Interview on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan
‘Shanghai Sam’ Dastyari and ‘cash for comment’; Political donations; Chinese engagement with Australian schools; Budget savings measures; Paying for increased childcare investment.
7 September 2016
8:35 AM

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, Federal Education Minister and a Liberal Senator, welcome to the studio.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David and good morning to listeners and in particular on indulgence a very good morning and happy birthday to my four-year-old girl Amelia.

David Bevan: Four years old.

Simon Birmingham: She assures me that all the four-year-olds tune in to Super Wednesday…

David Bevan: Yes.

Simon Birmingham: They wouldn’t miss it for the world.

David Bevan: I find that very hard to believe.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs]

David Bevan: Stirling Griff, welcome to you. Senator, newly elected Senator in the Xenophon team. Good morning.

Stirling Griff: Good morning David.

David Bevan: And on the phone line Kate Ellis, Shadow Minister for Vocational and Early Childhood Education. Good morning to you.

Kate Ellis: Good morning. Great to be with you.

David Bevan: Sorry you couldn’t make it into the studio but thanks for- you can’t do it every week but we appreciate you making yourself available on the phone line. Kate…

Kate Ellis: I can assure you David if you could see the chaos that is unfolding here you would be very grateful that I haven’t brought it into the studio with me this morning.

David Bevan: We’ve never had any trouble with your family. Your little boy, very easy to get along with it.

Kate Ellis: Well the little boy is quite well. We have a cavoodle with a bee sting here also, so it is ridiculous to see, [indistinct] I’ll put that aside now.

David Bevan: So it’s the dog that’s causing the trouble, not the kid?

Kate Ellis: Well, a bit from column a and a bit from column b.

David Bevan: Right. Kate Ellis do you support Sam Dastyari keeping his party positions?

Kate Ellis: I do, I do. Sam hasn’t broken any of the parliamentary rules and I think what this whole saga shows is that those rules really need to change. I mean I don’t- I would not do what Sam did. I think he did the wrong thing. He’s apologised for it but he hasn’t broken any of the parliamentary rules and that’s why we need a serious debate and I think that we should be banning all foreign donations.

David Bevan: Do you know why Sam Dastyari, your Labor colleague from New South Wales, accepted money from a Chinese affiliated company to pay his bills?

Kate Ellis: Well, no I don’t know that. Sam can answer that.

David Bevan: Well if you don’t know why he accepted it how can you support him staying on in his positions?

Kate Ellis: Because the very strange thing about our system is there is nothing stopping foreign donations into our political system. That’s something that- the Liberal Party have accepted a lot of money from Chinese donors. We know Julie Bishop’s own branch has accepted donations from Chinese donors. But I think that there are questions…

David Bevan: Yeah there’s no doubt that there’s a wider issue here. I’m more than happy to tease that out and have a more discursive discussion later on. 

Kate Ellis: Sure.

David Bevan: We’ve got the time. But if you don’t know all the facts surrounding Sam Dastyari, how can you decide to support him in keeping his party position?

Kate Ellis: Well because regardless of why Sam accepted those donations, the simple fact is there is nothing currently in our system meaning that he broke any rules by accepting those donations.

David Bevan: But what if he did? Now I don’t know if this is the reason but let’s just speculate alright, this is just speculation. But what if he took money and agreed to change his position on the South China Sea? Now that might be acceptable according to the rules but surely that would be enough for him to lose his position and if you don’t know the facts, how can you say that he should stay on?

Kate Ellis: Well, I mean my view on this is nobody can ever- I mean how somebody can prove that somebody changed their position as a result of a donation or anything else, we can never prove that. We don’t know why Sam or any other Senator or Member of Parliament holds the opinions that they do. But what we do know is that it’s not good enough that we’re sitting around having a discussion and speculating about the cause which is why I absolutely support let’s ban all of the foreign donations so that these questions can never arise.

