Topics: Parliament; the Voice; Aston by-election; RBA review; Warning from foreign investors on gas market interventions;

07:35AM AEDT
Friday, 31 March 2023



Patricia Karvelas: The final sitting week before the May budget has delivered multiple wins for the government. The safeguard mechanism has been rubber stamped. The National Reconstruction Fund will be set up and the bill to trigger the Voice referendum has been introduced to Parliament. But they were unable to pass the social housing bill, which now sits deadlocked. Central to all of these negotiations was the Greens Leader Adam Bandt. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and our guest. Simon Birmingham, welcome.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Patricia, and happy Friday to your listeners.


Patricia Karvelas: Thank you. Has Adam Bandt effectively replaced Peter Dutton as an opposition leader?


Simon Birmingham: No, that’s a ridiculous proposition. I mean, I don’t expect the Greens to be the alternate government in Australia and heaven help us if they are. Ultimately, the Greens have decided to do deals and the Government has decided to do deals with the Greens in certain areas. Elsewhere, of course-.


Patricia Karvelas: Well, let me pick you up on that because they wanted to do deals with your side of politics, but you’ve just said no to a range of legislation, so you dealt yourselves out. Why?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if I look back to simply the week before this one, most of that week was spent on the Referendum Machinery Act, a bill that was passed with the Opposition’s support after plenty of negotiations. So, we will choose on what is effectively responsible to negotiate on, on what it is in keeping with our values and policies to negotiate on and of course make decisions on a case-by-case basis.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Let’s go to some of the case-by-case basis topics. When the government introduced the referendum bill yesterday, barely a handful of Liberal MPs were in the chamber. Peter Dutton, the Opposition Leader, was not even present for what was quite a historic moment. What signal do you think that sends to people on the Voice?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not sure that it’s intended to send any particular signal. I don’t know whether in terms of the management of the House of Representatives, of which I’m not a member, as to what advice around the precise timing that a bill is introduced as provided across the chamber to other MPs or not. Their technical processes around the House, I can say that for the introduction of virtually any bill, there are very few Members of Parliament there because an introduction is merely an administrative matter. The debate comes at a significantly later stage and for this one the debate will come after an important joint select committee process which will provide a much more open and much more transparent means to test the wording, to test the consequences. And I look forward to that process being undertaken.


Patricia Karvelas: Is there any chance that the Liberal Party can land on a yes supporting position?


Simon Birmingham: There’s no doubt there are colleagues who have very different positions to mine. And as I’ve said to you previously, I have been a long-time supporter of recognition. I don’t wish to see a referendum fail, and I want to see this process considered very, very carefully for all Australians. So, there will be some, I’m certain, whose view remains that constitutionally enshrining a Voice is unnecessary and that they will take a position against that. But ultimately, I trust that we will continue to engage in this process carefully and in engaging them carefully, right now we move from a process that until now has largely been behind closed doors the work of the various working groups that the government established, the government’s own processes all behind closed doors into a transparent parliamentary select committee with representatives from across the Parliament. And Australians will now have their chance to make submissions to appear before that committee and critically, that representatives of the select committee will have the chance to test with constitutional scholars and others the various propositions that are being put about the impact of that wording. And I hope that everyone comes to that with an open mind in terms of testing those propositions and that the government comes to it with an open mind to still change the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment. If the evidence is there that changing it would provide a safer, more stable outcome for our Constitution and therefore a greater opportunity for the referendum to succeed.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you referring to the word executive? Do you want that removed for your support? Is that what you’re saying?


Simon Birmingham: This has certainly been one of the most contested elements of the wording that’s been put forward. My view is that the change should clearly provide for recognition and if it is to establish a Voice as well, it should provide for the establishment of that Voice in the simplest and narrowest possible way, such that the Parliament ultimately establishes the Voice.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but there is a clause number three-


Simon Birmingham: Having executive government- Having the wording ‘executive government’ in there is not necessary for a Voice to necessarily advocate to executive government. So, whilst I understand the arguments of those who want to see a Voice able to advocate to executive government, that is not necessarily necessary for it to undertake that advocacy, but of course by putting it in the Constitution, it does then provide another layer of wording that can be contested through High Court challenges where constitutional challenges are heard. And they’re the debates that are being put by some, we see very strong advocates of the Voice. Like Frank Brennan or Greg Craven, whose views and concerns seem to have grown over time through this process. And that’s why I hope they can be really effectively tested by this select committee.


