Interview on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
National Firearms Agreement; Changes to pension eligibility 
08:39 AM

Matthew Abraham: It’s Super Wednesday time, let’s crank it up with Liberal Senator for South Australia, Minister for Education Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome Senator.

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

Matthew Abraham: Senator Penny Wong, Opposition Leader in the Senate, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, welcome.

Penny Wong: Good morning, good to be with you.

Matthew Abraham: You were a bit cranky in the Senate yesterday.

Penny Wong: [Laughs] Not as cranky as some, let me tell you.

David Bevan: Well you were interrupting people.

Penny Wong: I think if there was an analysis you would see just how much I was talked over by others actually, but that’s fine.

Matthew Abraham: Yes but we never do that.

David Bevan: Are you saying you were more hard done by than …

Penny Wong: No, no I think you know, it’s a robust forum isn’t it. I never pretend it’s not.

Matthew Abraham: And Senator Nick Xenophon, Leader of the NXT Party, good morning to Senator Xenophon, he will have to dash to Estimates. Simon Birmingham, coming to you: have we reached a low point in Australian politics when a government is offering to trade off a vote on a crucial protection of a gun, in this case, a lever-action rapid-fire shotgun in return for getting its legislation through the Senate?

Simon Birmingham: Look Matthew, the Turnbull Government is not making and has not made any such offer. The Turnbull Government has put in place an indefinite extension on the ban in relation to this gun until the states and territories can get their act together and agree on the classification of it. So there is absolutely no such trade-off being made. It is a case that we’ve taken tough action in relation to that and frankly the hysteria we’re hearing from the Labor Party is simply a case of them trying to desperately distract from the issues, the legislation that is actually before the Parliament in relation to union corruption.

David Bevan: But you have- your government has negotiated with David Leyonhjelm over the issue of the shotgun because the front page of The Australian has produced an extract of an email between the Justice Minister and Leyonhjelm’s office?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Turnbull Government made one decision which was to indefinitely extend the ban on that and it has not been the subject of negotiations and it is certainly not a subject of trade-offs.

David Bevan: So you’re saying Turnbull because in August last year, Tony Abbott was still Prime Minister so it’s his fault?

Simon Birmingham: Well there was a decision taken previously to have a sunset clause attached to that in the expectation the states and territories would have resolved the issue by then. That didn’t end up being the case and so when the matter reached the point of the sunset clause coming into effect, the Turnbull Government considered it and the decision we made was to put an indefinite ban on the importation of those weapons.

Matthew Abraham: But you were around the Cabinet table in the Abbott Government weren’t you?

Simon Birmingham: No I certainly wasn’t.

Matthew Abraham: Okay – oh well you’ve been served well then haven’t you?

Penny Wong: Fortune favours the brave or something, I think.

Matthew Abraham: I apologise, Senator Simon Birmingham, but this email extract which is published in The Australian says that it’s quite clear. This is from Justice Michael Keenan, it was before the Turnbull – but it’s the same party, it’s the same party …

David Bevan: It’s the same government.

Matthew Abraham: … and it has said in return for ceasing the sunset clause, in return Senator Leyonhjelm will vote against the Labor amendments to the Migration Amendment Bill 2015.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, they are matters of the past. The relevant point is that the action the Turnbull Government has taken is to make sure there is an indefinite ban on this weapon. Now if the states and territories did their job as part of the National Firearms Agreement, it would be appropriately classified and this unusual action of us having to take an importation ban as an approach wouldn’t be necessary, so we really actually need to see the states and territories …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] It’s always someone else’s fault isn’t it, Simon?

Simon Birmingham: No, Penny, I mean the National Firearms Agreement relies on the fact that the states and territories agree to classify [indistinct] …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Always someone else’s fault every time you get on air …

Simon Birmingham: … but – no, Penny, in fairness, we’ve taken action and the action is an indefinite ban. You’re the party that has twice voted against toughened penalties for gun smugglers into Australia. We’ve put an indefinite ban on this gun being imported.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, were people able to import this gun during the Rudd-Gillard years?

Penny Wong: Look I wasn’t the minister responsible for that so I …

Matthew Abraham: So it’s somebody else’s fault?

Penny Wong: No, no, no, I don’t know the history of the regulation of this weapon. What I do know is this: first, we, I think, as a country made a very important principled decision many years ago when John Howard did – and full credit – I think a very, very good thing which was that we would restrict access to rapid fire weapons, and I saw that the National Party, part of the Coalition that Simon’s part of has been out calling for this gun to be able to be imported. Now the principle, I think, was the right one, it was a principle that said well whatever the arguments that farmers and others might need, the community wants protection from these weapons and I think that the evidence is, since that time, that we did made the right call. The second point I’d make is this, and that is the email that you rightly have referenced, which to be honest I didn’t actually see this until this morning because I’ve obviously been in Estimates and focusing on other things. I mean it is an extraordinary proposition, isn’t it? We’ll do this and in return you- we get …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] That’s not new in politics is it? I mean …

Penny Wong: Well first, I’ve never seen a national security issue in this way used in a negotiation, and …

David Bevan: National security issue?

