Topics: Liberal Party reform blueprint; Voice to Parliament

09:10AM ACST
Tuesday, 29 August 2023


David Bevan: It’s basically a two-party system. It’s either going to be Labor running the state or Liberals running the state. So, we’re talking about the alternative government here. Now, things might change, of course. You know, the Greens may grow in stature or whatever. Somebody else might come along, but at the moment and for a very long time it’s been a two-party state. Well, the alternative government got together on the weekend. They had a really good hard look at themselves and a whole lot of elections were carried out. I think this is a fair summation that the conservative group within the Liberal Party ratcheted up their power once again. So, for the second year running and for instance, all the vice president positions now in the party, which would be the alternative government, are now held by conservatives and then up jumps, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham is the most senior Liberal in the state, former finance minister, former trade minister, and he joins us in our studio now, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Simon Birmingham. Good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. It’s great to be back in the studio again.


David Bevan: You say the South- and this was your message to your own party on the weekend. You say the South Australian Liberal Party membership is too small, too old and lacking in diversity. Can you explain what you mean?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, way back when our party was established, Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, built a mass membership organisation and across the country in the different states it had tens of thousands of members. Now, like most voluntary membership organisations, it struggled to maintain that. You don’t need to pick on the Liberal Party or indeed political parties because the same could be said for Labor’s membership, I’m sure. You can look at service clubs, you can look at churches, a whole range of voluntary organisations that struggle to capture the breadth of membership that they once had. In our case, the challenge is we have to seek to make sure we are as representative as possible to be as electable as possible. And so the point that I’ve looked at here is proposing some reforms and some changes that might enable us maybe not precisely through traditional membership structures to look at how we can recapture the diverse engagement that our party was founded on that ensured we were as representative as possible throughout the decades.


David Bevan: And one of these is quite a radical idea, which I want to tease out with you in a few minutes time. But dear listeners, what Simon Birmingham is proposing is that people who aren’t members of the Liberal Party be able to have a say in choosing Liberal candidates. Okay, now there would be a mechanism for them to get involved in the party. I’d have to sign a piece of paper saying no, really, truly, really, really, truly cross my heart, hope to die I do support the Liberal Party. But we’ll get into that mechanism in a moment because that sounds a lot like the primaries that take place in the United States. But before we get to that, just again, before we leave the context, your group and you’re the leading moderate, your group has been running the Liberal Party here in South Australia for several years. So, if the party is too small, too old, lacking in diversity, that’s happened under the party controlled by Birmingham, Marshall, Chapman and Pyne.


Simon Birmingham: David, I think we all have to take our share of responsibility for where the party is at present, and I don’t shirk that. As I said, the trend that I’m looking at here is not one unique to the South Australian division of the Liberal Party. It is one felt across voluntary organisations, across the nation and across the world.


David Bevan: Your group had a go at trying to make it more diverse and its smaller, older and more monochrome. I mean you had a go at trying to be more progressive and it hasn’t worked.


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, the party has certainly at a national level, governed for 70 per cent of the time since Menzies won the first election, we have had enormous success. Less so in the modern era in SA, that is true, that Labor’s tended to win more elections than we have in this state at a state level. But the party has had great electoral success and this state has played a significant role at different times in that electoral success. But we’re not enjoying it right now, clearly. Out of office, both state and federal, and at a low ebb in terms of our parliamentary representation from SA, both state and federal. And so it’s hitting that low ebb. And as somebody who’s now been around for a longish time, I felt it was my duty to try to look at what can we do. And you use the times, of course, when you are in opposition at that low ebb to think most about how to reform. What are the changes? What can build for the future? Now, my ideas will not be perfect and they will not be the only ones. And the message I gave to the gathering at the Liberal Party AGM on Saturday was to use this as a thought provocateur to actually use my paper as one to drive forward other ideas as well and let us test and tease those out to embrace the type of reforms that can ensure we get more of those – who in Menzies forgotten people speech, he talked about the small business people, the skilled artisans, the professionals, the farmers-.


David Bevan: Churchgoers.


