Matthew Abraham: It’s our first Super Wednesday of 2016, where we bring together key players in Federal politics who have their boots on the ground right here in South Australia. Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham is Minister for Education and joins us in the studio, welcome to the studio Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, great to be with you.
Matthew Abraham: Mark Butler has his suede desert boots on the ground in the carpet in the studio, Shadow Minister for Environment Mark Butler.
Mark Butler: [Laughs] Thank you very much, bit of nostalgia from my school days.
David Bevan: Are you talking Best and Less, or K-Mart; I mean, where do you get desert boots these days?
Mark Butler: They’re hard to find.
David Bevan: Yeah.
Mark Butler: They’re worth the search.
David Bevan: You weren’t a Ripples man? You didn’t wear the black ripples?
Mark Butler: Oh I earned the Ripples. My mum wouldn’t let me wear Ripples, so …
David Bevan: No.
Mark Butler: So I had to put up with desert boots.
Matthew Abraham: Have they got a compass in the heel?
Mark Butler: Not that I’ve discovered.
Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, no doubt wearing blue suede shoes, Senator for South Australia, welcome.
Nick Xenophon: My favourite was a purple flared suit from the 1970s, but I don’t think I could fit in it nowadays.
Matthew Abraham: Well if you did you could do an Elvis [laughs].
Nick Xenophon: No, John Travolta thing.
Matthew Abraham: Who knows. Nick Xenophon, Senator for South Australia. Welcome to the program. Senator Simon Birmingham, you have one less ministerial colleague in South Australia around the table now in Federal Parliament, and that is Jamie Briggs. Do you think he was hard done by by Malcolm Turnbull in the process that sees him no longer a minister after what appears to be an isolated incident in Hong Kong?
Simon Birmingham: I think the process was a very proper and thorough process; it really did involve the public service having a proper look at allegations that were apparently made, a thorough consideration of them, the involvement of a Cabinet sub-committee. So I think the process there was quite thorough. Jamie is somebody who I’ve known for close to 20 years; he’s a valued and trusted friend, he’s a great contributor to the team. He has admitted that he’d made a mistake and he’s paid a very high price for that mistake in resigning from the Ministry. But I think what we’ve seen there is that a high standard of ministerial conduct has been set.
Matthew Abraham: But Malcolm Turnbull decided before any of the process took place that Jamie Briggs had to go, didn’t he? I mean, as I understand it, pretty clear, made painfully clear that he had to go, and then we’ll have the process.
Simon Birmingham: Well no, I don’t think that’s the case Matthew, I think the process was there to hear from all parties and to consider the issues that had been raised. Now in the end the sad part in some ways about ministerial life is that if there’s an indiscretion, if there’s a breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, there really is only one penalty that applies. There’s not really a graduated scale of penalties; the ultimate outcome is often that people resign. Jamie has resigned, he has paid what is a high price, absolutely, but he’s acknowledged the mistake. But I have no doubt that he’s got plenty more to contribute and will do so over future years.
David Bevan: So you’d like to see him back in the Ministry some time?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.
David Bevan: Mark, Mark look, did Briggs pay too high a price, or was this handled correctly – what are your views on what’s happened? Because by the way it was reported over summer, you’d think this was the biggest thing facing this nation.
Mark Butler: Well I think that reflects the time at which the decision was finally released to the pubic. I think Simon’s right, I agree with Simon that ministers are held to a particularly high standard, and that’s appropriate, and Jamie has paid the price that I think he ought to have paid, so I don’t think there’s any disagreement there. The process that Simon referred to though – either coincidentally or deliberately, we’ll never know – meant that the decision was kicked past the Parliamentary sittings in November and December, although it happened while Parliament was still functioning, still working. And the decision was announced at a very dead time in the media cycle, when people are enjoying their Christmas New Year. So anyway, whatever you can make of that; doesn’t really matter now that we’re in a new year. I think he paid a price that he has to pay.
What it did do though was to feed some bubbling division within the Government that is now really coming to the fore. You see it on the front page of The Australian today, references to civil war within the Liberal Party. You see the front page of the Daily Telegraph with Tony Abbott saying I’ll be back. I think what it did feed was this brewing fight between the moderates – the left wing of the Liberal Party, led here by Simon Birmingham in South Australia – and the conservatives, who saw Jamie Briggs as one of their own. So I mean I think that’s really the long game about the Briggs resignation is the degree to which it feeds into this brewing fight between the right wing and the left wing and the Liberal Party.
