Topics: Protests at Parliament House; Senator Payman leaves ALP; Minority parties;

09:35AM ACST
5 July 2024


Bill McDonald:  Joining us now to discuss a lot of that is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Birmingham, who has actually written to the Prime Minister asking for some answers on how Parliament House’s security was breached. Good morning Simon.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Bill. Good to be with you.


Bill McDonald: So, you’ve written to the PM. What answers can you expect or are you expecting on this breach?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Bill, Peter Dutton and I wrote to the presiding officers, the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate, as well as Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong as the leaders of the Labor Party, really wanting to ensure that our view that firstly, the law has got to be upheld to the fullest extent possible. The book should be thrown at these individuals, and all charges that can be laid should be laid and should be pursued to send a very clear signal, because I think Australians are fed up of this type of dangerous, disruptive protesting. We’re all for free speech, all for the right to protest. But how you go about it really does matter. Secondly, that there’s got to be a very thorough and transparent investigation into how this actually happened, how the security failures occurred in our nation’s parliament that got to the situation where these protesters put security and others in danger, at a very high point on the edge of the nation’s parliament walls. And of course, the terrible, shameful scenes that were projected across our country and elsewhere around the world of our Parliament, with anti-semitic slogans hanging off the front of it. We should never be allowed to occur.


Bill McDonald: So as a parliamentarian and someone that’s obviously very familiar with that building, how do you feel when you see that relative ease in which they got to the access point that they got to yesterday?


Simon Birmingham: Well, you know, I’ve been working in and out of the Parliament for quite some time now as a senator, 17 years, and I’ve seen a lot of the different security steps in the era, tragically, of terrorism taken and got protocols in place to respond to armed attacks, to biological weapons, to a whole range of different threats that, sadly, are part of the modern reality. But to see these types of protesters be able to execute so quickly, so swiftly, the mounting of banners and other things off the front of the building and to be able to access it in those ways, it does indicate there was a grievous security breach. And officials have got to understand how that occurred and part of the investigation must be looking at whether there was any inside assistance or help from any other parties, including parliamentary passholders, as to how this came about.


Bill McDonald: Would you think, given your knowledge of the extensive knowledge you’ve just mentioned there, that that would be the case? Because it’s obviously been reported today as well, that Fatima Payman has met with all four of these people, I think only a week ago. Is it a coincidence that this has happened on the same day that she quit the Labor Party?


Simon Birmingham: Well, tragically, we’ve seen over a period of time since October 7th the brutal Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, killing more Jews in a single day than any time since the Holocaust. We’ve seen the Greens and other extremists support all manner of different protest activity, Protests at electorate offices that have blockaded the Prime Minister’s own electorate office in suburban Sydney. A range of other extremist actions that have raised intimidatory environments and fuelled anti-semitism in this country, and made many Jewish Australians feel uncomfortable and even unsafe in our country. And all of that is intolerable and the Government sadly hasn’t shown sufficient leadership here. The Prime Minister didn’t take the strong stance early on in relation to stamping out anti-semitism, and that has created an environment where people think they can get away with. This behaviour is changing of Labor’s position and weakening of it over time hasn’t appeased extremists, and that’s most evident in Senator Fatima Payman’s decision that she wasn’t appeased to stay in the Labour Party. She just kept demanding more and ultimately left the Labor Party.


Bill McDonald: Is this, as you said there? Does this embolden people and the other protest groups or others, perhaps be looking at this now and thinking, well, it was that easy yesterday. So would you like to see, say it’s a two year ban from Parliament? I think there’s a fine attached as well. Surely there should be a more significant or a stronger deterrent than that.


Simon Birmingham: I think some of those steps are ones that the Parliament itself can take. But then there are the steps that the Australian Federal Police and prosecutors can and should take now. They’re independent decisions, as they should be in our legal system. But I do urge them to take every step they can in terms of throwing the book at these individuals. If there are other charges of crimes that they can be charged with. Following thorough investigations, then that’s what ought to happen. Australians would say, I think, are fed up of the way in which extremist protesters carry on. I will always defend- the core part of being a parliamentarian to defend dissenting voices, the right to dissent and people disagree with me and their right to protest outside my office. And I’ve seen that happen plenty of times over the years. And it is an absolutely fundamental right. But that doesn’t mean you deface public property, and public infrastructure doesn’t mean defy security provisions. You know, there are ways to go about peaceful protest. And people have shown that throughout the years this type of extremism, the gluing to roads and other things that just get in the way of everyday Australians lives, they’re the things that, frankly, are counterproductive to the causes of these people seek to promote.


Bill McDonald: Let’s get to the point you touched on just a moment ago with Senator Payman. She’s clearly divided Labor with her stance and her resignation. It’s another big slap down for the Prime Minister’s leadership. Some senior Labor figures are now raising her Afghan citizenship as a risk to her remaining in the Senate. It’s apparently a potential breach of the constitution. Is this a sign of further instability?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a sign of just how bitter and divided the Labor Party are at present. And if Fatima Payman was good enough to run as a Labor candidate at the last election, she was good enough to sit in the Senate as a Labor senator, voting with the Labor Party for the last two years. But now they’ve had this destructive falling out and created all the divisions in their ranks. Suddenly they think that there’s an ineligibility question? I think you can just see from that that there’s a lot of bitterness and division there. And it’s been fuelled by other things, as I said before, on the big substantive issues, Australia’s policy towards Israel, the problem of Palestine, the war in Gaza and how you get to a two-state solution. The Prime Minister hasn’t held a consistent line. In fact, he’s consistently changed it since October 7th, and that has only fuelled confusion and sent in many different quarters. And then in his own handling within the Labor Party of this issue, he hasn’t been able to hold a consistent line, clearly enforced the Labor Party rules or approached this in a way where people understood what the next step would be. And that’s meant they’ve spent the last few weeks and this budget session of Parliament talking far too much about themselves and divided and tearing each other apart over conflict a long way away, rather than focusing on the cost of living pressures that Australians genuinely face.