Simon Birmingham: These are the people, churchgoers, people of faith and people of all faiths. These are the people who our party has traditionally represented and done well at representing and we should want to make sure that we have as many of them as possible involved in the processes of selecting the best possible candidates.


David Bevan: Are people brandishing Bibles at Liberal Party meetings?


Simon Birmingham: No.


David Bevan: Well, that’s not what I’ve heard. I’ve heard from one of your factional colleagues who said to me, Look, there was a Liberal Party function and there were people waving Bibles at other people and chasing them around the room.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I have not seen that, and I hadn’t heard that claim before. If somebody wants to bring a Bible to a Liberal Party meeting, of course they’re welcome to do so, just as people are welcome to bring any other great books of theology, philosophy or other things that can help inform their thinking. That’s the benefit of being a broad church, a big tent, a welcoming organisation. And the point in some ways I’m arguing for is to have the wisdom of crowds, the masses of people involved as much as we possibly can to get the plurality of views that give us that centrist approach, the best possible candidates to be able to be electable and representative of the community.


David Bevan: All right. But how will attacking people for holding conservative views and branding them according to their faith encourage a more diverse membership? Because that’s what has occurred in the last few months?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it shouldn’t, David, and we should be welcoming everybody, as I just expressed that view. I want people of faith and of all faiths and of no faith; of liberal values and conservative values. We are the custodian of two great philosophical traditions as a party in terms of liberal thinking and conservative thinking. And there is a contest of ideas that comes with that, and that is a good thing. The fact that there are different views, different perspectives within a political party tests the policies, tests the outcomes and gets better outcomes and so we should always celebrate that, but also work to preserve and protect it.


David Bevan: Do you subscribe to the Nick McBride view that there are dark forces at play within the Liberal Party? And he was referring to the Alex Antic drive to get more people from conservative churches in the party.


Simon Birmingham: I think, David, my concern and partly reflected here is that as organisations get smaller they become more easy for people to manipulate or influence, be that factional powerbrokers as people would call them, be it groups that might sign up a few hundred people and make a more notable difference, whatever the drivers or motivators may be, the smaller a decision making group is, the more prone or volatile it is to influences that can change that.


David Bevan: So, when Alex Antic goes and signs up, signs up a whole bunch of conservative Christians, that’s branch stacking. And when you do it, it’s creating a broader church.


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, the point I’m trying to make here in terms of the reform proposals is how to get not a couple of hundred in that might tilt a balance under an existing structure, but how to change the structure in ways that see thousands of people participate. So, that I can no more control that than any other particular individual but we are actually getting back to what the party was founded on in terms of reflecting that breadth of community views and values.


David Bevan: But this to your critics on the conservative side, they say, well, when the moderates lost control of all the various structures and they’ve then said, oh, well, we’ve got to get rid of these structures, these the Liberal Women’s Council and all this sort of stuff. And suddenly Birmingham wants to bring in other people and change the rules. And you know why? It’s because he’s lost the game. You played the game and when you won, you were happy with the rules. Now you’ve lost. It’s their turn. You want to change the rules. What do you say to that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, some of the reforms that I’ve put forward in this paper, such as abolishing delegates from some of those bodies you mentioned, which is really getting into the weeds, I’m sure your listeners aren’t that interested in. But they’re reforms that I’ve advocated for years. In the end. Yep. People can make that criticism. I get it. I understand it, equally I’ve now been lucky enough to enjoy a long parliamentary career to serve as a minister for close to a decade, and the Liberal Party has been very good to me. This is about, from my perspective, how the party is best placed for the future and I’m not particularly interested in the jibes backwards or forwards. Of course, I have my views and values on the types of candidates, the types of policies I think the party is best served by. But I do also genuinely believe in the broad church, that we do need to hold on to those two wings of liberal thought and conservative thought, and that we actually are best placed to do that by having as many of our voters and supporters participating in our processes as possible. And that’s ultimately what this idea of community pre-selections and greater involvement is about. There are tens and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who reliably still vote Liberal each and every election. I’d like to see more of them participating in selecting our candidates, in volunteering to be candidates, in giving us the best possible people to offer this state and this country the best possible choices for the future.


