Topic(s): Labor’s pandemic spending; Religious Discrimination Bill; Commonwealth Integrity Commission; Press Club address;


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Australia’s economy continues to show impressive credentials compared to the rest of the world, and for Australians, what is the real benefit of our economic strength are the record job numbers. Unemployment at 4.2 per cent, a 13 year low. 1.7 million more Australians in jobs, more than one million additional Australian women in jobs compared with when our government was elected. And this is a testament, this economic strength is a testament to the policies that have been put in place to underpin and support our economy throughout one of the greatest global challenges we’ve ever seen, the COVID-19 pandemic. Our policies have kept Australians safe compared with the rest of the world and secure. We’ve managed to deliver an environment with some of the lowest fatality rates in the world, some of the highest vaccination rates in the world and some of the best economic outcomes in the world. Now we’ve done that through significant government expenditure and changes that we would have never thought were necessary a few years ago. More than $300 billion of support for health and economic responses from COVID-19 have been applied. But at almost each in every stage through that time, the Labor Party has called for more. They’ve argued for more. They’ve come up with their own other silly ideas, such as the $300 additional payment for people getting vaccinated, which has been proven to have been a completely wasteful thought bubble that even they’ve run away from. If you look at just half a dozen of Labor’s different thought bubbles and policy ideas during the pandemic, it’s evident they would have added a further $81 billion to government debt and government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s $81 billion of extra spending the Labor Party have called for along the way that clearly wasn’t necessary to get unemployment as low as it is, to keep jobs as secure as they’ve been, to get the type of outcomes that we’ve managed to achieve without the type of wasteful spending that Labor has called for. This is an important contrast because we do have an election coming up in a few months. It’s important contrast because you need governments who’ve got the guts and the ability to say no, to stare down special interest groups, to not embrace silly ideas such as vaccine payments that are unnecessary and to focus on the things that are really necessary to spur private sector investment and economic growth as our policies have effectively done.


Journalist: Minister, the PM told the party room yesterday to think about our team when discussing the Religious Discrimination Bill. Is showing an image of unity on this bill and ensuring another election promise isn’t broken more important than ensuring it actually does what it’s meant to do?


Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s crucial that we’ve worked through all of these issues sensibly, as the party room has been doing. The religious discrimination bill at its heart is about trying to ensure that just as you are protected as an Australian from discrimination when renting a house or going about other business in your life on the basis of your race or your age, or your sex or your sexuality, that you should also have those same protections on the basis of your faith. You shouldn’t be prevented from renting a house if you are a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Christian or indeed a person not of faith, and that those sorts of basic protections should be extended. Obviously, though, these things become complex questions of law in terms of some of the detailed implementation. They’re matters that we’ll work through, and I hope that the Parliament and the party can find the right resolution for all of those issues.


Journalist: Are you concerned that trans kids will be able to be expelled from school, that they won’t be protected like the amendments would help gay students?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this goes to a separate question in terms of what exemptions to the existing Sex Discrimination Act could be repealed in this debate. And then where you take those in the future. Now I, in my time in this parliament, have sought to see as much equality achieved and as much discrimination removed along the way. It’s why, in principle, I support the concepts around the religious discrimination bill. Because we shouldn’t see discrimination against people of faith any more than we should see discrimination on any other personal attribute that an individual holds. I hope that those questions can be addressed through the Australian Law Reform Commission processes as quickly as possible, recognising that when it comes to questions of gender identity that, of course, does come up against challenges around the operation, for example, of single sex schools and the like and you have to reconcile those issues to get a fair outcome for everybody.


Journalist: This bill faces a tricky path through the Parliament now to be done in time for the election. Has it been left too late to make sure that it meets the marks that it needs to?


Simon Birmingham: Oh look, you can make that argument. But the flip side of that argument would always be if you rushed it through, people would be saying there’d been inadequate consultation. This bill has been through a lot of consultation to get to where it is. There are still challenging issues, which are why these discussions are taking place. But that’s precisely what the parliament is for. I mean, the fact is the liberal and national parties have individuals who come to this place with strong views, and we have structures that allow for a degree of dissent. And I well recall the former Labor senator who once called operating in his caucus room as being like a zombie because the rules the Labor Party are, if you dissent, you get tossed out. There’s no tolerance for different opinions, for different debate. Our parties have that tolerance and it’s an important ethos to us.


Journalist: Are you confident this bill will pass before the election? And if it’s not, hasn’t the prime minister failed to deliver a promise to [indistinct]?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m the leader of the government in the Senate, and from that, I don’t like to make predictions about whether bills will pass or not because I’m used to working in uncertain environments, to say the least. So we’re working to deliver on this, an important policy area. But of course, at the same time, we’re dealing with a range of other critical policy areas, the continued focus in terms of the management of COVID-19, from a health perspective, the continued areas of economic recovery that we seek to pursue, and the decision taken this week to reopen international borders from February 21. The meeting of the Quad foreign ministers that will take place in Melbourne over the coming couple of days, a demonstration of the focus on dealing with complex, challenging regional and geopolitical issues that we face. There’s lots to get on with.


Journalist: On to the second part of my question if this doesn’t get through. Has the prime minister not failed to deliver on this promise?


Simon Birmingham: No, I think what you can see here is the Prime Minister is working hard in terms of trying to unify people and secure the parliamentary numbers around the religious discrimination bill to achieve an outcome there. But it is a parliament and a parliament brings together people of diverse views and opinions. And of course, from that you work to secure the numbers and whether you do or not, comes down to the final decisions of each of those individuals.


Journalist: Has the prime minister failed to deliver on another election promise, which is the establishment of a National Integrity Commission?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if the Labor Party wants to support our 300 plus pages of legislation around the National Integrity Commission, then it could sail through the parliament-


Journalist: Minister, you know, full well that the way Parliament operates, you introduce countless pieces of legislation that don’t have cross-party support before they land in the House or in the Senate. Why not even introduce the legislation and bring on a debate? Have that contest of ideas?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s a contest of ideas that’s there, and it is a government that has gone through in the Liberal and National parties that have gone through clear consultation processes around the Integrity Commission, drafted detailed legislation around it that brings together the operations of multiple different anti-corruption bodies that already exist at a federal level that’s budgeted dollars to support it. And that says we will put the legislation through when we get support from the Labor Party, whose alternative policy is nothing more than a couple of scraps of paper with, with a few notes written down rather than any detail.


Journalist: Why not have the debate at all?


Simon Birmingham: Because we think we’ve got a sound well developed model after extensive consultation, and that’s the model that we think if we’re going to have this type of change to our existing anti-corruption agencies at a Commonwealth level that ought to be implemented and we want to have the certainty that if we’re going down that path, it will get through the parliament. And that’s where we look to the opposition. If they’re genuine about this, they’d support us.


Journalist: Just on Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, can we just ask. You’re going to be attending today? The prime minister has indicated he won’t be watching, but we’ll get briefed afterwards. It would not be a mark of respect for him to at least watch even if it’s from afar?


Simon Birmingham: The PM has indicated that he’ll get people paying attention to what is said today, and I know that he has paid close attention to these sorts of events and comments in the past, and he’ll be doing that today. That’s the right thing. He is, you’ve just been questioning me on lots of different matters that he has on his plate while parliament is sitting today. But I’m confident he’ll be paying attention as will government. Thanks everyone.