Bill McDonald: Yeah, I think a lot of people would agree with you on that one. So on this this greater issue of sitting members swapping teams, so to speak, is it a slap in the face to constituents that voted for them under the Labor banner of a different party? I’m sure if every politician had a cause or had something that felt special to them, they didn’t get in their way in the party room, everybody would be jumping ship and sitting on the crossbenches. What do you make of it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, indeed, I think that it’s a fair assessment that, you know, we all have, you know, and the thing about party politics, you know, you win some debates, you lose some debates. And I’ve been on the losing side plenty of times and sometimes I’ve expressed my grumbles publicly. And of course, the Liberal and National parties do allow us to cross the floor if it comes to it. And there are certain liberties that can be taken which Labor rules don’t provide for. Now, that’s a matter for the Labor Party. I note that we’re about to probably have a new Labour government in the United Kingdom. The UK Labour Party doesn’t enforce that same type of rule, and so Australian Labor could consider that perhaps the Liberal and National pathway, the UK Labour pathway, is a better way in giving people that flexibility. That’s a matter though, for them and their rules. But I do understand that voters don’t like to see people leave the party. Because as wonderful as my mum might think I am, I hope that I get elected as a Liberal senator and Fatima Payman absolutely got elected as a Labor senator. Now it’s up to her to explain herself, as it has been for others who’ve left over the years. But, you know, I think our party’s approach the Liberal and National parties to tolerating some internal dissent, and the way in which that dissent is managed is a better way than the intolerance that Labor shows.


Bill McDonald: On the broader scale of things. Is this likely to lead to, perhaps, given what we’re reading about the possibility of forming a Muslim based party and Ms. Payman being at the at the front of that, even though she said, watch this space. So, there’s no indication just yet, but a fracturing further of the vote with teals, Greens and perhaps this making it even, I don’t know our politics more divisive moving forward?


Simon Birmingham: I worry about that. We are a pluralist nation of of different values, faiths and views. And I think it is important and preferable that our political parties demonstrate that pluralist approach as well of different faiths, values and ideals being brought together. I want to see in my political party and in the other big political parties, an approach where people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome. I don’t think Australians would be keen to see a faith-based, specific political party, of the described nature of a Muslim party taking off. I think they would much rather see, people of faith engage in mainstream politics through mainstream political parties.


Bill McDonald: I think the leader, Mr. Dutton, Peter Dutton, made a point by saying that it was just going to make difficult to address all of the things that we like, we want our politicians to address. When you mention cost of living, health, all the major stuff, if you’ve got more fractured and there’s a Muslim or a faith-based party involved. He’s been accused by Usman Khawaja, the Australian Test batsman, of fanning Islamophobia and bigotry, which I thought was over the top and unwarranted. What would your response to that be?


Simon Birmingham: Well, in a sense, it goes back to my answer before, and that is that I encourage Muslims to join the Liberal Party and to engage as indeed those who may be of a more collectivist mindset. I encourage, perhaps, to join the Labor Party, but I don’t wish to see faith based parties taking hold in our country because our politics is stronger when we are acting inside our parties as inside our parliament, as a pluralist nation where those faiths and values are included in the breadth of debate and discussion, not in isolation within individual political parties. And I think a broader message here is not one just about the faith-based parties, but also, frankly, one about minor parties. I worry about a situation next election where we could end up with minority government afterwards, and I urge Australians to think long and hard about whether they really want to see a hodgepodge of independents and minor parties, as they do all too often in the Senate, but actually in a position in the House of Representatives where they dictate who the government is and what the government does on a day to day basis. So, I would encourage people, of course, to vote Liberal, but make your choice between the major parties and don’t stuff around with these unknown entities that end up usually ending in disaster. I’ve seen it all too often in 17 years in the Senate where we’re talking about Fatima Payman, leaving the Labor Party. It’s a rare example to see people change their political colours from Labor or even from Liberal. It is a common example to see people elected from minor parties and independents frequently change. And, you know, we’ve seen that with Clive Palmer’s party over the years with Pauline Hanson’s at different times with Jacqui Lambie’s. You know, they get these extra people elected and then they of course fall out with them, and you end up with an even more colourful range of independence.


Bill McDonald: Is it just before I let you go? Is it inciting at a time when tensions are already pretty high in the community? We’ve seen vandalism, we’ve seen protests, we’ve seen a lot of unrest.


Simon Birmingham: I think there is that risk as to how people react, to perceptions of, you know, narrow cast political parties and, and I think we’ve probably seen that at different times over the years when some parties have taken, appalling race based policy stances it has understandably elicited strong reactions from other Australians. I think if we saw political parties emerge that took strong religious stances focused solely around one faith or one religion that, similarly could risk strong reactions from Australians that aren’t helpful. Which is why those values and principles of pluralism, as I was speaking of before, are so very, very important.


Bill McDonald: Thank you for your time, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks. My pleasure.