SUBJECTS: Decentralisation; Regional Australia; Scott Morrison dividing Australia; Matt Canavan speech; Climate change; Government failure on energy policy; Timber industry; Coal industry; High Court Banerji ruling on free speech;
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Joining us from the salubrious surrounds of the ABCs Sale studios is Darren Chester. He is the Minister for Veterans Affairs and his day job is MP for the seat of Gippsland. How are you going Darren?
DARREN CHESTER: I’m well thank you. It’s a fantastic studio in Sale too.
EPSTEIN: Pretty plush. Mark Dreyfus joining us in the luxurious surrounds of the Melbourne studio. He’s the Shadow Attorney-General also, so he’s part of Anthony Albanese’s team. He is also the Labor Member for the seat of Isaacs here in Melbourne. Mark welcome.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good to be with you Raff. Hello Darren.
EPSTEIN: Darren, I know you are keen - there is a Government plan to move a small number of public servants away from Canberra. I just wonder if you think that is significant and is your Cabinet colleague right that there is a din of loud Australians – Matt Canavan was talking about people including those amongst the Stop Adani convoy - is there a din of loud Australians that means regional voices fail to be heard?
CHESTER: There’s a bit in that question to start with. The bottom line is I believe decentralisation is something that is good for our nation. Certainly, I think our cities have grown to the point where congestion is getting to the stage where the quality of life for residents is being diminished. Productivity for them in terms of going about their daily life and work and whatever it might be is also being diminished. So, growing some of our regional centres, and not just Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, but in the La Trobe Valley, Sale where I am today, there is a lot of latent infrastructure in those towns.
EPSTEIN: Harder in Shepparton isn’t it?
CHESTER: Yes, but there’s a lot of latent infrastructure in those towns that are only a couple of hours drive from Melbourne where, for a want of a bit more investment whether it’s through state or Federal Government investing in infrastructure, transport or connectivity through telecommunications, those areas could grow significantly make an even greater contribution than they already do.
Obviously we offer a great lifestyle, but we do offer more affordable housing. And one thing I think is missed by young people when they think about regional Australia and regional Victoria in particular, is it can be quite the career fast track. If you’re involved in policing or teaching or the health sector, you get a lot of experience in a short amount of time in a regional setting which you perhaps don’t get in a metropolitan area.
EPSTEIN: I’ll get Mark Dreyfus’ response. I do want to play a bit of what Matt Canavan had to say. He was talking at the Sydney Institute last night saying that regional voices are not getting heard in public debate and in government decision-making.
MATT CANAVAN: Our constitution already enshrines a kind of implicit voice for the region through the equal representation provided to regional states through the Senate. However that regional voice is failing to be heard over the din of loud Australians.
EPSTEIN: Mark Dreyfus is he right?
DREYFUS: I don’t think he’s right. This is yet another attempt by the third term Liberal Government to divide Australians. We’re seeing it from Scott Morrison. It’s sad. His stuff about whose side are you on.
EPSTEIN: Isn’t he just speaking up for Rocky and regional areas?
DREYFUS: No he’s trying to create division between city and country. I know Darren will deplore that. I certainly deplore it. I want the Government to talk about unifying Australia. I want governments to talk about what brings us together not this setting up of division after division after division.
Presumably Matt Canavan thinks he gets some sort of partisan political advantage out of it but it’s basically nonsense. He needs to be talking about the things that matter to us as a country and we need to talk as a country about how to get these things right.
To go back to the first part of your question to Darren, we had recommendations from Regional Australia today which are a wake-up call. They touch on things that Darren himself was talking about in the last term of Parliament, about connectivity. I noticed Darren - maybe not everybody did when you were on the back bench - but I heard what you had to say. It’s a bit of a wake-up call to the Morrison Government to pay attention to investment in infrastructure in the regions, to develop regional strategies and to stimulate decentralisation. There are things that can be done but using the kind of language that Matt Canavan wants to use, that won’t get us anywhere.
EPSTEIN: Matt Canavan’s language first. Darren Chester - Mark Dreyfus thinks you would probably deplore it. Do you?
