Interview on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Racial Discrimination Act; Strong borders and the Migration Act; Superannuation reform; North East Vocational College and alternative apprenticeship pilots
08:34 AM

Matthew Abraham: Now as we wait for Senator Nick Xenophon, Senator Penny Wong is in place and Senator Simon Birmingham, good morning to you both.

Penny Wong: Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

Matthew Abraham: Now we do need to announce the winner of the US presidential race as judged by listeners at the Adelaide Railway Station.

David Bevan: Yes. Now Humphrey B. Bear started slowly on the East Coast but as the polling booths opened up across the Midwest and he gained a lot of momentum and he finished very strongly on the West Coast and you’d expect that frankly.

Matthew Abraham: So 51 per cent for Humphrey B. Bear, we polled 24 per cent, a very good showing.

David Bevan: Yes.

Matthew Abraham: Hillary Clinton 14, Malcolm Blight 7 per cent, Donald Trump 4 per cent.

David Bevan: Four per cent.

Matthew Abraham: Our Facebook poll …

David Bevan: Facebook poll, Trump came in on 6 per cent Blight 11 per cent, Matt and Dave a very respectable 17 per cent, Clinton 23 but Humphrey B. Bear polling very strongly again, 42 per cent.

Penny Wong: So is this Matt and Dave as like a single candidate?

Matthew Abraham: Well we’d swap.

Penny Wong: You’re like symbiotic or something?

Matthew Abraham: Well it’d be a bit like Gillard and Rudd. We’d just swap it around.

Penny Wong: I want to know who’s who now.

Matthew Abraham: Abbott and Turnbull. It’s true.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, there possibly was a flaw in our campaign because we said we’d sort out after the election who’s actually going to be president.

Matthew Abraham: Yeah.

David Bevan: And somebody pointed out that Matt would lose the nuclear codes.

Penny Wong: He would never give them away.

Matthew Abraham: [Laughs].

David Bevan: Well we were polling very strongly until that attack.

Matthew Abraham: We were.

Penny Wong: He’d hold onto them in his tight little hands.

David Bevan: No he wouldn’t, he’d lose them. They’d fall down the back of a chair.

Simon Birmingham: Is the lesson we need to take out of this that the public want mute leaders and mute politicians? In which case Penny and I should probably just take a vow of silence now [indistinct].

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Yeah do you want us to lose? I’m happy to go off.

Matthew Abraham: No please don’t.

David Bevan: No please don’t.

Penny Wong: I’ve got a big day.

Matthew Abraham: No please don’t.

David Bevan: Now Nick Xenophon has joined us, good morning Nick Xenophon.

Nick Xenophon: Morning, should I take a vow of silence now or later?

Matthew Abraham: No, you’re alright.

David Bevan: No, no, no not at all. Can I just put to the three of you, starting first perhaps with Penny Wong, last night watching the telly and Malcolm Turnbull was in full flight on the issue of 18C and racial discrimination and whether or not people should be offended, and I thought to myself look, we’ve got Aboriginal children living in appalling conditions in this country, we have some suburbs of this country where people are in their third generation of unemployment and our parliament is debating over whether somebody should be offended or not. Penny Wong do you see how some people might be disillusioned with our federal parliament?

Penny Wong: Oh look I agree I think this is a side issue; it’s an issue that the hard right of the Liberal Party have been obsessed about for a long time …

David Bevan: But this is coming from the left as well …

Penny Wong: No, hang on, no hang on, no whoa, I’m not accepting that. No, I’m not accepting that. We have said we just want to the law left as it is. The move for change was led by the hard right of the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott eventually had to tap the mat or drop the reform because there was so much opposition. I’m on my way shortly after this to go and speak to Aboriginal woman who have come to Parliament to talk about political change and I was just as part of the prep for that looking at some of the statistics actually to which you were referring – the disadvantage that we still see in our Aboriginal communities and I think you’re right, I think this is a side issue but it is a totemic issue that Cory Bernardi, all of the Senate backbench in the Coalition, I think bar one, have demanded that the Prime Minister act. It’s not about jobs, it’s not about disadvantage.

Matthew Abraham: And would you put the same sex marriage plebiscite stroke vote in the same box? In other words …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Yeah I reckon it’d be …

Matthew Abraham: … a distraction?

Penny Wong: I think it would have been great if we could have just had the vote on marriage equality. Done. Move on.

David Bevan: But these issues are only a fight if Labor takes the fight up to the Government.

Penny Wong: Oh but hang on. Come on, that is – the Government says we want to change the law …

David Bevan: [Talks over] But if it is a side issue, if it’s a side issue…

Penny Wong: … and we say no.

David Bevan: … Penny Wong, if these are side issues, if they’re not that important given all of the challenges facing some people in this country, why are you fighting over it?

