KIERAN GILBERT: The Labor Caucus meets this morning in the face of a possible, and some say likely, collapse of the Government’s proposed media changes as senior ministers are fending off reports that they’ve shifted allegiance from Prime Minister Gillard to Kevin Rudd. Foreign [Affairs] Minister Bob Carr was asked about this report on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald, and it’s also the front page of The Age, suggesting that he and Mark Butler are among those senior ministers whose support for the Prime Minister has now been withdrawn and he was asked about this this morning, Senator Carr. He’d just held talks with the Secretary of State, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, at the State Department in Washington DC. Secretary Kerry was asked a domestic question about the debt issues in the United States and then Senator Carr was asked this question.
PAUL MALEY: … Senator Carr, just on a domestic point, does the Prime Minister enjoy your unqualified support or has she, in fact, lost your confidence, as domestic media reports suggest?
JOHN KERRY: Wow. I don’t know if you want to take that one first or second.
BOB CARR: I might dispose of that one first. I’m… the Prime Minister has my unqualified support. I wish I’d been asked about… to comment on that article before it appeared. She has my support and I think the media’s in a frenzy of speculation and speculation feeding on itself that generates these stories.
KIERAN GILBERT: With me on the program this morning to discuss these and other matters today, the Parliamentary Secretary for Trade, Kelvin Thomson, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Environment and Water [Murray-Darling Basin], Senator Simon Birmingham. Gentlemen, good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Morning, Kieran, Kelvin.
KELVIN THOMSON: Morning, Kieran, Simon.
KIERAN GILBERT: Carr’s in, obviously, Washington. The papers say that he was unable to comment because he was abroad but Mark Butler has commented. He says ‘I’ve dealt with this question at least a dozen times in the past and I’m not engaging in yet another round of speculation about internal party matters.’ That was his response. It was hardly a…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, yeah, indeed, or expressing unqualified support for the Prime Minister.
KELVIN THOMSON: I think his response is absolutely fair enough and I’ve done it myself because what happens is if people put it on you to express confidence in the Prime Minister, or indeed previous leaders because I’ve been through this before… when you do that, they simply write up stories saying ‘so-and-so expresses confidence in the leader’ and use that to fuel leadership speculation, so I think that Mark Butler’s response is entirely reasonable.
KIERAN GILBERT: So, there’s nothing to see here?
KELVIN THOMSON: I don’t think so. I think that the media said to us a long time ago ‘you must have a ballot to settle this… you must have a battle to settle this.’ We had a ballot, it settled it but there are people who refuse to let it die and want to keep it running, as I say, without any foundation.
KIERAN GILBERT: Including, within your party, quite a number.
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, we had a ballot and the ballot resolved the leadership…
KIERAN GILBERT: What would you say to those that are pushing and peddling the stories? I mean, they don’t come out of thin air.
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, what I would say to the media is that the media…
KIERAN GILBERT: Don’t listen to them?
KELVIN THOMSON: … ought to take these things with a grain of salt. In the case of Bob Carr, as he suggests, consult with Bob Carr and write what Bob Carr tells you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Does Julia Gillard enjoy the same support in the Labor Caucus today as she did at the time of that ballot, Kelvin?
KELVIN THOMSON: There’s no reason to believe otherwise, Simon. The point is that we had a ballot and that the ballot resolved the leadership issue and we’ve been getting on with the business of governing.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, the speculation has come before and it’s also dissipated before. The Prime Minister yesterday said she’s not going to flinch. There’s no indication that there is any sign that she’s going to do that and it looks like she will be holding firm.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, these stories don’t come out of nowhere. In the end, journalists around this place talk to Members of Parliament in this place. Peter Hartcher, Mark Kenny… they’re not people who have historically been tagged by Stephen Conroy as part of the ‘hate media’. These are respected journalists working in the Fairfax press, who, in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age today, are reporting very clearly of what Labor MPs are saying. That’s how these stories come about. There should be no doubt about the fact the reason these stories occur is because Labor members of the Caucus don’t have confidence in the Prime Minister, don’t have faith in Julia Gillard’s judgement, and are telling members of the media that’s the case. This is a dysfunctional and divided Government. There’s no other way to describe it and front pages like this one demonstrate very clearly that, the sooner we have an election in this country to deal with this issue once and for all, the better.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, the bottom line is that, going to something Senator Birmingham said there, these two journalists are both highly respected and outstanding journalists in my view but many other people share that view – Mark Kenny and Peter Hartcher. Surely, you’ve got to look at that in the context of these reports, don’t you?
KELVIN THOMSON: No, what you have to do is look at what Bob Carr is saying. Bob Carr said ‘the Prime Minister has my unqualified support’. You played it just a moment ago. Surely…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I suspect that’s not what he said to a few colleagues who’ve been speaking to these guys.
KELVIN THOMSON: Surely, that is the proper thing to report and the proper thing to do is to check with him before writing the story.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Let’s be honest here, Kelvin. Every Cabinet minister is going to say ‘the Prime Minister has my complete support’. Everyone has… the Prime Minister, the leader, of the day always enjoys the complete support of everyone until a ballot actually happens. What they say in public and what they say in closed doors are quite likely to be distinctly different.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, is that possible, that both things are accurate – that this report is accurate; that statement we’re reporting is also accurate?
