QT speaks to WA Attorney general and treasurer, Christian Porter
What inspired you to enter into politics after working as a lawyer and a lecturer?
Well, I’ve always been interested in politics, just like I’ve been interested in the law, but to be absolutely candid with you, I got a telephone call on a Monday afternoon basically asking me if I was interested in standing for preselection which back then was basically Murdoch, and I said ‘Look, I need some time to think about’ and the person who phoned me from the Liberal Party said ‘Well, you’ve got ‘til Wednesday night,’. It was just an unusual situation where you’ve got Trevor Sprigg, who was the member previously, who died unexpectedly, and coincidentally Sue Walker who was the Shadow Attorney General, and the only lawyer in the Liberal Party had left to become an independent after a stoush with our then leader. Like all other career decisions you just make whatever one you think is the best at the time.
Do you ever crave to go back to the days as a university lecturer, or are you content with the decision?
Look, working at UWA is a fantastic thing to be able to do, there’s no question about it and the freedom that you’ve got with your time to follow issues and ideas right to their extreme and to research them really thoroughly is a great joy. It’s a huge privilege, I think, that academics have got, but maybe one day again. Got a few working years ahead of me I hope.
How do you balance two such important portfolios such as Attorney General and Treasurer? Do you find that you have to be quite conscious about how you split the time between the two?
It’s very easy, you work 18 hours a day and have good staff. But the workload’s increased, I’d say by 3-4 hours a day. So, they make for long days and you spreading your work out across a full week. There is very rarely a time that I’m standing around my house with a remote control in my hand for the TV. I’ll usually be sitting at a table doing work that needs to be done for Monday, over the course of the weekend. So it’s just long hours, and having a great staff. I’ve got a great Chief of Staff, really good, young, policy advisors in the economic and legal section. Even my media officer does well on occasions. We’ve got good staff in our office, so it helps.
Do you have a particular passion for one portfolio over another?
They’re very, very different. So, as a lawyer I’m fascinated by the law, I love the concepts involved and the way of thinking, but one of the great parts of being Treasurer is the concepts that you’re dealing with are in some ways quite new and the ways of approaching problem solving are quite different, so it really is quite a refreshing thing for a lawyer to do. That is, step out of that legal mode of thinking a problem solving and try and approach problems and issues from a different perspective. So they’re very different disciplines, but they’re just incomparable.
Many commentators have listed you as the ideal replacement for Colin Barnett as leader of the Liberal Party, and if the timing is right, the Premier. Do you ever aspire to lead at this level?
My view is that the life span of politicians is going to be shorter then it was for the last generation of politicians, because the demands are heavier. 24-hour news cycles, all the information and communication technology, I just think the demands of the job have increased. I can say to you honestly, that given a shorter period of time in politics, I’m trying to achieve goals that are orientated around achieving outcomes. Whether that is moving legislation through Parliament, achieving administrative changes, making government more efficient or making good planning decisions. I’m marking my time off by things I’ve done, not positions that I hold or might hold, so it’s not something that’s on a tick list.
What is your response to claims that you didn’t give the Federal Government prior warning about your rising of mining royalties in the last State Budget?
Well, it’s a little bit before my time, because I was appointed Treasurer in December of 2010 and the communication that went on at several meetings between the Under Treasurer of the State and senior bureaucrats from the Commonwealth and between the Premier and the Federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, but I’ve had the content of those meetings relayed to me by the persons who were at them. I have no doubt whatsoever that the Federal Government knew that we had a plan, in due course, to remove the concession on fines in its entirety so that, in due course, the charge for fines Iron Ore for royalties would be 7.5%. I’m just…I’m left in no doubt.
With the announcement that a new stadium will be built at Burswood, the location chosen by the current government, how do you address the concerns made by engineers that have said the cost will have to increase by ten percent to improve the soil on the site. Are you concerned perhaps the Stadium budget might blow out?
