06:50AM AEDT
Wednesday, 5 April 2023


Patricia Karvelas:
Election loss after election loss has left the Liberals searching for what went wrong. But despite internal reports being commissioned and soul searching, the loss of support continues. One of the party’s most senior moderates is calling for urgent action to win back Australians and shake off perceptions that the party is intolerant, nasty and divisive. A short time ago I was joined by the shadow frontbencher Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Great to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: You write that there is a perception that your party is intolerant, nasty and divisive. Have voters told you that?


Simon Birmingham: Some voters have passed on those sorts of concerns and that is why we’ve really got to make sure that we are a party for all Australians. Liberal values are enduring, and we have a fabulous story to tell. Our party’s governed Australia for around 70% of the post-World War II era. Modern Australia is in many ways a reflection of the Liberal Party, but we also have to make sure that we reflect modern Australia. And the reality is that times have changed, the construct and demographics of society have changed and so we should be a party that still stands for families, but we should stand for all families regardless of their construct. We should still be a party of small business, but we should use that as a tool to embrace migrant and multicultural communities who are so entrepreneurial in their nature. There are great things consistent with liberal values that we can and must do to make sure that we maximise our vote and the support for true Liberal policies into the future.


Patricia Karvelas: You say if the messages from this electoral drubbing in Aston are heard and the wake up call seized, then good can come out of the bad. But this isn’t the first time, Senator, that you’ve received this message. In fact, you received it big time at a federal election. Is your party actually capable of this change?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we must be. Voters are very volatile nowadays. We see that in the size of swings in the movements that occur. So we shouldn’t think that there’s new generations or new cohorts of voters completely locked in one way or the other. And we should recognise that people will listen, will change. But for that we have to make sure we’ve got a positive, compelling message for them. And the point I seek to make in that piece is that we don’t have to turn away from our values. We just have to make sure that we present them as a party of business, a party of entrepreneurialism, a party of families in a way that is also conclusive and compelling to all voters wherever they’ve come from and whatever their lives.


Patricia Karvelas: Tony Barry, who of course is a former Liberal Party strategist and now with the Red Bridge group, says that if you work on the fringes, if you fight on the fringes, you get fringe results. So, something like trans kids, that debate. Is that a fringe issue in your view?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it is in that it concerns only relatively small numbers of people, frankly, on either side of the debate. And so having in the lead up to the Aston by-election a debate ensuing in the Victorian division of the Liberal Party around trans rights, Nazis, all of those sorts of things that were being thrown around was clearly very, very counterproductive and I think that’s acknowledged right across the leadership of the Liberal Party. And so, trying to make sure that whilst there has to be space to deal with issues where international sporting organisations are making rules and laws, but we shouldn’t take that into a realm where suddenly there are public protests supported by Liberal MPs or anything that suggests there is a sense of disrespect other than careful, thoughtful policy consideration. And we should be clear that we recognise families dealing with these issues are dealing with very challenging circumstances and deserve nothing but respect and support.


Patricia Karvelas: Would they feel respected right now by the Liberal Party as a sort of brand?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, they would have cause given the actions of some to not feel so. But I would want to reiterate the message that I think the vast, overwhelming majority of my colleagues and what we have to do is ensure this is seen and heard and felt. Do respect those differences, do understand the challenges and the difficulties in those circumstances and that the equality of opportunity, that stands at the core of a liberal belief in individual rights and individual opportunities is something that we hold out to everybody who is willing to make a contribution to society, work hard regardless of their background, be it their religious background, their sexual orientation, their migrant background, or any other attribute they may hold.