CHESTER: (Laughter) Nice try Mark I didn’t hear the full context of Matt’s speech but the basic principle that I think Matt was expressing is one that the people in my electorate are expressing to me every day and that is they really are sick and tired of being told by people who live in the cities what jobs they can and can’t have in regional areas.
EPSTEIN: Can I stop you there Darren? Who’s who says that?
CHESTER: I’ll keep going and I’ll explain it fully for you. So in my electorate we were are heavily dependent on, say, the timber industry, coal in Latrobe Valley, intensive agricultural pursuits in the irrigation sector or even puppy farming in my electorate has been quite a significant employer.
We are subject to constant barrages from metropolitan Melbourne, city-based members of parliament, saying what we can and can’t do in these communities in terms of what jobs. So the timber industry in Gippsland has been decimated by policies coming out of Melbourne.
EPSTEIN: Maybe it’s not just economic on its own?
CHESTER: Well I invite you to come to Gippsland Raff and look around at how many trees we have got. We have a world class timber mill in Heyfield which is now importing timber from the United States, adding value to it and selling it to the market here in Australia. We have a deficit in wood and paper products coming into Australia, a trade deficit in this country with its rich timber resource.
EPSTEIN: Can I just clarify Darren Chester, do we get a right to say what happens to our environment if we don’t live in that part of the world?
CHESTER: Oh absolutely, absolutely.
EPSTEIN: Can you just tell us how you would like us to have that conversation?
CHESTER: My point being is your inner-city sensibilities shouldn’t ride roughshod over the rights of people to live and work in the community and to make a contribution.
EPSTEIN: That’s a sentiment. How do you have a conversation about environment, what we log, whether or not it’s native forest or plantation? How do we have a conversation like that with you saying we’re riding roughshod over the area where you live?
CHESTER: Raff I can point to the scoreboard and point to all the towns that have been affected by being shut down because people who don’t live in those communities have demanded they be shut down. So when you say I’m suggesting that you don’t have a say, well, you’re having a say because you’re shutting down the timber industry in Victoria right now. What I’m saying is that industry is far more sustainable than people appreciate if they actually took the time to get out and understand the value-adding that is going on and the way we are working to try to sustain the environment we live in.
I mean the people who live in these communities, in regional areas, are some of the most practical environmentalists in the nation. They understand the need to look after the resource or the kids won’t have a job. What they don’t like is being banned from doing different jobs in those communities.
EPSTEIN: Have you got a response to that Mark?
DREYFUS: I agree with Darren, it’s just as many people in rural Australia and regional Australia who care deeply about the environment, who are terribly worried about climate change, who are bereft about species loss, just as many people in rural Australia care about as anyone in the cities. What we’ve got to do is find, probably, some different way of having the conversation that has to be had about how we approach climate change, how we approach species loss and most particularly how we ensure the economic futures of the regions.
So it’s only about how to have the conversation, but this setting up of a division, this rejection of a voice just because it’s a city member of Parliament or just because it’s some environmental interest group most of whose members live in Brunswick, that’s not a good way to approach these topics.
EPSTEIN: Darren Chester I’ll come back to you, the Veterans Affairs Minister, but who is of course significantly interested in regional Victoria especially because he is in Gippsland. Mark Dreyfus is the person you just heard from, city slicker MP for the seat of Isaacs. Joe I classify as a city slicker as well calling from Altona North. Joe, what did you want to say?
JOE: How are you going Raff? I’m so glad you tried to get out of Darren Chester how can we have this conversation without him telling city slickers ‘oh you guys haven’t got a voice in what we do in Gippsland because you don’t live there’. Give me a break Darren. At the end of the day your Government doesn’t have an energy policy, it doesn’t have any type of incentive for people to develop any other type of energy alternatives so of course we are going to keep mining coal and we’re going to keep cutting down forests. Give us some options. Give us an energy policy that everyone can aim towards, everyone to work towards and you won’t have people interfering in the daily pursuits of the people in Gippsland and other regional centres. Everybody would be working toward the same objective.
EPSTEIN: Okay that’s Joe in Altona North. Darren Chester?
