KIERAN GILBERT: This morning, Labor leadership ‘take 20′ – in the face of dire polling around the country and immense pressure from Parliamentary and now union colleagues, powerbroker Bill Shorten’s understood to be reconsidering his support for Julia Gillard. His close ally Paul Howes from the Australian Workers’ Union this morning did express his backing, once again, of Prime Minister Gillard
PAUL HOWES: I don’t know what Kevin is doing. Kevin says he’s out there campaigning; he’s appearing on shows like Sunrise, he’s appearing around various electorates, I read, in Sydney this week. That’s good. All Labor Members should be out campaigning. What is happening at the moment, and you can’t deny it, is that there is obviously a lot of whispering going on behind closed doors. There’s obviously a lot of reporting going on by the nation’s media and that is truly distracting in terms of what the Labor Party should be doing during this election campaign.
KIERAN GILBERT: We’re going to go now to the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, in Adelaide, Senator Simon Birmingham and, in Melbourne, the Parliamentary Secretary for Trade, Kelvin Thomson. Kelvin Thomson, first to you. All of this comes down to what Bill Shorten is going to do – apparently much rests on his decision as to whether or not he’s going to continue to back Julia Gillard. What do you think he will do?
KELVIN THOMSON: Kieran, I don’t think there is any issue for Bill Shorten at all. There was a leadership ballot early last year which the Prime Minister won with a decisive majority, then a couple of months ago she threw this matter open to the Caucus and asked if anyone wanted to contest the leadership, no one wanted to contest the leadership, so the matter has been resolved and there’s no decision for Bill Shorten or anyone else.
KIERAN GILBERT: But, if he did make a call to shift his support to Rudd, that’d take about seven votes across and also be a pivotal move from one of the senior… from a Cabinet minister. If there was a delegation of ministers that went to the Prime Minister and said ‘look, this is going to be a disaster’, is there any circumstance under which you would see her stepping aside?
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, all of that’s just hypothetical questions, Kieran. People keep inviting Labor MPs to talk about the leadership and then complain afterwards that we’re only focused on ourselves. We are not focused on leadership. We are focused on delivering good economic management and on planning for the future through things like DisabilityCare, the education reforms, the National Broadband Network, moving to renewable energy, superannuation increases and the like.
KIERAN GILBERT: You’re focused on it? You might be but a lot of others aren’t and, you know, you’re suggesting it’s hypothetical but the polling, internal polling as well, shows swings of upwards of 10 per cent around… even in Victoria which was meant to be the stronghold of the Labor Party. Kelvin Thomson, people are focusing their minds, are they not, on their choice with the election date set? This is more than just hypothetical, isn’t it? You’re heading for an absolute train wreck.
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, you’re quite right that the election is about choice but I’ve always thought that as we got closer to the election that out levels of support would improve when people focus on what the choices are, so if you’ve got an oppositions saying ‘we’re going to take away the Schoolkids Bonus’ or ‘we’re going to defer the increases in superannuation’ or ‘we’re going to cause people to have to pay up to $5000 to have the NBN [National Broadband Network] connected to their premises’, these are the choices that people will focus on as we get closer to the elections and I think that when we’re able to get people focused on our strong economic record – low inflation, low unemployment, low interest rates, low public sector debt, triple-A credit rating – that our levels of support will increase and that the election race will tighten.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, you obviously watch South Australian politics very closely. How many seats are you hopeful of picking up there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, look, we’re campaigning very hard in all of Labor’s seats here in South Australia. There are five seats here in South Australia that the Labor Party holds that the Coalition has held at some stage in the last decade and we’ll work very hard in all of those as well as all of our own. We don’t take a single vote for granted. We know that over the next 95 days we have to work incredibly hard to earn the trust and the votes of the Australian people but I must say, listening to Kelvin this morning, I… sounds like he must be living in Maxwell Smart’s old Cone of Silence or something because clearly nobody’s talking to Kelvin whereas Craig Emerson, who’s not exactly known for ever taking a backward step, acknowledged on Q&A last night talks are happening. Paul Howes acknowledged on Sunrise this morning talks are happening and, of course, the problem with the Labor Party is talks have been happening constantly for more than three years. This is just a never-ending soap opera and it’s little wonder that the Australian people seem to have had a gutful of it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Kelvin Thomson, what would your advice be to… I know you’re saying that Bill Shorten’s got nothing to decide but if he was wavering, if any of his colleagues are wavering, what do you say to them?
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, look, I’m not seeking to contribute to leadership discussions or speculation, Kieran. The point about this is that when we talk about leadership people say ‘why is it that you’re focused on these things and not focused on the issues which are important to us, important to us as ordinary Australians?’ As I said to you previously, we had a leadership ballot early last year which resolved this matter by a substantial margin. The Prime Minister opened the thing for nominations only a couple of months ago. There were no other nominations. The matter has been resolved.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But people are still talking, Kelvin. Your own Cabinet ministers are now acknowledging these conversations are happening. I mean, it’s like a sorry saga of Desperate Housewives except in this case it’s, you know, the desperate faceless men or the desperate factional warlords or the desperate MPs. I mean, it’s your Government that seems to be simply fixated on talking about these issues endlessly and to the detriment of actually talking about the very important issues that we should absolutely be discussing and that the Government should be getting on with.
KIERAN GILBERT: There is a very big issue, a significant issue I know, Kelvin Thomson, that you will have had strong thoughts on for a number of years now, and this is the issue of asylum seekers. We’ve seen this tragedy off Christmas Island late last week. The border protection authorities are under so much pressure, being overwhelmed really by the number of arrivals here that they’re unable to go and even retrieve the bodies of those who lost their lives.
KIERAN GILBERT: We’re standing by to take you live to a news conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It’s in the seat of Petrie, north of Brisbane – the suburb of Bracken Ridge. As soon as Prime Minister Gillard arrives at those microphones there we will take you to St Joseph’s college, Bracken Ridge, when she begins talking. For the moment, though, we’ll keep chatting with Simon Birmingham and Kelvin Thomson. Senator Birmingham, a former senior Immigration department official [Arja Keski-Nummi] warned that even under the Coalition’s policies, it’s unlikely that there’s going to be any success at stopping the boats, certainly with the formulation of policies that you’ve got at the moment. There are a lot of arrivals – you know that, we’ve made this point many times – but the Coalition’s also been very strong in terms of its rhetoric of saying it’ll stop the boats. There must be some concern within Coalition ranks that you just won’t be able to do it any time soon at least?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, these are tragic and terrible circumstances that we’re dealing with and they are amazing circumstances in terms of the scale of the problem that we now have – it has ballooned under this Government – but we have a confidence that we can do it and that confidence is based on the fact that, in government, the Coalition’s done it before…
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, I’m sorry, I’ve got to interrupt. My apologies for interrupting there but Prime Minister Gillard in Brisbane… let’s cross there live.