I think the first thing to note is that the stadium doesn’t have a budget, so there are a variety of estimates, as to indicative cost, but the budget is the result of a planning process. So what we did in this state budget was put $13 million in for planning and that the planning will take two years, so to sort of have the final budgetary costing model is going to take two years of planning. So you will find when you make the announcement of the location and give out broad indicative costings, which is what has basically occurred, every man and his dog will have a view. Should there be a lot of parking, or should people catch public transport, how much will the site works cost, how much won’t they cost? The fact is, that is one of the key processes we are now engaging in, the difference is, we are now committed to making this a public transport centred stadium, rather than a stadium that has major provision for underground car parking, which is one issue that will defray the costs significantly.
Did the government seriously consider the more favoured option from the report in 2006, which was Kitchener Park? Was that something that you really thought about?
We paid a great deal of heed to the report. What I can say to you is that I am fully supportive of Burswood as the outcome and the best option. From my perspective, what you’ll have is between the Perth foreshore, and the city link, and Burswood, you’ll have a triangle around the city where you have fundamental, modern redevelopment of Perth city, and you’ll be able to literally walk around Perth city to three major changes and infrastructure improvements. So I think that this is the more forward looking option.
Are you concerned at all about the legacy that this government might be leaving for future governments, if the interest bill does increase?
Well the legacy we’re going to leave for future governments is the Fiona Stanley Hospital, a new children’s hospital, $7 billion of health infrastructure, a new stadium, a new foreshore, a completely redeveloped Perth city, plus all of the economic infrastructure, electricity grids and water infrastructure. The fact is, if you didn’t spend that money now, then the industries that generate the wealth are going to start to find it difficult to grow and expand, and that’s not something we’re prepared to let happen.
What does the term ‘civil liberties’ mean to you?
Well, um, *long pause* I can tell you what it means to a lot of other people (laughs). Well, look, I take a view that western liberal democracy has been built in large part upon a notion that there should be serious concern in favour of the individual’s private rights in their interface and relationship with the state. So civil liberties is a very modern term, I much prefer the analysis being about ‘rights’, which are freedoms from certain levels of interference, and freedoms to do certain things within your individual purveyance. So I don’t buy into the idea that there is a perfect definition of civil liberties, it means different things to different people, but I am very conscious of the discourse about rights and the need to limit state’s incursions into the sphere of activity of individuals.
And how do you reconcile your belief with things like stop-and-search laws, PBO’s and other recent government initiatives?
The rights debate has always been about trying to balance rights which compete against each other and there is a school of thought, of which I am highly critical, that all rights of citizens neatly dove tail into each other and you can have them all at once, simultaneously, without there being any conflict. Many people find that one of their rights or freedoms, which is being regularly impinged upon, is the right to be free of violence, or not have their property stolen, defaced or damaged. So, you’re trying to enhance people’s rights in that respect, but at times that will mean a constriction of other rights, and what I can say to you is that I think that there is some common sense to a trade-off, for instance with the imposition that we all go through with random breath tests, which is clearly an infringement of what would otherwise be described as our right to travel freely on the road unimpinged, but the enhancement is our right to be free of violence and danger while using the roads, from drunken road users. And in every discrete area we make a decision about what’s the best balance.
How does this conform with your views on the government regulation of marriage?
My view on that is, what should be an eventual aim of responsible parliaments is to ensure that homosexual couples have all of the privileges that exist under the general run of Australian State and Federal law as heterosexual couples do, but I don’t support the idea that you should give the relationship the same nomenclature, or theoretical status as a marriage. The result should be the same, but the institution of marriage should be preserved as it presently is. And the reason I say this is because the alternative result, which is legislating to have homosexual or ‘gay’ marriages under our marriage act, in the Commonwealth, is in effect, to force private institutions, like churches, to do things that they may not otherwise be willing to do. Marriage is an institution that has been utilised by the state, but is a private institution. Taking the step of forcing churches into marrying people for whom they may not wish to, or may not view the institution as applicable, is equally an infringement on rights, but in a different sense.
