DAVID LIPSON: Factional brawling, faceless men, allegations of payback and claims that women are not being fairly represented in senior positions – all barbs aimed at the Labor Party from within the Labor Party after yesterday’s frontbench announcement. The former Speaker, Anna Burke, who missed out on a frontbench position, is leading the charge. She was on Lateline last night on the ABC.
ANNA BURKE: … and it was quite frustrating when it was again just all within the leader's pick but, whether it's Caucus or the factions doing it, I think we need to look at how that is done – how you determine that process or a couple of blokes sitting round a room carving up the spoils and then telling everybody else what the outcome's going to be.
DAVID LIPSON: So much for drawing a line under party disunity. Of course, with every loser there is a winner. One of the winners was Stephen Conroy, the Senator who went to the backbench after the most recent leadership coup in the Labor Party. He’s back into a leadership position. He will be Deputy Leader in the Senate. This is what he said on Lateline.
STEPHEN CONROY: … not everybody can win a ballot. By definition, there's more than one candidate. There's always going to be some disappointed people. The great thing about the Labor Caucus that we have is that there are more talented people available than available positions.
DAVID LIPSON: Well, joining me on the program this morning is the Parliamentary Secretary Senator Simon Birmingham. Also, the Labor frontbencher – we don’t know exactly what portfolio yet – Brendan O’Connor joins me in the studio here in Canberra.
DAVID LIPSON: Simon Birmingham, there are more women in Labor’s frontbench. Is that going to bounce back to the Coalition? This is criticism that we saw a few weeks ago of the Coalition’s particularly the Cabinet where there’s just one woman in Cabinet.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, David. There might be more women but there’s also a lot more hatred inside the Labor Party as well and it seems as if we have the Labor Party who, for six years of government, their internal hatred left them unfit to govern and it looks like that same internal hatred is now basically going to leave them unfit for opposition. These have been some of the most extraordinary attacks I’ve seen on a party from within that own party – very vicious attacks and it’s not just Anna Burke. You had Warren Snowdon out there, as well, talking about small cabals of people making the decisions of who would be on the frontbench and what it’s shown is that, for all the fluff and pageantry of the last month as the leadership ballot was undertaken, ultimately it is still a small group of factional chiefs who are in charge. Stephen Conroy, who can spend most of the election campaign travelling around the United States and not lift a finger for the Labor Party in the election campaign, just comes along, uses his factional numbers and says ‘thanks very much, I’ll just take a position back not just on the frontbench but in the leadership group’. I mean, it’s just a remarkable demonstration of factional power.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: … there were shadow ministers before the election that were told they would be ministers by Tony Abbott. He told them they would be ministers and they were sacked. You know, there were people… Tony Smith and Teresa Gambaro, who were parliamentary secretaries, were sacked from the shadow ministry and the shadow parliamentary secretary positions when Tony Abbott came in, in direct contravention of his commitment that they would actually have executive positions of government.
DAVID LIPSON: Simon Birmingham, a response to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There were, absolutely, disappointed people when Tony Abbott lined up the frontbench and created the Ministry because, ultimately, difficult decisions have to be made through that and so there were disappointed people. The contrast, Brendan, is you haven’t seen any of those disappointed people go out and sledge the party or sledge the Government or sledge the Prime Minister…
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: No, that’s not true. That’s not true. The shadow minister… That’s not true. You’ve had people tweeting about how disappointed they were at being betrayed by the Prime Minister in terms of his commitment.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Brendan, there has been nothing like the type of allegations and commentary that we’ve seen from Anna Burke and from Warren Snowdon. There is a clear riven hatred within the Labor Party and it’s coming back to the way the factions operate within the Labor Party. We have gotten on with the job of government quite calmly and methodically since the Ministry was announced. There’s been none of this bitterness that we’re seeing in Labor ranks and it is just, of course, a continuation of where the Labor Party was for the last six years, that internal hatreds tore the party apart in government and they’re still tearing the Labor Party apart in opposition.
DAVID LIPSON: Simon Birmingham, you accuse the Labor Party of being beholden to the factions but it is the case that, if everyone voted down factional lines in the leadership ballot, well, Anthony Albanese would currently be the Leader of the Labor Party.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, all credit to the right wing for managing to lure a few extra votes over within the Caucus so that they could do over the party membership. 60 per cent of the party membership had their say. Brendan’s saying what a wonderful festival of democracy it was for the party membership. 60 per cent wanted Anthony Albanese and they got Bill Shorten.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Oh, ’60 per cent’ but they had their say…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: They had their say and you ignored it.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: The only reason Tony Abbott is Prime Minister is because Peter Slipper gave him the vote, the only one vote he needed to become Leader…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony Abbott was elected unopposed after the last two elections.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: … and, of course, we also know Tony Abbott went to that wedding before he gave him that vote.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony Abbott was elected unopposed as Liberal Leader for two consecutive elections now, Brendan.
