Australia Today with Steve Price – Russian Embassy, Morrison Ministries Scandal



Subjects: Russian Embassy saga, Morrison Ministries

STEVE PRICE, HOST: Incredible story in The Australia today. Apparently, our country has taken charge of a prime Canberra site that was to be the site of the new Russian Embassy in Canberra. Now why this has happened, according to this story – the Russians wanted to send in contractors to help with the building. Now, the suspicion was that perhaps these contractors might be more KGB than plumber and so they have been told that they can’t come in. The National Capital Authority have statutory planning permission over this block. The Russians have owned it for 14 years. Peter Khalil is the Labor MP for Wills. He’s the incoming Chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, former advisor to Kevin Rudd, he joins us on a regular basis. What do you know about this Peter?

PETER KHALIL, MEMBER FOR WILLS: Good morning, Steve. The National Capital Authority is well within its contractual rights to terminate this lease. As you noted, the Russians had the lease for 14 years and not much building has actually occurred on this site so they’re well within their rights to terminate the lease under the laws that pertain to that urban planning in the diplomatic quarter. And frankly there’s quite a surplus of available property for the diplomatic missions and embassies and so on and 14 years is a long time mate, you want to build something and if you haven’t got your act together, whether you’re a plumber or a sparkie or whatever, it’s time to move on and I think they’ve made the right decision.

PRICE: It’s an interesting plot of land. It would make it the closet embassy to Parliament House. It is in an area where there are a number of other embassies so I mean who knows what might or might not have happened if this thing had been built, but it would have been quite a listening post I would imagine.

KHALIL: Well, Steve, you seem to know a lot about this, I’m not sure where you got all of this information from mate.

PRICE: I’m pinching it from The Australian is where I’m getting it from.

KHALIL: Look, I don’t want to sound like a robot, but the National Capital Authority is well within its contractual rights to terminate this lease. It is in an interesting quarter. In that quarter there in Yarralumla, you’ve got, the I think, the South African embassy, the US embassy, the British might be there as well, a couple of other high-profile embassies. And it is a very sort after block. And again, the point is, if after 14 years you can’t build anything there, the NCA (National Capital Authority), is correct in terminating that lease so that another diplomatic mission can access that property.

PRICE: Some developer can just take that block. Build another couple of units or apartments for politicians to sleep in when they’re in Canberra.

KHALIL: I don’t know about that. We sleep in our offices we work so hard.

PRICE: Pull the other one. Have a listen, I’m sure you would’ve watched it, I did yesterday, Scott Morrison’s rather bizarre media conference, it went on for an hour, quite aggressive media questioning about what he was up to, were he didn’t tell his colleagues, other than two of them, that he was taking over five portfolios in the shadows. I’ll get your opinion on this is a sec, I still don’t quite get what he was trying to do. Here’s part of his explanation from yesterday.

“That is what I did. In a crisis. Because, frankly, I’d rather be having this conversation about what I did do, to try and protect the Australia people and if there are views that that overstepped the mark, happy to have that conversation. The fact that Ministers were not aware of these things is actually proof of my lack of interference”.

PRICE: It’s very twisted logic, Peter.

KHALIL: I got confused listening to that. Look, what he’s done, what he did was both extraordinary and unprecedented. In our view, in my view, it’s a trashing of our democracy and there’s a disdain there for the Parliament, a contempt for the Australian public by not letting them know what he was doing. And this argument that he had to do it to protect the Australian people, you know what, if there was an issue with one of the Ministers, who fell ill or whatever during the crisis, you could’ve then publicly let people know you were swearing yourself in to cover for that Minister, or you could’ve had another Minister take his place or her place. I mean the argument doesn’t wash. Look I’ve clocked Morrison; I think you’ve clocked Morrison a while ago. I never fell for the daggy dad routine three years ago; some people saw through that. I think most of the Australian public have clocked him now, given the result of the last election. But I’m also a bit befuddled by the current leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, standing by him and defending what I view is indefensible behaviour, that he kept all of this secret. There was no reason to keep it secret. He could have let the public know that he was doing this in order to be a backup or backstop as he claims and everyone would’ve been fine with that. But Dutton is now going around saying nothing to see here, nothing to see here and really running away from answering questions on this and he is now the new leader of the Liberal Party and he should take responsibility and openly point out that this is not good for our democracy – what was done. So, I think its just quite bizarre. The last point I’ll make about this, is that the Australian people deserve better. There is a lot of cynicism around democracy and our system of government, although as Churchill said, ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’ and I actually think it’s our responsibility to – in government – be one that’s committed to integrity, accountability, respect for our democracy and that that kind of secrecy is unacceptable, in hiding it from the Australian people. Look, there are some things, were for national security reasons, you’re not going to talk about on the front page of the Tele or The Herald Sun, there are issues around intelligence and national security to keep us safe, this wasn’t one of them.

PRICE: Yeah, look, I’m still unsure of how much of this resonates with the public but you know, so what? We need a discussion because it’s such a strange thing. I think your leader Anthony Albanese called it “weird”. But how would and I know former Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews is very upset about this and she was one of those that was shadowed but not told and yet on election day she gets a call from the Prime Minister, who we know learn was her quasi replacement, saying you need to put a media release out about an arrival of a refugee boat on election day. I think there’s a lot more to spill out about this. I mean, I made the point earlier, I know Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg pretty well. They’re best mates. They attended each other weddings. I think one of them might be God father to one of the other’s child, or whatever. So, Greg Hunt gets told by the PM, ‘I’m your back up Health Minister in case you fall over’, and Josh Frydenberg doesn’t say anything, really has he done that to me?

KHALIL: And Josh spent a fair bit of his political capital defending the former Prime Minister. You remember that period, that last year of Government, Josh was standing by his man. So, that’s a pretty deep betrayal there to not be told that.

PRICE: They were living together at The Lodge at one point.

KHALIL: Well, that’s true. Look, I think the broader issue here is, you say the broader Australian public might say ‘so what’? There is a ‘so what’, the ‘so what’ part of this is this predilection towards control that was demonstrated by Morrison, to power, unchecked, unaccountable, that’s something that is unacceptable in our system. That’s something that we see, we push back on and fight against with respect to authoritarian regimes. Now, I’m not comparing it to Putin or these other countries, but the act itself of doing that is highly problematic and the explanations don’t wash and you know, the right for the public to know about this I think is paramount. So, there will be more that comers out. The issue that you mentioned around what happened on election day – that’s a disgrace. That he was trying to force, to politicise our border force, our officials and trying to force them to put out a press release which was highly political – completely unacceptable actions and Karen Andrews is right to be pretty pissed off with him.

PRICE: I agree. Thank you mate. Catch up soon.

KHALIL: Thanks mate.