Interview on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Noel Pearson’s comments on the ABC; Resettling refugees while keeping our borders secure; Murray-Darling Basin

Matthew Abraham: It’s Super Wednesday here on 891 ABC Adelaide. Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide. They’re all in Canberra as they enjoy the end of a parliamentary sitting where things get very quiet and not a lot happens, except most of the important legislation gets passed. 

Kate Ellis, welcome.

Kate Ellis: Good morning.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, welcome to you, Liberal Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody.

Matthew Abraham: And Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, welcome to you, Sarah Hanson-Young.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning everyone. Thanks for having us.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, if we could start with you, do you think the ABC is racist?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs]. I think it’s hard to call an organisation that’s made up of so many different voices and people as unanimously racist as such. I think Noel Pearson was seeking to make a point. The point obviously that he was seeking to make is that you can sometimes in your presentation of people undertake an approach that forever paints a picture of people as victims – in this case indigenous Australians – rather than actually demonstrating that there are responsibilities, there are expectations and there are good things happening as well and he’s obviously got a view that balance perhaps isn’t being achieved [indistinct] by the ABC.

David Bevan: Well, Noel Pearson’s just not anybody; he’s one of the most respected Aboriginal leaders in the country. And he’s not alone. Former ABC Chairman Maurice Newman has also backed him and said that the ABC is a racist organisation. Maurice Newman is quoted in The Australian today saying it’s not just the ABC, it’s the left media, it’s the commentariat, it’s the elite who feel morally superior and think simply by throwing money at people, that somehow or other they’re going to be cared for. So it’s- I think you’re playing it down a little here. They have made a very strong statement that the ABC and other media organisations are buying into a soft racism which continues to work to entrench Aboriginal disadvantage. So I’m not asking you to play down what they’re saying. I’m asking: do you agree with them?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll tell you what I think and what I think is that we do need to make sure that whilst focussing on areas of Indigenous disadvantage, we also focus on responsibility: responsibility to get your kids to school, and to make sure that they’re actually participating in the education system; responsibility to ensure that your family is safe, that there isn’t violence in the family home. On White Ribbon Day, that’s a really important thing. So insofar as the fact that I think the public discourse can sometimes skew too far towards what are the problems, we also have to make sure the solutions aren’t just ones of more money, or saying that government can fix it, but that there are also responsibilities that come with all of that support that we want and ought to give.

Matthew Abraham: This program doesn’t share the rarefied atmosphere occupied by people like Leigh Sales in Sydney, who was able to on Twitter say that the accusations by Noel Pearson were demonstrably false. His criticism though, is it not, is that the media feeds off Aboriginal bad luck stories? You know, it’s sort of an upmarket equivalent of what you see, current affairs chasing Housing Trust tenants. This is our fodder.

Simon Birmingham: Well I’ll leave- I mean, Noel Pearson can be a media commentator if he wants. I’m not really going to commentate on the media, but I’ve told you what I think and that is that we have to get the balance right between acknowledging there are problems, investing as we do significantly as a government to deal with those problems but also acknowledging that there are also responsibilities, responsibilities we expect every single Australian to take seriously. To ensure that families live in safety, that people engage in the economy, that they try to get jobs, that we make sure that kids are actually attending school, which has been a big focus of our Government to try to deal with some of those real problems but also to make sure that parents and people in the community understand that they are their responsibilities too. Not just problems for governments to have to fix.

David Bevan: Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide, we’re not looking for people to back the ABC here, because the ABC should be held accountable, and as we say Noel Pearson is a very respected person. Does the ABC have something to answer here?

Kate Ellis: No. The role of the ABC is to tell our national story, and sadly the facts remain that our national story includes the plight of many Indigenous Australians who are living below the poverty line, who are subjected to lower life expectancy, whose health, education, detention rates are all out of whack with the rest of the population. This is something that is a national disgrace, not the ABC reporting on it, and I think it is incredibly important that we shine a light on all areas of our nation, so that we can debate what we are going to do about it. It’s not the role of the ABC to singlehandedly fix these problems, but it is the role of the ABC to make sure that they are highlighting the issues so we can’t just blindly go about out of sight, out of mind and let this gap which exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians continue.

David Bevan: Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, even Warren Mundine, who was- defended some of what the ABC has done, he says look, I think Noel went a bit too far in his language but there is no doubt that the left media do play up to this sad story about Aboriginal people.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think sadly while there is obviously a really important need to have a discussion about how we deal with the very real issues facing Indigenous Australians, I think this whole topic is now going to become used as a fodder to extend the attack on our national broadcaster, attack on funding to the ABC and the SBS. But let me say, imagine where we would be if we didn’t have shows like Four Corners who so bravely told the story about young Indigenous people being abused in the Don Dale Detention Centre, and these are stories that have to be told because politicians and decision-makers must be held to account. They also of course need to provide space for Indigenous people to tell their own stories, and I’d argue that both ABC and SBS in particular do that more and provide more space than other aspects of the mainstream media and I think that’s really important.

