THE countdown to the May 18 federal election is heating up and The Border Mail's DAVID JOHNSTON speaks with Farrer MP SUSSAN LEY with no topic off-limits after a tumultuous term in Canberra.
DJ: Are you in the fight of your political life?
SL: I've had many fights and this is a tough one. The first fight to claim the seat for the Liberals after well over a decade of National Party representation was probably the biggest. Since then, politics being what it is I've had many fights, but this is a tough one.
DJ: Have you ever seen the southern part of your electorate in places like Deniliquin and Finley hurting so much largely due to the present zero water allocations?
SL: No I haven't and after the NSW election I described it as a wake-up call on water. Far from being concerned about the national media attention on the electorate, I am pleased because it is actually highlighting something that is really important to the rest of the country.
DJ: Is this drought worse than the millennium drought of the late 2000s?
SL: The millennium drought was slower and like a noose tightening over time, but we still had rainfall in the north of the state. This time it is sudden and sharp and it isn't just drought, it is low water allocations for a range of reasons. Low inflows in the north of NSW is a real contributor.
DJ: Last year you attempted to have water sitting in Lake Hume and Dartmouth released to allow farmers to complete winter crops, but couldn't. What was the stumbling block?
SL: I was the only person talking about it and even in my irrigated agriculture communities there was some concern because for anyone in the water market they felt it would have affected the price of water. What the complicated nature of water allocations has shown is a divide in the basin into the haves and haves not with water. The communities are the ones worse off and hurting.
DJ: Was the founder of Voices for Farrer, Chris Brooks, a former supporter of yours?
SL: Yes, but not as much as he and others have suggested. He rang me when the single desk for wheat marketing legislation was in the Parliament with what I would describe as some very boisterous and robust commentary about how I should respond to that piece of legislation. The angriest meeting I ever faced in my life was at Osborne near the end of the single desk (issue) and those farmers in the lead-up to the 2010 election were very, very upset. The point is Chris Brooks benefited from that. Liberal Party policy has certainly looked after him.
DJ: Have you been surprised by the traction the Voices for Farrer candidate Kevin Mack has gained in this campaign?
SL: I think you need to follow the money and where the funding is coming from. Mr Brooks said in The Australian newspaper he had thrown $200,000 at his water candidate and there was more to come.
DJ: Mr Mack made the comment at the time of his decision to stand against you: "Sussan has worked tirelessly for herself in her role as a professional politician for 18 years". How do you respond to that?
SL: My immediate reaction was anger. I was quite upset actually and just know it is not true. I felt it was a low blow. I actually don't even know that is what Kevin believes.
DJ: A hypothetical question. If the PM came to you today and asked 'what is the one thing we can do to help these people in communities really hurting presently' what would it be?
SL: Bring the states to the table, bring our Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to the table. Use my assessment that demonstrates the value and viability of irrigated agriculture and proves how much we are hurting. Then we will bang our collective fists to demand flexibility between the environment and farmers.
DJ: Time is running out, but will we see in the PM in Farrer before the election?
SL: Every single candidate asks for the Prime Minister to come so we will just watch this space.
DJ: On the subject of PMs, were things so bad in the Liberal Party that two of them (Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull) had to be dumped which played to the narrative of dysfunction in Canberra that began with Labor also swapping PMs in the Rudd-Gillard years?
SL: The Prime Minister holds office because they have the confidence of the Liberal Party partyroom. If every member of the partyroom or the significant majority in both cases doesn't have confidence in their leader then the result is changing the Prime Minister. We lost confidence in our leaders, but we totally accept it is so unpopular with people and that is why the rules have now changed. Once a Prime Minister has been elected they are there. People can have confidence it won't happen again.
DJ: Are you prepared to reveal who you supported in those leadership battles?
SL: It's already been reported I supported the leadership spill back in August and, to be up front, I initially backed Peter (Dutton) because of water. He understood poor rainfall and river allocations was emerging as a critical issue for agriculture in Farrer and offered me his support in pushing for change. As we know the vote then fell the way of Scott Morrison who, I also have to say, has been outstanding in his support for farmers and understands how critical getting the balance of the Basin Plan is for our region's future.
DJ: You occupied the key role of health minister in the government. Was that a high point of your career to date? And were there any achievements in that role you are particularly proud of?
SL: I loved the health portfolio. People are at their most vulnerable when they are in the health system and to give them the confidence Australia does have almost one of the best health systems in the world when it comes to treatment, access to drugs, care, cost, is a real privilege. There are two things I'm particularly proud of in my time as the minister. One was finding $1 billion to cure Hepatitis C. It didn't have to happen. I've been at two things where people have come up to me out of the blue and said 'I just want to shake your hand' because I'm cured'. The other thing was the cancer centre (in Albury) and negotiating for it to treat public patients. The federal government funded the cancer centre but that would normally lead to a treatment model built around private patients. As health minister I was able to positively influence the agreement between our government and Victoria, insisting our centre would treat public patients. Personally they are my two greatest achievements in health, one national and one electorate.
DJ: You did resign as minister in early 2017 due to events surrounding the purchase of an apartment on the Gold Coast when in Queensland on government business? How do you reflect on that time?
SL: I have developed a view that on the other side of every challenge is a better version of you and I think that has been the case for the big challenges in my life and that was certainly the biggest professional challenge. I could have become consumed by it, become bitter about it, resentful of the circumstances around it. I got the Department of Finance to audit all my expenditure since the time we came into government in 2013. It was the only way I could clear my name. They were here for a week, we went through record after record, they took away all this paperwork, there were three nights I didn't sleep. The actual experience itself with all the media attention was pretty horrendous of course. Effectively the five-minute ride was the extent to which I broke the rules. At that point all I wanted to do was clear my name. I put that report up in lights, made a speech to parliament, put it on my website and everyone who contacts me gets that report. I feel inside myself I've cleared my name. Unfortunately it gets caught up in the conversation of this is what politicians do. It was unplanned that I attended that auction because I had happened to see it that morning.
DJ: What do you think of social media?
SL: I love it, but there are also times when I feel as though I'm wading through a sewer. I do love technology and love what it enables us to do to communicate. The fact you can put something out on Facebook as you travel around the electorate, an observation you make, people you see, people you want to highlight what they are doing and it's out there. The danger for politicians is because there is so much negativity on social media, you have to learn when to switch off otherwise it does get into your headspace and is not good.
DJ: Can Scott Morrison do the impossible and lead the Coalition to victory?
SL: Yes. He definitely can. In fact in our first meeting as an assistant minister we met in the government partyroom and he said to us: 'I can beat this man (Bill Shorten). I absolutely believe he can.