KIERAN GILBERT: One Liberal Senator has described Tony Abbott’s new Cabinet as shocking and an embarrassment over the fact that there’s only one woman in Tony Abbott’s inner circle. The Australian of the Year, Ita Buttrose, says it’s proof that the glass ceiling is still well and truly in effect in Australia. Coming up on the program, Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor. First, though, to the newly endorsed Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham… I should say re-endorsed, there, as the Parliamentary Secretary for water and Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment minister. Senator Birmingham, thanks for your time. First of all, your reaction to the comments from Ita Buttrose that the glass ceiling in Australia still exists and that the Abbott Cabinet is proof of that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Kieran, and, look, I think it’s important that we recognise that we do need to continue to do work to make sure that more women continue to occupy more seats in Parliament, more seats in the Ministry, more seats in the Cabinet and I think what Tony said yesterday is that there are a number of women – four out of the ten ministers in the Outer Ministry – knocking on the door of the Cabinet and we should fully expect people like Marise Payne or Fiona Nash or Sussan Ley or, indeed, any number of other Coalition women to be progressing into those Cabinet spots over the years of the Government that hopefully lie ahead.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Sue Boyce said that she thinks it’s shocking, embarrassing and not just embarrassing nationally but internationally and she says she doesn’t see it as Prime Minister-elect Abbott’s problem; rather, a systemic issue for your party. Do you agree with that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, I think there is a challenge in how we get more women not just pre-selected but to run in pre-selections. I’ve had many experiences of going and asking people – people who I thought would be very, very talented – to run for Parliament. Asking them to do so, many men have knocked me back; many more women have knocked me back and I think we need to have a look at some of the reasons why that’s the case. Of course, there are the challenges of travelling to Canberra, the family disruption, things that of course are issues for dads and mums alike but often they seem to be a greater impediment for women getting them to even put their hand up in the first place and we’ve got to have a look at those things and see what we can do to try to make sure we get more women through. That said, there’s some wonderful new women elected to the Coalition ranks just at this election – people like Lucy Wicks and Sarah Henderson and numerous others who will be bolstering our ranks and I’m sure a number of them will be serving on the front bench in the not-too-distant future as well.
KIERAN GILBERT: There’s someone like Kelly O’Dwyer, though, who has been overlooked for promotion to even the Parliamentary Secretary ranks. You know, there have been some worthy promotions like Alan Tudge, Josh Frydenberg… you know, very worthy promotions for them but to have Kelly O’Dwyer overlooked from even a Parliamentary Secretary position… a young, up-and-coming and talented woman in your ranks… were you surprised by that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kelly’s a good friend of mine, a good mate, and I think the world of Kelly and she has an awful lot to offer and I’m sure that she’ll be doing and offering a lot more in []future but I think you need to understand that there are, as I said, a number of good women, especially in the Outer Ministry, knocking on the door of Cabinet and what we shouldn’t overlook here is that Tony Abbott has put a real priority on experience. He wants this Government to start calmly, methodically and carefully and that’s why 15 of the 20 Cabinet positions are occupied by people who have ministerial experience from the Howard Government, so that Australians can be reassured that, after six years of chaos, we now have a government of adults in charge who know what they’re doing.
KIERAN GILBERT: There are… you, as I said, will be the Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment minister and with a focus on water. What’s your aim in the job, once you’re sworn in as of tomorrow morning?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, I’m really excited to have this role. I’ve made water politics and policy and particularly the issues around the sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin a policy priority and passion of mine for the entire six-plus years that I’ve been in the Senate now, so I’m delighted to now have this chance in government to implement some of that, to see that the Howard Government legacy of trying to put the Murray-Darling Basin on a sustainable footing is now implemented and implemented, though, in a way that ensures the Basin remains Australia’s food bowl, that we protect our farmers, protect their capacity to grow food here in Australia and for export to the world but get the river back on a sustainable footing and there’s much more around the rest of the country, particularly on the water front, that can be done better – reuse of urban water, better use of some untapped water resources to boost some productivity elsewhere in a sustainable way plus, of course, the broader environmental issues – getting rid of the carbon tax, having climate change policies that deliver real emissions reduction and streamlining our environmental approvals process to get rid of the red or green tape and make it more efficient for businesses to actually do business here in Australia…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and I can keep going if you want.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, no, many of our viewers are in the Murray-Darling Basin, so they are very, acutely aware of just how much needs to be done to, as you say, put it on a more sustainable footing but much of the work has already been done, hasn’t it, by the former Minister Burke with that landmark agreement?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, credit where it is due. Minister Wong and Minister Burke and, for a few minutes at the end, Minister Butler were implementing the reforms of the Howard Government. The Water Act was passed back in 2007 by the Howard Government. It required that a new plan for the Murray-Darling Basin be developed. Under Minister Burke that was finalised and I’ve given Tony credit for that before and I look forward to seeing that implemented but it is now a case of how you go about implementing it. It’s one thing to say we’ve got an agreed plan. We now need to recover the water necessary to deliver on that plan and recover it in the most practical and economically responsible and socially responsible way possible which is going to be about getting in there with the irrigation communities and the farming communities along the river and finding smart ways to return water to environmental flows that don’t in any way undermine the social or productive fabric of those communities.
