Topics:  Protestors on Parliament House; Senator Payman leaves ALP; 

05:10PM ACST
4 July 2024


Charlie Pickering:
Well, someone who could probably hear all of that from his office was a Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Liberal Senator for South Australia, Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon Simon.


Simon Birmingham: Good day. Charlie, it’s good to be with you.


Charlie Pickering: Great to have you with us. Let’s start with the protests. A review has been ordered into how such a security breach could have occurred. What do you think has happened here?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Charlie, there clearly has been a terrible security breach, and it does warrant thorough investigation. I understand the individuals concerned have been arrested, and the full force of the law should apply to those individuals, but there should also be a thorough investigation as to whether there was any assistance provided to them in terms of accessing the building or bringing materials into the building to make sure that all security protocols around our Parliament are upheld. Now, that’s not to deny the right of anybody to protest. Of course, in Australia it is a fundamental right for individuals to have free speech and to be able to exercise it. What we saw today was a terrible breach in terms of how protests should reasonably and responsibly be undertaken and in this case, in breaching the security of the Parliament In undertaking this in a way that endangered the lives of security and other personnel, and in hanging anti-semitic, appalling messages from the front of our Parliament. It was a shameful act and sadly, a stain on this building.


Charlie Pickering: You say that there will be a search to find out if they were given any assistance in getting into the building. Has there been a suggestion of that? Because that sounds a bit more January 6th insurrection in Washington sort of stuff. People inside Parliament helping protesters in.


Simon Birmingham: Charlie on the last person to peddle conspiracy theories and I wouldn’t want to do so. But I think given what we saw today, which appeared to be well coordinated, well executed and done in a very quick manner, uh, authorities need to make sure they do a full and thorough assessment of how it came about. Uh, and it seems hard to believe that people could simply have just gone through all of the normal processes and been able to undertake these acts as they did.


Charlie Pickering: Well, I’m very curious to know how they might have gotten up on the roof. I mean, I’m picturing Parliament House in my mind, and there’s these big grass hills going up the side that maybe you could run up and take a leap and try and grab on to the flag, I don’t know, is that is that even possible, or would you have to have access to certain areas to get on the roof?


Simon Birmingham: It’s not possible anymore. Tragically, since September 11th in 2001 and all of the different terrorist and other concerns over the years, fences have been erected in different places around the building. You know, I can remember when I first came to Canberra, one of the most fabulous things about our Parliament was that people could literally run the whole way over the top of it, and kids could roll down the grass hills from the top to the bottom and it made it a really wonderfully accessible place. But tragically, actions like those today but even more seriously, the threat of terrorism and so on means that that type of access is much more tightly controlled and restricted nowadays. And that’s why there’s got to be a very thorough investigation into this.


Charlie Pickering: Uh, do you yourself ever feel unsafe at Parliament House when things like this happen?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I can’t say that personally, I have, but I have had colleagues even today express their concerns about it and what it does mean. And, again, the types of changes applied over the years where there are now lockdown procedures and ways to handle all types of potential attacks, be they armed attacks, biological attacks or otherwise. It’s a sad reflection on the challenges we face right around the world but also a reminder, really, of why in countries like Australia standing up for our democracy and the principles that underpin it, and standing by other democracies around the world is so very, very important.


Charlie Pickering: And I thought it was a bit risky operating the chip fryer at McDonald’s. That sounds pretty dicey, Simon. I’m speaking with Simon Birmingham, who is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. And let’s get on to some other news out of Canberra today. We heard Senator Payman during the 5PM news, speaking about why she left the party and the principles that she is standing on. Do you agree with her decision to leave Labor?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Charlie, that is her decision. I don’t agree with the issues that she has stated her reasons for leaving over. We support the Liberal Party has been clear for a long time in our support of a two-state solution that is negotiated and negotiated in ways that settle questions of borders between the two states, that ensure security guarantees between the two states, and not just rushing to prematurely recognise the State of Palestine without having those types of difficult issues resolved. But she’s exercised her right as a parliamentarian to vote as she believes, according to her conscience. Now, had she been a member of the Liberal and National parties and done that, she would be able to continue as a member of our parties. But in the Labor Party, they have a strict binding rule. The Prime Minister spent two weeks agonising, seemingly over whether to enforce that rule, whether not to enforce that rule, whether to apply punishment, whether not to. And he kept changing his mind in a whole manner of different ways. And ultimately, despite the weakness and indecision in his response, it seems that Senator Payman made her mind up and his mind up for him by deciding to walk away.


Charlie Pickering: You’re not the only senator to suggest that blame for this lies at the feet of the Prime Minister. National Senator for Victoria Bridget McKenzie, asked this question in the Senate chamber, resulting in Senator Fatima Payman actually walking out. Do we have that?




