Transcript: Jenny McAllister on ABC 24 News

10.30am | September 08, 2017





SUBJECTS: $122 million postal survey

GREG JENNETT: Senator, what was your take out from that exchange we just heard [in the committee hearing], are we to conclude that the high court might strike down the postal survey but they yet have strategies up their sleeve to carry on with it?

SENATOR MCALLISTER: Well I conclude two things. The first is that the government really hasn’t thought this through and when we’re in the middle of a $122 million exercise, to be doing contingency planning that commenced just a week ago, around how you might find a $122 million extra in your budget, it’s kind of terrifying. That is not how government is supposed to be run and it suggests an extremely chaotic process. To go to your original question, yes, I think it seems the government is contemplating methods by which they might fund this survey even if the High Court finds that their appropriation is not constitutional, and I think that’s a really big problem.

JENNETT: So in your understanding of how public administration and agency budgeting works, how imaginable is it that an agency like the ABS could shake out a $120 odd million?

MCALLISTER: Well, it is speculating but the question that you would ask is what do they have to cut to find $122 million for this survey, and really would it be worth it? The ABS plays a really important role; they’ve got a lot of other important work to be getting on with. Why would we take money away from that work to fund this task which everybody really concedes is unnecessary? Ultimately this is coming back to the parliament whatever the outcome of the survey. We really should just go back to the parliament and get an answer.

JENNETT: Sure and I’ll take you there in a moment, but there is the good money after bad question because I think your committee this morning heard that at least $14 million has already been expended and I think that was by the ABS alone, not accounting for what others had done. If there was a way to salvage some of that money and carry on, there would be some prudence wouldn’t there in doing that?

MCALLISTER: I think your first -

JENNETT: Because you’re wasting $14 million otherwise. That’s money that’s already gone out the door.

MCALLISTER: It is money that has already gone out the door. If you asked the public, would you rather we waste $14 million or $122 million, I don’t think they’d like either option but they’d probably go for the smaller number.

JENNETT: And just to flip this around, if the High Court flags the whole exercise through, were you left satisfied that they key agencies involved here, on the evidence presented to you this morning, are reasonably well advanced with their professional preparations?

MCALLISTER: I think the evidence was that they are struggling to complete robust preparations in the timeframe that they have been allocated. To give you one example, the AEC wrote to a whole lot of electors and told them that they would be updating their details to match their new addresses that they had. They then had to write to them again and say no, that automatic update won’t be able to take place, leaving a whole lot of people I think in a very confusing situation about whether they are or are not correctly enrolled. When you ask them, how could such an elemental mistake take place? They said, ordinarily we’d have much more time to plan for a close of the roles of this type.

JENNETT: It does sound very compressed doesn’t it, and the partnership, the nature of the relationship between the bureau of statistics and the AEC. I think it would be fair to say they don’t regularly work together on projects. How is that integration going?

MCALLISTER: Well I think we’re yet to see how that works out. The ABS will be posting surveys to everybody who is on the role except for one group and they are the silent electors, and the AEC are going to be posting the surveys to that group. It’s a massive logistical exercise and it’s being undertaken not by one agency but by two. It sounds pretty risky to me.

JENNETT: At the risk of asking a Labor senator about the internals of the Coalition, were the High Court to stop the postal survey, I think it’s everybody’s interpretation that the Coalition is then in a bind about how to go forward. Is it your view that you would welcome, in fact might even be privately encouraging, a certain number of core Liberal MPs to go ahead and do – to break ranks effectively on the floor of the House?

MCALLISTER: That will be up to those individuals and doubtless they’re thinking about their options. I think what will become clear, if the High Court knocks this over, is that Mr Turnbull has run out of options. They have been constructing delaying tactics, diversionary tactics, new ways of making decisions for a long time simply to avoid the Coalition having to come to grips with this in the party room. I don’t think there will be anywhere to hide after this. They will have run out of options and the party room will need to make a decision.

JENNETT: If they don’t – I assume you’re in touch with your lower house members, would they be working to try and collaborate with four, five, six individuals in the House to get this result one way or the other pretty quickly after today?

MCALLISTER: Look I’m not in a position - I’m not in the lower house but I think what we will be calling for is for the Prime Minister to allow a full, free vote including members of cabinet. Everyone votes with their conscience in the lower house. We’re confident that the numbers are there for marriage equality and we’d like to see that brought on as quickly as possible.

JENNETT: Alright, well, Jenny McAllister, for your read out on the evidence that you heard this morning and generally into this debate, thanks so much.

MCALLISTER: Thanks for having me on.