David Bevan: Well we do know these facts and that is that Sam Dastyari got up at a function and said this should be left up to China, it’s not our business. Now that’s clearly against ALP policy, and we got caught out when this became public he dumped that position and went back to ALP policy. Now we do know those facts.

Kate Ellis: Well I’m not sure that we even do know those facts.

David Bevan: Even that’s in dispute.

Kate Ellis: Well we know that they’re…

David Bevan: Well how can you support him if you don’t even know that?

Kate Ellis: Well no what I’m saying is we don’t know that he stood up at a function and said that. There was some suggestion that there was reporting in a Chinese newspaper which there’s been questions over. We don’t know whether he stood up and said that. What we do know is that he said…

David Bevan: [Interrupting] Well shouldn’t you find out? But hang on- but if you don’t know that shouldn’t you find that out before you decide to support him?

Kate Ellis: Well we do know that he has said that he supports the ALP’s policies…

David Bevan: We don’t know what he said previously. We know what he’s saying now but you don’t know what he said at this other function. And shouldn’t you find that out, at least that, before you support him?

Kate Ellis: Well, I think even if he did say that in my view Sam should not have accepted the donation and I wouldn’t have accepted it. It’s not something that I’ve ever done and he shouldn’t have done it and he said that himself. But even if he- he obviously did accept the donation he hasn’t broken any rules. If he stood up and gave an opinion he hasn’t broken any rules. I mean we can have this debate and we can talk about why he made a particular statement or why he didn’t but really when it comes down to it the fact that we’re having this debate and the fact that the Government is saying that her shouldn’t have done that means that surely now it’s time for the Government to act. Let’s end all of these questions for once and for all…

David Bevan: You would be very happy to have that same standard applied to Simon Birmingham, Stirling Griff or Christopher Pyne if they got up and supported the South China- Chinese position in the South China Sea against their particular policy, against the national interest, it would be argued. But took money from people who wanted that view promoted, you’d be happy with that if they turned around and said oh sorry?

Kate Ellis: David I’m not happy with any of this. What I’m saying is Sam shouldn’t have done it. I don’t think that Sam should have accepted the donation. The same donor has given more than $1million to the Liberal Party. I don’t think that they should have accepted that but what I’m saying is, regardless of what my opinion is of this, this is not against the rules and we should change the rules so that it never ever happens again.

David Bevan: He can keep his job. Simon Birmingham.

Kate Ellis: No but if- if it’s not okay why don’t we change the rules so that nobody can ever do it?

David Bevan: Well it’s not okay he should stand down and then you should change the rules to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Kate Ellis: Well, if it is okay during the current rules…

David Bevan: No, if you should change the rules then the offending which is brought about a change in the rules should be resulting in the standing down. Surely that’s logical. 

Kate Ellis: Well, I don’t see that you can have someone have to stand down for breaking rules that don’t currently exist but what I do think this clearly demonstrates is let’s change the rules. Let’s just change the rules.

David Bevan: Okay. Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: David, I don’t think anybody ever envisaged that we would have to write a rule that said members of parliament should not have other entities, particularly entities associated with foreign governments, pay their personal bills for them. This is not a political donation. I mean I feel sorry for Kate. It’s a failure of Bill Shorten’s leadership that Sam Dastyari is still on the Labor front bench and it’s terrible that people like Kate Ellis have to come out and defend this position when it is completely indefensible.

David Bevan: What is the difference between a donation and paying your bill? I mean if it’s a donation to his campaign or you’re paying his bill you’re giving him money.

Simon Birmingham: A donation goes into a political party. It is administered by that political party and it is not for your direct personal benefit. In this instance Sam Dastyari had- what brought about this sorry saga, he firstly- he had bills that were owed to the Commonwealth Government where he’d overspent his entitlements. He for some reason rung up a private company and said ‘would you mind picking up the tab for this’? We know that previously he’s had his legal bills paid by foreign companies as well. This is a remarkable activity to undertake and it is absolutely- we can have a debate about political donations and they ought to be looked at by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and there maybe should be reform- further reform to political donations but that is not the Sam Dastyari case …

David Bevan: [Talks over] But how can you say …

Simon Birmingham: … you can reform political donations and …

David Bevan: … how can you say you’re not- how can- if you get a donation to your campaign, to your campaign, you receive a donation, how can you say you’re not a beneficiary of that? Course you are.

