02 February 2021


SUBJECTS: Political panel with Zed Seselja; Canberra Light Rail; COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout; Federal Integrity Commission.


STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: As I mentioned, it is the first sitting day of Parliament for the year so it's time for our first political panel and joining us on the line is the Labor Member for Canberra, Alicia Payne. Alicia, have have I spoken to you since the new year? Happy New Year if I haven't.

ALICIA PAYNE, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Good morning, Stephen. Yes, we did have a chat last fortnight.

CENATIEMPO: That's you're right. That's right. Yeah, you were the first one back as everybody else was still on holidays. Zed's back though, Happy New Year, Zed Seselja.

ZED SESELJA, SENATOR FOR THE ACT: Happy New Year mate. Nice to speak to you. Nice to speak to you, Alicia. 

PAYNE: Morning Zed.

CENATIEMPO: And congratulations, you've been elevated. You're now the Minister for International Development of the Pacific. Um, a fairly important portfolio that probably a lot of people aren't aware of.

SESELJA: Yeah, look, thank you for that. It is it is a great honour. And, obviously, our region is critically important to Australia. And so our relationships in our region in the Pacific in Southeast Asia in particular, are very, very important. So to have that role about international development, which is, of course, us, reaching out to our neighbours, but also I think is about Australia's national interests, and our relationships in the Pacific are absolutely critical to that. So yeah it's a really important role, it's a role I'm getting across there's a lot to do. But reaching out to our Pacific family and our neighbours in Southeast Asia as well is going to be a big part of it.

CENATIEMPO: Alicia, the Federal Government is expected to make a decision on stage two of the Canberra Light Rail this week, last week we had the Commonwealth announcement of funding for the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge upgrade. Is this proof that we're over governed in the ACT, that we've effectively got three bodies that have gotta make a decision to put a train across the lake?

PAYNE: Well, obviously the stage two of light rail because it goes through the Parliamentary Triangle requires the sign off of both houses of Parliament and ultimately the Environment Minister, Sussan Lee to approve it. And that has caused some significant delays from the Liberal Government who don't seem to want to invest in making our nation's capital, you know, the wonderful city that it should be. This has been a fantastic project that's seen many jobs for Canberrans and before the pandemic the Gungahlin leg of the light rail was seeing 15,000 people using it every day. So, it would have been nice if the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge announcement had included the part of that which is to upgrade the bridge for the light rail and to get on with this project. Particularly at the moment where we you know, we're coming out, we're in a pandemic and the jobs would be well should be a priority for the Federal Government.

CENATIEMPO: So Zed, you were there for the announcement of the of the upgrade of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge. Does that funding include provision for the light rail? 

SESELJA: No, it doesn't. Those would be considered separately. So the strengthening and the upgrading of the bridge is a separate project. Because one of the things, Stephen that was certainly debated early on and I know there was some people arguing and perhaps even some in the ACT Government arguing that we should use the existing bridge for light rail, which would of course mean that you would have less lanes for traffic. Now, that's not something I'd wanna see and I suspect that's not something most Canberrans would want to see because the bottlenecks on Commonwealth Avenue Bridge are already there. So, we're spending a lot and Alicia says we're not investing, well it's the biggest investment by the Commonwealth probably in a generation at the moment and Commonwealth Avenue Bridge is one part of a $1.3 billion investment. So there's been huge investments coming just in the last couple of years, whether it's the Monaro Highway, whether it's the Molonglo Valley Bridge, whether it's now money for the Tuggeranong Parkway, Kings Avenue, William Slim Drive, the list goes on and on. So there's a lot of investment in fact, record Commonwealth investment in Canberra. Commonwealth Avenue Bridge is part of that, obviously, questions around light rail are separate from the strengthening and the upgrading of the existing bridge.

CENATIEMPO: Alicia, I might be naive by asking this but I imagine you're supportive of the announcement, $1.9 billion to get Australians vaccinated against COVID-19 which will include not only pharmacies here in the ACT, but around 50 GP clinics.

PAYNE: Yes, well it's great news that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved by the TGA. And that, you know, a great job by our regulators who've worked to get that done. You know, I am concerned though that the Prime Minister has kept promising we will be at the front of the queue, and he's promised that we would have 4 million people vaccinated by the end of March. We're now in February and obviously no one has been vaccinated and I think this will be you know, yet another promise that he's going to be walking away from, because I can't see how we're going to get that happening. But I am you know, it's great to see GP clinics in Canberra stepping up to want to administer this vaccine. And I'm, you know, confident that here in the ACT, Rachel Stephen-Smith and the ACT Government will manage that rollout really well.

CENATIEMPO: I'm not confident about that they can't seem to manage the hospital. Zed, is it a promise that the Prime Minister will walk away from because I mean, we're one of the few countries that actually has the capacity to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine ourselves.