David Bevan: Alright, well …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] And sadly- people can have their own opinions. You know, Maurice Newman can have his own opinion. It’s a free country. But I think … labelling ABC and SBS and others as simply being racist… I think it’s a slur on all of those who [indistinct] public broadcasters.

David Bevan: [Talks over] Alright, well, are you more willing to apply that term of racist to Peter Dutton, the Immigration Minister, following his statements over Lebanese migrants?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, I have applied that tag to Peter Dutton. I stand by it, I’m …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] You had to withdraw it, didn’t you?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, I was asked to withdraw it as being unparliamentary yesterday during Question Time …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So you don’t stand by it.

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, no, I do stand by it.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] But not in Parliament?

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, it’s about whether you can say things that are unparliamentary; it doesn’t mean whether you believe- you have to change your mind as to whether you believe them or not. I believe it.

Matthew Abraham: [Laughs] Well, you either- you withdrew it in Parliament. Well, did you …

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, it’s about the language that you use in the Parliament. I will stand by the fact that Peter Dutton is a racist bigot; I think that he is. He’s promoting a discriminatory immigration policy and program. He wants to tag an entire group of Australians, who have been here for several generations, as being a mistake. I think that is highly racist. I think it should be called out, and I will do it whenever I get the opportunity to confront somebody who I believe isn’t fit to be our Immigration Minister.

David Bevan: Alright, now just so that people who might not have been following the detail of this in the Parliament know what we’re talking about, Peter Dutton said that there were some mistakes made by the Fraser Government, and he was- in terms of immigration. He was referring to Lebanese Muslim immigrants that came to Australia in the ‘70s. And when he was asked about this by Bill Shorten in the Parliament, he singled out the Lebanese Muslim community, saying that 22 of the 33 Australians charged with terror-related offences were the children or grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim immigrants. Simon Birmingham, that’s a bit rough, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think firstly in no way do I think Peter Dutton is racist, and in no way is he promoting a discriminatory immigration policy. The Turnbull Government’s policy, as all Australian Governments since the abolition of the White Australia Policy, is a non-discriminatory approach to our immigration policies.

Matthew Abraham: The Prime Minister has said it is fair for all of us to reflect on past policies and how effective they were or not, and seek to improve in the light of that, to improve what we’re doing now. What does that mean?

Simon Birmingham: And it is not only fair, Matthew, but it is a responsibility, I would have thought, of governments to reflect upon whether when we have taken new waves of migrants into Australia, whether we have successfully resettled those people into Australia. Not just settled them immediately such that they get a house and hopefully a job, but settled them such that they and their families appreciate the values and respect the values of Australia, respect our democracy, uphold the types of things that we want all Australians to believe in. If there are clear problems with clear groups of migrants that have come at some stage, then we need to work out what it is we can do better in future to …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, do you think it was a mistake?

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Interrupts] The reality is Peter Dutton has form on this. He’s the only Member of Parliament who walked out in the middle of the apology to the Stolen Generation, walked out of Parliament. He is the person who, in the middle of the election campaign this year, decided to criticise migrants if they couldn’t speak English or were illiterate. And now he wants to go after a particular group who were migrated successfully under the Fraser Government. I mean, frankly, you know, it’s offensive to the late Prime Minister, but it is far more offensive and an attack on the generations of people who have decided to make Australia home and who are just going about their daily lives. They work hard. They pay their taxes. Their kids go to school. I mean, lay off, Peter Dutton.

David Bevan: Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide. Do you think Peter Dutton’s a racist?

Kate Ellis: Well, I have to say, Simon’s saying that his comments weren’t discriminatory. His comments were that Malcolm Fraser made a mistake by letting in the members of the Lebanese community in the 1970s. If that’s not discriminatory, I’m not sure what is. I think his comments are an absolutely disgraceful attack on migrant Australians who have helped build this country. But more so, I think that they are stupid. To suggest that an Immigration Minister or a Prime Minister is meant to predict what the grandchildren of migrants might do is just plain ridiculous. But it’s also really unhelpful to our national security interests at a time when we are trying not to divide the community and when we are trying to unite people so that they can help us join the fight against terrorism. What I find most offensive about all of this, though, is that the old Malcolm Turnbull would have absolutely slapped him down, and the new Malcolm Turnbull, our Prime Minister…

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] That’s rubbish, Kate.

Kate Ellis: … is too weak to do anything on this. He is too weak to even call out these statements which are clearly ridiculous and they are clearly divisive, and we have a Prime Minister who is so weak that he cannot stand up to any members of his own party. [Indistinct] all over the board.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Was it- Kate Ellis, was it- is it in dispute, his statistics? Are they in dispute?

Kate Ellis: Oh, he’s saying that 22 people who have been convicted of terrorism offences are the children or grandchildren or relatives of people who came in the ‘70s …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Of Lebanese Muslim … 

Kate Ellis: That may well be true.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] … of a wave of Lebanese Muslim immigration.

Kate Ellis: Surely the policies …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] You missed a key part of that, Kate. It was 22 of the last 33. So essentially, two-thirds of the recent problems in relation to convictions or charges of terrorist-related offences coming from one particular pattern. We have to acknowledge if there’s a problem what it is we do to deal with those problems, what it is we do to prevent them from occurring in future.

