SUBJECT/S: The week ahead in Parliament, Peter Dutton’s eligibility.  

PATRICIA KARVELAS (HOST): I'm joined now by the manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke. Welcome to National Wrap.
KARVELAS: This week will be Scott Morrison's first as Prime Minister in Parliament. What strategy will Labor use on the floor of Parliament?
BURKE: I don't think there's ever been a tougher week in terms of where do you begin? The last time Parliament sat they shut down the Parliament early to avoid Question Time. In the interim we've had up to seven ministers mislead the parliament. One of them might not even be eligible to be a member of Parliament. We've got a new Prime Minister who won't describe why it is that he is even in the job but will describe his Government as being similar to the Muppet Show and that's before you get to the policy reversals they've had on areas like energy where policies that they'd spent months saying Labor must support right now, they've just ditched them.
KARVELAS: So in terms of strategy what do you plan to do in the Parliament? Will you press all of these ministers who you say misled Parliament on that question? Because I imagine their response will be at the time of answering they didn't mislead, they were supporting Malcolm Turnbull and they changed their minds.
BURKE: It'll be an interesting attempt at credibility if they go down that path of saying immediately before Question Time they supported Peter Dutton, during Question Time they supported Malcolm Turnbull and then shortly after they supported Peter Dutton again and then by the end of the week they were locked on supporters of Scott Morrison. If they want to argue that they can but I think it puts a really serious question of credibility for them forevermore as to whether anyone believe a word they say.
KARVELAS: But isn’t that just what happens during leadership changes? I mean Labor has had moments of this too. There are obviously changing allegiances at the moment that they answered the question they were being truthful.
BURKE: It's hard to believe for those ones given that they'd all voted for Dutton in the previous day and committed to vote for Peter Dutton the following day. The normal thing that you do in these situations is if you feel you can't support the Prime Minister you offer your resignation. Peter Dutton himself wasn't a minister during that Question Time and Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells had resigned from the executive for the same reason. These people thought they could keep their ministerial salary, mislead the Australian people and get away with it on the basis that Parliament wouldn't be sitting for another couple of weeks.
KARVELAS: Labor doesn't have the numbers in the house to refer Peter Dutton to the High Court unless the Government agrees and it doesn't look like they will. How will you handle that?
BURKE: Well the ideal is always self-referral. That's always the ideal and that is what Peter Dutton should do. There is no doubt that there is a legal question mark, a really serious legal question mark and both sides of politics have seen fairly brutally how strictly the High Court takes its interpretation of these issues. It's a pretty serious issue given the portfolio that Peter Dutton holds if there is a doubt about his constitutional eligibility to even be there. He has a very important job for Australia and it is essential that that job be done lawfully. The right thing to do is self-referral but as with other cases that doesn't mean that we don't continue to press, that we don't continue to push the issue.
KARVELAS: So will Labor still back the Greens motion of no confidence in Peter Dutton when Parliament resumes tomorrow? Because again you don't have the numbers and he actually hasn't broken the law.
BURKE: Peter Dutton has misled the Parliament. That's where you get to the point of saying that there should be a lack of confidence in him. Now my understanding is the Greens might be delaying when that is moved. I think they're still working out relative to the committee now having been having been extended. But the simplicity of the problem within the Parliament that Peter Dutton has is he provided information to the Parliament which has appeared since to be demonstrably untrue.
KARVELAS: He says he may have known him 20 years ago but that's not an ongoing friendship, is it?
BURKE: He wasn't asked whether there was an ongoing friendship. He said he didn't know the people. That wasn't true. There can be a whole lot of ministerial standards that really annoy the Australian people where they'll say how on earth can you make this mistake, that mistake and keep your job. But for ministers under the Westminster system there is a golden rule; you must not mislead the Parliament. There's no dodging that that part of it.
KARVELAS: Peter Dutton is obviously going to share with the public some of the referrals or requests Labor has made including one that you made a controversial one on an Islamic cleric. He's going to be making the point that you too used the minister and the relationship when it suits you.
BURKE: Well that one I wasn't minister that one that you were referring to. I wrote him a letter.
KARVELAS: That’s what I mean. You used the access to the minister.
BURKE: I've never argued against the minister having the powers. And if you look at that particular letter that I sent I put in writing to them to the department ‘if there is any additional information that is of concern on this application I want you to let me know’. Now Peter Dutton withheld that information. I mean this is extraordinary. You get a member of Parliament write asking for information on a particular case saying ‘if there are concerns can you let me know?’ And what the minister does is let it sit for years, let it sit for ages, and then at the last minute says now I'm going to put it out in the media as though you've done something wrong for asking the question. Why did Peter Dutton refuse to provide the information that was asked in writing? Or at least alert that there were concerns? I've always supported the character test and I've never objected when the character test has been employed. There's been times when I've asked for it to be used more rigorously than some ministers have over the years. To think that you can ask a question and the information was withheld from a member of Parliament is an extraordinary slight on Mr Dutton.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke the recriminations are starting on the Liberal side particularly in relation to the loss of the seat of Wagga Wagga which is, to be clear, a state seat. Do you really think the federal leadership change had much to do with that loss?
BURKE: It was definitely part of it. The key to all of this is if you go to an area, and I know plenty of people who've been campaigning in Wagga, if it's one of the issues that people are consistently raising then it's relevant to the outcome. And if the Government wants as is their right to let the Australian people know that they're not receiving any message then the Australian people I imagine will keep sending a message until it's been heard.
KARVELAS: So ultimately is your project this week to try and make the Parliament look dysfunctional? Is that the kind of antics we're going to see from Labor?
BURKE: No, the Government has done that for us. There is no damage that I can do to this Government that they haven't already done to themselves. You've described me in other interviews as being Labor's head kicker or something like that.
BURKE: Yeah you have. You did on The Party Room podcast during the leadership spill, that was your introduction to me. But there is nothing that I can do that damages the Government that matches what Peter Dutton does to his Government, that matches what Tony Abbott does to the Government, that matches what Barnaby Joyce does to the Government. When the Prime Minister is referring to his own team using the term ‘The Muppet Show’ there's actually not that much room for Labor to be the force of destruction, they’re doing it themselves.
KARVELAS: But if Scott Morrison can command a majority on the House of Representatives then the Government is stable, isn't it?
BURKE: Well if they're stable then I don't know why they're changing their Prime Minister all the time. If they're stable I don't know why no policy seems to be able to stand, why their entire infrastructure policy managed to be leaked. This is an unstable, illegitimate government. Everything that they said they would be, they have fallen short of.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke, many thanks for your time tonight.
BURKE: Good to be on the program.


Tony Burke