Bridget McKenzie: Mr. Albanese’s response was weak and has been proven to be a giant mistake, given the Prime Minister hasn’t been able to convince his own party to take his authority seriously, and has been so comprehensively outplayed by Senator Peyman. How can anyone else be expected to take him seriously?


President: Senator McKenzie. Order.



Charlie Pickering: Why was the Coalition hammering this quite so hard in the Senate, particularly to the point that Senator Payman actually left the chamber because the rancour and just the impact of all of the discussion of her matter was just too much to bear.


Simon Birmingham:


Charlie Pickering:  Why was that such an attack line and something to hit so hard in the Senate today? All things considered.


Simon Birmingham: Charlie, I’m not sure why Senator Payman chose to walk out. In fact, later this afternoon, the Senate has undertaken a series of divisions and votes on matters relevant to the tragic conflict in Gaza and to the defence of Israel. And strangely, she didn’t vote in any of those divisions, despite it being the issue that she left the Labor Party over. The questions that were asked in the Senate today and there was only one set of three questions asked were focused very much on the Prime Minister’s handling and the way in which the Prime Minister’s indecision appeared to create confusion around this, the lack of leadership and that’s not just about the handling of Senator Payman, but it also actually goes to the core of the issues here, where the government has constantly seemingly shifted its position in relation to Israel’s inherent right to self-defence. And we can see that splashed across today’s newspapers in relation to allegations and suggestions that the government told Israel’s Ambassador that it wouldn’t stand by them if there were attacks from Hezbollah. And that is quite a remarkable thing given the recognised terrorist organisation that Hezbollah is, and the fact that they continue to fire rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel.


Charlie Pickering: But, I mean, just taking you up on the point about this being all caused by weakness and indecision by the Prime Minister, isn’t the rule of their caucus that to cross the floor means that you won’t be welcome in caucus? He then gave the senator a chance to change her mind, an opportunity to do that. And then he enforced the rules of his party and she left. Isn’t that actually just a natural process, given that she knew the repercussions when she did cross the floor? Those repercussions have occurred. I mean, as a parent who’s had to discipline children over the years, you’ve got to stick to a punishment. But it has to be a learning experience for everyone. It feels like the exact punishment was administered on this occasion.


Simon Birmingham: Charlie, except that it took two weeks for that to happen. And it only happened ultimately because Senator Payman made the decision, not because the Prime Minister-


Charlie Pickering: But isn’t that the point? She made the decision to cross the floor. The rules were communicated. She was given an opportunity to change her approach. And then she made her final decision. And you said yourself she was entitled to do that as an elected member of the House. Isn’t it just the system working the way it’s meant to?


Simon Birmingham: Well, when she crossed the floor, she was the first Labor member or senator to do that against a Labor government since 1986, which shows the significance of this in the Labor Party. The precedent had been that indeed was something that saw somebody out of the Labor caucus. And instead, Mr. Albanese’s first response was nothing at all. His second response was a one meeting suspension. His third response, then, was an indefinite or longer-term suspension with an option of coming back. And it was only Senator Payman herself today who finally said that she was leaving and leaving of her own volition. So, in a sense, she’s upheld those long-standing caucus rules the Prime Minister hasn’t.


Charlie Pickering: I don’t know. Maybe you’re saying that she should have just been kicked out immediately, and then he would have looked much tougher. I want to ask you one question, though. She was elected via the way Senate seats are so often elected, by party. She is now left that party. Should she actually resign from the Parliament? Given that a lot of Western Australians who voted for Labor voted for the party and not specifically for her?


Simon Birmingham: Charlie, there’s a fair question there. And ultimately any individual has to make their judgement on that. I’ve been critical in the past of senators who have left political parties and particularly major political parties, and in doing so taken that party’s seat and the votes of people who had voted for that party and gone somewhere else. And I think individuals do need to think long and hard about the consequences of doing so. Ftima Payman has, five years left. Sorry, four years left on her Senate term without having to again face the people of WA and those Labor voters are right to question that and the Labor Party is would understandably be aggrieved. But again, that’s a function in part of their rules, how their rules apply, but also the way in which the PM and the party leadership have, in a sense, bungled parts of the handling of these rules and created uncertainty for many. I can only but reinforce in our party we do respect. There will be differences of opinion from time to time, and that doesn’t mean a point of finality. We try to minimise those, but we also respect that individual parliamentarians do have rights at times to have to exercise their conscience. And that’s a vast difference between the Liberal and National parties and the Labor Party.


Charlie Pickering: Simon Birmingham, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, thank you for your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Charlie. My pleasure.