LYNDAL CURTIS: The election year has begun to focus the minds of politicians on the relationships that count and the Greens have declared their relationship with Labor over sort of saying the Prime Minister has effectively ended the agreement between the parties. Labor, meanwhile, has been soaking up the friendship from one of the major unions with the AWU [Australian Workers’ Union] conference being addressed last night by the Prime Minister and today by the Treasurer. Joining me to discuss the day’s events are Labor Senator Louise Pratt and Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
LOUISE PRATT: Thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Lyndal and Louise.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we go first to the breakup of sorts, the Greens say their agreement has been effectively ended by the Government, although the consequences for Labor seem few.
CHRISTINE MILNE: Just before I came to speak with you today I spoke with the Prime Minister on the phone and let her know that I would be telling people today that the Government had walked away from its agreement with the Greens, that the Government had broken its agreement with the Greens, So I felt I owed her the courtesy to do that that is in a respectful relationship but they have ended it. We haven’t ended it. They have walked away. Make that very clear in that context. In terms of what it means, well, there’s no point in having meetings if the meetings are only there to be told what the Labor Party has already decided to do. I can read that in the paper or get it by letter.
PAUL HOWES: If Christine Milne wants to rip up an agreement, excellent.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, some of your senior colleagues see no downside in Senator Milne’s announcement because it gives you the chance for greater product differentiation. Is that the case?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, it’s not really surprising at this stage of the election cycle that parties would be seeking to differentiate themselves. I really value having a working relationship with the Greens in Parliament and I’m sure that that will continue but, you know, I think there’s been some product differentiation for a while now and that’s not really surprising when we do have quite fundamentally different beliefs and values.
LYNDAL CURTIS: In this case the Greens have walked away from Labor, saying… accusing Labor instead of being too close to the mining industry. Does it matter who leaves who?
LOUISE PRATT: I guess not, really, but, you know, that is a really good example of where these ideological differences lie, in that Labor wouldn’t make any apology for putting the economy and the jobs of Australians first when considering these issues.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, Christine Milne also criticised the Coalition, also saying it was too close to the miners, in fact saying it was even closer. She still seems willing to do preference deals with you, though. She’s not ruling them out in the seat of Melbourne. Is the Coalition willing to do preference deals with the Greens?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, I’ll believe it when I see it in terms of the Greens’ willingness on doing any sort of sensible cooperative work with the Coalition. The reality is that today we just saw Christine Milne tearing up the prenup with Labor but the love affair will continue. The Greens will still preference the Labor Party in all the seats that matter around Australia. The Greens will, of course, still support supply motions. They’ll support the Labor budget. They’re going to support the Labor Party to form Government after the next election, were it to come to it again, so, in the end, we know that the Greens and Labor remain in lockstep and this, really, today was an act of political theatre. Louise was being very honest when she said it’s just about the stage in the electoral cycle. They’re keen for a little bit of product differentiation now. Really, Christine Milne’s words today breaking up the relationship are about as meaningful as, you know, Kim Kardashian’s wedding vows are starting a relationship.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If I could ask you a bit of that question again, if the Greens came to the Liberal Party and wanted to do a preference deal for the seat of Melbourne, should the Coalition agree to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the seat of Melbourne is a Greens seat, so I’m not sure what’s in it for the Coalition there. We think the Greens’ policies are wrong for Australia. They are the wrong policies to have. I don’t imagine the Coalition will be working out preference deals with the Greens. The Labor Party always has. There was a challenge there at some stage last year from the likes of Paul Howes and co for the Labor Party to rule out any preference deals with the Greens. Let’s see where they go there but I would be incredibly surprised if the Coalition had any preference arrangements with the Greens.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, if the Coalition did win government, could you negotiate with the Greens to get things through the Senate?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, we’ll deal with the Senate that we’re given and, if that involves negotiating with the Greens or with the Labor Party or with Senator Xenophon or Senator Madigan, that’s, of course, what we’ll do because that’s the reality of things and in the end, the last Coalition Government, the Howard Government, for most of its time in office had to negotiate with a Senate and with the Australian Democrats and people were asking the same questions in the run up to the 1996 election. We found a way to work through those issues with the Democrats and, really, the test will be on the Greens. Are they a legitimate balance-of-power party who is willing to work with whomever the government of the day is or are they just a left-wing stooge of the Labor Party? Now, if it’s the latter then there may be problems in the longer term. If it’s the former and they’re willing to morph into a sensible, legitimate balance-of- power party should there be a change of government then of course we’ll work with them, as we’ll have to work with anybody on the crossbenches should we find ourselves in those situations.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on now to Queensland where the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, was returning to what’s been one of his favourite criticisms of the Coalition.
