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Source: Australian Minister for Housing and Assistant Treasurer

Patricia Karvelas:

I spoke to the Assistant Treasurer, Michael Sukkar, a little earlier. 

Minister, welcome. 

Minister Sukkar:

Hi Patricia.  Good to be with you. 

Patricia Karvelas:

How concerned are you that senior government officials involved in the Leppington Triangle land sale might have broken the law?

Minister Sukkar:

Well Patricia, all of these matters are subject to independent inquiries.  I think that we, as any Minister or member of the Government or indeed any Australian, I think we are well served to allow those processes to go their natural course and then we draw conclusions at the end.  So no doubt there’s a lot of media interests about matters like this but as a general rule, I think that we’re all better served to let the outcome of these processes get to the end and then we go from there.

Patricia Karvelas:

Do you think though paying $30 million for land that’s worth $3 million really represents a bargain for taxpayers?

Minister Sukkar:

Patricia, look, at the end of the day, we want to get the best deal for taxpayers in every possible way.  I know that the department in question has undertaken to implement all of the recommendations of the ANAO report.  There was no Ministerial sign-off of this, this all happened at a departmental level.  I also know that there’s been matters referred to the AFP.  As to your general point and general question, I can tell you that myself and my colleagues strive every single day where any of these matters are undertaken, to get the best possible deal for taxpayers…

Patricia Karvelas:

Absolutely.

Minister Sukkar:

But let’s again allow this process to be undertaken and we’ll be better informed at the end. 

Patricia Karvelas:

But just call a spade a spade.  If it’s worth $3 million but taxpayers have paid $30 million, that’s clearly not good value for money?

Minister Sukkar:

Patricia, again…interrupted

Patricia Karvelas:

But it’s clearly not.  Where’s the debate?

Minister Sukkar:

But, Patricia, you’re putting a statement to me in the form of a question, which I’ve answered.  We want to get the best possible deal for taxpayers in every single way…interrupted. 

Patricia Karvelas:

And that isn’t the best possible deal, is it?

Minister Sukkar:

Sure but Patricia that’s precisely why I then referred to the fact that there’s been recommendations made by the ANAO.  I’m advised that they’ve been accepted by the department.  There are further investigations being undertaken and importantly, in this case, there was no Ministerial sign-off of this decision, it was a decision taken at a departmental level.  So we’re getting to the bottom of all of that, that’s what the inquiry will do, that’s what the referral to the AFP will do.  Then I think, Patricia, we’ll be in a much better position for you and I to be able to just dissect the ins and outs of it once all of those processes have concluded. 

Patricia Karvelas:

You’re right I’ll be doing a lot of dissecting but I suppose when viewers, listeners, taxpayers, look at these facts, they think ‘wow, how could this possibly happen under this governments watch, right?’  I mean that’s a reasonable conclusion for people to come to.  That is an incredible mistake to make, whether it’s deliberate or not, we’re trying to find out of all those things.  $30 million when it’s worth $3 million.

Minister Sukkar:

Well Patricia, it sounds like we’re in furious agreement here.  We need to be doing everything we can to get the best possible deal for taxpayers.  That’s what we strive to do and where it doesn’t occur or where it appears not to have occurred, that’s when further investigations are undertaken to make sure that those issues are rectified.  Again, I think that once we get to the end of it, Patricia – and I know that you will chase it up – we’ll be in a much better position to be able to judge it based on the full facts. 

Patricia Karvelas:

What do you make of the fact that the AFP is investigating whether disgraced Liberal MP Daryl Maguire was also involved?

Minister Sukkar:

Patricia, honestly, again…interrupted

Patricia Karvelas:

It must concern you and disturb you?

Minister Sukkar:

No I think with questions like this, the AFP investigating gives me some level of comfort that everything is being looked at.  We have confidence in the AFP and the way that they operate so as far as law enforcement agencies looking into these matters, I think that if they think that it’s a problem, we’ll find out about it and then we’ll be all be better informed at the end.

Patricia Karvelas:

Does the referral of the Leppington land sale to the AFP highlight the need for a federal anti-corruption body?

Minister Sukkar:

Look again, Patricia, I think these things are always better judged at their conclusion when we’ve got all the facts.

Patricia Karvelas:

No, no, no, this is a question about a federal ICAC, a federal integrity body.  I’m not asking you for the details of this one case which we’re discussing.  It shows, doesn’t it, that we need to have – and there’s a sense of urgency around having – a body that looks at integrity issues?

