Topics: Virginia Bell Morrison report

05:25PM ACST

Jules Schiller: Simon Birmingham is a Liberal Senator for South Australia. He’s been good enough to join us as well. Welcome, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Hey Jules, it’s good to be with you.


Jules Schiller: Would you support a censure motion against Scott Morrison, your former PM?


Simon Birmingham: Jules, it would be unusual for a censure motion? Be moved against somebody for actions they undertook in an office that they no longer hold. So I think it would be a case of the Labor Party trying to milk extra political mileage out of this when if the Parliament is going to do anything, it should be to act on the recommendations of Virginia Bell, and that is to ensure that there’s transparency around who’s appointed to administer what departments have stayed in the future and to get those legal reforms in place.


Jules Schiller: Tom McIlroy said there was some anger with Liberal MPs over the actions of Scott Morrison regarding this. Simon Birmingham, do you share that anger?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t know if anger’s quite the term I’d use, but he made a mistake. That’s pretty clear. He shouldn’t have undertaken these actions in a way that was lacking in transparency. The two reviews undertaken that the Government’s initiated firstly by the Solicitor General and now this one by Virginia Bell, both found that his actions were legal and they were valid. But it is more the lack of transparency that I think was a problem and has been highlighted and should be fixed in the legal frameworks. He of course only used any of these powers just on one occasion, and that’s been clarified by and confirmed by this review. But I think it’s important that it be fixed so that we can all have confidence that if ministers are appointed to administer additional departments outside of their direct responsibilities, it’s transparent in future.


Jules Schiller: But I mean, you personally must have been shocked to find out that Scott Morrison was also a joint minister in your portfolio. Simon, I mean, that’s on a personal level you would think you’re dealing with this guy most days. You think he could share that vital bit of information with you?


Simon Birmingham: Well Jules, was I was surprised the appointment for the Prime Minister to administer the Department of Finance as well was undertaken before I became finance minister. But I was still surprised to learn of it like the rest of the world did through revelations earlier this year. At the time, I checked in with my former departmental secretary, who also knew nothing of it, and that gave me the confidence that it was nothing more than, of course, a paperwork appointment, a symbolic one in that sense or a morbent, one sitting sort of below the surface that was obviously never executed or used because- and that’s been confirmed by by this Virginia bill review.


Jules Schiller: I’ve always wondered why it was really necessary, because if Scott Morrison, you know, had a differing view to you in a decision you were going to make in finance, Simon Birmingham. Surely you would just kind of work that out in a cabinet room, would you? I mean to actually give himself the power to overrule you kind of goes against what most Australians like to think Cabinet government is, which is a contest of ideas and the best one survives.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think he has explained his justification and a better place for him to do that than me. But when it comes to the health and finance portfolios, which were the two ones he did, first off very, very early in the pandemic. And in the health case, everybody knows the extraordinary powers to close borders and apply restrictions that were being administered at the time. In the finance case, there were billions and billions of dollars worth of discretionary spending being allowed to be approved by the finance minister. And at that stage he at least justified it on the basis that if ministers were incapacitated or if there were issues in getting things signed, he wanted to ensure there was a backup in place. And I think if that is all he had of done, people would probably go, okay they were extraordinary times, it was an extraordinary step and he never actually used those powers and it made sense but the subsequent appointments were curious.


Jules Schiller: But does it really make sense? Because if you got COVID, I mean, you weren’t you know, you weren’t in a coma or hopefully not in 30 minutes or so. It only takes a few hours to for the Governor-General to appoint someone to a ministry. I mean, you know, does it really make sense that someone was going to be incapacitated or, heaven forbid, passed away that quickly that you needed to have this in place? I’ve always wondered why it made sense.


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, Jules, I think Virginia Bell makes clear that it wasn’t necessary to overcome those circumstances. But at the time, I can tell you when- and the fact that he was appointed to administer the health department was something that was known to a number of us and actually was referred to indirectly in a press conference that he undertook to. And at the stage when we were closing the nation’s borders and seeing businesses shut down and making decisions about JobKeeper and all of those huge things that were occurring that kept the nation safe and secure. I’ve got to say that the administrative factor around whether there was somebody else entitled to administer the Department of Health was not really seen as consequential compared with the big things we were doing to save lives, save businesses, save jobs, and deal with the pandemic. So as I say, there was a mistake, particularly the subsequent decisions in in terms of the other portfolios where it is hard to understand why he did so, particularly given the powers in all but one instance, were never utilised.


Jules Schiller: Do you think Scott Morrison will serve a full term?


Simon Birmingham: Look that really is a matter for him. I don’t know. He hasn’t shared any views with me in that regard.


Jules Schiller: And so you’re just to end this, some of them, you’re saying that a censure motion would be milking it. Would there be a sense of anger from the Liberal Party that you would have to be put through this in Parliament next week?


Simon Birmingham: Oh, look, I think we just call it as the politics that it would be if that’s where the government chooses to go. I mean, there’s a lot of legislation before the parliament at present. In the Senate we’ll be spending next week trying to ensure that the industrial relations legislation that Labor did not take to the election and did not reveal to voters before they elected them, and which has got such strong concerns from small businesses around the country, is ideally defeated or at least modified. And that’ll be my focus in the Senate next week. If Labor wants to play games in the House of Representatives rather than pick up Virginia Bell’s recommendations and legislate for the fix, then it’ll be for them to justify it.


Jules Schiller: Simon Birmingham, as always, thanks for your company. Appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Jules, my pleasure.