Topics: Aston byelection; The Voice

09:33AM AEDT
Thursday, 6 April 2023


David Bevan: Good morning, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David and Good morning to your listeners.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham. The meeting yesterday was called to discuss and finalise the federal liberal party’s position on The Voice referendum, but anything that you were doing yesterday must have been seen through the prism of the Aston by election. Can we just start there?

What could the Liberals have done differently since the last election which would have changed the result in Aston?


Simon Birmingham: Well David, I think it’s hard to specify what might have changed a result in Aston but I think there were lessons out of the last election and the result in Aston only amplified those lessons for the Liberal Party and, I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age yesterday about the fact that we have to heed those lessons and recognise that the Australian electorate has changed; the fastest growing sector of the Australian workforce is professional women and we’ve seen urbanisation occurring at an escalating rate and particularly driven by migration from a range of different countries and that all gives a different construct to the electorate today than we had in years gone by. And so, I think we have to look at how we apply liberal values – not stepping away – from them – but apply them in a modern context that ensures that when we stand up for families, it’s clear we’re standing up for all families, whatever their migrant background, whatever their ethnic background, whatever their construct or composition in terms of different families, that we are clear about the fact that it is an inclusive approach for those and that in building upon that, we stand true to our great success as a party of job creation, stand true to values in relation to support for enterprise and business but use those as tools particularly to engage with many migrant communities who are some of the most entrepreneurial in Australia in driving business startups and the like. So I think there certainly are lessons there to be learned and that we have to make sure that we project a party that is modern, relevant, inclusive and also – the great shame out of Aston as I wrote – is that we had preselected a young professional woman, a barrister of Indian background and sadly we went on to lose the seat. But we certainly need many more Roshena Campbells right across winnable seats around the country to make sure that we are, in image as well as in substance and policy, projecting that modern representation of Australia.


David Bevan: So in your candidate there you were ticking all the boxes; you have a young professional woman of Indian heritage, I mean that’s addressing the three things that you’ve just highlighted that the party needs to focus on and you lost. So, what I’m asking you is can you give a specific example of how the lessons from Aston could have been applied to the previous 10 months since the election? I mean what, your answer was in generalisations; I’d like you to give a specific example of a policy decision that could have been done differently – informed by that lesson in the last 10 months.


Simon Birmingham: Sure, David and I think, again, a topic – two topics in fact that I would pick up on here: One where I think we really do need to make sure we do a lot of work on housing affordability and how we get owner-occupiers back into the housing market but in appealing to younger voters, younger families – the Liberal Party’s core tenet built by Menzies was about trying to ensure people had the economic security of owning their own home. Also, I think in an area where we were punished at the last election, and I don’t think that we have conveyed a clear enough message to the electorate since, is on climate change. That that if you look at the cohorts of voters be they, those growing categories of young professional women, of younger urbanised voters and families, they have clear concerns and place significant importance on issues of climate change. And much as we took to the last election a policy and a commitment to achieving net zero by 2050, the way in which that was achieved – the very messy internal debates and other discussions that occurred at the time – I think meant that people didn’t see credibility in that position and we have to make sure that before they vote again at the next federal election they do see credibility and commitment in the policies that we have in that space.


David Bevan: And in terms of the raw politics here do you have to be prepared to help Anthony Albanese out in order for you to stay at the table and gain credibility? It’s a bit like what Peter Malinauskas did so effectively on COVID – he just agreed with everything that Peter, er Steven Marshall was doing, neutralised it and said ‘yeah, we’re 100% behind Grant Stevens and Nicola Spurrier.’ He neutralised that issue so that he could then – he gained some credibility with a lot of people and then he moved on to other areas that he thought he could win on. And Peter Dutton and the Coalition in the last few months have failed that front on the Safeguard Mechanism.


Simon Birmingham: It’s often said, particularly internally, that we want to fight an election on questions of economic management and that’s because we have a good strong track record in creating jobs and generating growth, in bringing budget back to the point of balance as we did before COVID – and they’re all equities that we should stand on, we do want to make sure we fight on. But to be able to fight on those issues you do certainly sometimes have to ensure that you have neutralised other issues – that you’ve addressed them successfully through the legislative or political processes so that they are not the points of contention when people are going to vote.