Minister Sukkar:

Well again you’re drawing at that as an example.  I think that the basic point is that we’ve got or the Government has clearly got plans in place – as we have spoken about for some time – to ensure that we have integrity at the heart of everything that the Federal Government does.  We’ve obviously got a range of agencies that already do that.  We’re matters emanate from state jurisdictions, again, if we’re trying to or if you’re seeking to draw conclusions from them, again, I just think that we’re better served waiting to see what’s actually happened and then drawing any conclusions from them.  I know that lots of people advocate for a federal integrity commission.  Indeed there is bipartisanship for it to a degree and we’re progressing those matters.  But there are a range of bodies and other ways in which we ensure that every body complies with the law and that’s why, to go back to our earlier discussion, I just think it should be a source of comfort for some people that the AFP are looking into all of the matters because we know that they’ll get to the bottom of it. 

Patricia Karvelas:

Let’s talk about unemployment because I think that’s something people would be very interested in particularly the people who have experienced it because of this pandemic.  Why has unemployment risen in every state not just Victoria?  Are you worried about that?

Minister Sukkar:

Well, Patricia, as you saw when we outlined the Budget, our expectations are that unemployment will peak in the December quarter of this year so it’s wholly, I think, expected by the market that that would be the case.  We’re acutely aware that we’re in the middle of or, in some states and hopefully more broadly, we’re coming towards the tail end of what has been a devastating pandemic.  That’s why everything that we did in the Budget was focussed on encouraging the creation of jobs.  It was a jobs Budget so the very fact that all of the marquee measures in the Budget were focussed on particularly giving the private sector what they need to take a punt and employ their fellow Australians, was recognition of the fact that that’s what the economy needs right now.  We’ve provided unprecedented fiscal support throughout this year so we’re absolutely aware as to what’s happening in the economy, that’s what’s informed the Budget, that’s what’s informed the job creation measures in the Budget – whether it’s 11 million Australians receiving a tax cut, whether it’s instant expensing of assets for 99 per cent of Australian businesses, encouraging them to invest in their own business to grow, to employ fellow Australians, loss carry-back – I mean everything that we’ve done has been focussing on helping Australian businesses take that decision to employ a fellow Australian and we’ve seen, to date, more than 60 per cent of those jobs that were lost as a result of the pandemic coming back but there’s a lot of work to be done in order for us to get back to where we were in February before the pandemic hit. 

Patricia Karvelas:

Let’s talk about the Victorian situation.  Is it useful to have the Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the Premier of Victoria, openly attacking each other at a time when so many Victorians are worried about their future?

Minister Sukkar:

Our job is to always fight for the best interests of our constituents and in this case, we’re talking about Victorians.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorians who have lost their jobs, had their businesses devastated, not to mention the devastating social impacts that have resulted from the hotel quarantine disaster which has led to this second wave, when every other state and territory in the country has been able to manage it.  So questioning, quite frankly, the worst performing government in their handling of this pandemic, I don’t think is picking a fight.  It’s fighting for the interests of Victorians.  You and I both know in fact all of your viewers know the catastrophic social and mental health consequences, quite aside from the economic consequences.  This idea that that anybody that questions the Premier, again anyone the questions the worst performing state government in handling this response, to suggest that they are not for Victorians, is outrageous and indeed that would many, many millions of Victorians – by that definition – are not for Victoria because I can assure you that there are many questioning not just the hotel quarantine disaster, not just contact tracing, but the ongoing decisions, Patricia. 

Patricia Karvelas:

So now it’s about when to open up, right? It’s about a week away and the Premier has said today, pretty much that we’re going to see a further re-opening from a Sunday announcement.  Given Victorians have done the hard work, I’m putting my hand up and many of my viewers probably are too right now, they’ve done the hard work, why would you take a risk at this key time?  It would be a lose-lose situation, wouldn’t it, to re-open in a non-cautious way and then all of that hard work is un-done?

Minister Sukkar:

But Patricia that is exactly what’s happened everywhere else around the country and it has been managed.  The reality here is that you get points for managing these sorts of crises in a way that doesn’t destroy the economic well-being of the place that is at risk.  If we look at all of the statistics, New South Wales has managed to open-up in circumstances similar to this.  Indeed there have been a number of occasions where the daily cases in New South Wales have been higher than Victoria and yet they’re effectively operating in an open society and an open economy.  Of course I’m the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing so I focus on the economics, I focus on people who have lost their jobs or have lost their businesses.  But let’s be frank, Patricia, you and I, I’m sure – and indeed all of your viewers – know countless people who have had the devastation, the consequences of this in a social, in a mental way, have been catastrophic.  This idea that every day doesn’t put more of a cost onto Victoria, I think that’s wrong.  Every day is an additional cost, every day is another job lost, every day is another business lost.  So I don’t buy that argument. I think that if New South Wales has been able to do it very successfully, then there’s no reason why Victoria can’t and if they can’t, the Premier should put his hand up and say ‘it’s beyond us, we’re unable to do it’, and I’m sure that more support would be forthcoming to help them. 

