KIERAN GILBERT: With me now, Labor MP Andrew Leigh in the Canberra studio… Morning, Andrew…
ANDREW LEIGH: Morning, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: … and from Adelaide we have Liberal Senator… Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, thanks for your time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Kieran. Morning, Andrew.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask you, first of all, Senator Birmingham, about the prospect of a conscience vote within the Coalition on gay marriage. Would you support that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, Kieran, I’ve made my support known in general terms but I think what’s important on this issue is that our Leader has made it clear that there’s a party process to go through and I’m quite sure we will work through that party process in a calm and sensible way.
KIERAN GILBERT: What’s your sense of the mood within the Coalition? You support the notion of gay marriage. Do many others?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, Kieran, I think the Coalition has always been a broad church on many issues. However, I think it’s safe to say there’s a strong traditional element of viewpoint that’s there but, in the end, we will go through, as we always do on these matters, our proper party processes when there’s legislation before the Parliament.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, and the Coalition, Andrew Leigh, does allow people to cross the floor without expelling them, unlike Labor, so that, technically, is right – that they do allow conscience votes on everything.
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, Kieran, we make different decisions according to the strength of feeling on particular issues. In this case, our view has been a conscience vote is appropriate. My personal position is I’ll support gay marriage but I understand there are sincerely held views right across the spectrum and you heard those on display at the Labor Party conference on the weekend, but I am disappointed that Tony Abbott is going to hold his Members in check. We know that…
KIERAN GILBERT: He hasn’t said that, though.
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, it certainly seems to be what’s shaping up at the moment and we know, for example, that Malcolm Turnbull, as well as Simon Birmingham, has canvassed his electorate and found them in support of gay marriage and yet Tony Abbott is going to hold this back. I think they’re… public attitudes are changing and they’re changing very fast on this issue and Tony Abbott, I think, risks being left behind in the tide.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, when you say that, though, there’s large sections of the community who remain vehemently opposed. We’ve seen that today with Cardinal Pell, the head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Aspinall, and others so there are very strong opinions against this as well. You talk about…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And, apparently, Julia Gillard, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: … the tide of opinion – it’s not… universal…
ANDREW LEIGH: Absolutely, and I wouldn’t go and…
KIERAN GILBERT: Oh, and Julia Gillard, as Senator Birmingham says.
ANDREW LEIGH: I wouldn’t reject the opposing positions. I have had a number of telephone calls and personal interactions with many of the people in my electorate who take the opposing view.
KIERAN GILBERT: But if you’re saying Tony Abbott’s out of step with the mainstream, then Julia Gillard is too.
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, he is certainly out of step with the mainstream to this extent, Kieran – that he is not willing to allow his Members and Senators, at least on the read of the current statements that he has made, to participate in a free discussion on this.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, well let’s hear Senator Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Nor was Julia Gillard until three weeks ago so, Andrew, if you want to turn this into a political issue, we can turn it into a political issue and according to your own words, your Prime Minister Julia Gillard is being left out of step and left behind with the times. I don’t want to turn it into a political issue. I think we should have a sensible debate and I think, within my own party, we should let us go through the proper party processes just as your party has.
ANDREW LEIGH: I hope you’re right on this, Simon, and I hope that your view prevails on this and that you are able to take that to the floor of the Parliament. I think that would be exactly the right thing to happen.
KIERAN GILBERT: But if there was a conscience vote, Senator Birmingham, do you think that it would secure the numbers in the Parliament?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, I think, as Andrew did say, there are some very strong and passionately held views on all sides of the debate and I respect all of those views and if it were a conscience vote across the Parliament, I think it would still probably struggle to get there but who knows? In the end, it’s very hard to tell on these matters until you get to that absolute, final point of vote and people have all fully declared their position. At present, frankly, anybody’s really guessing, to say what they think would happen.
KIERAN GILBERT: What do you think of today’s Newspoll result – your Leader Tony Abbott’s approval rating down to a two-year low? Is that a worry, even though the Coalition is still obviously well in front?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, Kieran, I think when I talk to people across the community, they tell me very clearly they have concerns about what’s happening. Across the Australian economy, across the electorate, people are worried about the way this Labor Government works and, frankly, we had the Labor National Conference this weekend and in many ways it was a bit like they held their hands up the ears like a small child and went ‘la la la la la, we don’t want to talk about the real issues that people are concerned about’ – matters of cost of living, how that is impacting on people’s livelihoods and their homes and their families, the skyrocketing electricity bills that will only, of course, be added to by the carbon price and the carbon tax that’s coming in, so I think there is still clear evidence in the grassroots and, frankly, in the polling that people are concerned about the direction of this Labor Government and that’s what I hear day in, day out, wherever I go.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s talk about this report today on Kevin Rudd’s tenure as Prime Minister. The leaking of this is obviously timed to try and, you know, send a message to Mr Rudd’s backers that if they undermine Julia Gillard’s leadership that there will be a response. Do you see it that way?
