Interview on 5AA Breakfast with David Penberthy and Will Goodings
Same sex marriage plebiscite
30 August 2016

David Penberthy: As Will just said, Federal Parliament does resume today and one of the first issues that the Parliament is going to have to grapple with – and it’s probably going to be resolved one way or another within the next 48 hours, you’d think – is the question of whether to honour the government’s promise as taken to the election to hold a plebiscite on the issue of same sex marriage. Senator Simon Birmingham is Liberal Senator for South Australia, Minister for Education, and a very senior member of the Turnbull Government. We speak to him regularly on 5AA Breakfast. Minister, good morning, and thanks so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Penbo, morning Will, and great to be with you.

David Penberthy: Now, just on the plebiscite question, I’ve got to say we totally, totally understand the whole promise part of it because this is the position that you took to the election and it does seem a bit rich now that you’ve got some people saying, well even though everyone knew that this is what the Coalition stood for that you should somehow shred or be denied the chance to honour that promise. I want to ask you this though, do you think that some of the conservatives in your party need to pull their heads in? Because if you’ve got right wingers who are saying well even if the plebiscite shows people support same sex marriage, I am going to ignore it, doesn’t that become an argument for not having a plebiscite if people in your party aren’t actually going to abide by the result?

Simon Birmingham: Well Penbo, I am completely confident that the overwhelming majority of Liberal and National Party MPs would support whatever the outcome of the plebiscite is and that that would then end up being enacted by the Parliament. Now, there might be one or two individuals who – consistent with the rights in the Liberal Party – reserve their right to essentially cross the floor, exercise their free will, that’s something that our party prides itself on – unlike the Labor Party we don’t throw people out of the party if they go against a party decision. But ultimately, I have no doubt that if this plebiscite were held the vast majority of Liberal and National MPs would support the outcome and if the outcome were a yes vote, then that would see same sex marriage legislated and legalised in Australia and…

David Penberthy: [Speaks over] But doesn’t it, does it undercut though, does it undercut the integrity of the argument that is put by people like your leader, Malcolm Turnbull, and presumably also yourself,  about needing to respect the integrity of public opinion. You know, the whole point of having a plebiscite is so that you can say, ‘we’ve listened to the people’. I mean, there’s even a chance that the former PM Tony Abbott might ignore the result.

Simon Birmingham: We – I think that Tony Abbott has said that he would respect the vote of the Australian people – but I think overall the point is that we as a principle in our party preserve the right of every single member and senator to ultimately vote according to their principles if they wish to do so on any given issue. Now of course in the end, on the overwhelming majority of instances, we always vote together having had internal robust debates because that’s the way our party works and that give and take on those issues work. But the real principle here is that, Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal and National Party, could not have been clearer in the last election campaign that our policy to resolve the issue around same sex marriage was to give the Australian people a vote. We went to the election with that policy, we have won the election, we got more than 960,000 votes more that the Labor Party did at the last election, we hold a majority in the House of Representatives, we’ve formed the Government and we think that in resolving the issue, our mandate should be respected. And it is quite ridiculous of people to suggest that they want to urge the Government to break its promise on this issue when we were so crystal clear about it and we will uphold the promise we made to the Australian people. 

As you guys know, and as some of your listeners would probably recall, this wasn’t my preferred means for solving this issue back when it was discussed a year or more ago, but I have to say throughout the course of the campaign when people raised it with me, I was quite impressed and surprised at the extent to which Australians wanted to have their say on this issue. So we are committed to giving them their say and Bill Shorten should get out of the way and let the Australian people have their say.

Will Goodings: You are committed to giving people their say. Albeit you might not be able to give them that ability and I’m just interested in you explaining to the people here in South Australia what that – how that would play out from your personal position, given that this wasn’t your preferred mechanism. So say, the Labor side of politics ultimately votes to oppose the plebiscite and it comes to a parliamentary vote, are you really going to vote against it?

