ASLEIGH GILLON: Joining me here in our Canberra studio this morning is the Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham … Bill Shorten will be with us soon from Melbourne. Simon, before we start talking about reshuffles let’s just take a moment to recognise Nick Minchin’s contribution … of course he was in the Senate for some 17 years … 14 years working behind the scenes for the Liberal Party . Yesterday, when he announced he would be resigning at the next election, here’s the reason that he gave:
NICK MINCHIN: “I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t in good conscience say to my party or the people of South Australia that I want to serve a fourth six-year term in the Senate from 2011 to 2017 and in those circumstances it leaves me with no choice but to announce the decision that I have today.”
ASLEIGH GILLON: Simon Birmingham, as a fellow South Australian how big a loss do you see Nick Minchin’s departure as?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Nick is a great loss. I’ve known Nick basically from the very first moment I joined the Liberal Party … he was the State Director in South Australia then, soon to enter the Senate and of course a very illustrious 17-year career that has followed on from then. Nick is a fierce warrior for the Liberal Party … he is a fierce warrior for all that he believes in … he is a passionate man when it comes to fighting for the issues for Australia and the things that he thinks are important and he has of course been a very effective and able politician. I’ve haven’t always agreed with Nick but I respect him greatly, he’s been a great leader, he’s been a good mentor to me since I entered the Senate just under three years ago and I will certainly miss Nick as our Leader and I’m sure the Party will miss him. But importantly, he’s staying out to see out the rest of his term and Tony and the team will still have Nick’s wisdom and ability that we can call upon between now and the next election and beyond.
ASLEIGH GILLON: And his loss will be felt most heavily by the conservatives in the Party, won’t it … will that leave them a little bit damaged as he leaves?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Nick as I said has been a fierce warrior for all that he believes in and certainly he has championed those issues both inside the Party and more broadly at times, but I think the whole Party will feel Nick’s loss, it’s not just a loss for one group of the Party, it’s not just a loss for the leadership but we of course have a great and deep talent in the Senate, great and deep talent throughout the Liberal Party and we’ll battle on without Nick but he is a loss and it’s worth us reflecting on the 17 fantastic years in the Senate … a career during the life of the Howard Government as a Parliament Secretary, as a junior Minister, as a senior Minister and as part of the leadership team Nick held all of the possible roles you could wish to hold in Government and he leaves a very, very big legacy and contribution as a result of that.
ASLEIGH GILLON: So do you expect that Tony Abbott will now use his departure to do a wider reshuffle of the frontbench?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony made his views very clear yesterday. It’s only four months since Tony became Leader … it’s only four months since Tony structured his frontbench. He has no desire to make a widespread reshuffle … he said they will be minimal changes and just what they will be remain to be seen but I take Tony at his word there that they will be minimal changes.
ASLEIGH GILLON: Do you think Barnaby Joyce will survive in the finance portfolio?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Barnaby has been a great talent for the Coalition side of politics, since he came in … he has, it’s safe to say, reinvigorated the National Party … he is now contributing to the overall Coalition cause as a frontbencher that’s fantastic…
ASLEIGH GILLON: So do you think he’s doing a good job as Shadow Finance Minister?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think Barnaby is, as he does in every role he takes on … he’s cutting through on the messages he chooses to. He wants to talk about debt, he wants to highlight the risks of Labor’s borrowing and he is managing to highlight those issues. Now the media and others choose to get distracted by the odd stumble, by Barnaby’s quirky style of approach, but the reality is Barnaby cuts through to people in everyday Australian life. Voters out there like Barnaby, they hear what he says and they understand what he’s talking about when he talks about the risk of debt and the risk of enormous Government borrowings. So I think it is entirely probably within Barnaby’s call as to whether he stays in that portfolio or moves from that portfolio because Barnaby is a good talent that we want to utilise and everyone wants to utilise.
ASLEIGH GILLON: Your colleague Ian Macdonald this morning said on radio that he thinks Barnaby’s skills could be used better in perhaps another portfolio.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Barnaby’s skills could be used I think in many portfolios very effectively. In the end it’s a matter for Barnaby and for Tony as to where Barnaby can best serve. I’m sure that Barnaby is well aware of the fact that there’s a lot of discussion about his role. I think he does a good job … I think he does a good job talking directly to ordinary Australians out there, whether they be in the bush or the suburbs or cities. But Barnaby I’m sure will be considering all of those options, as will Tony, but this is not about Barnaby Joyce, it’s about Nick departing and Tony filling that gap in the team and moving forward with a strong team for the next election.
ASLEIGH GILLON: A report in The Sydney Morning Herald today suggests that Malcolm Turnbull could be open to a frontbench position. Now there’s a couple of hurdles there isn’t there because (a) we don’t know if Mr Turnbull is planning to recontest the next election in his seat of Wentworth and (b) he has been speaking out against some Coalition policy, particularly when it comes to Tony Abbott’s stance on the emissions trading scheme. Would you like to see Mr Turnbull return to the frontbench?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Malcolm is without doubt one of the great talents within this Parliament and a great talent within the Liberal Party but it is equally only four months since Malcolm lost the leadership … Malcolm chose to go to the backbench at that time to give himself some time for reflection, I would be surprised if Malcolm’s view has changed in that four month period … if he chose to come back I’m sure he would be welcomed by Tony … welcomed by the entire team because he is a great talent but Malcolm is someone who we should accept wanted to take a period of reflection … he’s entitled to do that as a former Leader, and if he needs a bit longer than four months well then that’s just fine as well.
