate. No-one’s suggesting that the Senate term for Senators should be the same as House Representative candidates. And this is where, I’ve go to say, the Independents have been equally constructive in saying that this is not a take or leave all document. That is a document for negotiation.

And I think you will find that when they look at the ramifications of what they asked for initially, it doesn’t meet their second fundamental tenet of making sure that rural Victoria has … so this is our response.

To continue to provide good government with a more experienced team into the 21st century. But it reflects the election result and it is something that we are committing ourselves to as part of the package and the partnership with the Independents.

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