Penny Wong: Well I’m saying this is about the importation of guns. I’ve never seen something like that put into a negotiation, certainly never that I’ve been part of, and it’s a pretty blunt cross trade isn’t it? I mean, it’s saying you give us your vote, and we’ll allow the gun to be imported.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, can you clear up this matter? Was this gun allowed into the country during the Rudd-Gillard years?

Simon Birmingham: Look offhand I can’t. I think it is a newer weapon in terms of my vague memory of the topic, and I’m certainly not a firearms expert, but obviously the Abbott Government took action to ban its importation. We’ve taken action to then now make that an indefinite ban, but hopefully, hopefully on Friday it can actually be brought into the National Firearms Agreement which is the legacy agreement of the Howard Government that applies a consistent approach to the regulation of weapons rather than us having to make these type of more ad hoc decisions. But until the states and territories can make that agreement, our ban stands.
Matthew Abraham: Senator Nick Xenophon, leader of the NXT Party, did – you would be prepared … I mean, would you embrace something like this in return for say a ban on pokies if you were a hard negotiator?

Nick Xenophon: You’re suggesting I’m not a hard negotiator; shame on you, Matt. The situation is this: in the very first speech I made, I said the problem with horse trading is that sometimes you might end up with a donkey, or worse still make an ass of yourself, and I think there are two issues here with Senator Leyonhjelm’s negotiation with the Government. Firstly whether the merits of it – and I want to make sure we ensure that John Howard’s legacy is maintained. He did a very good thing, as Penny Wong said, and across the board that was a – unambiguously a very good thing in terms of stronger firearm laws. And also…

Matthew Abraham: And Simon Birmingham agrees on that and he said on Friday they want to include this type of weapon, the Adler, into that National Firearms Agreement so we don’t have to have this bun fight.

Nick Xenophon: That’s right, that’s right, and the other issue here is whether Senator Leyonhjelm feels that he’s been dudded by the Government, whether they’re broken their word with him. That’s a separate issue, leaving aside the merits of the Adler shotgun, as to whether the trust between Senator Leyonhjelm, who philosophically supports the Government on many of their policies, whether there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the Coalition and Senator Leyonhjelm.

David Bevan: Okay. Nick Xenophon, ABC News is reporting that you will vote – you and your party – will vote against a bill which targets pensioners who spend more than six weeks overseas. Why?

Nick Xenophon: At the moment, the position has been – for many years, the position has been one of 26 weeks and then it tapers down, depending on how many years you've lived in the country. It's supposed …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Sorry, what tapers down? What are we talking about here, what benefits?

Nick Xenophon: We are talking about someone who comes – someone who goes and lives overseas, we're talking about migrants who have been here for ten or twenty or thirty years in this country who then seek to – often it's their big final trip back to go to the country where they were born, to see their family, in many cases to say goodbye to them before they come back to Australia and …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Or some spend half the year in their native country and half back in Australia …

Nick Xenophon: Sure, and what …

Matthew Abraham: … and continue to get benefits.

Nick Xenophon: And what the Government was proposing was a pretty radical departure from 26 weeks to six weeks. Some of these people have worked hard, they – and the Labor Party and the Greens have opposed this measure as well – they are … they – it's their last, in many cases it's their last big trip. They've saved for their trip to get the airfares to go over and cutting it from 26 to six weeks is problematic.

Matthew Abraham: Are you protecting the Greek diaspora here?

Nick Xenophon: No, not just the Greek diaspora, [indistinct] …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Oh, I'm using that because of your own origin, if you don't mind me saying so, but …

Nick Xenophon: The Greek, the Italian, the Filipinos, the Vietnamese – this is …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] The Lebanese.

Nick Xenophon: … an event that – Lebanese, that's right, and it's a question of fairness and the – as a savings measure …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So somebody who can afford to have, at the moment, a holiday up to 26 weeks, up to 26 weeks overseas is still going to get the full pension. And you're happy with that?

Nick Xenophon: It's a question of what is fair. What the Government was proposing was quite a radical change to six weeks, and I …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well what should it be? If it's not six weeks, are you happy with 26, or do you think it should be less? I mean, 13, 10 – or are you happy with people who can afford to spend 26 weeks of the year overseas, having a good old holiday, getting a full pension?

Nick Xenophon: In many cases it's not- in many cases they are visiting their home, the country they were born in for the last time, and the rules actually taper down if they're there for more than 26 weeks. As a budget saving measure, the amount that would have been saved was I think was about $140 million or $160 million over four years …

Simon Birmingham: Two hundred and forty-six.