KIERAN GILBERT: One of the things that you’ve had to manage even in your Shadow responsibilities has been the interests of the National Party, not always aligned with that of the Liberal Party and certainly not always aligned with those of the Liberals in Adelaide, for example, but with the renewed push not just on water but Tony Abbott saying that Andrew Robb is going to lead a new trade and investment push, you’re going to have to manage, more broadly, the Nationals as well and their sensitivities about foreign investment, aren’t you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think, as a Government, we’re very conscious that you have to bring the community with you on every big decision and you have to make sure that community confidence is enshrined in some of these key policy areas, so whether it’s in border protection and immigration… the only way you can have a strong immigration program is by having confidence that the Government is in control and that the Government has strong borders… similarly, when you come to foreign investment, the only way you support and encourage public support for foreign investment is by ensuring that you actually have public confidence that foreign investment will always be in the national interest, so that’s why we’ll be, of course, going out, as Tony has flagged and with Andrew Robb’s appointment as Minister for [Trade and] Investment… that we’ll be going out and attracting and trying to generate foreign investment that will grow the economy and jobs and opportunities here in Australia but, at the same time, we’re going to subject land purchases and farmland purchases to a greater level of scrutiny and that’s about trying to make sure that the public has the confidence that any foreign investment in Australia is genuinely in the national interest, that it will generate more jobs, more taxes and more economic activity here in Australia as it has done for a very long time.
KIERAN GILBERT: And to placate the Nationals, as well. You must concede that, of course?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think that we are just addressing what is legitimate and genuine public concern. As you and I have discussed before, I spent a lot of time working with Matt Williams, our new Liberal Member for Hindmarsh, and he told me time and time again, and I heard when I was on the hustings with him time and time again, that plenty of Australians, whether they live in the bush or in the cities, are worried about foreign purchase of farm lands and we need to demonstrate to them that, where that takes place, it is in Australia’s interest and that’s what those reforms are about. It’s not placating the National Party or one sector; it’s about addressing legitimate Australian concerns and addressing them so that Australian support for foreign investment remains high because it’s critical that we have that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Now, Clive Palmer, the [Palmer United Party] candidate for the seat of Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, has accused the… well, he says the Australian Electoral Commission is a national disgrace. He says that the vote in Fairfax is rigged. What do you make of the comments made by the candidate for Fairfax and who, incidentally, leads in that race by a bit over 360 votes at the moment?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, Clive Palmer’s entitled to make his case; he’s entitled to take court action if he wants to. I can only speak for my experience of the Australian Electoral Commission over the years and that is that they are incredibly careful, incredibly methodical and beyond reproach when it comes to how they undertake the count in all of the different counts that I’ve been involved in. I once lost a Lower House seat by 108 votes, so I know what it’s like to be in a close race and I know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of that close race but I never claimed that there were any irregularities in that count. I accepted the result was fair and square. Now, in the end, if Clive has evidence, it’s up to him to put the evidence on the table and take it through the appropriate pathways of challenging it. If he doesn’t have the evidence, then he shouldn’t be impugning the integrity of our Electoral Commission staff who do and manage one of the best and fairest electoral systems in the world.
KIERAN GILBERT: When you look at Clive Palmer and… well, if he does lose that seat, he’s still going to have a lot of influence in the Senate without the necessary disclosure requirements that he would face as a Member of Parliament, so it’d be the power without the scrutiny, wouldn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, if Glenn Lazarus is in the Senate, as looks likely, it will be up to Glenn Lazarus to, of course, make very clear what his interests are, the same as every other Senator does, and, in the end, it is Glenn Lazarus who will be a Senator for Queensland… yes, a Palmer United Party Senator but he has to act as an individual Senator, not taking his riding instructions from Mr Palmer or anybody else and I’m sure that Senator-elect Lazarus, as he looks like being, will, of course, uphold his duties, as he’s meant to, in an appropriate way. Now, he can talk to Clive and he can talk to anybody else and he can seek information wherever else but, of course, Mr Palmer will be no more required to release his interests, if he’s not a Member of Parliament, than the head of the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] or the President of the Liberal Party are.
KIERAN GILBERT: Incoming Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time and congrats on your appointment.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks so much, Kieran. It’s always a pleasure.