Simon Birmingham: We will vote for our position and our position is that there should be a say given to the Australian people; there should be a vote of the Australian people to resolve this issue, to then of course hopefully ensure that everybody accepts and respects the decision. What I really fear is that if we now saw something rammed through this parliament or a future parliament, the legitimacy of that would be questioned by many, many Australians who feel that this should be determined in a means that give people the opportunity to [indistinct].

Will Goodings: So on that basis you’d vote against it because there’d be questions that would go to its legitimacy?

Simon Birmingham: Well I am completely confident that it will not be coming to a vote in the parliament because in the end the Government does control what goes on to the legislative agenda, what bills do come on to a vote and the bill that we will be bringing on to a vote is the plebiscite.

Will Goodings: So there’s no plebiscite, we are at least another term of government away from any resolution on this issue?

Simon Birmingham: And this is a decision that the Labor Party, the Greens who say for a long period of time that they have supported change on this issue are standing in the way of. If they want to see progress, if they want to give the maximum chance to same sex marriage being legalised some time in the next year or so, or indeed in the next three years they should support the plebiscite. This could all be done, dusted and over with by March of next year but instead they are seeking to drag it out over a three year political period.

David Penberthy: Birmo I know you sit in the Coalition party room, you obviously don’t get to Labor Party caucus meetings but I’m just wondering what your read is of Labor’s position, because I get a bit of a sense that Labor might end up supporting the plebiscite after all, for a couple of reasons. Firstly they’re going to need to manage their own internal politics with a small but significant number of conservative Labor MPs who still oppose same sex marriage and the other thing is there’s probably a bit of a view that the opinion polls seem to suggest most Australians are in favour of same sex marriage but equally most Australians are in favour of governments honouring the promises that they made during election campaigns and they also like the idea of being able to have a say.

Simon Birmingham: Penbo I think you’re right there; certainly the Liberal National Party will be resolute in our determination to honour the promise we took to the Australian people. The Labor Party I sense is internally divided on this position that there are people there who think that they should let us facilitate this vote, let it happen and get the issue resolved one way or the other. There are people who are concerned that three years of inaction and delay on this issue is contrary to what many of them have spruiked about the importance of it over the last couple of years. So I suspect that there will be mounting pressure which even if Labor does decide to vote against the plebiscite when it is first put up, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people in the Labor Party who want to revisit that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened inside the Greens as well, that there are internal differences of opinion about how this issue should be handled, but really what I would urge them to do is firstly respect the mandate of the Government; this is an issue on which we could not have been clearer at the election and I think voters are sick and tired of people breaking promises or doing the opposite of what they expected them to do and we are determined to make sure that we do stick to the promise we gave to the Australian people, so recognise that, respect that and then also be true to the rhetoric, the lofty rhetoric that’s come from Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, Sarah Hanson-Young and Richard Di Natale about the importance of resolving the issue of same sex marriage has gone on for years, well they can actually not get the issue resolved and get it resolved by early next year.

David Penberthy: Just finally and briefly, Birmo, are you worried that on the very first chance that he had to show his hand about how he’s going to engage with the Government on contentious issues that Nick Xenophon chose to ignore the mandate that you’ve got on this issue?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m worried about that and I’m worried that Nick says his position in relation to nuclear waste in South Australia is that there should be a referendum, so on the issue of whether we should have a nuclear waste dump in South Australia, he wants to put it to a vote of the people and yet on the issue of same sex marriage, he wants to deny the people a vote. So I think that’s quite hypocritical of Nick in that regard, but look we will work with Nick on a case by case basis. He said that that’s what he will do with the Government and that’s what we’ll do with him and I hope and trust that on the really important issues that will face the nations for the decades to come like budget repair, like measures to stimulate economic growth and so on that we can get cooperation from Nick and that he shows a more positive attitude.

David Penberthy: Senator Simon Birmingham, always great to catch up, thanks for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you guys, pleasure.