David Bevan: If you’ve just joined us, that’s the voice of Simon Birmingham. He’s South Australia’s most senior Liberal MP and as he points out quite rightly, many tens of thousands of people will vote Liberal primary, even with your vote at a low ebb right now. About a third of people in this state will give their primary vote to the Liberal Party. That’s extraordinary, even at a low ebb. Actually, it’s not that much better for the Labor Party. Their primary vote pretty awful too, but that’s a lot of people.


Simon Birmingham: It’s forgotten by some people at the last federal election, the Liberal and National parties got more first preferences than the Labor Party.


David Bevan: So, what you do inside this party affects everybody listening right now. It might think, I don’t want to. I’m not interested in politics. The decisions that will be made by an increasingly small number of people will affect the lives of an entire state and indeed the entire country. So we better get this stuff right. Which brings us to in a moment, Steven from Mount Barker. He wants to ask you a question about how are you going to change things? But let’s get to that. You are saying let’s go to the sexiest of all your reforms. You’re saying the Liberal Party should open up pre-selections, that is, choosing candidates for seats to non party members. How would that work?


Simon Birmingham: That’s right, David. So let’s firstly understand point of contrast between the two parties. We’ve long criticised Labor’s pre-selections for being controlled by backroom operatives, by the factional powerbrokers from the trade union movement, and that they really make the decisions and their members are largely cut out of that process. We’ve had a membership driven process where if you’re a local Liberal member you get a vote in the local candidate and that empowers them. And when Vickie Chapman left, I got the same vote in Bragg as every other member in Bragg at that time. What I’m saying here, though, is as our membership numbers have declined along with members of voluntary organisations, we don’t now have the same leaders of school councils, of churches, of small business, of all those groups that make up the community and that often constitute our Liberal voters. So how can we go through a recruitment process that is not about converting them to members if they’re not going to join, but actually getting them to register as possible pre-selectors and to bring in possibly hundreds, if not thousands of additional local members of a community, community leaders, Liberal minded individuals, and get them to participate.


David Bevan: Okay, so let’s say, oh, I don’t know. Steve Marshall decides I don’t want to be the member for Dunstan anymore. How do good go as premier and I want to resign, which would be perfectly reasonable for him to do. So, it’s open. Somebody has to choose a Liberal candidate. You’re saying that you would- the process would allow people to, what, register as Liberal supporters and then they would get a say in choosing the liberal candidate?


Simon Birmingham: At its heart, yes, David. Now, we’d have to work out the administrative processes for that, the timing and a scenario of a by-election. As I referenced, Vicki may not be the simplest one because you’re working in a tighter time frame, but certainly take the seat of Waite, one that we shouldn’t have lost at the last election-


David Bevan: That’s around the Mitcham Hills way.


Simon Birmingham: – that we absolutely need to win back. That may be a great place to look at how you run a trial of a community pre-selection, how we get the different people through those parts of the foothills and the hills involved in that selection of a truly representative candidate for Waite. Yes, a true liberal as well. And we have to make sure we have the relevant safeguards in there.


David Bevan: How do you do that? You get somebody to sign a paper. Do you sign a declaration? I want to take part. I want to register so that I can choose a Liberal candidate and cross my heart, hope to die. I’m not really voting for the Labor Party.


Simon Birmingham: Well, to a degree, yes. Of course, we do that a little bit with people joining as a member today. And I said before, let’s remember that our membership processes then give people effectively an automatic right to participate in a pre-selection. But yes, this would be about creating an easier entry point that doesn’t require you to have to join-.


David Bevan: I thought there were some delays once you signed up as a member.


Simon Birmingham: There is a 12 month-.


David Bevan: Right, but this would be the exact opposite of that. You would sign up for the purpose of choosing.


