LYNDAL CURTIS: Hello and welcome to Capital Hill. I’m Lyndal Curtis. If nothing else, the weekend’s Labor Party conference showed that the art of the impassioned speech is not dead, even though it’s rarely seen in the Parliament. The conference endorsed same-sex marriage and a conscience vote on the same. It also endorsed offshore processing of asylum seekers and sales of uranium to India. Cabinet ministers argued different positions and the factional divides were less clear. Joining me to discuss the weekend’s events are one of the participants, Doug Cameron from the Labor Party, and one of those people who may have watched occasionally, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll start with the first event of the conference. It may have jarred a little with the events that followed. The opening speech by Julia Gillard may be remembered for some of the wrong reasons.
JULIA GILLARD: Delegates, I said 2011 would be a year of decision and delivery. I never said it wasn’t going to be hard and I knew that in 2011 our Labor Government would have to persevere. Showing the courage of your convictions does take courage. We know ours is a people who work hard and we deeply believe all deserve a share in the benefits of their hard work. Friends, this is the Labor way. This is the Australian way. We follow it simply because we are us.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Doug, you were there. Can you tell me what ‘we are us’ means?
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the Opposition’s criticised the conference for not debating the issues that matter to ordinary Australians, but on issues like health and education and the economy, opinion in the Labor Party’s largely settled. Is it fair to criticise them for having the interesting debates on the things that aren’t settled?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, you know, Lyndal – and good afternoon to you and Doug – when we see criticism of Tony Abbott for coming up with three-word slogans, can I say at least his three word slogans mean something. ‘We are us’ has got to be one of the more meaningless statements from what was a fairly lacklustre and glib performance by the Prime Minister that’s been widely criticised by commentators. This conference did fail to address key issues, especially cost of living. It comes in as the number one concern of Australians, whoever you talk to, wherever you go. They are worried about cost pressures, cost-of-living concerns and, of course, the impact of the carbon tax on top of that and, frankly, we just didn’t hear Labor talking about the issues that resonate with the majority of Australians.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Liberal Party conferences, particularly the Federal Council meetings, aren’t policy making bodies, policy setting bodies, like Labor Party conferences. Would it be so bad if you had the sorts of conferences and debates that Labor has?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we have plenty of vigorous debates at Liberal council meetings at a state and federal level as well as, particularly, at the local and branch level and the key thing about the Liberal Party is that our members are empowered and have always been empowered. We don’t have to have debates like the Labor Party about whether you should have greater membership participation in your federal councils or in your preselection bodies, because our Federal Councils and our preselection bodies are made up exclusively of members, not dominated by trade unions, faceless men, factional thugs.
DOUG CAMERON: [unclear]
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll move on now to… Sorry, Doug?
DOUG CAMERON: Well, there’s two points in that. First of all, I don’t know what Peter Reith was doing, then, having a look at the problems that the Liberal Party has in its organisational structure, providing a secret report. Look, you know, we should just be honest with each other…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Don’t talk about secret reports today, Doug.
DOUG CAMERON: … there are problems in various organisations and we should deal with those problems openly.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll move on to some of the issues that were debated at the conference. The headline issue at the conference was always going to be the debate on changes to the Platform on same-sex marriage…
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, Labor will allow its MPs a conscience vote, probably on a motion that a Labor MP will put to Parliament to allow same-sex marriage. Would you vote for it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, Lyndal, I’ve made my position clear in regards to how I think this should be handled and Tony Abbott’s made it clear that we’ll go through the usual party processes we have to determine our Party position, whether it be a conscience vote or otherwise, when we see legislation, or in advance if necessary, but that’s the usual process we’ll go through. I think I’ve made my position clear on that and hopefully we’ll see a positive, sensible debate go forward on this matter.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Would you like to see a conscience…
DOUG CAMERON: You’ve made it clear? I’m confused. I’m just confused. I thought you were a supporter of equal rights for same-sex couples. I’m a bit confused… what you’re saying now.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Doug, and that’s the position that I’ve made clear and I’ve made clear that I think that matters such as this, where there are significant moral and ethical considerations, should generally be treated as conscience matters and we’ll go through our party processes just like you guys have.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, do you know how many Members of the Coalition, of the Liberal Party, would like the opportunity to say yes to changing the laws to allow same-sex marriage?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the short and easy answer there, Lyndal, is no, I don’t know. It would be a brave person to try to predict how the entire Parliament would react during the course of this debate. I think there are deeply held views on both sides of this debate and I respect those deeply held views. In the end, I want to us have a sensible, constructive debate on it. Let’s see where that goes but I’m not going to make any sorts of bold predictions or, frankly, deal with hypotheticals.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, on the issue of asylum seekers, Chris Bowen got his way, got a clear part of the Labor Party Platform to allow offshore processing, but what do you say to the arguments that Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor made at the Labor Party conference, the things they worry about – that people losing their lives making the journey to Australia… is that the nub of the issue for you on part of why the Coalition supports offshore processing?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Coalition has always highlighted that as a concern and as a very high level concern but, in the end, it is really the dual factors of wanting to make sure we don’t have this terrible situation of loss of life at sea and equally wanting to make sure that we maintain an orderly immigration program to Australia that drives the Coalition to support a process that reduces the number of people who seek to arrive here illegally, who seek to take the boat trip here. We’ve always supported a humanitarian refugee intake – a very strong humanitarian and refugee intake by world standards. We just think that we need to make sure people come here in a safe and orderly manner, so that is absolutely the nub of the argument.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that’s where we’ll have to leave it. Simon Birmingham and Doug Cameron, thank you very much for your time.
DOUG CAMERON: Thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Pleasure, Lyndal.