Matthew Abraham: Well certainly the Briggs camp, and I suppose the Abbott camp, from our inquiries, feel he’s been hard done by, in fact he was shafted by Turnbull. It was a good excuse to get rid of somebody he didn’t really want there, because he was so associated with …
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the idea that Malcolm wanted to lose a minister is quite a ridiculous one, and I’ve got doubt that
David Bevan: [Talks over] Oh, there’s plenty more, I mean there’s no problem getting another one.
Simon Birmingham: I’ve got no doubt that Malcolm would much rather this hadn’t occurred, and hadn’t had to occur.
Matthew Abraham: Is that why you had to sack Mal Brough?
Simon Birmingham: So I think it’s very clear, Matthew, that the process was a thorough and proper one. The process gave all parties their opportunity, but ultimately a high standard is set, and that high standard is appropriate.
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Is it too high? Is it too high? For instance, the National Journal – this is an article in May last year, it was an interesting article by Sarah Mimms right, and this is a US journal, it’s quite prestigious – says it’s no secret that Congress is dominated by men, but as women work to make inroads in the congressional boys’ club, some female staffers face a huge impediment to moving up. They’re not allowed to spend one on one time with their male bosses. In an anonymous survey of female staffers conducted by the journal in order to gather information on the difficulty they face in a male-dominated industry, several female aides reported they’d been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator or even sitting down one on one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression. Is that where we’re headed in terms of behaviour following something – from what we know, from what we know that’s been publicly available of the Briggs incident?
Simon Birmingham: Well I certainly hope not, and I think that would be a ridiculous and extreme overreaction. My chief of staff is a woman, my former press sec was a woman. We have obviously travelled together, worked closely together, had meetings alone together and I don’t think any eyebrows have ever been raised in any of those circumstances.
Matthew Abraham: And you’ve never kissed her on the cheek or neck?
Simon Birmingham: And uh …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Never kissed any of them on the cheek or neck?
Simon Birmingham: Ah, look, probably a Merry Christmas kiss at the end of the year, perhaps Matthew, and I don’t think anybody ever saw anything inappropriate in that. Now …
Matthew Abraham: If they did you’d be dead in the water though, wouldn’t you?
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Look, I think you’ve got to be the judge of what is appropriate conduct at your – in your own life, and in the way you approach things in your career. And obviously everybody has to make those assessments. Jamie made that assessment and acknowledged in retrospect, after the process was undertaken that a mistake had occurred, and he’s paid a price for that mistake. Now, we’ve seen in the Labor Party the Jamie Clements saga roll out in New South Wales, which has taken a very long period of time to be resolved, required ultimately the intervention it seems of Bill Shorten for far more serious allegations than relate to Jamie.
David Bevan: Nick Xenophon, you’re listening to all of this. You’ve- personally have played a fairly straight bat with the Briggs issue, but your candidate for Mayo is a former female staffer of Jamie Briggs – she’s not a former female, she’s still a female, but she was a former staffer of Briggs, and she made some comments that she thought that the Briggs environment was a very blokey one. I think – I’m paraphrasing here, but I think that’s fair. You had a politics in the pub meeting in Mayo last night. You might officially, at the leader level be playing a straight bat, but you’re making mileage out of this at the grassroots.
Nick Xenophon: No absolutely not, the issue wasn’t raised at Politics in the Pub at the Old Bush Inn at Willunga, 120 people attended, it was a terrific forum, lots of questions, lots of toing and froing. I spoke, Rebekha Sharkie had a chance to speak and answer questions. And what people are worried about, they’re worried about jobs, they’re worried about the state of roads, they’re worried about the state of infrastructure both social and actual infrastructure in the electorate. And the fact that Jamie Briggs has not been a fan of the car sector in this country, in this state where he in fact wrote a column in the Sunday Mail saying we don’t really need to provide assistance to the car sector despite the fact it’s a huge job generator and we’re now facing a cliff of job losses in this state and around the country at the end of 2017. They’re the issues that people are worried about.
David Bevan: Is this all quite capricious though, because the all- the application of standards and the penalties seems to be- it’s almost quite random. We have people here in South Australia who have kept their jobs, indeed been promoted in the public service, and at ministerial level when we’ve got absolute scandals going on within Families SA, we’ve got the Gillman Deal, yada, yada, yada. Nobody’s paid any penalties at all for that, and yet in this case somebody who’s done something that’s quite serious, but it was an isolated incident we’re told, and no criminal offence occurred, nobody was killed, and they’ve lost their job. So how are the public to make sense of the way ministerial standards are applied? You can be completely incompetent and keep your job, but you do something like this in a bar late at night and you lose it.
