6 December 2018
Transcript - #2018087, 2018

Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC News Breakfast

Subjects: Toondah Harbour; National Accounts; Sex Discrimination Act; and the National Energy Guarantee.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Josh Frydenberg, good morning. We’re going to talk about the national accounts and I'll get to that soon. But let's try to clear up some about this rather extraordinary sounding story. Why did you ignore your own department's advice that this project be struck out immediately and instead sent it on for an environmental impact statement?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, very important to understand here Virginia, that this was not an approval of the development, rather this was an opportunity for a proper assessment.

And under the EPBC Act, the Minister has the opportunity to enable his department to undertake a full assessment of a particular project, and in doing so, get more information, which may lead to mitigation or offsets of any significant environmental impact that the project would have.

Now, it's also important to understand that the biggest proponent, the biggest supporter of the project was the Labor Palaszczuk State Government, as well as the local council involved, so this was not an approval.

This was an opportunity to get an assessment, and in the departmental advice to me, they pointed out that this was an option for the Minister, because in doing so, you would get more information, so that you could actually make a final decision.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

There's always an option for the Minister in every single case, and no-one ever said it was an approval. But this is what your own department said. And it’s quite startling, that it would result in irreversible damage to a wetland protected under the RAMSAR treaty, international treaty.

It should be ruled clearly unacceptable. The development was also, and this is a really important bit of context, proposed by a major Liberal Party donor, the Walker Corporation, who in the same year, donated close to a quarter of the million dollars to the federal Liberal Party. You mention the Labor government, they also donated a significant amount of money to them as well.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

I'm glad you mentioned that.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Well, absolutely and that covers off both…

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

But it was interesting that the story didn’t…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Let me finish off my question if I can Minister. So, when your own department says the development is going to result in irreversible damage to a wetland, and the developer is a donor, explain to us the thinking of an Environment Minister who doesn't immediately see the permanent damage, who doesn’t see the political problem and who clearly can’t see the conflict of interest?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well Virginia, in this particular area of Queensland, there is a need for more jobs, and the project was going to involve a ferry terminal, a marina, new construction of accommodation, and the like and create a real tourism hub in that area. Now, it's really important to understand that was this was not an approval. This merely...

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Let's not go back over that ground. No-one was saying it was. Why did you reject the departmental advice?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

No, but the departmental advice…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

You're trying to move it to something else because it's a sticky question. Can you answer the question, why you didn’t see the problem?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Virginia, you're trying to make it into something that is bigger than it is. Because under the EPBC Act, the Minister clearly as an opportunity. This was in my advice from the department; the opportunity for the Minister to actually enable his department to undertake a further assessment.

Now the Labor Government, the Palaszczuk Government, was pushing the Federal Government to have this development proceed. And what I said, is I wasn't going to give it a tick, what I said is that I would enable a proper assessment.

It's only fair to see if there's going to be mitigation offsets, other conditions that can be applied, and that's a proper process. It's very transparent, it's very open. It doesn't matter who the proponent of the project is, that is just going to be an opportunity for due process and that is what occurred, according to the EPBC Act, that is what a Minister can do, and I think what you're doing is actually pushing only one part of the story and not understanding the totality of what is available to the Minister under the EPBC Act.

This was not an approval, this was merely a beginning of an assessment process.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

We got that covered Minister. We want to get onto the national accounts.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Let’s do that.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

But I think it’s important context to note, as Steve Cannane, the reporter who got this story, has noted, in the vast majority of cases, those matters referred for an EIS end up being approved. So, that’s important context too.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

It's actually not. Because each…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Are you saying it's incorrect?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

No, what I’m saying is actually, what is important is to have faith in the process. And every case is different…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

That's when the faith falls down, when you know that a high-profile donor is involved.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

It's got nothing to do with the donor. This has got nothing to do…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Public opinion might vary on that Minister.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

If you want to beat it up Virginia, then maybe you could try to sway some people. But the reality is, in Steve's story, he did not make one mention of the very public advocacy from the Palaszczuk Labor Government and Jackie Trad, out there with the local council, promoting jobs in the area.