ASLEIGH GILLON: It’d be pretty hard for Malcolm Turnbull to suddenly have to spout the Party’s line if he was a member of the frontbench, especially on climate issues, though, right?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, certainly on the emissions trading scheme that would be difficult for Malcolm and we understand his views there. I respect the fact that he has exercised his right, as all Liberals have, to differ from Party policy … Malcolm, if he chose to come back to the frontbench, would have reconcile those issues, but Malcolm I’m sure would be more than capable of doing so if he chose to but I frankly would be surprised if, having chosen to take a sabbatical from the frontbench, that four months later he would change his mind on that issue.
ASLEIGH GILLON: One more final aspect of a potential reshuffle is in the Senate and Simon Birmingham, of course Eric Abetz is tipped to be the new Leader with George Brandis as his Deputy … do you think that team would work well and be as effective as Nick Minchin has been?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Unlike the Labor Party we are a very democratic institution in the Liberal Party … our Senate Party Room will choose who our Senate Leader and Senate Deputy Leader are … if it turns out that it is Eric and George, they are both extremely able and will do a fantastic job for the team but we’ll participate in a democratic process to choose the team there and whomever we end up with I’m sure will be outstanding leaders to take us on beyond Nick’s great contribution.
ASLEIGH GILLON: … I do want to look at the other news coming out of South Australia yesterday which of course was Isobel Redmond, the Liberal Leader there, conceding that her party lost the weekend’s election. Of course you did achieve a swing of about seven to eight per cent … she says that she’s happy to stay on in this position but what do you think federally the Liberal Party has taken away from this?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look there are clearly some lessons, Ash, from of course the state election in South Australia … it was a very good result for Isobel and the team … it’s disappointing to fall so agonisingly short … a seven to eight per cent swing … a likelihood that we will win the two-party preferred vote but just not be able to put together enough seats. It’s a disappointing outcome but coming from the depths of defeat that we had back in 2006, Isobel has done a fantastic job to get where she has. Now of course you have to accept there are lessons particularly if you do win that two-party-preferred vote and don’t win enough seats that you need to go back and look very carefully at making sure we’re getting the right candidates, running the right local campaigns in the key seats where we have to, and that’s something that federally and right across the Party we’ll need to refocus on and make sure that we get that right. On a policy sense I think Isobel’s message resonated around issues of water, in issues of health and making sure that at the local front she was getting that right … on the national level there are going to be different issues, issues around debt and deficit and the management of, of course, taxpayer funds but then I think also there is a big issue of style and what we saw was voters turning against the ‘all spin, no substance’ approach of the Rann Government and that is something that I’m hearing loud and clear in the electorate is a similar concern about Kevin Rudd and his team.
ASLEIGH GILLON: Simon Birmingham, the Liberals have of course been throwing criticism at the My School website, also on the schools spending, that’s something we’ve seen Chris Pyne really go on the attack over in Question Time a lot in recent weeks and months but the Coalition hasn’t said that it would start winding back the stimulus spending on any of these school projects so it’s hard for you to actually criticise this so much when you wouldn’t say if you’d do it any differently.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well unfortunately, Ashleigh, a lot of the money and most of the commitments have been shuttled out of the door when comes to things like the schools spending … but it has been enormously wasteful and there’s a pattern of waste from the Rudd Government when they were handing out 900-dollar cheques across the country they sent them to dead people and people in prisons and so on … when they’re handing out Green Loans or home assessments across the country they’ve left a program opening to rorting, when they were handing out home insulation across the country the program was rorted and indeed had other tragic consequences and here on education and building of school halls we see another raft of problems from the Government where far more money is being spent than was necessary, state governments are clearly skimming money off the top, individuals are clearly profiteering and the people who are missing out on getting the most bang for their buck are in fact the schools that Bill Shorten wants to talk about. Now praising spending in schools is like praising motherhood. It’s an easy kick for anybody and of course spending in schools is always welcome but that spending should be getting maximum bang for its buck and it’s not at present … it hasn’t been under the Rudd Government … we’ve got these ridiculous situations where you have an entire school that could’ve been rebuilt for the cost of one demountable classroom … we’ve got the situation that was exposed last year of a school with one student receiving a whole new building … the Government has clearly demonstrably wasted ten of millions of dollars if not hundreds of millions of dollars through this program … through it’s other programs … billions of dollars all up of taxpayer funds effectively poured down the tube because Kevin Rudd and his Ministers can’t manage to administer these programs effectively.
ASLEIGH GILLON: Bill Shorten that is the argument we are going to keep hearing from the Coalition, isn’t it, all the way up to the next election, that the Rudd Government can’t be trusted to roll out these sorts of big programs so why should it be trusted to deliver the sorts of health reforms that Kevin Rudd has been spruiking … it is an argument that might cut through to voters, mightn’t it?
BILL SHORTEN: Well on the schools revolution and the extra infrastructure spending specifically, the truth of the matter out there in the real world is that you trip over a conga line of Liberals to get to openings because for every example that Senator Birmingham quotes the reality is that there’s many, many, many, many, many more examples of the school halls and the libraries … I mean, in my electorate…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So waste doesn’t matter then?
ASLEIGH GILLON: … Simon Birmingham, I know you have to get off to today’s Senate inquiry into the insulation program, so we will be keeping a close eye on that today and might touch base with you a bit later to see how all that is going … thank you for your time as well …