Penny Wong: Hang on, first on Section 18C, we’ve not put that on the agenda, Government has, we’ve just said no we don’t want change, end of story. Second on marriage equality, we said we don’t want a plebiscite, let’s just have a vote, get it done and dusted.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Education Minister, nobody recalls as part of the election campaign that the priority for the Government in terms of legislation after the election would be 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. So why is it a priority now?

Simon Birmingham: Matthew it’s not the priority for the Government; it’s not even legislation before the Parliament at this stage. It’s a referral to a parliamentary inquiry and committee. And things have changed. Before the election we didn’t have a cartoonist having to defend themselves in this manner …

David Bevan: Well who cares. Does it matter?

Simon Birmingham: Before the election we didn’t have the result of the Federal Court throwing out a case that had taken years to run of university students defending themselves over a Facebook post.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] I mean, Simon Birmingham, the Bill Leak cartoon’s hardly Charlie Hebdo is it? I mean in terms of, you know, freedoms, I mean it was published, they’re not going to be able to un-publish it. Is that the issue …

Simon Birmingham: Sure, but …

Matthew Abraham: … is that the issue, is it? Is that the issue affecting the state you represent, South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Matthew, I don’t for a second, and nor does the Prime Minister suggest this is the most important issue, but that’s not to say one of the many, many parliamentary committees that exist can’t effectively look at this issue and see whether it’s a law that does need to be changed to some extent or that it does need some fixing in the way that it’s handled. Now Gillian Triggs has even acknowledged that there are things that could be fixed or addressed about the operation of this law. The Jewish Affairs Council, who have long supported the law have now acknowledged that there are things that could be improved or fixed about it. Bob Carr, the former Labor Premier and Labor Foreign Minister has acknowledged that there are problems with the way this law is operating.

So all we’ve done is said yes, there appears to be an increase in concern, not just in one part of the Liberal Party or a conservative element, but actually a broader concern that is now existing elsewhere because we have university students …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] People come up to you – when you are in a shopping centre … when you are at a shopping centre at Glynde or Hackham, Simon Birmingham- or a listening post at Mitcham, people come up to you and say Simon Birmingham, let’s sort out 18C, I’m worried about Bill Leak, I’m worried about Gillian Triggs – oh really?

Simon Birmingham: It’s not the top issue, absolutely not Matthew. But that’s not to say the Parliament can’t do all these things at once …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] It’s consuming a lot of oxygen. Is it not?

Simon Birmingham: Well you’re certainly giving it a lot of oxygen this morning. We’re going to have a …

Matthew Abraham: No, we’re asking you about distractions.

Simon Birmingham: … parliamentary committee go away and look at it, one of the many parliamentary committees that exist, and hopefully it will come up with an approach that ensures we have- we have laws in Australia that actually work effectively in terms of ensuring that we celebrate and protect the very successful multicultural society we are, but  we don’t have laws that are equally administered in a way that sees university students spending years defending themselves over Facebook posts or newspaper cartoonists being hauled through these processes that – which I think most people would think are a waste of a lot of time and resources and money when you have those types of frivolous claims or vexatious claims taking up so much time and effort in bodies like the Human Rights Commission.

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, do you think our Federal Parliament’s focused on things that matter?

Nick Xenophon: I want to see a focus on the looming tsunami, the tsunami of job losses we’re facing in our car manufacturing sector by the end of next year, and that’s why I want to unlock $1.24 billion in funds, or at least part of it from the Automotive Transformation Scheme so that we can ensure that we transition with as little impact on jobs in South Australia and Victoria particularly when the car sector closes down. In relation to section 18C, the sooner we have an inquiry the better where people can look at it in the cool light of day, and I’d like to think that process will sort out any issues in relation to 18C.

David Bevan: You’re going to – well have you reached a position as a party that is the Nick Xenophon Team on the issue of asylum seekers and whether or not they should be banned forever, of those who’ve made it to Manus and Nauru and not given status? What sort of deal do you think you can cut?

Nick Xenophon: Well the short issue is no. It’s a morally fraught issue. It’s an issue that – effectively we’ll have a conscience vote on this issue; we may well vote together on it, we may not. Either way we respect our different views. My particular view is that if the Government was prepared to significantly increase the asylum seekers intake in this country through an orderly means then I would sit down and talk to government about that but I think that’s unlikely and I think the prospects of legislation getting through are probably unlikely at this stage.

David Bevan: Why do you think that’s unlikely?

Nick Xenophon: Well I actually need to sit down and talk to the Government as to whether they’re prepared to go down that path. It is a morally fraught and difficult issue. The Minister would still have discretion in terms of allowing those people who have been relocated to a third country to be allowed into Australia. It is a terrible dilemma. But at this stage there seems to be some suggestion that the Government is talking to third countries, and we’re not talking about Cambodia, in terms of resettling those people in- on Manus Island and Nauru.