Patricia Karvelas: Isn’t part of the problem that your party room is full of people that just don’t agree with you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I don’t think that’s right. But I do think we get a lot of attention when issues such as those that blew up in the lead up to Aston occurred. And we also carry challenges from the debates over for example, same sex marriage which ultimately the party room found a process to resolve. And it was under a Liberal government that same sex marriage was achieved. So, we have to again, look at those successes and make sure that we’re actually proud of those successes in the way that we convey those messages of inclusion to that part of the community. But it goes far broader there. It’s not just a matter of winning over one particular cohort. As I say in the piece, it’s about ensuring that the fastest growing demographic in the Australian workforce, which is professional women, understand those messages of respect and inclusion that are important to them and also see that the Liberal Party is moving to better reflect them. And one of the great shames of Aston was that we had a young, professional, brilliant woman of Indian heritage as our candidate. But sadly, having selected her, we were unable to win that by-election and we need many more local versions of Roshena Campbell in winnable seats right across the country to make sure that we are reflective of that diversity and of modern Australia, its workforce and its cultural composition.


Patricia Karvelas: Now I understand you’re on your way to Canberra and there’s a reason for that. There’s a crucial party room meeting today to determine a position on the voice to Parliament referendum. According to Newspoll published today by The Australian newspaper, a majority of Australians in a majority of states support an Indigenous voice to Parliament. Do you think there should be a free vote for frontbenchers like you to advocate for a yes vote?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll keep my specific arguments for the shadow Cabinet and party room meetings to come…


Patricia Karvelas: Just give us a little hint of what your view is because Andrew Bragg made it super clear here yesterday. He said there should be a free vote just like the republic and the same sex marriage debate.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think as Julian Leeser said the other day, there are strong precedents in the most recent national votes for freedom in terms of the vote that people bring. I think it’s important that we respect the right of Australians to have their say and that the legislation pass through the Parliament for this referendum. Even if we have concerns about it, we should respect that Australians will be the ultimate arbiters and judges of this. It is a challenging issue in some ways. The idea of putting specific race based provisions into the constitution is an illiberal concept…


Patricia Karvelas: There is already race in the Constitution, though, isn’t there?


Simon Birmingham: There has been and there is. And so, if you recall, though, initially there were significant debates about whether the changes to the Constitution should be about removing those provisions. But we should also see that there are liberal values in terms of the empowerment of voice and opportunity for a part of Australia that clearly suffers from areas and elements of disadvantage more greatly than others and has its own specific policy challenges. So, I can understand some of the different issues. And even when you then come to the practical operations of the Voice, there are competing arguments, particularly given the government’s approach to the wording that has been put forward. And as I said on your program the other day, I hope that the Government will still look at the process between now and when the bill is actually considered. Use the committee process that’s underway to consider the wording of the Voice and the wording of the constitutional proposal put to Australians. And I’m confident that Coalition members of that committee, like Andrew Bragg, will use the process constructively.


Patricia Karvelas: You mentioned the damage from the same sex marriage debate for the Liberal brand a little earlier on this issue. Again, Redbridge’s Kos Samaras says 1 in 5 millennials support the LNP. It’s not very many and the ratio is much lower among Gen Z and of course are emerging, your children and mine. These voters I mentioned, he says, will make up close to 50% of the voters roll by 2025 and they are overwhelmingly in support of the yes vote. Do you risk being out of touch with a major cohort of the community if you go down the no road today?


Simon Birmingham: There are always risks. But we still, at our heart, have to make every decision based upon the principles and the values that we take to Canberra in accordance with being…


Patricia Karvelas: Sure. But on that question of connecting with these voters, which is what your piece is about today.


Simon Birmingham: Indeed, the piece is very clearly. Yes, doing so consistent with those values and policy principles. In the end, if you lose elections, standing up for your values and principles, well, that’s fine. I’ve stood up for them and you’ve argued the case. But we should be mindful, as I argue in that piece, that we present those values around pro-business policies, entrepreneurialism, support for families in a modern and inclusive way. The Voice is different with competing arguments as I outlined before, but we should be very mindful of the way we engage in this debate, and we should seek to make sure we present as positive a perspective to Australians around that about the vision we have for listening to and engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians for recognising their role and unique role in Australia and its history, and that this must be a debate where anybody who engages in it, we should expect nothing but the utmost of respect from them.


Patricia Karvelas: Senator, thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.