Transcript : Press conference in Albury on 9 January 2017

Transcript : Press conference in Albury on 9 January 2017

Sussan Ley:     Well good morning. Today I’ve returned from a week’s Christmas leave to start the year in my electorate with my constituents, and I have a day of meetings booked. I want to deal with questions concerning my travel to the Gold Coast while a minister. But first, let me cover issues reported today relating to trips taken on New Year’s Eve before I talk in detail about the apartment purchase which has generated such interest.

On New Year’s Eve 2013 and 2014, I travelled to the Gold Coast at the invitation of a prominent Queensland businesswoman. In 2013, it was for a business lunch, and in 2014 it was for her annual New Year’s Eve event. In 2013, I claimed flights and taxis to get to the lunch, but as I was on annual leave from the next day, I didn’t claim accommodation. Similarly, in 2014, I did not claim accommodation as I stayed privately. On 1 January 2015, I travelled to a sporting function in Sydney as the Minister for Sport. Yesterday, I put out a statement dealing with travel, particularly the circumstances of my purchase of an apartment at the Gold Coast, and I want to take you through those circumstances in some detail.

My office organised an event at Wesley Hospital, Brisbane on Friday 8 May, regarding a $1.3 billion listing on the PBS. Wesley was chosen because of the reputation and expertise of its breast cancer clinic and one of the new medicines was for breast cancer. The late notice, the afternoon before, was because we had to await sign-off from the then Prime Minister and Treasurer’s Office to do an early announcement of a budget measure. Once I realised I would be doing this event in Brisbane on Saturday morning, I decided that, because I was due back in Canberra on Sunday, the cost of returning to Albury, earliest arrival 8:30pm Saturday night and then leaving for Canberra midday Sunday, the cost of approximately $1900, it would be more effective – cost-effective to stay at the Gold Coast on Saturday night in transit.

Importantly, and in conjunction with this, as part of ongoing conversations with a patient and their family and their request to meet me on my next visit to Queensland to discuss access to new medicines for their particular cancer, I made contact with the family on the Friday evening to advise that I could be there Saturday afternoon for a meeting. My partner was invited and accompanied me to an Olympic event in Sydney on the Friday night. My office clarified his entitlement under family travel provisions to accompany me to Brisbane. The department has a record of that conversation.

He drew my attention to an auction seen by him online at the De Ville Apartments the next day. I want to be very clear – my decision late Friday to attend this auction was made after I had planned to travel to the Gold Coast from Brisbane. The COMCAR was booked at 9pm Friday night to take me from Brisbane to my hotel and then drop me at the auction two minutes away. In hindsight, I should have just got out of the hotel. I inspected this property for the first time maybe ten minutes before the auction commenced and I registered to bid. I own a home here in Albury and I had gained pre-approval to purchase an investment property. I had an idea of what I wanted and this apartment fit the bill.

So the purchase of this particular property was neither planned nor anticipated. I should add, I had no idea of the vendor, although his name has been introduced into speculation around this story. Such was the last-minute nature of my attendance. I didn’t contact the agent about this property, I didn’t make inquiries about it, I didn’t make any phone calls, I sent no emails. I realise that my purchase of the unit changed the character of the occasion to one of a more personal nature, and I should have adjusted my claim accordingly.

As per my statement yesterday, which again I draw your attention to, I’ve spent the weekend examining my travel records and I’ve identified two occasions where I claimed for accommodation in the Gold Coast for meetings in Brisbane when in hindsight I should have stayed in Brisbane. As I said yesterday, I will be adjusting those claims. The other instance that I will be adjusting my claim is when I flew from Coolangatta to Canberra at the start of parliamentary business on 1 June 2015. In fact this was at less cost to taxpayers, but was from a location where I was on personal leave rather than my home base. As per my statement yesterday, I have asked the Department of Finance to review all of my ministerial travel to the Gold Coast.

After discussions with the Prime Minister, I have agreed to stand aside while his Departmental Secretary thoroughly investigates these travel claims. I look forward to working with the Secretary to ensure this is done as quickly and transparently as possible and I look forward to resuming my important work in the Health, Sport and Aged Care portfolios at the earliest opportunity. I’m happy to take your questions.

Question:          Ms Ley, was it your decision to step aside or the Prime Minister’s?

Sussan Ley:     It was agreed in a mutual conversation between us, Helen. I apologise for the distraction that this issue has caused since it arose, I think late last week, to the agenda of the Government and my colleagues in Cabinet. Now, I’m calling it a distraction because that’s what it is. So it was a mutually agreed outcome.

Question:          Minister, how long will this …

Question:          In the last 24 hours, what was the tipping point for you, what clinched that decision to stand aside?

Sussan Ley:     Um … look, I obviously read the press, I’m sometimes disappointed with what I read, I sometimes regret that my statements aren’t accurately reported, but I haven’t been able to ignore the level of intense interest and speculation. And while I’ve been, I have to say, particularly encouraged by many of the contacts I’ve had, particularly from people who know me here in my home territory, the team comes first, and I’m very happy, because I’m very confident of the outcome of these two independent investigations.

Question:          Will you be releasing the details and diaries of all your trips to Queensland?

Sussan Ley:     I will be providing all of that information to, as I said, the two independent investigations that are happening. It’s not always appropriate for ministers to release all of their diaries, and I just want to touch on that. People imagine that we travel the country and we just go to official openings, cut ribbons and make media announcements. In fact, for a health minister, the opposite is the case. I do spend a lot of time talking to patients. I do spend a lot of time one-on-one with people who have experiences in the health system, with people who are involved in the manufacture, the access and the supply of medicines – which is a particular interest of mine, as anyone who knows my record as Health Minister will tell you – and how we get patients to access those medicines is vital.