SESELJA: Yeah, that's right. There's a couple of really important points about the vaccine. We have been working on that sovereign capability and that's, that's really important. We we've learned through COVID, that the importance of having the ability to produce, you know, things like PPE in crises and certainly to produce a vaccine, so CSL will do that. I think the other thing that Australians can take a lot of confidence from, is the fact that unlike most countries, and I think because we've managed the pandemic, I think better than most, we haven't had to have emergency approvals for the vaccine. So when the vaccine is administered in Australia, Australians will be able to have great confidence that it's been through exactly the same process, as when you take your kids to have them vaccinated for other childhood illnesses, which we all do, 95% of us do. Well, when you take yourself or your parents or others in your family to get vaccinated, you know it'll have gone through exactly the same processes. And I think that that will give a lot of confidence to Australians to take the vaccine.

CENATIEMPO: I'll ask you both this, and it's slightly off topic. I'll let you go first Alicia, are you concerned by reports this week that in the affluent inner city suburbs of Canberra, our vaccination rates are 5% lower than the national average?

PAYNE: I am concerned by that, because, you know, the science is there that vaccinations are really important and we've obviously seen some, you know, it's vaccinations that have allowed us to basically eradicate many diseases that were common for children to suffer and die from, like Polio. You know, it's been really important that we've been able to do that. And I would see, I would hope that people would we need to continue that, and I hope that people would want to vaccinate their children.

CENATIEMPO: Zed, 25% of Australians don't want to take this Coronavirus virus vaccine, apparently.

SESELJA: Yeah, well obviously there's still work to do and that's, I think, why that point, the fact that we haven't gone through emergency processes, we've gone through the usual TGA processes, I think will give people confidence. And as they as they see it being rolled out in the community, as they see that other people they know are taking the vaccine and getting that immunity. So look, I think it's understandable that, you know, in at a time when there's been great flux obviously these things are happening very quickly there's always gonna be concerns. But I think we can have great confidence in our TGA, we can have great confidence in our medical professionals and we can have great confidence that we're putting in place the safeguards to make sure this is safe and effective when it's rolled out.

CENATIEMPO: Alicia, Labor is renewing its calls for a federal ICAC or a federal corruption body. My question has always been why do we need an added level of bureaucracy? Can't we for you know, fund the Federal Police or resource an existing crime fighting body to do this rather than have another level of bureaucrats?

PAYNE: Well, the answer is because under this Government, we've seen new lows in the lack of accountability, we've seen the sports rorts scandal, the creation of Robodebt, Angus Taylor and Jam Land, we've seen them paying $30 million for a piece of land near Western Sydney Airport that was only worth 3 million. And this is something that the community are really concerned about. Trust in democracy is at an all time low and this is something that people raise with me a lot. I get a lot of letters about it. And I'm sure Zed does too that people want to see this happen. And this is something that our Prime Minister has called a fringe issue, which just simply is not, he announced in December 2018 that they would actually create the integrity commission and by December 2019, they had draft bill to make it happen. Here we are in 2021 and nothing has happened on that. And this is something that needs to get done.

CENATIEMPO: Zed, why the delays? Again, I say it's not necessary, we already have Senate Committees and the AFP and all these other bodies. But, if the Government has decided this is a thing that needs to be doing, why are we still waiting?

SESELJA: Well, we have been rolling it out. So from 1 January this year, we've seen obviously the existing law enforcement integrity agency, ACLEI, have their powers expanded now to include ASIC and ATO, and we've got legislation going out for consultation, so that we are getting on with it, but what we do reject is the Labor and Greens sort of proposal, which is has some pretty extreme measures. I mean, if you're a public servant, under the Labor and the Greens model, things that would be minor Code of Conduct breaches, would have extreme coercive powers attached to them. So if you're a public servant, and the Labor and the Greens were to get in and deliver that, I think what you'd have is a very extreme it'd be New South Wales, ICAC on steroids. We actually think that getting on with a proper integrity commission is the right thing to do but doing it in a measured and methodical way that also respects individual liberty.

CENATIEMPO: Alicia, thanks for your time this morning.

PAYNE: Can I? 

CENATIEMPO: Yeah quickly.

PAYNE: Can I just respond on that. So what we've proposed is actually a commission that can hold independent inquiries and public hearings and look in to past scandals. So I just reject that the Government have been rolling out a proper commission, they haven't. And what we're talking about is something that means the public can hold politicians to account.

SESELJA: So will there be coercive powers against public servants for those kind of measures? Are you saying that what that won't happen?

PAYNE: Not coercive powers, no, I think public servants also should be held to account so.

SESELJA: So there won't be coercive powers well, that's interesting, because that's not the model you put up.

CENATIEMPO: Alright, we've got to go, Alicia, thanks for your time this morning.

PAYNE: Alright, thank you. Thank you.

CENATIEMPO: Zed, thank you too. 

SESELJA: Thanks, guys. 

CENATIEMPO: All the best, Alicia Payne and Zed Seselja back with us next week.