Anika Wells MP on ABC Afternoon Briefing

SUBJECTS: Grants rorts, NSW covid explosion, Queensland covid rules
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Time now for my political panel. Although I think you just got a sneaky peek of who's on my political panel. Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman and Labor MP Anika Wells. Welcome to both of you. Trent, I want to start with you because this analysis conducted by Nine newspapers of 19,000 Commonwealth grants, shows Coalition electorates are receiving three times the amount of grants funded in Labor seats. How can that be fair?
TRENT ZIMMERMAN, MEMBER FOR NORTH SYDNEY: Well, I think the first thing to be said is that obviously this is a very narrow band of grants programmes the Commonwealth operates. I think, 11 programmes out of 1700. But also, I do think that we need some more time to digest these figures. For example, in my own case, I had a look at the grants credited to North Sydney this afternoon. Had a quick look and discovered they've been double counting to the tune of eight and a half million dollars. Not the journalist’s fault, I hasten to add. It's just the way it's been presented on the government website. But I also found significant grants for projects that aren't actually in my electorate, so or shared between multiple electorates. So you’ve got to be very careful when you're looking at some of this data to make the right analysis. And I've also seen for example, today, Kristina Keneally saying, ‘How could Wentworth get so much in the eastern suburbs of Sydney?’. Well, if you look at actually what the figures show, they show that half of the grants to Wentworth were actually for a state-wide project just because it happens to have the, the sporting complex of Moore Park in the electorate. And a significant proportion of it was for a programme affecting all of Sydney to support Jewish institutions with security.
KARVELAS: Alright, you found the flaws and in some parts. But actually, if we zoom right out, we know about sports rorts. We know about the car park fiasco. We know and we trust the Auditor General. We already know, there's a pattern of behaviour. Isn't it time for a federal ICAC to try and oversee these sorts of things?
ZIMMERMAN: Oh well, I support a federal ICAC. I’ve been quite consistent about that.
KARVELAS: But we don't have one Trent, with respect.  We don't have one. We didn’t get the legislation. Where is it? 
ZIMMERMAN: Well, hopefully, hopefully coming before this parliament rises. That's certainly what my expectation is and hope is. And I do think we need a federal integrity commission. But I would point out that in all of these cases, there's been no suggestion the grants have been allocated in this report today in a way that is anything other than within the guidelines that the ministers have. And within discretion that ministers have. And obviously, we have an Auditor General that currently does a pretty effective job in investigating these things. And what I think is as important as any government, there's certainly been lots of cases in the last Labor administration, where we hope the government learns from the auditor-general’s findings and implements those findings.
KARVELAS: Yeah, there's, there's we'll go to Anika in a moment. There's no doubt that across different governments, we've seen some issues of pork barrelling and other issues. My job is to zoom out and go pork barrelling full stop, is clearly wrong. Because all Australian voters and citizens deserve the right services based on merit. So shouldn't that be at arm's length from the political process? It seems that politicians want to hold on to this so that they can take control. When actually, often the recommendations show the money should be spent in different places. We know that from the carpark rorts.
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think there's two things. Firstly, I think it's a mistake to think that each electorate in the Commonwealth of Australia across our continent is going to have the same needs and the same funding requirements. That's clearly not the case. And part of my criticism of this report today is that it talks about drought assistance being skewed, for example, towards the seat of Maranoa. Now Maranoa represents, as Anika will know, a pretty big slab of Queensland and a pretty drought affected part of Queensland when the drought was at its peak. So there will be different needs between different communities, undoubtedly. But the second point I would make in response to your question is, that I do think as a matter of principle, there is a bigger issue about whether we should be handing this or other areas of policy, final decisions about taxpayers funds, to unelected officials. Or whether we should leave it in the hands of those that are elected by the people. And I think ultimately the decision has to be in the hands of elected governments and their ministers. And what we need to do is ensure that there is the proper transparency, the proper guidelines, and the proper monitoring, which we currently have through the Auditor General for those grants. 
KARVELAS: Are you…and I'll just should tell our viewers we're having terrible trouble getting Anika’s line up. So it's a Trent…
ZIMMERMAN: I thought you were giving me a bit of a coalition bias?
