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Subjects: New England byelection, same-sex marriage, citizenship, Sam Dastyari.

KIERAN GILBERT:

With me one of Mr Joyce’s Cabinet colleagues, Darren Chester, the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure. And it looked like a buoyant mood, understandably, on Saturday night in Tamworth.

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, great to be here, Kieran. It was a great triumph for Barnaby, for our party, for the Coalition more generally. I mean he had a 12 per cent increase in his primary vote. His increase in primary vote was higher than the entire Labor vote. I mean, Labor got 11 per cent of the vote. Bill Shorten didn’t show up in the New England campaign, which I thought was pretty weak of him.

But anyway, a great vote for Barnaby and I look forward to getting him back here to Canberra and back in the top job for our party. He has been a great champion for the Nats and we are looking forward to that certainly going forward.

KIERAN GILBERT:

We will talk about the polls a bit later. But it must be encouraging and good for the mood within the Coalition because this wasn’t a survey, this was an election.

DARREN CHESTER:

A hundred and ten thousand cast a real vote, not just rung up and got asked who they might vote for one day. A hundred and ten thousand people cast a real vote over the last couple of weeks in New England.

KIERAN GILBERT:

But to be fair he wasn’t up against much opposition, was he?

DARREN CHESTER:

That is fair but, I mean, that is also a bit hard on the Labor Party, the Greens and the 14 other candidates. I mean, they all showed up, there were 17 people on the ballot paper and 64 per cent of them gave number one to Barnaby Joyce. So I think that is a vindication of the hard work he has done in his seat and it also is a bit of a sign to us as a Coalition that when we focus on delivering on the ground, in our communities, on things that actually matter to people, we will be well rewarded at the ballot box – and that is what Barnaby focuses on.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Will it help quieten some of the critics like Mr Christensen, who has admitted he was the person who had threatened privately to quit the Coalition?

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, look, I am not going to run a commentary on George Christensen. I mean, George and I have known each other for seven years, we have normally got on very, very well. We have disagreed from time to time quite robustly on different policy areas. But we have normally done that in a very upfront way, and I think George has made a blue over the last couple of weeks. He has acknowledged he has made a bit of a blue and in the spirit of Christmas I am happy to forgive George and move on.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Do you think everyone is as forgiving as you are in this festive season?

DARREN CHESTER:

Mate, I have been here for a while now, probably not.

KIERAN GILBERT:

But you need the numbers, that is the bottom line.

DARREN CHESTER:

It’s not just about the numbers, it is also about people make mistakes. I think George has made a blue, we need to move on. We need to actually focus on the things that actually matter to people. Any second I spend, or minute I spend talking about my colleagues is a minute I could have been talking about our great infrastructure program, the 500,000 new jobs over the last two years, the small business tax cuts, all the things we are actually delivering that make a difference in people’s lives. People couldn’t care less what I think about George Christensen, they care what I am doing for them as an Infrastructure and Transport Minister to make a difference in their lives.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Do you think that New England, though, does help with the mood within the Coalition party room?

DARREN CHESTER:

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. The Labor Party was smashed and we had a great result. Bill Shorten didn’t show up, didn’t have the guts to show up. He got an 11 per cent primary vote. We got a 64 per cent primary vote.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The focus really now on Bennelong, isn’t it? That will be so pivotal for the year.

DARREN CHESTER:

That is the next battleground. There is always a next battleground in politics and the next battleground now is to refocus our efforts completely on Bennelong. John Alexander has been a real champion of that community and just like Barnaby Joyce is well-connected at a local level, I think John Alexander’s local links, his hard work over many years will be rewarded in Bennelong. And to be honest the Labor candidate is a blow-in.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Do you think there was a sympathy vote there as well, in terms of being caught up in the citizenship dramas? When you look at Barnaby Joyce, he went to school there, he grew up there. Do people think this is a bit odd?

DARREN CHESTER:

Yeah, I am not sure if I would call it, actually, a sympathy vote. But there is a recognition that, what the heck is going on? I mean, Barnaby, he is one of us. He has been in our community a long time, very authentically from that region and seen as being from that region. So I guess there was a feeling that this was all much ado about nothing, let’s get out there, let’s cast our vote, then he can get back down there as the Deputy Prime Minister and keep delivering for us.  I think that was a bit of the sentiment on the ground.

There is also a bit of a sentiment out there saying: well, if you are going to hold Barnaby Joyce to account as his dad was born in New Zealand, what are you going to do about Sam Dastyari? I mean, a couple of people came through the booths on the weekend were saying to me that there is a word they use for these type of people during the wars and they don’t like what Sam Dastyari is alleged to have done.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Obviously that will be a focus for you this week. I will get onto that specifically in just a moment. But on the polls that we have seen, a bit of a boost. Still well behind on a two-party basis, but a bit of a boost there and also the number, which was very interesting today, more than 70 per cent of people surveyed believe the Prime Minister should go to the next election, that there shouldn’t be a change mid-stream.