CHESTER: Good for you Joe, great to hear from you. Lovely to hear your voice. What I would say in relation to the timber industry Joe is come out to Gippsland and get an appreciation of how the industry works in our region in terms of the way trees are selectively harvested, added value to in terms of turning them into staircases and the window framing, everything that people in Melbourne like to have in their houses. Go down to the Margaret Court Arena and look at the façade of that - Gippsland timber has been put there. Keep stopping these people from harvesting timber in a sustainable way and we won’t have these features in Melbourne. And in terms of the energy sector all I’d ask is that people show respect to the people in Latrobe Valley who have actually powered this state for decades. Show some respect to the brown coal power station workers rather than vilify them.
Now there is a resource in Latrobe Valley which will be used into the future, whether it is creating energy or fertiliser or for coal to hydrogen, it will be used because it is a great natural resource which is going to underpin further economic growth in Victoria just as it has for several decades. I just encourage people to show some respect to workers in Latrobe Valley.
EPSTEIN: Darren you’ve got people talking so I’ll throw Michael in Yarraville at you as well.
MICHAEL: Darren, you misread me completely my friend. It’s not armchair conjecture sitting in Camberwell or Yarraville saying don’t log the forests of Gippsland unsustainably, it comes from independent analysis my friend. This is why they have closed the mills down. It’s not a case of ‘oh, we don’t like logging so let’s stop’. Mate you’re in industry that is quite simply not sustainable.
EPSTEIN: Michael I’ll leave it there because I want to get a quick response from both of our political guests. Darren?
CHESTER: My point on the timber industry has been well and truly made. I encourage people to come down to get appreciation of just how many trees there are in Victoria and in Gippsland, how much of it is kept in reserves right now to never be logged - which is important and it is critical that we sustain those conservation areas - but then also get an appreciation of how hard-working people in my community are creating products which are of enormous value, which people in Melbourne want. They just don’t want to know that somebody cut down a tree to make it happen.
EPSTEIN: I will point out a lot of this is state government policy, especially when it comes to the forests in Gippsland.
CHESTER: There’s also the Regional Forest Agreements which the Federal Government negotiates. Also the EPBC where some of our green activists hide behind some claims regarding the native species in these areas.
EPSTEIN: I just want to give Mark Dreyfus a go because you had a couple of those callers having a go at you.
DREYFUS: Just very quickly on the Latrobe Valley I think the Andrews Labor Government cares absolutely deeply about the workers in the Latrobe Valley, about the communities in the Latrobe Valley. If we’re going to point fingers let’s remember it was the Kennett Liberal Government that privatised the SEC, caused the loss of about a third of the workforce and economic depression in the valley for about a decade. The Federal Labor Government that I was part of cared deeply about the workers in the Latrobe Valley.
We’ve got to find ways in which high skilled, high paid jobs continue to be available for people in the regions, people in rural areas. Darren shares that objective. Let’s work on ways to find those high skilled, high paid jobs and not try to claim that one party or another speaks for any part of Australia.
I’ve been trying to say this in the parliament over the last three weeks - it’s not about which side are you on. All parliamentarians are on the side of Australians. All our parliamentarians want the best for the Australia that we represent in the national parliament or state parliamentarians represent in the state parliament and I want to end this attempt to create division between parts of our community. Darren doesn’t do it. Matt Canavan should stop doing it.
EPSTEIN: Darren, we had a chat about this family in your part of the world in Warrnambool? Sorry, not you part of the world. Jennifer is calling. Jennifer what did you want to ask?
JENNIFER: Hi Raff. Yesterday when you interviewed Rajasegaran Manikam ...
EPSTEIN: Yes well done.
JENNIFER: I wondered how we could possibly be in this position because I texted you a bit later. I had a previous Brauer school captain and dux working for me and I said to you if this young lady’s anything like the family structure of the law graduate that I have working with me we would be utterly crazy to let her go.
EPSTEIN: Look Darren Chester I’m not sure if you heard about a family from Singapore, Vanisre Manikan, Year 12 captain of Brauer College, she might be kicked out of the country before her VCE exams. She has asked David Coleman, the Iimmigration Minister to step in. Do you know about this one Darren Chester? Have you been active on this one?