Nick Xenophon: David you make a very, very good point, they are distinct issues, but I think it begs the question as to whether politicians, ministers who make a mess of a department are held to account. I don’t think in some cases they have been at all. And there is a trend in South Australia at a State Government level, which I find pretty appalling, that when the going gets tough they wheel out a bureaucrat to speak out rather than getting the minister or the acting minister to speak out, and that goes to an issue of accountability.
Matthew Abraham: Now let’s go to broader international issues, you’ve got Malcolm Turnbull who’s been in Iraq, and now in Washington. The message was- well a couple of very clear messages, but the boots on the ground message is interesting. He says yes we do need boots on the ground but we don’t need more of ours on the ground, we need other boots on the ground, and it’s… whose boots and which ground? What are we meant to read into that Simon Birmingham? What’s the code there?
Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think there’s too much code to it, what’s clear is that Australia is making a very significant contribution in Afghanistan where we increased our commitment during the Prime Minister’s recent visit and in Iraq in relation to the fight against ISIL, where President Obama in meeting with Prime Minister Turnbull overnight acknowledged Australia as having one of the most significant contributions to that fight of any other nation in the world. So our contribution is significant, but what Malcolm Turnbull is rightfully saying is that true victory in these settings, true victory comes from the people of Afghanistan, the people of Iraq, the people of Syria ultimately having control of their own country and their own fate, and being the ones who succeed in defeating these terrorist threats like ISIL.
Matthew Abraham: Mark Butler, Labor welcomes Malcolm Turnbull not giving the United States everything they want?
Mark Butler: Well we haven’t received a briefing on exactly what the United States request was, and also the reasoning behind Malcolm Turnbull’s decision or the Government’s decision not to accede to the request, and I think that’s a bit unfortunate. But more broadly I think there is agreement between the Opposition and the Government around this question, as Simon points out I think President Obama acknowledged that Australia has the second largest contingent of troops in Iraq. France is increasing their contingent so we’ll be in the top three as France increases their contingent after the Paris attacks.
David Bevan: [Interrupts] do you think that’s a surprise to a lot of Australians?
Mark Butler: Look I imagine it is, and I think the other thing the Prime Minister said, a number of people have said here in Australia, is there’s not only I think an expectation that local countries and domestic populations themselves will really have to do the heavy lifting here if you’re going to get a durable enduring peace, but also some of the European nations really I think are probably the nations to which America’s request was more directly targeted. So there is I think significant bipartisanship between the Government and the Labor Party, the opposition on this, again to the extent there is division around this question it’s within the Liberal Party itself. Again what you have is very senior figures questioning in the Daily Telegraph, which we used to refer to as the Government Gazette in the days of Tony Abbott, the Daily Telegraph and senior members of the Government itself, not the opposition, questioning whether Malcolm Turnbull’s decision was the right one.
David Bevan: Is that a fair observation Simon Birmingham. You’re not all shoulder to shoulder on this one?
Simon Birmingham: Look we are a party where occasionally you’ll have members who offer a different opinion and that’s fine. That’s all part of public debate.
David Bevan: [Talks over] and some of those members were Prime Minister a few months ago.
Simon Birmingham: What’s important to appreciate in relation to the request from the United States is that was a request that went to at least 40 different nations as I understand it, so it was a very broad ranging request, and I think it went essentially to all partners and potential partners in terms of the fight against ISIL and terrorism. Australia as has been acknowledged is already doing by far and away one of the greatest amounts of any of those nations, so I really think it was a request more likely to be targeted at those who were doing less as to [indistinct]…
David Bevan: [Talks over] they didn’t want us to feel left out, they didn’t want us to feel left out.
Simon Birmingham: Very welcome to see others step up to the plate, but there’s no doubt from the way in which President Obama greeted Prime Minister Turnbull overnight and addressed this issue that it’s well acknowledged Australia is doing by far and away our fair share, if not more.
Matthew Abraham: This is Super Wednesday on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast, 27 degrees, 35’s the forecast top, it’s twelve to nine, and we do have boots on the ground, politicians here who have been rolled in Federal Parliament. Senior Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for the Environment, and Nick Xenophon Senator for South Australia. Nick Xenophon you’re purview does go international when you feel like it. How are you reading and how do you feel about what Malcolm Turnbull’s saying?
Nick Xenophon: I think most Australians welcome a more cautious approach on this. But let’s not forget there was a bipartisan consensus to support George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq; that turned into a complete mess. Even leaked Pentagon papers say that the region was made worse off- was destabilised as a result of that in the way that Saddam Hussein, as bad and brutal as he was, they’ve left the region in a much worse state. I think Afghanistan is a different proposition altogether, because there was an imperative with Al-Qaeda, but the rise of ISIS, ISIS was spawned as a result of a botched coalition strategy – that is that the US and the countries like Australia blindly followed it. I think it’s good that Malcolm Turnbull is saying let’s go a bit slow on this in terms of more Australian boots on the ground.