WAYNE SWAN: As I was saying before, there are extremes to our left and extremes to our right. Take the Liberal Party. They are increasingly going down the road of the Tea Party in the US. I note Mr Abbott has made some comments about this today. You know, you can’t put lipstick on a pit bull and call it a blue heeler.
TONY ABBOTT: My determination is to practice politics with an Australian accent. We are an Australian party. We don’t import our politics from overseas. We don’t import our personnel from overseas. We just get on with the job of trying to bring Australians together to build a better country.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, Wayne Swan says, as he has before, that you’re borrowing your tactics from the Tea Party. Tony Abbott says you have politics with an Aussie accent. Does that maybe make you a Billy Tea party?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I grew up with blue heelers as the family pet and I don’t think anybody is calling me a Tea Party extremist or I would hope not. Lyndal, the only extremism Australia’s in any danger from are, frankly, Wayne Swan’s extreme deficits, Wayne Swan’s extreme spending, Wayne Swan’s extreme debt that he’s mounting up and we’ve seen record deficits from Wayne Swan. He’s desperate to change the focus of attack but, in the end, when Australians look at the issues that matter going into the next election, the state of the finances of this country, and Wayne Swan’s poor stewardship of them over five years, really will be a standout feature and it’s little wonder that he’s more eager to talk about Tony Abbott than he is to talk about his own record. I’ll bet the one word that wasn’t mentioned in his speech there to the AWU today was the word ‘surplus’, despite having promised it more than 360 times or so in the last 12 months.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, isn’t the reality… while Tony Abbott says he would have a government with an Australian accent, isn’t the reality that all political parties learn and borrow from what happens in different countries, that there is almost a constant conversation between political parties and experts in different countries about how to approach and solve policy problems?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the world is a very open place nowadays, Lyndal, and so everybody is exposed, far more so than used to be the case, to what is happening around the world and discussions and debates around the world but I think, with Tony Abbott, you see a leader who is about as Australian as you can possibly get and that’s his style. That’s his approach. He is Australian. Despite being born overseas, he lives and breathes a very Australian lifestyle from his family lifestyle to his surf lifesaving and rural firefighting service activities. You’re seeing somebody who is the real deal in that regard and his approach to talking to Australians is to say what he believes, what he means, to talk about the things he can do, to not overpromise but to actually simply state what he believes we can achieve and will deliver on should we be successful at the next election and to outline a genuine vision for Australia.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, if I could ask you a quick question. Tomorrow… Community Cabinet is down in your part of the world in Adelaide tomorrow. Is that something that should be continued, Cabinet going out to community venues to talk to people about their problems and answer questions from people?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Lyndal, I think politicians should be constantly engaging and consulting with the community. I don’t know that you, frankly, need to have a showpiece of a formal Cabinet meeting, meeting in school halls around the country to do that. I think, on whichever side of politics we’re working in, I see all of my colleagues engaging with the community a lot of the time. I think the travelling roadshow of the Community Cabinet is a bit of set-piece theatre, a little bit costly and probably doesn’t value-add any more than what the Prime Minister does or other Ministers do in their day-to-day activities of talking to the community, so, frankly, personally, I’m not sure that I see the enormous benefit that comes from these events but, look, I hope the Prime Minister comes to Adelaide and listens to the concerns here of many people who are genuinely worried about the jobs and economic future of our state.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that’s where I’ll have to leave it. Simon Birmingham and Louise Pratt, thank you very much for joining us today.
LOUISE PRATT: Thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Lyndal and Louise.