SUBJECTS: Solicitor-General advice on Scott Morrison’s secret ministries; skills crisis; Visa processing; Review into Port of Darwin lease.

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Let’s head to Canberra now because joining us live is the Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles. Richard Marles, good morning to you. So, have you seen the Solicitor‑General’s review?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: I’ve not seen the Solicitor‑General’s review, but I understand that we will be getting that advice later today, but, you know, I think there’s a real question now for the Opposition about how whatever the legal result is here, what is the political consequence for the actions that Scott Morrison took? And what’s really clear is that you’ve got enormous division within the Opposition at the moment between the Leader of the Opposition, who seems to think it’s all okay, Karen Andrews who thinks that Scott Morrison needs to resign from Parliament. The Liberals need to actually work out what their view is here.

STEFANOVIC: There are reports this morning that some of your colleagues have referred to it as a “scathing verdict” against Scott Morrison. Have you seen anything to suggest that as well?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, I haven’t seen it. Whatever the legal advice is, there is no question that this is appalling conduct on the part of the former Prime Minister. I mean, he treated, firstly, the Australian people with utter contempt by keeping all of this secret. He treated his colleagues with complete contempt. But what he’s done is undermine the Cabinet process, which is at the heart of the Westminster system and that surely is not okay. And really the question now is what’s Peter Dutton’s attitude towards this? Is he okay with this? Does he think governments can run this way?

STEFANOVIC: Well, he’s already said that Scott Morrison made the wrong call. He said that last week. But if Scott Morrison hasn’t –

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: But what’s the political consequence? That’s the real question here. And there’s a real division on the part of the Opposition about what to do with that.

STEFANOVIC: Okay. Well, if Scott Morrison hasn’t broken any laws, though, which the Prime Minister has already said, should a broad review be a priority for you when there are so many other issues that are affecting people’s lives at the moment?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Oh, I think it’s really important that we understand what has happened here because this goes to the heart of the Westminster system of government. We need to make sure that that we learn from this and that this doesn’t happen again. And I think there is a very live question for Peter Dutton about what should be the appropriate political consequence for a person who has completely undermined the Westminster system of government. And right now, it seems that Peter Dutton is saying it’s all fine by him – he’s rung up, said he’s sorry and that’s okay. I don’t think that cuts it in terms of the degree to which Scott Morrison has actually undermined the Westminster system of government here.

STEFANOVIC: Okay. As for the Governor‑General, how would or should a review consider the current or the future Governor‑General’s role?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think, ultimately, this is really about the decisions that the Prime Minister took. It is the Prime Minister that – as in the former Prime Minister – it was the decisions that Scott Morrison took that give rise to the situation here. And we need to look at the legality of this, obviously. But whatever the legality of this is, the political consequence of this should be severe, because what Scott Morrison has done is undermined the Westminster system of government. And in the process, he has treated the Australian people with complete contempt.

STEFANOVIC: When you say “the consequence should be severe”, what do you mean by that?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I actually think that it’s a good question and I think ultimately, it’s a question for the Liberal Party. They were the Government, and they are from where Scott Morrison comes. But to treat the Australian people with contempt in the way that he did, you know, just keeping Australians in the dark, treating his own colleagues with contempt and treating the Cabinet with contempt, surely that comes with a significant and a severe political consequence. And I’m really interested to see from the Liberal Party, from the Opposition, about they think that is appropriate to be.

STEFANOVIC: The New South Wales Treasurer yesterday warned of a 300,000-worker shortage within four years. Today your State of Victoria is warning of a 400,000-worker shortage within three years. You can open up the flood gates, can’t you, Richard, but is there any guarantee that people will come?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, if you’re referring to immigration, I think we do want to see immigration levels get back to the normal state after the pandemic. But really what we face right now is a skills crisis. And that’s the lesson that we have to learn from the pandemic, from having had the experience of the borders closed, that we just haven’t been training enough of our own people. And that is a function of the money that was cut out of our skills system – out of TAFE – over the last nine years of the former Government. What we want to do is reinvest in skills. Free TAFE for those studying in areas of skills shortage, 20,000 new university places. But not for a moment do we think we’ve got all the answers here, which is, of course, why we want to have the skills summit.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It’s going to be really important to getting a pathway forward here.

STEFANOVIC: Now, visa processing has been described as a dog’s breakfast at the moment, with wait times exceeding months and years on end. The former Government cut budget by almost $1 billion to visa processing in Home Affairs. Would you like that to be reinstated?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think there are issues around the speed with which visas are processed and, as you rightly say, the cuts that we saw from the former Government give an explanation around that. Look, I come back to what I said at the start. I think what we want to see is the level of immigration flows get back to where they were prior to the pandemic. It is obviously part of the solution. But really the lesson we have to learn from the pandemic is we’re not training enough of our own people. And if we want to address the skills crisis, and that’s fundamentally what we face, we’ve got to be reinvesting in skills. And, as I say, we’ve got some of the answers around how we think that should be done. We don’t have all of them, which is why we think the summit that’s coming up in the next week is so important.

STEFANOVIC: Okay. Prime Minister Albanese has said that the Defence review into the Port of Darwin will eventually be made public. Your predecessor, Peter Dutton, had found there were no national security grounds to overturn the lease. Do you agree with him on that?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the advice that was given to the former Government, obviously we don’t have the benefit of that. We’re seeking our own advice here about what options exist for us, what risks are posed by the current leasing arrangements. And we’ll make our decision at the end of that. We made very clear at the time –

STEFANOVIC: So that’s still live. You could overturn it?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we made clear that we did not support the decision around the leasing of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese‑owned company – to a Chinese Government–owned company I should say. And that was very clear at the time. We really want to understand the consequences of that now and what options exist.

STEFANOVIC: Okay, Richard Marles, appreciate your time as always. We’ll talk to you again soon.



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