Patricia Karvelas:

Doesn’t the surge in coronavirus cases around the world and the prospects of fresh lockdowns also justify this very cautious approach? I mean look what’s happening in Europe?

Minister Sukkar:

I prefer to compare Victoria to other states and territories in our country, that’s the better comparison.  I compare Victoria to South Australia, to Tasmania, to Queensland, to New South Wales.  On the ladder of performance, Victoria is at the bottom.  Victoria wins the wooden spoon, the Victorian Government wins the wooden spoon for pandemic response in Australia.  That’s the reality.  Again, the devastation we’ve seen, in my view means that we have an obligation to stand up and speak for those people who’ve lost their jobs.  Sure, it was great news on the weekend that people could go to a skate park or to play golf but I think that a lot of people wanted their jobs back.  I think a lot of people wanted to be able to re-open their businesses.  I think that a lot of sole traders who operate from home wanted to start their business.

Patricia Karvelas:

Seriously let’s be real.  Of course they wanted their jobs back and of course they should get them back but I suppose the question is the risk of getting them back and then shutting them down again?  That’s the proposition that is being put?

Minister Sukkar:

Well Patricia, again, if you look at every other state and territory around Australia, they’ve been able to manage it successfully.  Sure, we’ve had the hotel quarantine disaster for which we’ve got no answers.  We’re still no clearer, based on the evidence provided by the Premier, as to who made the decision to use private security instead of the ADF which led to the second wave which led to what Victorians have lived through for the last few months.  We’re none the wiser on any of that.  So I understand the caution that people have with the Victorian State Government but nonetheless, again every single day has an addition cost. I, of course, focus on the economic cost but every single day has a real personal cost.  I know of somebody, who since the 27th of March, hadn’t left their home for more than three days because they were in a hot spot so they didn’t get the benefit of that short window of opportunity.  That’s devastating, Patricia and so this idea that people who question the wooden spoon winner of state governments in handling this pandemic response, the idea that they’re not for Victoria, is an absolutely outrageous accusation to throw out.

Patricia Karvelas:

Just on some of your specific portfolio areas, you’ve been talking about the HomeBuilder program and what you say is a successful program.  Does that mean that you’re looking at expanding it? Is it the sort of program that you think should be expanded?

Minister Sukkar:

It’s a fair question, Patricia.  We’ve seen, since HomeBuilder was announced, a 49.8 per cent increase in new home sales and really the building industry has told me – their feedback is quite strong – that if there’s one problem with the scheme it’s probably created too much demand for them and they’re struggling to keep up which is a wonderful problem to have because it just means that more people are in jobs and not just tradies on-site but the entre supply chain that supports those new homes.  So I suppose that success of the HomeBuilder scheme means that we look at it more favourably in that respect but as the PM has said, we’re keeping a close eye on it.  It runs until 31st December so we’ve got some time to keep an eye on it, watch how it’s tracking and we’ll make a decision closer to that date. 

Patricia Karvelas:

Just finally, you were of course at the centre, as you know, of that 60 Minutes investigation.  There was a Department of Finance inquiry into that or a look at that.  How can we have confidence in the Department of Finance investigation into whether staff belonging to you and Kevin Andrews, engaged in political work when they weren’t interviewed?  Shouldn’t they have been interviewed?

Minister Sukkar:

Well Patricia, look, I’m very careful.  I subjected myself voluntarily to that review really because I wanted to ensure that those false allegations were treated and were dismissed and they were by the Department of Finance.  I was obviously very pleased with the outcome, I wasn’t surprised by it.  But, Patricia, I’m sure you’d understand that I didn’t undertake the review, I just subjected myself to it.  Questions in relation to the review are really for the Department of Finance but from my perspective, it was a rigorous review, I co-operated fully and I was very pleased with the outcome of it. 

Patricia Karvelas:

Do you think it would make sense though to speak to the staff involved?

Minister Sukkar:

Patricia, again, I don’t want to pre-suppose any aspect of your question because I didn’t conduct the review.  The review was conducted by the Department of Finance so any questions as to the review really needs to be directed to them. 

Patricia Karvelas:

Okay.  Thanks so much for joining us. 

Minister Sukkar:

Thanks Patricia. 

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