What about removing marriage from the total control of government?
Well, it’s not very practical, is it? (laughs) Someone has to ultimately determine disputes between couples, custody of children and the status of property upon the dissolution of a union. So marriage has been adopted by the state as an institution, in my view, properly and necessarily because you don’t really have much choice. But that doesn’t mean that the state owns the institution of marriage, to do with as it wishes from time to time. It’s an institution that is owned, essentially, by civic and private bodies in the community.
What about private bodies that say, for instance, encourage or approve of polygamist relationships?
I think that’s the flipside of the same point. I strongly believe that there has to be a single, firm application of one law, civil or criminal, to all Australians. That should be applied, and that’s what the rule of law dictates. So the idea of polygamist marriage is, in my view, just unacceptable.
How would you characterise the relationship between the WA Liberal Party and the Federal Liberal Party?
Good, I think. There are now more Federal members of the Liberal Party, from Federal Parliament, in WA than there is in Victoria. The WA MP’s are a very significant intellectual force, and voting bloc I’d add. The relationship between the State and Federal members here is very good, a lot of the Federal members are close and personal friends of mine, our interests won’t always coincide, but given that they are a very powerful bloc within the Federal Liberal Party structure, I think that their support for things such as a 75% floor on GST receipts, is absolutely critical to getting the reform instituted.
Newspoll justified that thought today (01/07/2011), with the ALP having their lowest Federal primary vote here in WA. Why do you think the Coalition, and to an extent the Liberals, are so popular here in WA?
Well I think that both sides of centre right and centre left politics in WA have produced governments that have served the interests of WA quite well. There have been some notable exceptions, there have been some very bad governments, particularly between the WA Inc years, but by and large, both sides of government have served WA fairly well. However there have been some very strong conservative governments in WA, who have done great things for the state. I think that the legacy that conservative thinking has given to WA has been a very strong one, a pro development one, and one that’s helped really grown the economy. I think that people look at that previous success and expect more of it.
Are you happy with the job that Tony Abbott is doing as leader of the opposition?
Um, I would like him to adopt, formally, as Federal Party policy, a 75% floor in GST receipts, but what I would say is that he did something at the last Federal Election that was just remarkable. I don’t think people can focus enough on the notion that he brought a one term government to the brink of electoral failure, which is one of the rarest achievements in Australian political history, and he did it when everyone, including the media, had said it was an impossible task, for him particularly. So he is a person not to be underestimated.
Did you support his motion for a plebiscite on the carbon tax?
Elections, and plebiscites or referendums, are the truth engines of Australian politics. If you do not put up a major policy change, and this is a MAJOR policy change, where everyone can debate it, where every person gets their say and everyone lodges their ballot on what they think about the issue, you won’t get to the truth. So I think that that policy, being brought in after an unequivocal promise that it wouldn’t be, is scandalous.
So the $80 million of taxpayers money would be well spent on a plebiscite?
Well, democracy has never been cheap! (laughs) I’ve never accepted this idea that the cost of a referendum should be a reason for not having one, the question is, is it an appropriate issue upon which to have a form of plebiscite? We could have saved $80 million if the issue was a live one at the previous election, but the PM chose to make it a non issue at the previous election and if extra cost is involved to try and get to the truth of the Australian people’s will about this issue, then that’s what we need to do.
So do you think that if there was an election tomorrow, and the government went with the policy of a carbon price to combat climate change, and won a majority, the opposition would accept that?
I think that there is some likelihood of that, given recent political history. I think a lot of people committed, in the conservative side of politics, to a certain view of industrial relations, and that view was rejected at an election, and now that view no longer forms a part of the conservative side’s essential policy. My view would be that if you held either an election or a plebiscite, around this issue, you would have to abide by a mandate, if one were clearly visible.