774 ABC Drive with Rafael Epstein – 4 February, 2015

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It would have been an interesting conversation in Cabinet today. The leadership speculation is only mounting it’s not decreasing. Tony Abbott clearly saying he will not budge. One of his allies is the Defence Minister, Kevin Andrews; he joins us on the line.

Minister, good afternoon.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Good afternoon Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ah if I could put to you this proposition. Andrew Robb said this morning on the Jon Faine show that the Government’s solid achievements were overshadowed by policies that were a surprise to people. He’s effectively saying that you sprung policies on people they weren’t expecting and that’s one of your problems. Is he right?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look it’s a fact that all Governments make a few mistakes along the way but there’s been a lot of great achievement of the Government. If you look back at what we were elected to do which was to try and end the chaos of the Rudd Gillard Rudd era, to stop the boats…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I suppose I’m asking if the surprises are the reason you’re in trouble now.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look I understand where the polls are at the present time but what we’ve got to do and what the Cabinet’s been doing for the last two days is concentrating on what the issues are for the Australian people, the challenges we face and we’ve got to continue to assure them that we’ve got a plan that will grow the economy create jobs and give opportunities for all Australians.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Arthur Sinodinos too, the NSW Senator is on Sky still speaking now. He says his support for the Prime Minister is not unconditional, do you see that in any way as someone who is moving towards sitting on the fence?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look there might be all sorts of commentary around Raf but…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That’s not commentary, he’s a crucial Senator.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well it’s your commentary on what he said.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

We’re not going to be distracted by static we were elected to end the chaos, the musical chairs of Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd. We’re not going to go back to that it would be self-indulgent and indeed self-defeating to go down that track.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Do you think there will be a spill next week?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

I’m quite confident that Tony Abbott will be Prime Minister next week, he’ll be the Prime Minister when we go to the election and I’m optimistic that we will win the election because throughout…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It’s a little different to whether there’ll be a Party Room vote next week; do you think there would be one next week?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

I’d be surprised if there is Raf. You can see from the last couple of days that the reality is that the Cabinet is united behind the Prime Minister. I believe the broader Ministry is united, there’s always a few….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So you have no doubts about Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull and their loyalty to the leader?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

We’ve just spent two days in Cabinet discussing what are the challenges for Australia and the Australian people, and that’s what we’re concentrating on as a Cabinet. We wouldn’t have spent two days discussing those things if there were other issues around. I mean that’s a lot of static around in the media but that’s not what the Cabinet is doing.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But there’s one way to kill the static if I can get a direct answer to that question, do you have any doubt that Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull are loyal to the leader?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

I believe that Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull and every other member of the Cabinet are loyal to Tony Abbott, that’s what we were doing is today getting on with the job of governing the country.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Did it dominate much of the Cabinet meeting? I think it was four hours that meeting, can you tell people how much of that meeting was about your own political trouble?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well the Cabinet meeting today was very much about the items on the Cabinet agenda and they were matters that face the Australian people. I’m not at liberty to go into which of the items they were. But I can assure you and your listeners that what we spoke about in Cabinet today were matters that come up in the ordinary course of government business, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Wouldn’t one way of giving people that confidence be to say listen we spent twenty minutes on it, acknowledged it was a problem and then we moved on. Come on can you give people an idea, I don’t think anyone thinks you’re self-indulgent for talking about your own political problems in Cabinet. Can you tell us how long you spoke about it for?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well we weren’t talking about our own political problems in Cabinet today at all as I said.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

No.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

No, not at all.  We’re getting on…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It didn’t come up at all?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

We were getting on today with the business of governing the country, and that’s what we did and that’s the important thing that the role of Cabinet is, and as I said Cabinet is united behind the Prime Minister and we’re united in addressing the issues that the Australian people face. That’s what they want us to do, that’s what they elected us to do and that’s what we will continue to do.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I’d like to talk about a few of those policy issues; I have to say I’m not quite sure I believe you that these issues didn’t come up at all.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

We had a Cabinet agenda today Raf and they were items of normal business Cabinet goes about discussing, and that’s what we did today.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay. I suppose I’m interested too if you take any responsibility for the government’s uh political trouble. I want to pick one example from your old portfolio, I’m not sure, it certainly wasn’t the biggest focus of your job as um Social Services Minister but the marriage vouchers that your successor has scrapped, 90 per cent of them weren’t used. You’ve been accused of being more ideologically, I sort of harder ideological edge than your Cabinet colleagues. Would you concede the marriage counselling was an ideological frolic, that took you away from the main business of government or not?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

