SUBJECTS: Government chaos and infighting; Question marks over Ministerial decisions; Queensland election.

FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us.


KELLY: Well the Government may have lost its working majority, it's down to 74 seats in the Lower House when you take the Speaker out. That's still enough for the Coalition to continue governing. It's business as usual, isn't it?

PLIBERSEK: Well I hope you wouldn't define this as business as usual. You've got a hung Parliament, a minority government. We've got the Coalition parties at war with themselves and at war with each other. You saw the sort of chaos that we've seen in recent days with the Prime Minister not able to name the Acting Prime Minister for days, with fighting over who would replace Senator Nash. And now Barnaby Joyce complaining about his treatment from the Liberals and making it very clear that it's a very unhappy coalition. I mean - 

KELLY: Sure, but I'm talking about on the floor of the House. 

PLIBERSEK: And you'd know Fran, that we've had some very narrow votes on the floor of the House in recent times, including a vote to reverse the cuts to 700,000 Australians' penalty rates, that we lost by one vote, Barnaby Joyce's vote. We sought to introduce a banking Royal Commission, to give some justice to people who've been the victims of bad behaviour by the banks, again lost that by just one vote, Barnaby Joyce's vote. So in coming weeks, we will continue to pursue the issues that we believe are important to Australians, like protecting their penalty rates, on the floor of the Parliament. 

KELLY: So can I just ask you what that means? Is Labor going to try and revisit, for instance, those two votes on the floor of the Parliament during this period when the Government will be down one vote?

PLIBERSEK: We're going to look at all of our options Fran, but I can tell you that we are very concerned about the fact that Barnaby Joyce has been voting at a time when he shouldn't have even been in the Federal Parliament and we've narrowly lost votes because of that. And we've seen some very serious consequences to the fact that he hasn't been able to make proper ministerial decisions. We believe that the gas trigger hasn't been pulled because of the uncertainty around Barnaby Joyce's eligibility to be a Minister. That has very serious consequences for the country.

KELLY: Indeed, but what are you going to do about that? Are you going to try and exploit the fact that the Government is one vote down to bring a vote on again on the banking Royal Commission and the penalty rates?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think people are as interested in Parliamentary tactics, Fran, as they are in the issues that we'll be pursuing.

KELLY: Well I think they're interested wanting to know whether you're going to change that law, and that's the way to change it. Are you going to try and change that law?

PLIBERSEK: We'll look at every option that we've got Fran. That's what people would expect us to do, to pursue the things that we think -  

KELLY: And what other option is there rather than bringing another vote?

PLIBERSEK: We'll we're looking at all of our options Fran, all of our parliamentary options right now. 

KELLY: But what are the options other than bringing that back in, that legislation back in?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not sure what more I can tell you Fran. We are looking at all of our options, including all of our parliamentary options, now. 

KELLY: Okay. Labor has asked the Parliamentary Library to take a look at the ministerial decisions made by these two Ministers, Joyce and Nash, since October, that could be challenged by third parties. It's come back with 118 legislative instruments and ministerial announcements. Are you actively encouraging vested interests to challenge these decisions, to look at these decisions?

PLIBERSEK: We're not actively encouraging anyone Fran, but I can tell you some of these decisions are likely to have left people aggrieved and if they want to pursue the Government on some of them I don't doubt they will. I mean, there's all sorts of grants and appointments made by these Ministers, decisions made under the Water Act, Barnaby Joyce had significant power to determine claims for payments to Water Access Entitlement holders. We've seen elements of the NBN roll-out, including the Sky Muster program, made by Fiona Nash, and elements of the Mobile Black Spots program, grants under the Building Better Regions fund. There would be a range of areas where people would be considering whether they had received fair treatment from these Ministers. 

KELLY: And so what do you expect will happen? You mentioned the gas trigger there, you don't think it's been pulled. What's the implications of that?

PLIBERSEK: I think the fact that Senator Canavan's return to his original spot might mean that the gas trigger is now pulled, we would certainly urge the Government to do that. They're very fast running out of time to do that. But there's, as you say, well over 100 announcements and legislative instruments. No doubt there'll be some people who'll be wondering whether they were treated fairly and whether decisions were made properly by Fiona Nash and Barnaby Joyce when they weren't properly elected to the Parliament.

KELLY: The Attorney-General thinks it’s unlikely there are any legal consequences from all of this. He says most decisions made by Ministers are signed off by Cabinet. Do you not agree with him?

PLIBERSEK: Are we really taking George Brandis' word for this? I mean, this is the Government that told us that the High Court would find all these people were properly elected. The Prime Minister saying "and the High Court will so hold", that he was absolutely certain that these people were in no trouble. The Attorney-General banging on about how the Solicitor-General's advice was absolutely clear that these people were absolutely entitled to be there. I think if there's one thing that we can all draw from this sorry saga is that you would not trust the legal pronouncements of the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General on any issue of importance. 

KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is Acting Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek. Can I just ask you about the entitlements of these politicians who were ruled ineligible by the High Court. Should they forfeit all their pay and entitlements since they were elected wrongfully, the Court has found, since last July?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think that's really a matter for the Government but I do note that in the case of Bob Day and Rod Culleton they were actually offered debt waivers, so I'd expect that if there's any discussion of that they'll probably go with that precedent. 

KELLY: Okay. So some have raised already the notion that Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash have been sitting in Parliament since July 2005, ineligible according to the Constitution, according to the High Court's ruling. Do you think there's likely to be a challenge to suggest they could lose all their entitlements for that time?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not really sure what's going to happen in relation to entitlements, only that the two people who've been in similar circumstances have been given debt waivers. But even at the time of the discussion of Bob Day and Rod Culleton's entitlements, my view is that these people had actually been doing the job, they haven't just been sitting around twiddling their thumbs, so I expect they'll be some leniency because of that. 

KELLY: Let's go to the process for Australia now in the future after this decision. The High Court has made it clear in its ruling what it believes the Constitution is saying. Do we now need to change the Constitution? Barnaby Joyce wants a referendum at the next election to change it, and he wants an omnibus referendum on a number of issues. Do we need a referendum to sort this out?

PLIBERSEK: I actually think that's a ridiculous proposition. I think it is much easier to obey the law than change it, in the case of large constitutional changes like this. Honestly, people want us to be focusing on their jobs, on the future of this country, on the issues that are life and death, world-changing. This is a comparatively [inaudible] It's been a chaotic period, because these people weren't careful enough about checking their eligibility to stand for Parliament, but I can tell you it’s much easier - 

KELLY: But is the Constitution fit for purpose now in our multicultural society? I mean, isn't it - 

PLIBERSEK: I think if you were writing it today Fran, you wouldn't write it this way, but remember how difficult it is to get any constitutional change through. The complexities of holding a referendum, the expense and difficulty of holding a referendum, I think is not justified by this sort of case. Of course, if the Government make a specific proposition we'll consider it, but of all of the things that Australians are worried about, changing the Constitution to make it easier for politicians to stand for Parliament I would think would be pretty low on the list. 

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek, we're almost out of time. Can I just ask you briefly - you're on your way to Queensland, there is going to be an election there on the 25th of November. Do you think all this turmoil in Canberra will help Annastacia Palaszczuk and Labor?

PLIBERSEK: Look I'm not sure that what's happening in Canberra is as important in the Queensland election as the fact that Queenslanders have got good memories. And Tim Nicholls was Campbell Newman's right-hand man. He was there when all the cuts were made, when all the assets were sold off. He was there, the architect behind cutting 14,000 jobs and people haven't forgotten that quite so quickly. 

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Fran.