Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Citizenship of Parliamentarians
David Bevan: Good morning to Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning Ali and David.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, I spoke to a Federal colleague of yours last night and he said he had a sick feeling in his gut that we’re all going to head towards a snap election, what do you say to your colleague?
Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think that’s likely, but ultimately what we’re going to do is bring this matter to a close once and for all. And that will be by ensuring that every member of Parliament has to declare a range of factors relating to their citizenship, birthplace, their parent’s birthplace, all of which can then give people confidence that steps have been taken to get rid of dual citizenship where they are an issue and we can all hopefully get on with the business that I think most Australians really care about, which is dealing with their power prices, jobs growth, national safety and security, all those issues that they want the Parliament to be focused on.
David Bevan: Right, but the Prime Minister has said we can’t take it for granted that everybody’s going to get through this, there may well be cases that are referred up to the High Court, at what point would it just be easier to say let’s have an election, would it be if one person has to have a by-election, would it be two, would it be three, at what point do we reach the tipping point?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, I’m not going to put a number on that because of course which parties those individuals came from and so on would all be a factor as well. But we’re confident the Liberal party has gone through processes, now obviously there has been one case that has been found to be incorrect, we hope that there aren’t any others, but this is about as I say hopefully putting a line under this matter which has been something that certainly has distracted much of the nation’s commentariat, whilst it has been going on we have developed the National Energy Guarantee and tried to get on with the job.
David Bevan: It doesn’t just distract the commentariat it has handcuffed, perhaps even crippled your government because we’re talking about the Deputy Prime Minister right now, he’s not doing his job, he’s gone off to fight a by-election, so it’s not the commentariat, this must be paralysing your government?
Simon Birmingham: No, I absolutely reject that David, absolutely reject it. Yes, clearly Barnaby Joyce is off facing a by-lection but that hasn’t stopped us ever since this was first raised, getting on and dealing with energy prices, doing deals to make sure there is more domestic gas available, presenting proposals for the National Energy Guarantee in terms of a way of dealing with reliability as well as emissions into the future. It hasn’t stopped us conducting this postal survey that will be resolved next week, which I hope and trust will lead to then a full resolution around the issue of same-sex marriage, it hasn’t stopped us getting on with a whole range of things and the usual functions of the business of government. It’s certainly dominated the headlines of the nation’s newspaper.
Ali Clarke: So did you get it wrong, the way that this has been handled, I mean c’mon, it’s just you, David, myself, having a chat here. I mean has this been handled the worst way it could have possibly been handled? Because this could have been done and dusted right from the stop, soon as there was any sort of question, let’s get it all done, get it all signed off and delivered, and we would not be still talking about this?
Simon Birmingham: Well with the wonderful benefit of hindsight Ali, perhaps having this process in place a couple of months ago would have avoided some of the ongoing focus and distractions that’ occurred.
Ali Clarke: A lot of people are saying this should have been handled straightaway without the benefit of hindsight?
Simon Birmingham: Well we wanted to focus on the matters, things that matter to the Australian people, now that’s the point here, as a government we didn’t want to sort of say let’s go off on some distraction as to what type of process is needed to deal with the citizenship of politicians, when in fact the voters want us to focus on the things that impact them, their families, their businesses, their households, that’s where our focus and energy do lie, and ought to lie, now we are going to put the Parliament through this process to actually make sure we can bring an end to the matter, perhaps yes it might have been nice if it had been done earlier, but we were thinking the right thing to do was not to be distracted and to get on with our job.
David Bevan: Is one of the problems here, that this has eroded confidence in politicians, in Parliament because if individual politicians had been more upfront or honest about their own backgrounds, then we wouldn’t be in this position today?
Simon Birmingham: David, I suspect that people’s frustration are more about the fact that it seems to be a distraction to the things that matter to them, that they hate it when politicians and politics appear to be self-absorbed and this topic is all about the status of politicians and nothing about the status and challenges individuals face in their daily lives. So I think that is the main frustration now people may have other judgments that they want to make about it. I don’t think any of the individuals who have been caught up in this, any of them, had seemingly even the slightest idea that they had a citizenship issue.
David Bevan: C’mon they must have had an idea, within the last few weeks after everything that has happened, how could you not of sat there and thought, gee I better go and check out what mum and dad we’re doing when they arrived here?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, right now we’re dealing with aside from Stephen Parry, all of those other cases were from the early days, the disclosures that happened around this, which got sent off to the High Court, which has made a ruling and a finding and that is of course in the past why you couldn’t have done the process that would have been put in place earlier, because you needed the High Court ruling which is a very literal ruling, which now makes it very clear as to what type of standard people need to meet, there are still complications of international law, let’s not suggest that the two cases that the High Court dismissed, Nick Xenophon and Matt Canavan, were dismissed on the basis of Australian law, they were dismissed on questions as to whether or not these people were citizens of the United Kingdom or Italy, an interpretation of international law, that’s why this is actually quite a complex area, not as simple as a tick and flick, and we believe the process we’re putting in place should make it transparent and should allow people to answer the questions clearly and bring the matter to an end.
Ali Clarke: Australian Conservative’s Senator Cory Bernardi is pursuing the Australian Electoral Commission, and he thinks candidates who weren’t validly elected to Parliament like Barnaby Joyce should be forced to repay the public funding the were allocated in the last federal election, do you agree?
Simon Birmingham: No, no, look these candidates and as individuals have gotten on and done the job, you could choose to trawl back through the history of the last election and I’m sure we would find in many races there were candidates that were unsuccessful, who may have attracted public funding and may have also been ineligible. When you go back through the nations Parliament, we could find many people who were ineligible in fact the very first Labor Prime Minster, John Watson, is believed to have possibly never been a citizen of Australia. So the history is [inexplicit], we’re dealing with an issue that we’ve been confronted with, of a ruling from the High Court. But I really don’t think that going down these sorts of processes, it might seem populist to say let’s go and get the money back, when we’re dealing with a whole lot of people who have acted very much in good faith according to their understanding of the laws at the time.
Ali Clarke: So, Education Minister Simon Birmingham, are you only an Australian citizen?
Simon Birmingham: Well all four of my grandparents and both of my parents were born in Australia so I think I’m in a fairly safe position.
Ali Clarke: Ok, thank you very much for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you guys.