No not at all Raf. I mean when I have constituents in my electorate office that I have on a regular basis complaining about all the problems with the family law system, who are caught up in the child support system who are going through trauma of divorce and separation and they sit there and tell me, and sometimes they have their kids with them, they tell me about the impact on their kids then this is an issue.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Well that sounds good but no one used the vouchers, 90 per cent of them weren’t used.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well this was a trial and the whole purpose of a trial is to try and work out how you actually can help people in these situations. Now as I understand it, there was an evaluation set up I presume there will be an evaluation report on what worked and what didn’t work and that can be useful in terms of tackling a real problem. I’m sure for your listeners who have gone through the trauma of separation and divorce and the impact that can have on their kids would want to know that the Government is interested in trying to do something about it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Kevin Andrews is the Defence Minister, part of Tony Abbott’s Cabinet.

Kevin Andrews I want to ask you this too about again this is about policy and politics, the Medicare co-payment. In February last year Tony Abbott campaigning for Kevin Rudd’s old seat, he said the GP co-payment was not under consideration. It pops up in the Budget as a hard and fast we are going to do this, this is crucial. It is changed at the end of the year and the Health Minister says it was simply an ambit claim and it was changed again at the beginning of this year. That is both poor policy and poor politics, would you concede that the co-payment, both the way you’ve argued it and the way you’ve changed it are the very reason you’re in trouble?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well I think there’s two things you have to separate out here Raf. One is the policy in relation to what do you do about making Medicare sustainable in the future and that is a real issue that we face and you know we can close our eyes to it but it’s not going to get any better because with an ageing population, in particular, health costs are going to continue to rise, so there’s a policy issue there that has to be addressed. Now as to how we addressed it, look it’s fair enough to say that we could have done it a better way than we did and the Prime Minister himself has acknowledged this. I acknowledge that but there’s still a real policy issue that somehow needs to be addressed and that is with an ageing population how do you sustain the sort of health care costs and services that we want, Australians want in the future.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Look I appreciate your willingness to go through the issues; another significant issue you’ve got with your own colleagues is too much commanding control, too much centralised control. There’s a report today in Fairfax that the new Health Minister, her choice of Chief of Staff was knocked back by the group which vets ministerial staff.  I know you are sometimes part of that group, but is that not one of the significant issues, I don’t know if you particularly knocked back Sussan Ley’s choice for her new Chief of Staff. But has that not been an issue, there’s been too much tight control of what the other Ministers were doing from the Prime Minister’s office?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well Raf I’m not going to go into choices of staff and things like that, they’re internal matters, no more than I expect you would in terms of the ABC. So look there’s a system in place every government has a similar system, we had one in the Howard Government, this is just the way in which governments tend to operate.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So you wouldn’t say if you knocked back the new Health Minister’s Chief of Staff?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

No.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Not going to comment on that?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Not going to comment.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Are you upset by everything that’s happening personally, you’ve got to be depressed 16 months in to be here?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look I’ve been in Parliament for nearly a quarter of a century now Raf and I’ve been through ups and downs. I know that there are some certain lessons of politics that remain unchanging and that is governments need to concentrate on what the Australian people want and their needs and that’s what the cabinet is doing at the present time. And I know that if you become self-indulgent and concentrate on yourself then that’s ultimately self-defeating. It’s an iron law of politics and that’s what I would say to all your listeners and I would say to all my colleagues.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You were the dark horse candidate around last time around, you nominated yourself as leader, you were one of those significant people who sparked the move that got Tony Abbott the leadership so you’re in a prime position to give advice. Have you got any advice to others who are considering doing precisely what you did when Malcolm Turnbull was leader?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well the circumstances were entirely different. I think the Australia people understand that for a party in Opposition they’ve got to work out what their policies are, and remember at that time there was a great debate within the party and within the community about significant policy issues namely climate change and things related to that. That was something that was in the context of a very real debate both in the Liberal Party and in the community about how we react to that and sometimes in Opposition in sorting those things out, there is change of leader.

But I believe the Australian people are of the view that when they elect a party to government and they elect a person as part of that election process as the Prime Minister or indeed the Premier of a state they expect that person will lead that party to the next election when they can choose again, and so the circumstances are entirely different.  That was a matter of great policy principle if you like which are not the circumstances now.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Look I appreciate your time thank you on a busy day.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Pleasure Raf