KARVELAS: Well, not after I’m about to say the next thing. I'm going to be, I'm going to be a Labor bias now because I'm cross examining you. So let's go to ethics. Are you comfortable with the programmes, the sports programme, the car park programme? Do you really think that they were the most robust spending that they could have been? Honestly?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, the Auditor General made some pretty clear findings, and we're committed to implementing them. And I think that that is the right course of action. And where the Auditor General found flaws as he did, then we have to learn from that.
KARVELAS: Do you understand why voters look at this and think, these guys are all the same?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I mean, I think it's one of the challenges that, we are getting a bit philosophical, but it is one of the challenges in our democracy. I mean, I think my community in North Sydney expects for me to be fighting for opportunities to fix problems in our local area. And some MPs will be more effective than doing that as others. And you know, sometimes it's actually at the base level, it's actually how active you are as an MP in making sure that community groups and other service providers are actually aware of the grant opportunities in the first place. And if you're effective at doing that, then you will see more community groups, organisations councils and your electorates putting in, in more applications. And that's part of my job. I work with, we spend a lot of time making sure that those that are potentially eligible for grants actually know about them. And that's where you do inevitably get some differentiation.
KARVELAS: Anika I think we've got you so there you go. There's a bit of political balance about to be delivered in this panel because the…
ANIKA WELLS, MEMBER FOR LILLEY:If only we had a better NBN in Lilley.
KARVELAS:  Trent Zimmerman says on the Auditor General reports that they're going to act on those. And that the some of the figures in this in this Nine newspapers report are wrong. What's your response to that?
WELLS: It is outrageous how contemptuous the government is treating taxpayers with taxpayers’ own money. You might have seen today we learned that if you live on Old Northern Road in northside Brisbane, and you are an even numbered house, so you are a Dickson constituent. Scott Morrison will give you $422 worth of discretionary funding per voter. But if you live in an odd numbered house on Old Northern Road, which makes you a Lilley constituent, one of mine, Scott Morrison will give you $8.50 discretionary funding per voter. Same road, same community needs, completely different approaches. And I am PK, incandescent, on behalf of my people who have to suffer this, under this contemptuous government. We put together a Lilley infrastructure budget submission. It took us six months. We went suburb by suburb to do surveys through our community. I did 63 mobile offices this term. Together, we put together the Lilley budget submission 21/22. And this government would not even let me table it in the House. So I put the twins in the pram and walked around to the Treasurer's office. And I hand delivered it to the Treasurer's office. And not a single one of those items in an eight-page submission has been delivered. The absolute contempt.
KARVELAS: Okay, so let me drill down into what Labor would do differently. I know you've said you want to federal ICAC. Let's park that because that's one proposal. That's where you find corruption. But actually, because of the way that the rules are constructed, where politicians ultimately have the power and they can ignore the advice, we can often see it actually fitting within the rules to do some of this pork barrelling. Is Laborprepared to surrender that political control so that actually it's based on the best model, the best practice, the best advice?
WELLS: Well, you heard it from the boss this morning. He said it should be done by the guidelines. And if you look at his record as the Infrastructure Minister last time, he funded light rail on the Gold Coast. Not a single Labor seat on the Gold Coast PK, not a single one. He funded the motorway between the North Shore of Sydney where Trent is, right up to the Tweed. No Labor seats running up there at the time either. We did it the right way last time. The Prime Minister, when he was asked about the discrepancy in funding between Dickson and Lilley this morning, he said ‘Oh Lilley probably hasn't gotten any of those projects...’ (Didn't seem to know much about it) ‘…probably hasn't got any of those projects because they don't meet the guidelines’. But then, when he got asked about Dickson, he said, ‘Oh, we must have a good local member’. Where in the federal government guidelines is having a good local member? That's not what it's meant to be about. The Community Development Programme that is the source of a lot of these tens of millions of dollars that you see coming into to these Liberal electorates, you can't even apply for them. The government has to invite you to apply for them. So if these people are writing the rules like this, there's no way that you can fix the rules. You just got to get rid of them and start again. That's how bad the process has deteriorated to now.
KARVELAS: Okay, I want to park this and just ask Trent a couple of questions in relation to the unfolding Omicron issue and the numbers spiking in your home state. Now, we know Kerry Chant, who I think we all know is a pretty bright person with very solid medical and scientific advice about how to deal with these things. 
ZIMMERMAN: One of the heroes of the pandemic.