ANDREW LEIGH: I haven’t seen the reports and I’m not focused on this sort of scuttlebutt about the past. I think it’s important that we focus on the challenges of this year, next year and going forward. It is absolutely critical that we, for example, continue to modernise the education system that we’re putting in place, a big review – the Gonski review – which is looking at school funding, making sure we get a fairer deal there.
KIERAN GILBERT: But the tensions… you talk about it being in the past… the tensions remain and we saw that at the weekend with Mr Rudd miffed at not receiving much of a mention in the Prime Minister’s speech.
ANDREW LEIGH: I have no particular views on the sort of gossip and scuttlebutt that are floating around, Kieran. What I saw was Prime Minister talking about issues right across the spectrum and talking about Labor’s great traditions, going back to Medicare, equal pay to the pension, and I saw Kevin Rudd articulating strongly a place for Australia in the world. This is a Foreign minister with the energy of Evatt or Evans and I think that is absolutely what Australia needs at this stage. I understand people will want to write gossip but I don’t, for my own part, want to play into giving it oxygen.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, let me bowl you a long hop and you can hit this one to the fence…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well Andrew can pick…
KIERAN GILBERT: … what do you think?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Andrew can pick up a copy of The Sydney Morning Herald today if he wants to read the report in question but, look, what we have is a situation where Julia Gillard clearly wants to write Kevin Rudd out of the history books. She couldn’t even bring herself at Labor’s National Conference to talk about Kevin Rudd and the first few years of the Labor Government that was in place. That’s how divided they are. That’s, of course, how deep the hatred is that runs through Labor. Meanwhile, of course, Kevin Rudd is very eager to wipe Julia Gillard out of the current stage of history of right here, right now as Prime Minister, so we see the tensions are live at present and the leaking of this report… whomever has leaked it obviously wants to further inflame those tensions between the current Labor Prime Minister and the former Labor Prime Minister who are meant to be sitting around the Cabinet table theoretically trying to govern effectively for Australia’s future but when they can’t trust each other you’ve really got to wonder how they can do that job effectively as Prime Minister and Foreign minister in the here and now.
KIERAN GILBERT: It worked alright for a few years under the Coalition, though, didn’t it, with Mr Howard and Mr Costello?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the situations are vastly different from a sitting Prime Minister who is actually rolled by the new Prime Minister and having a former Prime Minister sitting around the Cabinet table, as we do at present, is unheard of in modern Australian political history and we just see that the two of them clearly intensely dislike and distrust one another and the leaking of this report today is further demonstration of the tensions that are rife throughout the Labor Party.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, well, I want to ask you [Andrew Leigh] one last question about the ALP conference. Were you disappointed that the Party couldn’t have come up with something a bit more substantial than just another review? The Party really squibbed it when it came to reform.
ANDREW LEIGH: Reforms of party structures is deeply difficult, Kieran. I think that…
KIERAN GILBERT: Does that mean you don’t do it?
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, it means it takes a long conversation and I don’t think you expect that a single day is going to get things done, but we saw some important agreements come out of the weekend’s conference. There were other proposals on the table. There was a set of non-aligned proposals that I would’ve liked to see debated as well but there is certainly a range of reforms that have come forward to this and I think we’re facing up to what the Liberal Party has not yet faced up to which is…
KIERAN GILBERT: But your ‘rank and file’… are they telling you they want a greater say?
ANDREW LEIGH: It’s certainly, I think, important to move with the times. In the ACT, though, we have ‘rank and file’ preselections and strong Party membership so this is not something that should be taken as a challenge across the board. I come from part of the Party with great grassroots membership where people are out in the community, at the multicultural festival, the local Belconnen Community Festival, so that sort of community engagement I think is the key to growing the Party in the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: Andrew Leigh, thanks for that interview. It’s always a good feed at the multicultural festival, too.
ANDREW LEIGH: Absolutely.
KIERAN GILBERT: It is always a highlight. Senator Birmingham, thank you for your time as well, appreciate it.
ANDREW LEIGH: Thanks, Kieran. Thanks, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … Andrew, I note we’ve had ‘rank and file’ preselections in the Liberal Party for a long time.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, well there’s a point to finish on. That’s all for AM Agenda