Simon Birmingham: I’m finding it a little hard to follow from what Nick just said as to whether he thinks Australia should be contributing in Iraq to the fight against ISIL at present or not. It sounds a little bit like a [indistinct] …
Nick Xenophon: [Interrupts] Well no, no, just a minute. I’m not going to be verb- I don’t want to be verballed …
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] No no, I appreciate …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Hang on, I think he wants you to clarify your position Nick Xenophon.
Nick Xenophon: Very happy to.
Matthew Abraham: Should we be there or not?
Nick Xenophon: We should be there, because ISIL … ISIL is an evil organisation that must be defeated. But the reason why ISIL got to the strength that it was is because the allies made a complete mess of the invasion of Iraq …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] So we caused the problem, we should play a role in fixing it. Is that a shorthand …
Nick Xenophon: That’s the shorthand answer. But we shouldn’t forget that we played a role in causing the problem in the first place.
Matthew Abraham: Mark Butler?
Mark Butler: I think Nick also might want to go back and review Simon Crean’s position about the invasion of Iraq, led by George W Bush, before he verbals the Labor Party, as that position being a bipartisan position in 2002.
Simon Birmingham: And I think Nick may also want to have a look at the complexity of the situation in Syria, which is far more complex than just that type of analysis that we’ve heard from Nick.
David Bevan: Before you gentlemen leave us, should Tony Abbott leave us or should he at least make it quite clear that he’s not going to have another tilt at the leadership? Simon Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: I gather Tony Abbott has responded to those Daily Telegraph stories this morning, and has described them as quite fanciful. If Tony wants to stay in the Parliament …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Where do they get this information?
David Bevan: [Indistinct] Telegraph.
Matthew Abraham: Where do they get it?
Simon Birmingham: … we would be very happy to have him stay in the Parliament because he has a great contribution that he can continue to make. That is entirely his call, and a matter for Tony and his family.
Matthew Abraham: So Tony, don’t go. Tony don’t go.
Simon Birmingham: It’s a matter for Tony and his family. He has a great contribution that he will make to public life in the future, whether it is in the Parliament or outside of the Parliament. Former Prime Ministers generally all make very high contributions, and I’m quite confident that he will do so as well.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, will Tony Abbott ever be Prime Minister again?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t imagine so, but really I think what we have at present is strong leadership in Malcolm Turnbull, who we saw in Washington overnight deliver a very thoughtful and powerful speech in relation to the fight against terrorism, is engaging strongly in messages about the economy and innovation …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Yeah, I know you’re a nice guy, I know you’re a nice guy, but you don’t have to be nice to Tony Abbott.
Mark Butler: Say no Simon.
David Bevan: Because you actually helped get Malcolm Turnbull into that position, didn’t you. So you can come out and say it. Tony Abbott should never be Prime Minister again.
Simon Birmingham: I don’t imagine that Tony will be. But Tony has a huge contribution to make to public life in Australia. Whether that’s inside or outside of the Parliament, I’m quite relaxed, I know Malcolm Turnbull’s quite relaxed. It really is up to Tony to decide to make his decisions about his future.
Matthew Abraham: And Mark Butler, I’m sure you’d say please Tony don’t go.
Mark Butler: Look, that’s a matter for Tony Abbott.
And his closest advisers, as reported through the Daily Telegraph.
Matthew Abraham: [Laughing] You want him sticking around.
Mark Butler: It’s completely a matter for him. I think that was a very courageous contribution by Simon Birmingham. I imagine for Malcolm Turnbull and his closest advisers, which includes Simon who was a key player in the coup, the idea of Tony Abbott sticking around and continuing the sort of insurgency, frankly, that’s been going on over the last couple of months in summer would be a bit of a nightmare for Malcolm Turnbull, because the Government looks like a shambles at the moment – divided, dysfunctional.
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I think that’s all a bit of a stretch Mark.
Matthew Abraham: Okay, but Mark Butler thank you. Federal Labor President, Shadow Minister for the Environment. We’ve got Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you, Minister for Education in our studio. And Nick Xenophon, I’m sure you don’t want Tony to go either.
Senator for South Australia. But thank- he doesn’t want anyone to go, except maybe Jamie Briggs. Nick Xenophon, thank you.
Nick Xenophon: All the best.
Senator Birmingham’s media contact: James Murphy 0478 333 974
Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media: firstname.lastname@example.org