CHESTER: Look I’m sorry, no. As you know Warrnambool is the seat of Wannon, Dan Tehan. I’m certainly happy to raise it with Dan. I’m not aware of that one at all sorry.
EPSTEIN: Sorry I just thought I’d raise it because we had a chat about it yesterday.
(BREAK FOR TRAFFIC)
EPSTEIN: Let’s move on from the timber industry. Mark Dreyfus is a QC, a barrister. There was a High Court decision today Mark. This goes back six years. Someone worked in the Immigration Department. They did Tweet thousands of times about asylum seeker policy. She was sacked. They found out it was her Twitter account. She went all the way to the High Court and the High Court has basically said - it goes back more than 100 years - public servants need to do all they can to be impartial. That’s 15% of the workforce who aren’t even going to be able to comment anonymously on government policy on social media. Are you happy with that?
DREYFUS: Let’s see if that that’s exactly what the High Court had to say. This is clearly a judgement, or four separate judgements in the High Court - I’ve only skimmed at them I can’t say I’ve read them in detail - four separate judgements which talk about the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct and whether that code infringed the implied freedom of political discussion which is in our Constitution.
EPSTEIN: Which is pretty weak. That we don’t really have a protection of free speech.
DREYFUS: Well they have said in terms, it’s in these judgements, that there is no right to free speech in Australia, drawing attention to the fact we don’t have a Bill of Rights, we don’t have a Charter of Rights in this country.
But I want to wait and see how this in fact that plays out. Obviously it raises a huge and important question for the 2 million or so Australians who work for federal, state and local governments, which is, do they have the full right to participate in all aspects of our democracy? Can they join political parties? The answer has got to be yes to that. Should they be able to attend demonstrations? Again, yes has got to be the answer.
There’s always been some limitation on the amount to which public servants can comment publicly on their own jobs, on what they do. So, someone working in Immigration has obviously got to be on a bit of dangerous ground if she is publicly commenting on immigration policy. But surely, public servants, to my mind –this is where I’d like to draw the line – have got to be free to comment publicly, to participate in our democracy. So the High Court for the moment has said the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct doesn’t infringe the implied freedom, so it can work against the interests of this public servant. She was sacked and the High Court has not said anything more than the Code of Conduct doesn’t infringe the implied freedom. That’s it.
You are going to hear a lot more said, some of which, I think, is going to be said by people who haven’t read the judgement.
EPSTEIN: The High Court didn’t explicitly say no public servant can ever go on Twitter and say anything?
DREYFUS: They certainly did not say that and nor were they asked to answer that question. When you are getting people on in the next few days who want to talk about this judgment, ask them if they read the judgements.
EPSTEIN: Darren Chester what do you make of this? How do we balance this? Someone like me, there’s lots of limits on what I can say, even on my private social media. Do you think it’s too much of a limit on public servants?
CHESTER: Look I think Mark covered it. Naturally I haven’t read the judgement myself at this point. But Raff, I just make a broader comment about the public service itself. When I, as a minister - and I have had that good fortune now for a couple of years to be back in the portfolio - I expect from my public servants professionalism, intellectual rigour, no commentary of a partisan nature. In return I would reciprocate by respecting them and not putting any pressure on them whatsoever and working together to deliver the Government’s policy agenda. And I found in my time as a minister that has worked enormously in my favour in terms of getting great outcomes from the public servants I work with and their professionalism is first class.
EPSTEIN: Can I ask you this Darren? When you’re receiving advice from someone - I am asking you to delve a bit beyond your political views to your personal view -would it matter to you, would it go through your mind ‘I’m not sure what this public servant is saying anonymously on social media?’ I’m asking if that might concern you that they may be criticising the policy that they were talking to you about in private? Would that ever be a concern of yours?
CHESTER: I think – Mark touched on it – it would be very treacherous ground, I guess, for public servant to be commenting on what they do at work in a more social media type environment. I think that’s where it becomes difficult.
In my previous portfolio of Infrastructure and Transport I wouldn’t want to go home and look on Facebook and Twitter and see a public servant I’ve been working with that day questioning the priorities we’d agreed on only a couple of hours earlier, suggesting we should have funded something else. Now, that to me would be difficult ground for a public servant to continue in their role if they were actively working against a policy decision that has already been made.