Matthew Abraham: How much …?

Nick Xenophon: Yeah, $146 million over four years.

Matthew Abraham: 246 or 146? Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Two hundred and forty-six.

David Bevan: Alright, quarter of a billion dollars, right? Simon Birmingham …

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon.

David Bevan: … Do you think this is … how can you justify cutting it from 26 to six?

Simon Birmingham: Well we justify it on the basis that we think people spending four, five months potentially every single year overseas and still claiming a full Australian pension is not a sustainable arrangement. What we were proposing is that if they spent more than six weeks overseas, the rate of their pension would then be adjusted according to their working life spent in Australia. So if they'd spent 17 years of the 35 years of their notional working life living and working in Australia, then they'd still continue to receive 17 35ths of their pension. So it certainly wasn't to say you'd go from whatever you're getting, a full pension, to zero …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] It'd be fun working that one out.

Simon Birmingham: … it was to say it would be adjusted according to your working life in Australia.

Matthew Abraham: I wouldn't want to be the public servant working that one out.

Simon Birmingham: Oh, I mean, that happens already in relation to people who spend more than 26 weeks away, so more than six months.

Matthew Abraham: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: But if it's four or five months, I mean essentially at present you can spend 5.5 months a year every year overseas, enjoying a summer vacation and still claim the full pension.

David Bevan: Right. Penny Wong …

Simon Birmingham: We think bringing that back to six weeks is pretty reasonable.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, do you think this is fair?

Penny Wong: No, look, we've opposed this for some time. I think this was originally in the 2014 Budget, from memory – Simon might want to correct me from that – but I think that was the original proposal. And really, the position we've taken is similar to – is the same one Nick's adopting. We've had a lot of representations from the migrant communities about this. I don't know that it's sort of reasonable just to flippantly say, oh people are off enjoying a holiday, I mean these are pensioners, you know, they are not highly paid … the people having, you know, on the Riviera, and many of whom may choose to spend, for one year, a long period of time in their country of origin, and …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Oh, I know that's the most rosy aspect. There are, I would think, quite a proportion who spend every year. It's …

David Bevan: Penny Wong, I don't know …

Matthew Abraham: Are there? Or not?

David Bevan: Penny Wong, I don't know, I do not – I cannot think of a single person I know who can spend 26 years overseas. Who can afford to do that.

Nick Xenophon: Twenty-six weeks.

Matthew Abraham: Twenty-six weeks.

[Cross talk]

David Bevan: Is that- 26 weeks a year overseas.

Penny Wong: The point is – well, the point is this, that retired people who may be going back to their country of origin for a long visit and staying there for a period that exceeds this, and I guess what is the public policy reason we're saying you've earned a pension in Australia, you're entitled to a pension through the rules that we've put in place, but because you go away to visit in this year, we're going to reduce it. I mean, I don't actually understand what the policy reason is for it, other than just a budget cut.

Matthew Abraham: I suppose that's- a quarter of a billion dollars.

Penny Wong: Well, there's a [indistinct] …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] That wouldn't mean the full saving; that's the total cost, I suppose.

Penny Wong: It's a 50 – well, I don't know what the admin costs are of the calculation that you just described [laughs], I wasn't aware that that was how they were doing it, but I mean, this is a government that's saying we're going to spend $50 billion on a tax cut for big business, but we're going to ping, you know, some Italian pensioner who wants to go back to Italy to see their family in this one year because they want to go for longer than six months. I just – I don't understand the logic of that.

Matthew Abraham: Just before we go to Nick Harmsen to talk about our big black house and the latest version of what went wrong, Senator Nick Xenophon, are you looking forward to either Robert Brokenshire or Rikki Lambert replacing Bob Day? Do you have a favourite?

Nick Xenophon: With open arms. With open arms.

David Bevan: What – either? Which one?

Nick Xenophon: Either, all of them, anyone else, I will work with them for the interests of South Australians, so it's not about the personality, it's about the policy.

Matthew Abraham: Senator Wong. Same question for you.

Penny Wong: You know, we – well, it's a matter for Family First; they have to make a decision. I mean, Family First frankly has operated as an adjunct to the Liberal Party, voting with them 90-something per cent of the times, and that's where their policies are. In fact, as you know, Bob Day was a former member of the Liberal Party, so it won't make a difference from our perspective. Unless they radically change their position they're really – we just count them as a Liberal vote.

Matthew Abraham: And Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: They're both quality individuals from my dealings with them, and we'll look forward to working with whoever Family First sends.

Matthew Abraham: Straight out of central scripting.


Congratulations all three of you. Look, thank you very much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Matthew Abraham: Liberal Senator for South Australia, Minister for Education Simon Birmingham, Senator Penny Wong, Opposition Leader in the Senate and before that, Nick Xenophon, Senator Nick Xenophon from South Australia.