PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let’s bring Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham in. He was scheduled to join us on this episode of Contrarians. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day, Peter and panel.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You guys are stuffed, aren’t you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not at all, Peter, and obviously there’s a lot more to come out about this announcement. What we don’t know from Mr Rudd today is what the cost of the detention facilities will be; we don’t know what the cost of assessment will be; we don’t know what the cost of resettlement will be…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But, equally, I could say we don’t know what the cost of tow-backs will be, we don’t know how successful they’ll be, we don’t know whether TPVs [temporary protection visas] will work. You can always say that about a new policy that’s been announced but the sniff test… ‘would you get on a boat to come to Australia if you ended up in Port Moresby?’ I sure as hell wouldn’t. Would you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Peter, thankfully and luckily, I was born in Australia and that’s a decision I’d never have to face but, Peter, you know, the real…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But answer the question hypothetically: would you get on a boat if you were an economic refugee… and that’s the way that this narrative has turned… if you were an economic refugee in the middle class of Iran going via Indonesia to get to Australia, if you ended up in downtown Port Moresby, would you get on a boat? I absolutely wouldn’t.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Peter, the real question will be: do you believe you would end up in Port Moresby, because, of course, that’s what Kevin Rudd is saying today but the issue is: will he actually manage to deliver on this policy, given he’s failed on so many others? Let’s not forget Kevin Rudd was the Prime Minister who shut down the Manus Island detention centre. Now he’s coming out days or weeks before an election talking about how much he’s going to have to expand it by, so Australians aren’t silly…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So, it sounds like you think it’s a good policy but just not one that Labor will be good at implementing?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, obviously there’s a lot more detail to get out about this policy. It is quite remarkable that the Prime Minister can stand there and either refuse to or be unable to actually say what it’s going to cost to implement this policy, what it’s going to cost to implement in terms of…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What do you think the cost is going to be for tow-backs and TPVs?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Peter, the reality is: under the Howard Government we had tow-backs, we had temporary protection visas and, of course, we managed to stop the flow of boats coming to Australia, so we have credibility on this issue and I don’t think Australians will be easily conned or fooled in that regard. The truth is that policies of the Howard Government on this issue worked and were effective previously. We are very committed and have a solid track record and the people smugglers know full well that a re-elected Coalition Government will be serious about this issue, will deliver on its commitments and will make a difference because that’s what’s happened before. The Rudd Government is up to its fifth different policy on this issue, whether it’s under Kevin Rudd or under Julia Gillard. Kevin Rudd was the one who took away all of the successful initiatives of the Howard era and now, of course, he’s trying to say to Australians ‘trust me; I’ve got a new plan to fix the problem that I created’. Well, Kevin Rudd created the problem and people, I think, will be very doubtful and questioning about whether he is capable of fixing it.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: … we’re speaking to Senator Simon Birmingham out of Adelaide. We’ve just had an extraordinary announcement by Kevin Rudd. He’s gotten up with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and announced a whole new policy in terms of what to do with genuine refugees – that is, send them to Papua New Guinea.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: … I have to ask you, Senator: at the end of the day, what are you… the Coalition still wins, doesn’t it, if we’re discussing asylum seekers, even if this does go a long way towards stopping the boats, because the polls continually tell us that voters have more faith in your side of politics than they do in Kevin Rudd’s side of politics on this particular issue?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, I think the Australian people have every reason to have more faith in the Coalition on this issue because we have the track record of having managed to stem the flow and, ultimately, stop the flow of boats coming to Australia and it was Kevin Rudd who undid all of those policies and reopened, ultimately, the floodgates that we’re now grappling with. It’s, let’s not forget, a cost of more than $10 billion, in terms of budget blowouts, to manage the arrivals to date and now we appear to have a blank cheque with no knowledge of how much Mr Rudd’s latest policy – the fifth different policy of this Labor Government – is going to cost us and that’s why I think people will sensibly look at it and say the trust question, when it comes to managing asylum seekers, when it comes to stopping boats flowing to Australia, sits firmly with the Coalition.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: See, my understanding was that the Coalition, as part of its solution in government, was going to look at a range of ancillary measures beyond tow-backs and TPVs. We all know that that might have worked in the construct during the Howard years but we also know, realistically, that once the model was unwound and the business model of the people smugglers was improved – I don’t like that word but improved from their perspective, became more efficient – it was always going to be hard to stop the boats with those avenues alone. Now, the Coalition, presumably, was going to go down a path similar to this. Do you have anything to add on that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Working with other regional partners would always have been – will be, if we’re successful at the election – important and you heard in the press conference before that Tony and Julie and Scott are going into discussions now with the Papua New Guinea Government. Of course, oppositions only get to talk at the second level to governments from overseas – that’s the way international diplomacy works – but we’ll work and talk with the Papua New Guineans. Tony has welcomed their willingness to cooperate. Of course, they cooperated in establishing Manus Island under the Howard Government in the first place. It’s just a shame that Kevin Rudd closed it down and basically has had to re-establish and reopen the diplomatic discussions with PNG, as Labor did with Nauru, to try to fix a problem of his own creation.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: On other matters, to do with climate change, I’ve spoken to Greg Hunt previously as well as this week on Showdown to Christopher Pyne. I have significant reservations about whether the Coalition if elected will achieve its 5 per cent reduction target of emissions on 2000 levels with its Direct Action policy alone. Are you prepared to put your political career on the line and say that you 100 per cent are certain that you will achieve that by 2020 if elected?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, I’m confident that we can achieve it and I’m confident we can achieve it because we’ve been out there talking to the types of sectors in the economy, be it those related to power generation through to soil carbons and other innovative programs that can be subsidised and invested in…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I’m glad you mention soil carbons because the Government’s advice… sorry to interrupt, but the Department’s advice to government about soil carbons is that the estimates that are being claimed by the Coalition as part of its Direct Action Plan… only about 5 per cent effectiveness on soil sequestration is actually going to be achieved in their view. You dispute that and presumably you have to fire the Secretary of the Department [Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education], therefore, if you get into power?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Peter, one of the interesting small parts, detailed parts, of this week’s announcement is that the Government has in fact now lifted any cap and will provide an open-ended opportunity for carbon farming – essentially soil carbon-type initiatives – to offset people’s targets under their carbon tax model, so in fact the Government has now gone down a path of acknowledging more can be done in that area and backing it in. What their latest estimates are, I don’t know – you’d have to ask them – but it was in fact a detailed part of this week’s policy announcement that changed the rules around the carbon tax.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And what about your view about Tony Abbott’s observations about it being a gas that’s invisible… a so-called trading scheme… you can disagree with going down the path of an ETS [emissions trading scheme] if we don’t have a global agreement but those sort of comments don’t really help the debate unless you’re a climate change denier, do they?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think they help to expose the fact that people want to try to talk about this like the Government is establishing some pure market. Let’s understand: it’s a government-established market with government rules around it that generates $11 billion-plus by 2020 of revenue into government coffers that is churned around in government coffers and spat out all over the place in different ways. This is under Kevin Rudd’s model – by 2020, a carbon price $38 a tonne, more than 1½ times, basically, where it currently is, a carbon price that will generate more than $11 billion in revenue. This is going to be a big carbon tax, still, under Mr Rudd and it is far from a pure market. It is a highly interventionist program that involves far more money churning through government coffers than the Coalition’s alternative policy.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, Senator, I’ve got to jump in on your there. We are right out of time. We appreciate your company on this episode of Contrarians. Thanks very much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure. Thanks, Peter, and…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Thanks to the panel…