Now I think Mark’s right in terms of there’s a bit to unfold here and I look forward to getting a betting understanding of exactly what’s been put forward here by the High Court. But the principle here is the public service need to uphold the values, political and impartial and by and large I have found from my experience at the federal level –I haven’t done much at the state level - I receive enormous support from my public servants if I treat them with the respect they deserve.
EPSTEIN: I shall leave as rhetorical questions whether those who stuck up for Israel Folau will stick up for the Australian Public Service but I guess we can just read The Australian newspaper to find out the result of that. Raj wants to have his say in Sunshine.
RAJ: If the High Court says the design of our democracy requires an apolitical public service and therefore they can be required to be apolitical even outside of the times when they’re at work, well I think voting is an inherently political act and if I were to discover, for example, that you voted for somebody Raff, then I would hold reservations about your ability to impartially moderate a debate like this one and so should we continue to allow public servants to vote?
EPSTEIN: (Laughter) I’ going to leave this as rhetorical question and I can also tell you as best as I know – because I looked up some old stories - the Public Service guidelines do say that public servants are allowed to join political parties and they’re allowed to hand out materials at booths. But the High Court has also said if the Public Service tells you to be careful about what you Tweet that doesn’t step over the line. So I’ll leave that as a comment if I can Raj because I don’t think either of our politicians wants to stop public servants from voting.
And David in Blackburn wants to take it back to the environment. What did you want to raise David?
DAVID: I just wanted to ask Darren a question. Have you read The IPCC report?
CHESTER: In terms of the climate change report are you saying?
DAVID: The Intergovernmental report on Climate Change, the report that was released by the UN. Have you read it?
CHESTER: I haven’t read the entire report.
EPSTEIN: There’s many of them too David.
DAVID: Are you aware of the fact that the report gave us 12 years to completely transition away from anything that’s not renewable energy or else we will be facing up to 3.5 degrees of climate change which could literally kill millions of people.
CHESTER: And are you aware that the only reason the lights are on in Melbourne today is because brown coal fired power stations have been powering this state for the last 50 years?
DAVID: And you understand we can’t continue doing that?
CHESTER: You are aware lights are on in Melbourne because of that and that’s why I’m suggesting we shouldn’t vilify the people who work in those power stations. Unfortunately a lot of the commentary over the last few years has vilified people in my community to the extent that they feel quite battered by that.
DAVID: Darren, you can be a moral person in an immoral system.
CHESTER: I think we will leave that one as a comment Raff.
EPSTEIN: You’re entitled to do that. A fair bit of back-and-forth there. Mark?
DREYFUS: I think Darren and David are talking past each other there. I think there’s a climate emergency. I’m going to argue that every day in the Federal Parliament and in every opportunity that is presented to me. But I accept that even though that is my position, and the position shared by many Australians there’s an argument to be had about what we should do.
Of course Darren is right to say that we are continuing to use brown coal as part of the Eastern Seaboard Grid - it’s not confined to Victoria – that contributes power. So too does some renewable energy, solar and wind. So to does some hydro including hydro from Tasmania. Our energy mix is going to change. Everybody, I think accepts that by 2050 - that’s a long time away, 31 years away – coal will not be playing a part any more in that energy mix. How we get to that end in 2050 of no longer using coal to generate our electricity is the subject of proper political discussion and that’s why our very first caller today, Joe, said the Government doesn’t have an energy policy. Regrettably he’s right.
EPSTEIN: Darren Chester, anything to add?
CHESTER: I think I’ve had plenty to say about the people in my community Raff. The point I’m making and I’ve made it many times is that we shouldn’t be vilifying the people who are working in the industry which has powered this state, and unfortunately the debate many times in the last years ten years I’ve been in parliament has actually created a great deal of angst in my community the Latrobe Valley to the point where I don’t think the broader population actually understand the damage they been doing to the morale, to the nature of this great region. I think it is something that we need to think about before we engage in this debate much further.
EPSTEIN: Thanks so much for taking the time Darren Chester.
CHESTER: All the best, have a great day. Thanks Mark
EPSTEIN: And thanks to Mark Dreyfus as well