These are sensitive wetlands. I'm the first to acknowledge that. This is a RAMSAR listed wetland, with migratory species including dolphins, turtles, birds and the like, and you need to proceed very carefully. All I was doing, under the EPBC Act, was to enable an opportunity for a proper assessment. I think it’s only fair that you understand that context and you try not to beat this up in a one-way story.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Let's have a look at the Australian economy it, looks to be slowing much more rapidly than expected after a spurt of growth in the first half of the year. Household consumption and construction was softer than expected. Your Government's mantra is solely about keeping the economy strong. Why isn't it?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

That's a ridiculous statement from you, Virginia, with the greatest respect.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Not too respectful, but go on.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

At 2.8 per cent, the Australian economy is growing faster than any G7 nation except the United States. We’re growing faster than the OECD average…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

The economy grew at its slowest annual pace in two years.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

We’re growing much faster than we came to Government. We have created over 1.1 million new jobs, unemployment has come down to five per cent, its lowest level since 2012, and we’ve also had our AAA credit rating reaffirmed.

No lesser authority than the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia said, two days ago, that the Australian economy was performing well, the outlook for the labour market was positive, business conditions were positive, this is a very strong story, and only the Labor Party are trying to poke holes in these national accounts, because they know that when they were in Government, they left us an economy where unemployment was rising, debt was rising and business confidence was in freefall.

That is what we inherited, and in response, we have delivered a very, very strong economy which is the envy of world.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

So, you're happy with the weakest economic expansion in two years?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

I'm very pleased with how the Australian economy is growing, and at 2.8 per cent, that's still a very strong number. The last quarter you saw 3.4 per cent through the year, GDP growth, which was the fastest since the height of the mining boom.

But the Australian economy is on track, and as you know, next year we're going to deliver a surplus, the first in more than a decade. And what we saw in these numbers was that household consumption was up, exports were up, we also saw Government spending on infrastructure, both state and federal, was up, and there's a very good story to tell.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Now, I just want to go to another matter, Josh Frydenberg, this was an exchange, I think we can bring you now, with the Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday, in relation to proposed changes that now seem to be stalled over discriminating against gay students in schools. Have a listen to this exchange.

[EXCERPT]

JOURNALIST:

Should any religion be able to teach in their schools that it's not alright to be gay?

PRIME MINISTER:

My understanding of my faith and other religious teachings goes to people's behaviour, not who they are.

[END OF EXCERPT]

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

People's behaviour, not who they are? I’m just wondering, why does the Prime Minister continue to insist on a distinction between someone who is gay and their behaviour, as if being gay and then acting if you're gay, are two different things, one being more acceptable than another. Why does he continue to do that?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well look, the Prime Minister is actually trying to remove these restrictions in the Sex Discrimination Act put there by the Labor Party in 2013.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

That's not my question, Minister.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

We are trying to enable that no-one is discriminated based on their gender, or their sexual disposition. What we want to see is faith based schools still maintain the autonomy within their school grounds, to ensure that students go to chapel and the like…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

I’m going to jump in there because we're all aware of that, it's been a big debate for several days. My particular question was the line the Prime Minister keeps returning to, that being gay is okay, behaving as if you're gay is unacceptable and must therefore offend religious sensibilities in schools. Why does he insist on that distinction?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

No, what he is trying to do, Virginia, is to say within schools, faith based schools, they should have the autonomy to teach in accordance with their own faith. People understand that.

At the same time, you can't discriminate to particular students based on their gender or their sexual disposition. We want to be able to have a conscience vote, we think it's only fair if we were to do so I think this legislation would pass through the Parliament today, as the Prime Minister said he was hoping to happen.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Alright I’ll turn to one last question and then let you go. You must be quite- pining for your NEG right now, for the NEG. Julie Bishop wants it back and wants you to negotiate with the Labor Party over it. I can imagine in your private moments you want to do that yourself. Is there any chance of that returning?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Look, it's not Government policy, but what is Government policy…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Do you miss it? You were the author of it, Minister.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, I said, as I said on the ABC on numerous occasions and elsewhere, no-one was more disappointed than me the NEG didn't become a reality, but at the same time, the reliability guarantee which was one half of it is something that our Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, is pushing through, with the states.

At the same time, we're implementing a whole series of measures to drive energy prices down, including a bill that is being debated in the Parliament right now, which will enable the ACCC to be a very effective cop on the beat to stamp out misconduct by the energy companies.

For some reason, the Labor Party is taking the side of the energy companies. We're putting in the proper checks and balances to ensure that misconduct does not occur, because when it does occur, it manipulates prices and it’s to the detriment of Australian families and businesses.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:

Let us know if you manage to resurrect the NEG, we’ll be happy to hear from you. Thanks Treasurer.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Thanks, good to be with you.