DAVID LIPSON: It’s not just break-outs in the Labor Party. There’s been a few ructions in the Coalition as well when it comes to foreign investment and free trade deals. A little bit later in the program well be speaking to Nationals Senator John Williams on his position when it comes to the Foreign Investment Review Board because the Coalition’s policy currently is to increase scrutiny for agri-farms, or agricultural land and agricultural businesses, where China wants scrutiny reduced, or at least the threshold increased, if there is to be a free trade deal. In The [Australian] Financial Review this morning, John Williams says ‘China should not be treated the same as the US … it's not our ally; it's a Communist state’. Simon Birmingham and Brendan O’Connor are still with me on the program. Simon Birmingham, first to you – is this going to cause a problem in the Coalition? It seems it already is.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, I don’t expect so, David. Each free trade agreement will be negotiated on its own terms. These are bilateral agreements and whilst there’s an agreement in place, from the Howard era, with the United States, there’ll be a different agreement negotiated with China. That’s the way you go about these things. The unfortunate thing is that… the agreement with China… negotiations started back in the time of the Howard Government… we’ve had no progress since then, through the life of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Governments, but we’re determined to now get those negotiations back on track and to conclude them so that we can get a free trade regime with China that, importantly, gives greater access to things like Australia’s agricultural products. If you go and talk to people, for example, in the dairy sector who are processers and manufacturers of cheeses, they look at their New Zealand counterparts, who have a free trade agreement with China, have really good access to China with zero or low tariffs, and the Australian producers have a very difficult situation to compete, so there’s some really important areas, particularly in agriculture, that we’re focused on getting good outcomes for better market access for Australia into China by concluding these negotiations.
DAVID LIPSON: And, in order to do that, should the Coalition be flexible when it comes to scrutiny of foreign investment? Should that at least be on the table for negotiation?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Of course when you go into negotiations you’ve got to be willing to negotiate but we have equally said and we will go through with this policy that we went to the election saying we would toughen the Foreign Investment Review Board criteria to make sure that we maximise public confidence in foreign investment. Foreign investment is absolutely critical to Australia’s future and we need to maintain not just a strong level of foreign investment but we need to maintain a strong level of public confidence in that as well and there are genuine concerns across the electorate and the types of reforms that we’ve committed to putting in place, in terms of lowering the threshold when it comes to farmland, are very important to make sure that we maintain that confidence. You can do that and you can negotiate a free trade agreement with China. It’s not a matter of ‘either/or’. We can manage to work through both of these policy priorities.
DAVID LIPSON: So, should the Nats pull their heads in, then, on this issue and allow the Coalition to take that position?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Senator Williams is outlining a concern that exists in the electorate and it’s a genuine concern and that’s why we committed to this policy in relation to the Foreign Investment Review Board’s threshold for agricultural land purchases. We know that there are concerns and that’s why we want to make sure that we put in place policies that ensure confidence is there. If we don’t have public confidence for foreign investment in Australia, then we’ll have real problems further down the track, so it’s important to act today to ensure people have confidence that, where foreign investment takes place, it is genuinely in the national interest. That’s the type of reform we’re pursuing. That won’t stop us from getting on with negotiating a free trade agreement as well.
DAVID LIPSON: … I want to get your thoughts on comments that Bob Carr has reportedly made to a meeting of the Right in relation to asylum seekers where he has urged the Opposition, the Labor Party, to mirror the Coalition on asylum seeker policy or risk years in opposition.
DAVID LIPSON: Senator Birmingham, the Coalition certainly didn’t afford Labor the luxury of a mirror of policy even when it took a hardline position on asylum seekers. Should Labor offer that to the Coalition?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think it’s probably sage advice from Bob Carr but the thing the Australian people should be mindful of is not necessarily what Labor says but what Labor has done because, before the 2007 election Kevin Rudd in many ways tried to mirror John Howard on a whole range of issues including asylum seeker policies but then, of course, after the 2007 election he acted to undo all of those policies and really, of course, created many of the problems that we’re trying to fix today, so it’s one thing for a Bob Carr to say that the Labor Party should mirror what the Coalition in government does; the problem is that, when Labor gets into government, they do exactly the opposite.
DAVID LIPSON: And, just on the policy of asylum seekers, Senator Birmingham do you believe that what the Coalition has implemented is working or are we seeing, in the reduction of boats, a continuation of Labor’s hardline policy on offshore processing… no one coming to Australia… do you give the Labor Party any credit?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think what’s always been important is that people smugglers knew that a Coalition Government would have the backbone and the resolve to implement policies and stick to them and that’s now what we have in place. The problem with Labor’s approach was they might have been able to reduce the flow for a little while but then there’d be pressure from another sector within the Labor Party that would see them ease some aspect of policy or pivot in another direction so the flow would increase again. We now have a Government that is about consistent policy.
DAVID LIPSON: We’re out of… okay, I’m sorry to not give you a chance to respond, Brendan O’Connor. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time as well.