Matthew Abraham: Senator Simon Birmingham, Martin Bryant, a good old white boy, murdered 35 people in an hour.

Simon Birmingham: And the nation reacted and responded to that by putting in place world-leading gun laws that we should all be very proud of.

Matthew Abraham: And do you believe therefore, following that argument and what you’ve just said, that the nation should now respond to 22 of the 33 acts of terrorism committed by the children and grandchildren of Lebanese Muslims, by taking some form of action to make it harder for that to happen?

Simon Birmingham: I think we take continual action to make sure that the screening processes we put in place for assessment of refugees and migrants to Australia are thorough and check the security background of people and give us as much confidence as possible in terms of the background of those individuals, and that we continually work to upgrade and improve our resettlement programs to make sure that people successfully learn English, that they successfully appreciate and understand Australian culture and values when they come here, and that that is hopefully passed on to their family. And they are the types of things we have to continuously work to do.

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But if anything was ever going to marginalise a group of people, surely it would be singling out an entire community. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people here who- let me just read to you one piece by Ruby Hamad, who wrote for the Sunday- Sydney Morning Herald. And she’s a Lebanese Muslim Australian. She says: in any other time, this statement from Dutton would be staggering. To invalidate the existence of hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens because a sum total of 22 of them were charged – charged, mind you, not convicted – with serious criminal offences is beyond any reasonable argument. Do you think she makes a valid point, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: I think we also have to acknowledge real issues, real trends when we see them. And if essentially two-thirds of recent charges in relation to terrorist-related offences are people sharing similar backgrounds, then we have to work out what we can do in terms of the policies we apply in future to help prevent that from being repeated. 

David Bevan: If it is a …

Kate Ellis: But that’s not what’s in question here, Simon. What’s in question here is …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Sorry, is this Kate Ellis or Sarah Hanson-Young?

Kate Ellis: Yes, sorry, it’s Kate here.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Kate Ellis. Sorry.

Kate Ellis: We have Australia’s Immigration Minister, who has not said we need to look at policies for the future. He has said it was a mistake bringing a group of people to this country because of what their grandchildren have done. Now, if there are any policy lessons in this, then of course we need to screen people coming here. But we need to look at how we support inclusive communities, we need to look at how we resettle people, and we need to look at how we do not divide people …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] He didn’t actually use those words, did he?

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Kate, Kate, Kate. No, he did not. Thank you.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Kate Ellis, he didn’t actually use the words it was a mistake to bring these people here, did he?

Kate Ellis: He absolutely said that the Fraser Government  …

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] He said there were mistakes in policy, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about needing to be fixed. That there are mistakes in policy that we have to continually work to improve our policies to make sure that we don’t have people- what I don’t want to see, what the Turnbull Government doesn’t want to see is that current waves of migrants in future years are providing the majority of people being charged with terrorist offences. Surely that’s something that all of us would agree …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] But if you’re going to fix it- if you’re going to fix it …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Interrupts] But at a time when …

Matthew Abraham: Hang on a minute. Hang on a minute. Simon Birmingham, do you know how to fix a mistake in policy and the problem is identified the children and grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim immigrants from the ‘70s, do you need therefore to do something like set up a register?

Simon Birmingham: No, what we need to do is the types of policies the Turnbull Government’s already been deploying in terms of a raft of different- better community engagement policies in some of those communities, as well as working with them in terms of the way they engage with our security forces so that we can have earlier interventions. Recognising the problem allows you to develop the solution, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

David Bevan: Now, before you go …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Interrupts] I think the big prob- …

David Bevan: We’re going to run out of time very quickly. I think everybody’s got- knows where everybody sits on this one. But Simon Birmingham, the Weatherill Government have signalled, and so has the Labor Opposition- Federal Labor Opposition, they’ve signalled that they’re going to take the fight up to the Coalition over the issue of the River Murray and South Australia’s water allocations. Do you share any of their concerns, or do you think that the process is just going along hunky-dory?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think the process is going along hunky-dory when Ian Hunter storms out of dinners with foul-mouthed tirades at other states who he needs to work with to actually ensure the plan is successfully implemented. But that failure of the South Australian Government aside, I have confidence that we will continue to deliver the plan in full, on the timeline that’s publically available. We’re not proposing any changes, and people who have questions about it really need to actually go and look at the detail of the plan that the Labor Government put in place, which we supported at the time and that the South Australian Government signed up to, and that things like the Northern Basin Review was an initiative of Tony Burke and the then-Labor Government. So we are working through the plan with all of its nuances as put in place.

Matthew Abraham: Look, we need- I apologise, we need to go, because we’re going to talk to a town that has a river of a different sort down its main street – that is, raw sewerage – but Simon Birmingham, thank …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Another Ian Hunter problem.

Matthew Abraham: [Laughs] No, no. This is a local council problem. Kate Ellis, thank you, and Sarah Hanson-Young, thank you, here on Super Wednesday. It’s five minutes to nine.