Patricia Karvelas: And is that a deal breaker for you? If the word executive remains and it seems that there is a consensus actually, of course, there are some who disagree, but a consensus of many legal experts who say it is a safe word because of the limitations that then are put in the question, which actually allows for the parliament to be the ultimate decider of the scope and the functions of the Voice. Would you be able to advocate for a yes vote yourself, Simon Birmingham speaking, if executive remains in it?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not going into this joint select committee process drawing red lines, and I would urge others not to as well. As I said just before, I urge the government to keep an open mind to and to approach this, willing to consider still changes to the wording, because I think that is that would be genuine engagement through the transparent process of a parliamentary committee and inquiry. As distinct from the closed door, behind closed doors and back room processes that have been undertaken to date.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you confident you’ll hold the seat of Aston at this weekend’s election?


Simon Birmingham: No election, especially in the modern age, is to be taken for granted. But I really do obviously hope that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that we do. But I hope, especially because I think at the last election there was a clear message that people want to see the Liberal Party do better at better, reflecting modern Australia. And in Roshena Campbell our candidate in Ashton, there is an outstanding professional woman of a diverse background who will better reflect modern Australia in the Liberal Party ranks. And this is a wonderful opportunity to take one step, a very important one, to secure that type of improvement that I think the electorate was looking for from us at the last election and that she will be a genuine asset in the party room and in the Parliament if she’s elected.


Patricia Karvelas: Is Peter Dutton’s leadership at stake on the basis of this by-election?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to try to project forward. Roshena has worked very hard through this by-election campaign. Peter has been and I believe will be again in Aston before people vote, working with her, campaigning with her. And so, it’s been a team effort. I’ve been on the ground, as have many others, at different times. But ultimately, this by-election is an opportunity for the people of Aston to choose a new representative. But the slightly bigger picture aspect of that choice, I think, comes to the fact that it is also an opportunity for the electorate that has sent a message of wanting to see some change in the Liberal Party to actually give effect to that change, thanks to an outstanding candidate selection that was made.


Patricia Karvelas: The Reserve Bank of Australia Review is being handed today to the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers. The Treasurer confirmed to us yesterday that they will need to make some legislative changes in the wake of that. He obviously has some ideas that he knows what’s going in. He also said he wants bipartisanship with your side of politics on this and it is my understanding that the government would like to make a deal with your side of politics rather than having to deal with the Greens on something as crucial as these economic values. Would you like to make a deal with the government on the RBA review? You mean- you said to me earlier that, you know, case by case that you’re not just no sayers, that you have worked collaboratively with the government, but do you think the RBA needs a big overhaul as a former finance minister?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think that the RBA needs a big overhaul. I wouldn’t say that. But I do think that the RBA needs to maintain the confidence of both parties of government and so dependent upon what the Government is actually proposing out of this review, I would hope that we engage in it initially with a mind to try to ensure that confidence can be maintained. So as long as Labor’s not coming to it with political outcomes or outcomes, that would undermine the independence, the expert orientation, the integrity of the RBA well then, then I trust that we will look at it with an open mind ourselves and engage carefully there. It’s a key pillar institution of government and therefore it’s one that deserves to maintain the confidence of both parties of government as it has had and has done for decades.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, the Financial Review is reporting this morning that a new gas tax looms as the government tries to raise revenue to begin budget repair. Now we know there has to be budget repair. If you look at just the trajectory of the budget and of course, big spending items like submarines. Is it in that context a good proposal to at least pursue?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it also needs to be weighed against the context of a very impactful speech given by one of the biggest investors in Australia yesterday, the global CEO of Inpex Corporation, who are responsible for the largest liquid natural gas project, foreign investment, the largest foreign investment of any sort from Japan in our nation’s history. And they sent some pretty clear messages and warning signals about the Government’s gas market interventions that occurred late last year. The risk that that is going to deter foreign investment in the future. The risk that it will actually regionally drive an increased use of coal as against gas and would have negative climate change consequences and indeed the risks that it opens up new market opportunities for countries like Russia or Iran or China. So, I think there are a lot of messages that were provided quite directly by the Inpex CEO yesterday, Mr. Ueda, and the Government really does need to heed those messages. And if it’s looking at tinkering with taxes on that sector, it wants to be pretty careful that it doesn’t further act in a way that deters investment in the future and ultimately is entirely counterproductive to any measures to either control prices, support exports or raise revenue if you just end up driving investment away.


Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.