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, I think we’d have to look at the timeframes involved there, importantly, because trying to do it in a very short period of time would be challenging. But in the run up to a scheduled fixed term state election, to run a campaign in a seat like Waite, to get people to register to go out and particularly target those leaders of local small business chambers, those leaders of local schools, those leaders of local churches, those leaders of local sporting clubs, all of those people who actually have the best connections across the community. They’re the ones who we should really be wanting to make sure are participating in our selection of a candidate. And indeed, by reaching out to them earlier and telling them there is this pathway they can register for and be involved in to help select the next Liberal candidate. We may also flush more of them out to say – Hey, I wouldn’t mind being that Liberal candidate. Can I … I’ll use the free air time plug on the ABC to say first and foremost to listeners, I’d like you to join the Liberal Party and actually give us that massive numbers and that critical mass of representation! But I am trying to also float these different ideas and concepts to get ways to ensure that we have the wisdom of crowds, the participation numbers that made us so successful through our first 70 years of history.


David Bevan:  In a moment, we’re going straight to your calls.


[Commercial Break]


David Bevan: If you’ve just joined us, we’re talking to Simon Birmingham, the state’s most senior Liberal and he’s got a whole lot of ideas which some of them are quite radical to reform the party. And we’re of course talking about the alternative government. Steven has called from Mount Barker. Hello, Steven.


Caller Steven: Good morning, David. Morning, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: G’day, Steven.


Caller Steven: Hi. I just wondering if, especially given the mobilisation that’s occurred in the Liberal Party in recent years, having this kind of system may well open up, open you up to people, mobilising radically extreme people to come in and flood these community pre-selection meetings, and thus your party will be essentially hijacked by the extreme right for instance, and I know you’ve discussed this in your conversation already, but I’m just wanted to put that specific question to you, Senator. See what you think about that prospect and how you protect against that?


Simon Birmingham: Look, Steven, in some ways, as I see it, there are two directions you can go in. You can either go into a smaller and narrower direction, one like the Labor Party, where a very narrow group of people make a choice.


David Bevan: You mean the really successful Labor Party that now controls almost every state government and the Federal Government that Labor Party?


Simon Birmingham: Well, right now, David, I’ve seen that before. And of course, we’ve seen that cycle change too, where we’ve also had times where the Liberal Party’s controlled nearly every federal and state government across the country. Or you can go to the point of mass participation now. Steven, you’re right. If you took my model and you only got a very particular group who decided to participate, there’d be risks attached to that. But I’m hoping that we can manage to spur a degree of community participation, engagement that is broader than that. That’s why I talk about all those different groups, be it schools, sports, local businesses, service clubs, churches, etcetera, all needing to come together-


David Bevan: But it does seem counterintuitive. You’re concerned about ultra conservative forces taking over the party, yet the solution is to adopt a US style of pre-selections.


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, this model and you’ve got examples being used, in fact, by many of the independent movements around the country at present. So, take the seat of Indi in country Victoria, where Cathy McGowan was the local independent, and a couple of elections ago she decided to step away. She actually ran a community pre-selection type model that selected Helen Haines as the new independent candidate, and Helen Haines successfully contested that election. So almost a transferral of power from one independent to another. So, it is absolutely possible to look at these models, such as citizens juries type models. It doesn’t have to be a completely open slather one, you could try to pursue something that was more representative in targeting different types of groups. As I said, this is something I’ve thrown out and challenged the party as a piece of provocation to think about different ideas and approaches, and you can finesse the model as you go, but how you make sure it’s truly representative is critical.


David Bevan: Let’s go to James. Good morning, James.


Caller James: Oh, hello. Yes. Yeah, one of my things that I would like to address, I’m very much middle Australia. I’m a self-funded retiree, all of that sort of thing. So, I get nothing from either Liberal or Labor tend by and large. So, my vote is always determined at each election. One of the things that I find that the Liberals have lost is people’s trust. And I think if they don’t actually get people’s trust, it doesn’t matter what they say or do. People are not going to vote for them. We had Peter Malinauskas here attempting to get into the to become Premier. Nobody knew who he was. They ran a campaign of finding out who he is. I think for the Liberals to have any success, they’ve got to do something that actually builds trust and that’s what they sadly miss at the moment. Like I would like to vote against Labor, but I really don’t like the Greens all that much. So it’s a very hard decision to make. But anyway, I’ve had my say that’s it.