So my diary is available to be inspected, as I said, by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but of course also by the Department of Finance, so I’m talking about two separate investigations here. Will I allow the media access to go on a fishing expedition, at perhaps at the cost of confidentiality of some of the both confidential and commercial in confidence meetings that I have? No, I won’t.

Question:          How long will these investigations take? Will it be a matter of weeks, months?

Sussan Ley:     [Laughs] Well, I’ve been examining my records over the weekend and in so doing we’ve compiled a lot of information. So I stand ready, I think it’s fair to say my office staff are working on this now, to get that information made available as quickly as possible so we can get to the end of this and I can get back to my job, my incredibly privileged position of serving the Australian people in the Health, Aged Care and Sport portfolios.

Question:          If you’ve agreed to pay back some of the costs for the Gold Coast trip, is that an admission that you’ve broken the rules, and does that mean that the current rules don’t pass the pub test?

Sussan Ley:     It’s not an admission that I’ve broken the rules, and I’m very confident that the investigations will demonstrate that no rules were broken whatsoever. But I also recognise, as you describe it, the pub test, and I recognise that for people who live in my electorate, who work hard, who understand about living on fixed incomes and have experienced a life I’ve experienced in the past, this has a look that, you know, that I don’t understand those issues and I don’t recognise them – in fact the opposite is the case. So I am making available my records, and I’m very confident that they will be within the rules.

My offer to repay the funds was particularly because, in hindsight, the character of my visit to the Gold Coast on this particular occasion changed the moment I unexpectedly was the successful bidder at that auction, so.

Question:          And do you have the Prime Minister’s full support?

Sussan Ley:     Well, I’ve had many conversations with the Prime Minister and they’ve been friendly, they’ve been convivial and they’ve arrived at the place that we are at now, and I’m very comfortable with that place.

Question:          What official business was conducted exactly on those consecutive New Years you spent in Queensland?

Sussan Ley:     As I said, I met with a recognised Queensland businesswoman and discussed the Government’s agenda in 2013. It was the incoming government’s agenda around particular education and training issues, and reflected on what the Government could do to make sure that we recognised the needs of everyone in these important areas. So what I’m saying is they were business conversations, and they were important conversations to the future of our government’s agenda.

Question:          [Indistinct] a real possibility that, depending on the results of these investigations, you may be forced to stand down permanently?

Sussan Ley:     I certainly don’t expect that, and the reason why I believe, since this issue I think blew up only on Friday, that I’m offering all of my records to two independent investigations is because I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to hide. I have not broken any of the rules. But I also recognise that I need to subject those travel records to scrutiny. I’m happy to do that. Remember that these records are published – they’re available to all, they’re on the internet in the same way that the house I live in, its address is made public, the fact that I own one investment property is made public, the travel claims that I make are all made public.

This is entirely appropriate, and it’s a good thing, and I do not mind being subjected to the scrutiny of both the Australian people and the investigations that I’ve mentioned. A couple more questions maybe, if anyone has them?

Question:          Do you think you’ve lost the respect of the electorate with what’s happened?

Sussan Ley:     No I don’t, because I stand ready to explain what has happened, and I have been very encouraged by the conversations that I’ve had with so many of my constituents. And I want to make the point that I think my constituents understand the life I live as a minister. It is an incredible privilege, but it does keep me away from home – I think my staff have calculated an average of 20 out of 30 nights. You know, my family will always say I get home once a fortnight. So I’m often working and travelling seven days a week. Again, I don’t mind that, I – you know, I love it, in fact, but sometimes that means that occasionally there are personal activities that happen at the same time as business ones, as was the case with the auction in question.

But I have one of the biggest electorates in Australia and I have one of the biggest portfolios, and I love the rural and regional perspective that I bring to the Government and the Cabinet, and to me it’s very important. But I also love the fact that country people do understand who I am, where I’ve come from, and, you know, the hard work that I do, because they work similarly hard in their own businesses and farms.

Question:          How long were you aware that the Gold Coast property was on the market before you purchased it?

Sussan Ley:      Less than 24 hours.

Question:          Were you – is this a sign that …

Sussan Ley:     [Interrupts] In fact, probably less than 12 hours. I mean, literally the night before. Now I’m going to take one more question from my good local friend Anthony, and then we might move on.

Question:          Is this a sign that you may be retiring as the Member for Farrer, buying this property on the Gold Coast? Are you going to be moving up there any time soon?

Sussan Ley:      Look, the Gold Coast is a good place to invest, I think people are recognising that, and I might add that there’s a lot going on there. As the Minister for Sport I’m very interested in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast next year, it’s going to be a fantastic event for Australia. There’s a major medical school on the Gold Coast. I think it’s the country’s sixth largest population centre. So, yes, it is a good place to invest, it’s something for the family for later, but it’s certainly not a sign that I have any intention of retiring from being the Member of Farrer. Even though I do recognise that every election I don’t automatically count that my constituents are going to vote for me, but I love being the Member for Farrer.

I’m here in Albury not because I am trying to get away from the media scrutiny in Canberra, or Sydney, I will be there soon enough, and I’m always happy to answer questions, the media knows that. But right now I am getting back to work for the people of Farrer, and I thank you all very much.

ENDS