Simon Birmingham: David, I don’t have a Simon Birmingham campaign, I certainly don’t have a personal account that is in my name …

David Bevan: [Talks over] But you had a campaign …

Simon Birmingham: … money goes into …

David Bevan: … you had a campaign fund when you ran for Hindmarsh, didn’t you?

Simon Birmingham: … money goes into Liberal Party bank accounts, is administered by Liberal Party officials. Now, they, of course, obviously then fund campaigns that help to get all of us elected but that is not a private benefit. A private benefit that underpins your own bank account, your own personal bottom line, is a very, very different matter. Sam Dastyari had half an hour yesterday to explain why it is that he thought it reasonable to ring up other companies and say could you pay the bills for me, my personal bills for me, and he couldn’t explain why he’d done that, he couldn’t explain why he picked the phone up, and he couldn’t even explain the questions you are asking Kate about what it is he had said previously on the South China Sea.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Federal Liberal Senator, Federal Education Minister, is the principle here at its broadest that a foreign government’s influence over an Australian MP should be, if it occurs at all, transparent and carefully managed, at it’s broadest, would that- we can accept that?

Simon Birmingham: I think that is absolutely an agreeable principle.

David Bevan: Okay, okay. Now, you’re the Federal Education Minister, are you concerned about the Chinese Government paying for material to be used in Australian schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I’m not concerned about that as long as again it is transparent and it is used only in accordance with the teaching of the Australian curriculum.

David Bevan: Right, so you haven’t got a problem with a company with direct links to the Communist Party in China paying schools in New South Wales, I think it’s $10,000, to promote a particular curriculum?

Simon Birmingham: I would have a problem if it is promoting a curriculum or anything that is inconsistent with the Australian curriculum, but if it is …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well, should they be doing it at all?

Simon Birmingham: … but if it is providing information that schools can use about the history of Chinese culture, Chinese trade or influence that relates to, of course, the Asian studies components of the Australian curriculum, well then it becomes a decision that is up to the judgement of the school principal and that school community as to whether or not that is appropriate.

David Bevan: Because The Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier this year that New South Wales public schools- and to a degree, some of this is happening in South Australia, Susan Close our education minister was a bit fuzzy about it when we asked her, but certainly in New South Wales, public schools are being paid at least $10,000 a year by a Chinese Government body to offer Chinese language and culture courses and some schools make it compulsory to attend. Now, some members of the Chinese community here in Australia were outraged at this because they take a very different view of Chinese history and culture from the one promoted by the Chinese Government. You might just ask what the hell are we doing allowing another government to provide material in our schools? Are we so desperate for funds in this state that we’ll take money from anybody?

Simon Birmingham: And David, I think there is a difference there between necessarily the provision of support and encouragement and funding to teach the Asian languages and Asian studies elements of the Australian curriculum, versus if they are providing things that are inconsistent with the Australian curriculum and inconsistent with what should be taught in Australian schools so I would expect a very robust approach to be taken to make sure that only elements consistent with the Australian curriculum are taught but the study of Chinese language is something we want to encourage across Australian schools as well and we’d love to see more people doing it.

David Bevan: Stirling Griff, back to political donations, do you agree with Kate Ellis that all overseas donations should simply be banned?

Stirling Griff: Well yes, yes, yes, I would agree with Kate on that front but I think when you look at what’s happened with Sam Dastyari, I mean, would it pass the Pub test? I don’t think so. I mean, when you have someone that is- or an entity that is actually helping you pay off your personal debts, it does, like Simon said- it really implies a very strong connection with the individual and I think that is a- you know, a dangerous position, you know, for any politician to be in.