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, you have asked me about polls before, Kieran, when they have been bad. I don’t get despondent during bad polls and I don’t get overly buoyant if it is a good poll. I mean I didn’t have chicken and champagne for breakfast, I had Vegemite on toast and came to work again. Polls will move around. I think the Ipsos poll, though, about the Australian people’s view of not changing leaders is almost a statement of the bleeding obvious. I mean, we have seen what happened when Bill Shorten undermined Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, people did not like that. I think people want certainty, stability in the leadership roles. That is what we want to see going forward. Obviously Barnaby Joyce coming back this week is great for the National Party. I absolutely back Malcolm Turnbull in his role. I think Malcolm will lead us to the next election, I think we will win the next election as long as we stick together.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Coalition has got to learn its lessons as well, of course, having torn down a Prime Minister as well.

DARREN CHESTER:

That is a fair point. We have got to stick together, keep on delivering everything we promised the Australian people at the last election. Remember, no one has accused Malcolm Turnbull of breaking any promises. He has delivered everything he said he would do at the last election, he has been resilient and tough and determined during a pretty ordinary year in terms of the issues that were thrown at him outside his control.  We are here in the last week of the sittings for the year, about to deliver a historic result in terms of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I want to give the bloke a bit of credit for that, I mean, he stuck to his guns all through the year and it has been a tough year but I think he has come out of it pretty well.

KIERAN GILBERT:

On that issue, if there are amendments to the Same-Sex Marriage Bill as put forward and passed by the Senate it could be a bit messy, couldn’t it? If the Prime Minister and others back the religious protections and then it has to go back to the Senate, potentially.

DARREN CHESTER:

I’m not sure, Kieran, I would call it a mess. I mean, the Australian people say…

KIERAN GILBERT:

Will you support the amendments?

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, just a quick point. The Australian people say they want to see Members of Parliament speaking from the heart, what do they really think on these issues. I think we are about to see the House of Reps at its best this week on a historic vote.  There will be some amendments put forward, people have to put forward their own view on them, their own conscience. I am prepared to look at the amendments. Generally speaking I think the Smith Bill has got it pretty right. I think it reflects the wish of the Australian people in that postal ballot. I mean, 80 per cent of Australian people cast a vote. More than 60 per cent said yes, they wanted to see some changes. I think some religious protections are appropriate. But let’s make sure we get that balance right. I am happy to look at the amendments as they come forward. But I think we are about to see the House of Reps performing the way the Australian people would like to see it perform.

KIERAN GILBERT:

It could still get through unamended, couldn’t it, potentially, with the numbers with Labor and so on?

DARREN CHESTER:

It could, absolutely. It could get through unamended, it could be changed in some way. But I think we will have to see how it plays out on the floor of the House of Reps and I think it will be a good week, I think it is a historic week in terms that this is a major reform which the Australian people have clearly said they wanted. We need to make sure though, Kieran, that we are actually uniting those people who didn’t necessarily want it to happen. We don’t want to alienate people in Australia over these issues, we need to actually bring them with us, so let’s try and find some fair middle ground in that.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Prime Minister yesterday on Sky News said he was feeling comfortable that there wouldn’t be any more Coalition MPs embroiled in the citizenship dramas, but we have heard that before, haven’t we?

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, that is my understanding as well, that they have done all the appropriate checks. I mean, there is a question mark I think over some Labor MPs in terms of when they actually renounced their citizenship in terms of the timing of their nomination date. Look, I think these have got to be tidied up very quickly.

KIERAN GILBERT:

But you are with the Prime Minister on that one? You are comfortable that at least with the Nats?

DARREN CHESTER:

To the absolute best of my knowledge. I mean, we have gone through a process, a more rigorous process perhaps than most, in terms of Senator Canavan, Senator Nash and Barnaby Joyce obviously put their own hands up and put themselves forward. The High Court took a very black letter view of the law and I think on that basis there is a couple of Labor MPs who may have to have some questions that need to be answered.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Now, finally to that issue of Sam Dastyari’s meeting with the Chinese donor Huang Xiangmo. And at that meeting, apparently, there were four people now, Sharri Markson reports today there were four people there. Including an individual who has now been out campaigning with John Alexander. Is that all a bit smelly?

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, look, I saw that report today, it is the first time I had seen it. I guess the biggest question here for the Labor Party is around, will Bill Shorten continue to have Sam Dastyari in his team given he has made some major mistakes twice? The question is really: whose side is Sam Dastyari on? Bill Shorten needs to answer some of these questions. I mean, what has Sam Dastyari got over him that he has got to stay in the Senate? He should be moving him on.

KIERAN GILBERT:

But having a Liberal Party supporter, apparently, at that meeting with Sam Dastyari…

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, I have got no idea who that individual was. I mean, I don’t think Sam Dastyari is going to last a week in this place. I think he will be out of the Labor Party by the end of the week. I think he will be out of the Labor Party, he might even be sitting as an Independent in the Senate by the end of the week. Bill Shorten needs to answer some of these questions. I mean, whose side is Sam Dastyari on?

KIERAN GILBERT:

You don’t think it is a bit suspicious to see that story emerge? There were apparently four people at the meeting and now we see that one of them was wearing a John Alexander shirt at Eastwood station at the weekend.

DARREN CHESTER:

Well, I have no knowledge of that person at all. I mean, you are putting to me a report from the media today. Sam Dastyari himself has actually finally fessed up that he was acting inappropriately. He has stood down from, or he was sacked from his Deputy Whip role. I don’t see how his position in the Labor Party is tenable. He has got to make a decision: whose side is he on?

KIERAN GILBERT:

Darren Chester, thanks for your time, appreciate it.

[ENDS]

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