Matthew Abraham: Penny Wong, what’s the Labor Party’s position on this matter?

Penny Wong: We’ve been very clear about this. We’re prepared to give bipartisan support to a range of policies the Government has put in place to ensure we don’t see the people smuggling trade continue and to restart, but this is a political stunt, and we’re not giving bipartisan support to a political stunt.

Matthew Abraham: So you’re not going down that track?

Penny Wong: Ministers – we have said very clearly, Bill stood up yesterday after our caucus and said we will be opposing this legislation. The Government couldn’t even get the times right.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Did he want to support it? Or was he rolled in caucus? I don’t know what the vote was.

Penny Wong: Oh, come on.

Matthew Abraham: No, no, no, well you considered it, that’s all.

Penny Wong: Well you know, all I do – we don’t talk about what happened in caucus, but all I’d do is point you to what Bill said in fact before caucus, after the Government had first come out on this, and you can probably join the dots there. He raised concerns about this from day one. The Government’s been all over the place on this. They couldn’t get their lines straight, they couldn’t get the rationale between- for the legislation clear between ministers; we had different explanations in the public arena. This is a desperate political stunt from a government that is floundering, that has no agenda that means anything to most Australians. They’re off on a whole range of side issues and now in a desperate attempt to try and land a political blow, they come up with a stunt before the end of the year. That’s all that it is.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, is it a stunt? I mean, why do you need a solution to stop the boats that have stopped coming?

Simon Birmingham: Well Matthew I’m quite confused as to what the Labor Party’s position is now. Labor has said for a long period of time – since Kevin Rudd was their leader in the 2013 election campaign – that their policy is that illegal maritime arrivals to Australia were never allowed to be settled in Australia. Now is that still their policy? Because what we’re proposing is to put that into law. That’s the simple case, and we want to make sure …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Stop the tourists, that’s your policy, to stop the tourists.

Simon Birmingham: No, is that your policy, Penny? Is it that illegal maritime arrivals will never be allowed to settle in Australia?

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Well, your policy – now let’s be clear here, your policy … no, no – your policy is let’s stop the tourists. What your bill means is that somebody who’s resettled in a third country, which is our position, who comes, who goes to Canada, becomes a business person, wants to come here for a convention, your policy is under this legislation they would not be allowed a tourist visa.

Simon Birmingham: Now our policy is very clear that there is …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Is that technically correct, Simon Birmingham? Just to nail that, is that [indistinct] debating, is that technically correct?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the legislation has the capacity for the minister of the day to grant exemptions in cases potentially like the one Penny’s put in place there. So that’s really just to prove you have an argument …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So it’ll be on a case by case basis at the discretion of the minister?

Simon Birmingham: The overwhelming – yes, that’s right. But the overwhelming principle behind this policy is to put into law that which the Labor Party claims is its policy and that which is certainly the Coalition’s policy, which is that illegal maritime arrivals will never be allowed to settle in Australia. Now, I don’t understand why it is the Labor Party are so afraid of voting for what they claim to be their policy. This shows enormous insecurity in relation to their border security policies because they are simply saying that they want to oppose now that which they say is their policy.

David Bevan: But Simon Birmingham, if you have stopped the boats why do you have to ramp up the anti-boat arrival legislation?

Simon Birmingham: Because we want to make sure that there is a very clear message to the people smugglers who are continually looking for any weakness and any signs in relation to Australia’s approach. Now, we are working very hard to settle those who are on Manus and Nauru, and we are working very hard to make sure we land a deal to get them settled in other countries or returned to their home country. But we equally have to make sure that as we go through that process it is crystal clear to the people smugglers and to anybody who’s thinking of buying their services that people will never be allowed to settle in Australia if they chose to come by people smuggling means.

David Bevan: Okay, on to superannuation. Penny Wong, during the election campaign the Labor Party had its own superannuation policy but made it quite clear that its policy would not raise any more money from the system than the Government’s policy, that was quite clear. You're now saying we'll take the Government's policy, we'll take their savings, but we want to introduce another $1.4 billion worth of savings over the forward estimates, and your non-concessional contribution's capped to be 75,000 rather than 100,000, and a 30 per cent contributions cap to kick in and an adjusted salary of 200,000 a year rather than 250,000 a year. How is that not a broken promise?

Penny Wong: Well hang on, the Government's changed its position. So remember the Government changed its position from what it took to the election, so we are looking at what the Government is now proposing and putting into the Parliament, and we put forward a set of positions which are I think sensible ones, including a change to a spending measure that the Government has proposed as part of their deal with the backbench to get this legislation through.

David Bevan: So there'll be no net increase in the take from what the Government promised before the election to what you now want to get out of superannuation?

Penny Wong: Well, we are proposing measures which do raise more revenue, because of the fiscal situation and that …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Ah, so that would be a broken promise?