KELVIN THOMSON: You’re entitled to engage in this speculation about what people are saying and about what they believe. I believe what the public is entitled to have is an understanding of what various ministers are saying based on what they, themselves, say rather than what unknown people are rumoured to be saying concerning their views.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Let me [unclear]…
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to play you something that Tony Windsor said last night, because this goes to the whole survival of the Government if there was a change. Let’s have a listen – Tony Windsor on the ABC.
TONY WINDSOR: If the Labor Party, itself, at this time in the Parliamentary cycle, can’t agree whether… who’s stable enough to run the place, they don’t deserve to have the longevity of our support. They want to make up their mind whether they want one leader or the other and, if they do, well and good but they can’t expect, in my case at least, that that’s a transferable document and if they continue with this election mode and this whole business about who the leader is, well, they might get to an election quicker than September the 14th.
KIERAN GILBERT: It’s clearly causing a bit of annoyance, at least among some on that crossbench.
KELVIN THOMSON: Yes, and Tony Windsor is always entitled to express his view about these issues but the Prime Minister has been very clear about September the 14th as the election date and I think that people in Australia are entitled to get on with their affairs confident that September the 14th will be the date of the election
KIERAN GILBERT: You wanted to interject before?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Tony Windsor… we’ll go to Tony Windsor’s quotes and two points I’d make there. Firstly, Tony Windsor doesn’t just cite the continued leadership speculation that’s dogging the Government. He also cites the continued campaign that the Government has thrust us into, again just highlighting the flawed judgement of Julia Gillard. She set us on the path of Australia’s longest ever election campaign and that is clearly irritating Independents like Tony Windsor. It, along with the leadership speculation, is now threatening to destabilise the Government. There’s still 179 days to go until September 14. Now, rather than this situation where a handful of Independents and Labor Caucus are threatening the leadership and stability of this country, how about we let every Australian have a say and get on with having an election sooner rather than later?
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s go to the media regulations and Rob Oakeshott joining Craig Thomson in saying he won’t be supporting them. Tony Windsor also says that they’re not going to get through as they stand. Let’s play you some comments from last night – Rob Oakeshott on Sky News and a bit more of Tony Windsor from the ABC.
ROB OAKESHOTT: I’ll be very surprised if it does get through and, really, if Government asked me, I’d say the best approach is to try and find a bit of an option B which is a path to keep the spirit and the intent of the idea of media reform, keep the stakeholders around the table and work on a better package with as much time as necessary.
TONY WINDSOR: Talking to the others in the crossbench today, I don’t think the numbers are there for a great portion of this to get through…
KIERAN GILBERT: They certainly don’t look like they’re there, Kelvin Thomson. Do you think that this… beyond the argument about freedom of speech, about the governance of the media, do you think this has been handled appropriately by the Minister with such notice – a couple of weeks, giving a deadline that’s not going to be met?
KELVIN THOMSON: We’re in the middle of the thing, Kieran, so I’m not going to draw conclusions at this point. We’re in the situation of a hung Parliament…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s a ringing endorsement of Stephen Conroy!
KELVIN THOMSON: In the situation of a hung Parliament, there is never any guarantee that your legislation will get through. You have to convince the crossbenchers. That’s part of the rich tapestry of our democracy but it is a long road that has no turning and I have been around long enough to see plenty of declarations of victory and concessions of defeat which turned out to be premature, so this issue is still under consideration, still under negotiation, and we’ll simply have to wait and see what gets passed and when.
KIERAN GILBERT: Why did the Minister come out and say ‘okay, it’s my way or the highway’ at the start? That’s what he said. He basically said ‘there’s the deadline, no bartering, no horse trading, take it or leave it’ and now we’re in this process of negotiation… just seems a bit odd.
KELVIN THOMSON: Yeah, well, look, the Minister can respond to that himself but frequently what happens when you’re in the situation of horse trading and negotiation is that crossbenchers or various people seek to introduce third factors and other things that they want to have resolved and I think the Minister was very keen not to have any of these things sort of added on or logrolled into the legislation but it is pretty clear…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But it’s a hung parliament, Kelvin, so you can’t take a take-it-or-leave-it approach – just what you said before.
KELVIN THOMSON: It is pretty clear that the Government is prepared to discuss with Independents specific pieces of legislation, these discussions are continuing, so, as I said before, I think it’s premature to say either things are going to be achieved or not achieved.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, let’s get Senator Birmingham’s views on this because I know that, well, the Greens are going to have Scott Ludlam on the program in just a moment. They’re putting forward a compromise. Others are saying that you need to split the bills – Tony Windsor was saying that. Do you think that there are components of this that you will back?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There are components of this that have actually been handled appropriately but they’re matters that relate to television content quotas, television licence fees and what the Senate inquiry yesterday heard is that industry was involved in that, understood what it would be and it was all signed off on last November. Contrast that with the proposed new regulator, where nobody saw any of the details or understood what was proposed until legislation* was dropped on the table by the Minister last Thursday with a week in which to pass it through both Houses of Parliament. This is a completely unacceptable way to do business. Kelvin just acknowledged that, in a hung parliament, there are no certainties; you have to work across the crossbenches. That’s not the approach this Minister or Julia Gillard took at the outset. Once again it just demonstrates a completely flawed judgement from the leadership of this Government.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, gentlemen, we’re out of time. Appreciate your time this morning, thank you, Kelvin Thomson, Simon Birmingham.
KELVIN THOMSON: Good to be with you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, cheers.