KARVELAS: She really is right. And she says, she wants the masks worn, because this is so super contagious. But the actual government says it's up to you. It's personal choice. Now, I know personal choice is great. We all want it. But if we're dealing with a spike like this, shouldn't we be mandating such a thing?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, we, I think the state government is relying on the protection that's afforded by having such high vaccination rates. Some of the highest in the world in New South Wales. And we're yet to see a body of real-world experience in relation to Omicron in terms of, I mean, obviously, people are speculating. And more each day, more and more evidence comes to light. Although I do feel like I read one article and then read another and they contradict each other entirely. But so we are building a more knowledge about how Omicron is transmitted, and what's, what its impact will be. So I think that as that builds up, we'll have a clearer picture of what we need to do. The second thing I'd say is, is that there is a broader issue, I think, a little bit outside the health scope. And that's basically the social licence that governments have to do some of these things. And I think that unless it's based on that body of evidence, you can run a risk of, after so long experiencing lockdowns, of some pushback. But look, I mean, I think people in Australia have throughout this pandemic overwhelmingly…of course, there have been some nut jobs. And of course, there have been some people that misbehave. But overwhelmingly, they've just followed common sense. And from my own perspective, if I'm going into a busy supermarket, I'll be wearing a mask. If I'm going into any of those retail settings, where it's crowded, I'll be wearing a mask. And that is the type of common sense that I think Australians have been extraordinarily good at displaying.
KARVELAS: Anika turning to Queensland. The Premier, and her handling of this flight situation. Was that appropriate? These people all forced into quarantine? And I knoq it's been now revised. But when this news broke, were you alarmed how that was being handled?
WELLS: I think it was, you know, it was late last night. And I have every sympathy for those people who would have had a rough night I imagine, thinking about Christmas in quarantine. But the approach was consistent with how Queensland has been this entire pandemic, which is to be cautious. To be very cautious. The Premier has always had that approach. And Queenslanders overwhelmingly endorse it. I think that the idea that we drop the net, learn more and then sort of ease up restrictions safely, is what has been consistently done. And allows maximum reassurance at a time that I think Queenslanders do feel a bit uneasy. We've got the borders opening up. That obviously has huge benefits. But it means that we're getting COVID where we haven't had it for months. So I think like Trent, Queenslanders are very responsive to the recommendations from the Chief Health Officer. If we have to wear masks again, we will. We're still checking in. That's the very best we can do at the moment.
KARVELAS: Now before I let you both go. Trent I've got to quiz you on something. I'm just going to play this first. {plays TikTok video} Are you ok Trent? What are you doing? 
ZIMMERMAN: {laughs} Blushing at the moment. It's Christmas. You got to have a bit of fun. And I'm not about to become a TikTok star I don’t think. 
KARVELAS: Well, I don't know. I think we just…
ZIMMERMAN: The Christmas tree’s a big thing in our household. Let me tell you. We actually drove an hour to find the perfect Christmas tree so....yeah.
KARVELAS: That is a really attractive tree you've managed to get there. Anika, I imagine given you've got small children that Christmas trees are a thing in your house too, right?
WELLS: Yeah, I was just thinking that with my three children and rescue kelpie, they would lay waste to your tree Trent. So I congratulate you for the level of civility in your life that that is possible.
KARVELAS: I'm embarrassed to say we have a plastic tree. Alright, my poor daughters. Hey, guys, you've been wonderful panellists throughout the year. Thank you so much for joining us.
ZIMMERMAN: And PK could I say, I know your time on Afternoon Briefing’s coming to an end. And obviously you're going to have an even potentially bigger role at the ABC on Radio National. But can I say thank you for all that you've done on, on Afternoon Briefing? To let you in on a little secret. When I first started coming on, there were a couple of voices in the government that said, ‘Why are you going on PK? You're crazy. It’ll only end in harm’. And I can say that your show is the only one that's got me a legal letter from someone threatening to sue me. But apart from that, I won't go into the details but you might recall about that. But apart from that, it's been a really great experience to be able to share these afternoons with you.
KARVELAS: Yeah, no, I really appreciate it. To you too Anika. You guys have been excellent guests. And long may it continue. Thank you.
WELLS: Looking forward to listening to you on RN. Don’t forget us little people.
KARVELAS: Yeah, every morning. 3.30. Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman and Labor MP Anika Wells there.