Penny Wong: Hang on. Than the Government is proposing, but let's have a look at one of them, and I hope at some point we're going to get on to the questions I think Simon does need to answer about the $2 million he gave to Bob Day's company, but let's leave that to one side for the moment. We are proposing, for example, the Government's saying you can make what we call non-concessional contributions – or concessional contributions, and they want to cap that at $100,000. So these are people who are making catch-up payments to superannuation. We've said look, we'd lower that to 75,000, so – and I don't think that's an unreasonable measure, so …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But your measures, your latest measures will pull in more money than the measures you took to the election.

Penny Wong: I haven't comp- I've compared this against what the Government is proposing, and …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yeah but how about you compare it against the promises you made to the people?

Penny Wong: Because I'm Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and this isn't my portfolio, so I'm sure that Katy Gallagher or Chris Bowen could come on and compare them. But can I just say on the policy, which is what …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well would you concede this then, would you concede this, that if the measures that Labor is now adopting pull in more money than the measures they took to the last election, that would amount to a broken promise?

Penny Wong: What I would concede is this, that our measures do raise more revenue off people who are earning higher incomes …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So it's a broken promise.

Penny Wong: … than the – well no, I don't accept that. Then the governments will – I hope that- if it's the broken promise, then so too is the Government's, because the very legislation that we are currently negotiating …

David Bevan: [Talks over] As long as it's one-all.

Penny Wong: … is not the package the Government took to the election. End of story.

Matthew Abraham: Let us move on to a story we spotted in the Sydney Morning Herald, and that is Simon Birmingham, photos have emerged of you visiting a trade school – this is a trades training school in Adelaide, Bob Day was director of that – six months before it received a $2 million grant from the Federal Government. You, according to this report, told Parliament you did not know that Bob Day was involved with the North East Vocational College in suburban Adelaide. Did you mislead Parliament?

Simon Birmingham: No, and I did not say that I did not know that Bob Day had knowledge of and involvement with the college in that sense. I answered a question about whether I knew of the directorship structure and so on of the college, which is a significantly different matter. The reason [indistinct] …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Well you did say I cannot say that I recall that he had any role in it. That is not to say that I had not been told that at some stage.

David Bevan: Lot of negatives in there.

Simon Birmingham: Well … [indistinct] a specific question about who were the directors of the college. You've got to actually look at the question that was being asked, not just the answer that was given, Matthew.

David Bevan: Is the North East Vocational College a not-for-profit organisation?

Simon Birmingham: It is a not-for-profit organisation. Bob Day has no financial interest or stake in it. He was an unpaid director of the North East Development Agency, which is the not-for-profit organisation that oversees the vocational college. He donated his time to support provision of apprenticeship opportunities and training in the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide at a college that Tom Koutsantonis himself only visited the other week.

Matthew Abraham: Okay. Penny Wong, that seems straightforward, does it not? Or are you not satisfied?

Penny Wong: Here are the facts. In May, Simon and Bob attend the site together, visiting this college that Bob Day has had years of involvement in and was still a director. In June, Bob Day presents his proposal to Simon where he wants $1.4 million in funding. The funding isn't recommended, but notwithstanding that, the Government, via Simon's junior minister, gives Bob Day – this company – $2 million, so more than he asked for, and the project which Simon is backing in will train 20 students at a cost of about $100,000 each. Now compare that to the other grant Simon gave to another association which has a cost of around $6000 to $7000 each. Well, I think those facts deserve a far better explanation than Senator Birmingham's just given.

Matthew Abraham: Does Bob Day gain anything from this, personally?

Penny Wong: I've no idea, I think – but what happened is that Bob Day …

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Emphatically not.

Penny Wong: … who was a very reliable vote for the Coalition sought a grant. The Government ended up giving him more than was asked for, no advice from the department supporting it, and if you look at the cost per student, it is an absolute waste of taxpayers' money. Now Simon needs to explain what is the public interest, and [indistinct] …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] But no evidence of any personal benefit at all?

Penny Wong: No, it is the college.

Matthew Abraham: No, no.

Penny Wong: I accept that, but why does he – why does his college get …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Because I think you called it his company, and it's not his company, it's a not-for-profit organisation.

Penny Wong: Sorry, he was a director of the company and he was chair for I think a decade.

Matthew Abraham: Okay.

David Bevan: But not for a profit college.

Penny Wong: Sure, sure. I'm not suggesting Bob Day's made money out of this particular transaction.

David Bevan: Okay.

Matthew Abraham: We thank you for talking to us, because we're going to talk to the Metro Property Group, who are now picking up some of the pieces of the collapsed Bob Day building empire. Nick Xenophon, South Australian senator, thank you. Liberal Senator for South Australia Simon Birmingham and the Labor Senator for South Australia Penny Wong.