David Bevan:  Liberal Senator, Simon Birmingham yesterday your party reached a no position on The Voice. Did that improve your chances of winning back government?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not sure what it will mean in terms of electoral impact down the track. That probably depends on how Australians ultimately vote and how this issue is perceived. The debate around Voice has had a very long genesis; you can go right back to the Howard government when discussions and commitments to the constitutional recognition of First Australians were had. And unfortunately, that can was kicked down the road through the Rudd and Gillard years and through the Abbott government. And then in the Turnbull Government, there was a pivot where suddenly things went from constitutional recognition of First Australians to also include this concept of Voice which has now been debated for a number of years. And over the last 12 months as we’ve seen more precise constitutional proposals emerge, it’s become ever more contentious about whether it should include executive government and what the legal consequences of that would be, and the implications for the functioning of government. And, frankly, it’s a shame that that can was kicked so far down the road. I would much prefer that we had had a unifying gesture in the Rudd, Gillard or Abbott years that actually achieved constitutional recognition of our First Australians without the associated legal and constitutional risks of a Voice, which itself doesn’t of course have to actually be in the constitution to be established. And the position the Liberal Party took yesterday was one of saying well, we want to still give that bipartisan support to constitutional recognition, but given the risks that have been raised in relation to Voice we would rather see a legislative model that starts from the ground-up in terms of local representation and build that a different way.


I hope, may well be a forlorn hope, it probably is, but I hope that in the remaining parliamentary committee processes that are running, perhaps there is still something that can be salvaged there that can give us a unifying moment of recognising our First Australians in the nation’s founding document, but resolving Voice by other means.


David Bevan: So what you’re saying is – the situation we find ourselves in today and heading towards a referendum, it’s not actually bringing the country together. Is that your argument? It’s quite, it’s a painful process and it didn’t have to be a painful process if only people on both sides of politics, Labor and Liberal 20 years ago had agreed to constitutional recognition recognition if, everybody would have been behind that, it would have been a unifying moment if, and the failure to do that has what created pressure which has erupted now, in in this call for a Voice and quite a divisive debate. Is that your argument?


Simon Birmingham: Well we have moved from a proposal on constitutional recognition that was more analogous to the type of change that occurred way back in the 1967 referendum that achieved huge consensus across the country and could have had bipartisanship attached to it. The addition of Voice to that has complicated the question; has brought other legal ramifications into play and therefore has made it a more contested proposal, more analogous if you like to the Republic referendum that we had, where people do question whether there are significant, impactful aspects of this change that could affect the way our constitution operates and government runs. And they’re reasonable questions for people to ask when we’re talking about something as serious as the constitution. So yes, David, I think we did lose the opportunity for a big unifying statement before The Voice was added to this proposal. It could still be recaptured. I’m not hugely optimistic that that is what’s going to happen over the next few weeks and months. But I hold out hope that people will think about how we can bring the nation together and take practical steps by pursuing a Voice through a legislative means because it doesn’t have to be in the Constitution, whilst having that unifying vote about recognition.


David Bevan: Do you relish the thought, as a member of Shadow Cabinet, campaigning against The Voice?


Simon Birmingham: I think the approach I’ll take will be one of respecting the Australian people as they go about making their decision. The decision we took yesterday means that I will vote for a Constitution Alteration Bill, if it comes forward, that enables Australians to have their say at a referendum and I’ll let them then get on and have their say.


David Bevan: So you don’t intend to campaign against The Voice?


Simon Birmingham: My perspective that I bring to this I think will be one of largely letting those who have the strongest views and the passionate opinions bring those forward. I can certainly see some of the competing debates that occur on this issue. I respect those debates. Ultimately, I get the my in a single vote in a referendum, the same as every other Australian and that’s the way I’ll respect that process.


David Bevan: But you won’t be standing shoulder to shoulder with Peter Dutton campaigning against The Voice.


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I just outlined, I’ll respect the process and say Australians get to have, it’s an equal say. I know that different people have strong views. I’ll particularly be listening between now and when the Parliament does vote on the Constitutional Alteration Bill, I’ll be listening carefully to what the wording of the final proposition is. And then how I reflect my views and my perspectives will depend upon precisely what’s put forward; whether it continues to have executive government there and the risks associated with that; whether there are any other changes to the wording…


David Bevan: But, but …


Simon Birmingham: …so still hope that perhaps there will be a change that enables us to have a unifying position around constitutional recognition.


David Bevan: Yeah, but you don’t think that’s likely to happen. So, if you vote for, even if it’s reluctantly, if you voted for Anthony Albanese’s position, you’d have to leave shadow cabinet. So are you going to do that?


Simon Birmingham: I’m going to keep fighting the good fight as I try to in Shadow Cabinet and through the Parliament for Liberal values as I see them, and how I think we should take them forward in effective, positive policies at the next election.


David Bevan:  So, what that means, we’re gonna have a spectrum of responses from the Liberal Party. There’ll be people actively campaigning against Anthony Albanese’s version of The Voice; there will be people who are backbenchers who are able to cross the floor and support it; and it sounds like there’ll be the Simon Birmingham’s of this world who want to remain in Shadow Cabinet influencing the party, don’t feel like, but are just going to keep quiet.


Simon Birmingham: David, this is indeed one of the great tenets of the Liberal Party, that we do have differences of opinion and that they are accommodated. At the republic referendum that I cited before, you would recall that John Howard campaigned for a no vote; Peter Costello campaigned for a yes vote; some were vocal; some were not; and that may well be replicated on this occasion.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you David.