David Bevan: And thank you for calling and having your say, James from Trinity Gardens. In a few moments, a change of pace. Paul Gough, our music man, will be in the studio and we’ll have, I think, our fourth part. In his magical musical tour of the 1970s, we’ve managed to get to, I think, almost Christmas 1971. So, stay with us for that. Before you leave us, the Voice. After months of debate and on the eve of the official campaign, has your position changed?


Simon Birmingham: David, no, is the is the short answer there. I, as I’ve said before, I don’t intend to act contrary to the position of the party, but nor do I intend to go out and campaign strongly on this issue. There will be no shortage of people campaigning on this issue. I know there are also no shortage of other issues Australia faces, and that’s where I’m going to keep my attention. I, as I have said to you before-


David Bevan: So, your position is firmly on the fence?


Simon Birmingham: I wish we weren’t in the position that the country is in here, that we should have had a model brought forward that could have achieved a really strong consensus outcome. And I think it is sad for the country that we’re in a position where that’s not the case. And right now, you’d have to say the trend doesn’t look good for the Voice.


David Bevan: So, your position and that is exactly what you said a few months ago when we asked you about this, and it’s not insignificant that we should ask the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and South Australia’s most senior Liberal. What is your position on the Voice? Your position is I wish we never got here. There should have been a better question which would have been more unifying. But. Simon Birmingham, this is the question we’re faced with. Do you think we should vote yes, or do you think we should vote no?


Simon Birmingham: David, I know my position that I’m stating doesn’t tend to make anybody happy, to be honest. There are those, of course, who want me to come out and argue a case for one position or the other. I think the government has mishandled this in a range of ways. I urge individual Australians to look carefully at the issues, the constitutional implications, the concerns that are being put, but also, of course, to stress test whether they can see merit in the idea as well. And each Australian will get the same vote that I get in a secret ballot in a couple of months’ time.


David Bevan: So, do you think we should vote yes, or do you think we should vote no?


Simon Birmingham: As soon as I go down that path, I’ll then be asked why, and I’ll be into the terrain of effectively campaigning and advocating.


David Bevan: Well, what’s wrong with that? You’re a politician. You want to be the leader of the Liberal Party in the Senate. It’s not unreasonable to say to you, how are you going to vote and why? You are going to take-


Simon Birmingham: No. It’s not unreasonable, David-


David Bevan: You are going to vote, aren’t you? You’re not going to put a donkey vote in?


Simon Birmingham: No, no. I take my democratic responsibilities seriously.


David Bevan: Okay, so you will vote.


Simon Birmingham: But as I’ve been clear in a position here for some time about not intending to campaign in relation to this referendum. I don’t intend to change that position. I know it creates an awkwardness in interviews like this, but ultimately, I think the issue has been terribly mishandled. I wish we weren’t where we are. I’m not going to take that and now run with it in terms of a political campaign through the referendum. We have some strong advocates in the Liberal Party putting their voices forward. You’ve had some great interviews with my wonderful colleague, Senator Kerrynne Liddle, and she is a powerful voice in relation to this and will continue to be so.


David Bevan: But you won’t tell us how you’ll vote and which means that you won’t publicly endorse your Leader, Peter Dutton. So, what are people to draw from there? You want to lead us? You are a leader and you won’t tell us what you’re going to do.


Simon Birmingham: David, people can draw as they wish. I would encourage them to go and read a lengthy piece that I wrote at the time the party decided not to have a free vote around this issue, where I talked about the fact that it is a complex issue in terms of its history and where we are at and the details that we are facing right now, that there are many factors I’ve weighed in relation to this. But ultimately, I also see that there are many other issues that are going to challenge this country into the future. The current economic challenges we face globally, the strategic competition in our region that we face. And there are other things, very big issues that are going to command my time, energy and focus, and that’s where I’m dedicating it at present.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thank you for coming in.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, David. My pleasure.