David Bevan: Alright, now, moving on to another topic, the Budget, the Government’s got $6 billion worth of savings, it’s obviously going to need support from the Xenophon Team or other MPs, it’s got to gather a coalition together in the Senate to try and get its measures through. It’s about $6 billion worth. Labor has said well even if it contains stuff that we previously put to the electorate during the election campaign. We’re not just going to give it a sign off, we’re going to go through it forensically. From what you have seen, and I imagine Scott Morrison has been courting you and the other members of the Xenophon Team, do you, broadly speaking, support the $6 billion measures?

Stirling Griff: Well, yes, we actually support the need for Budget repair, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. We’re currently- we met with the Treasurer a few weeks ago, we’re actually having further briefings with other ministers, in fact we also met with Simon last week and we’re going through things line by line. But one thing we’re not going to do is accept anything that is going to adversely affect those that are most disadvantaged in the community and the other key point for us is …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, what does that mean? Because that could mean anything.

Stirling Griff: Well, it does but we’re looking through, we’re going through things on a line by line basis. I mean, we’ve only …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So can you pick out an example?

Stirling Griff: There are- I’d rather not go through examples at the moment until we’ve completed the review because they’ll be part of our negotiations …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, come on, what looks dodgy to you? What could be a sticking point?

Stirling Griff: Well, sticking points relate to one of the cutbacks which in fact falls under Simon, I think. We were talking about the age of 13 versus 15 …

David Bevan: [Talks over] For what?

Stirling Griff: … one of the payments …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Family Tax Benefit payments.

Stirling Griff: Yeah, yeah, where our belief is it should actually go to 15 and not actually be down at 13.

David Bevan: So- I’m sorry, I don’t even know what that means. Simon Birmingham, there’s an argument about payments.

Simon Birmingham: So, these are part of the package of Family Tax Benefit changes that are put forward by the Government to fund our proposed childcare reforms and a range of different of changes …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So, what do you want to happen? I mean, our listeners right now who might be receiving that payment, can you explain what you want to do to that payment?

Simon Birmingham: There are a number of changes, essentially the key component there is that an end of year supplement will be brought to an end for the Family Tax Benefit, that change is reflecting the fact that really that supplement was only brought in when we had old IT systems that meant many people incurred end of year debts. So they put a supplement in place to try to even this out …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So what’s that worth?

Simon Birmingham: … that’s not necessary anymore.

David Bevan: That’s a cut. It was a payment that you might have expected, you previously got and you’re not going to get it from the …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] David, David, overall there is a realignment there between the Family Tax Benefit payments and what we want to invest in additional support for childcare support to ensure that more support is there for families who are relying on childcare bills to have to be paid so that they can go out and participate in the workforce or study or other activities in the community. So, we are wanting to get a realignment there that gives more support to people for their active engagement in work in the community.

David Bevan: Let’s just finish up with Kate Ellis, back to you Kate on the phone line. Shadow Minister for Vocational and Education Childhood, the measures- the $6 billion in measures that Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull want to pass through the Parliament to try and get the Budget back on track, is Labor any closer to supporting the bulk or a portion of those measures?

Kate Ellis: Well, we’re certainly not signing a blank cheque but we do want to work constructively and we will support measures which we think are fair. But I have to say what a load of rubbish to talk about a ‘realignment’. What Simon is saying is that this government doesn’t think it’s possible to support Australian families with their childcare costs unless they rip that money off other Australian families. At the same time, they’re still pursuing $50 billion in tax cuts for some of our biggest companies and the banks. We’re going to call that out for the rubbish it is and we’re going to protect vulnerable Australians and make sure that any Budget repair is fair. That is our bottom line.

David Bevan: Kate Ellis thanks for your time.

Kate Ellis: Thank you.

David Bevan: Labor MP for the Seat of Adelaide, Simon Birmingham Federal Education Minister, thank you for yours.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you David.

David Bevan: And Stirling Griff, Nick Xenophon Team Senator from South Australia.