Interview on ABC 24 with Matt Doran
Topics: Citizenship; Higher education reforms

Matt Doran: Senator Birmingham, thank you for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure Matt.

Matt Doran: We’ve seen the announcement today from the Prime Minister that effectively means all members and senators will be forced to disclose their citizenship status to Parliament, does that go far enough to actually putting an end to this citizenship saga?

Simon Birmingham: Well it should Matt, because this will provide the same sort of standard in terms of declarations of financial interest that members of Parliament make. Similar declarations will be made to the Parliament about citizenship status of members of Parliament and giving that confidence that people are Australian citizens and Australian citizens only. It should really bring to an end the type of witch hunt and media frenzy we’ve seen, all of the spurious allegations that are made, put in place a proper process, ensure it is transparent for people to see and discuss if they wish to but ultimately of course it also ensures that we can get on with the important business of governing the nation and policies that actually impact on families and businesses, rather than this issue which is very much exclusive to members of Parliament.

Matt Doran: You describe it as a witch hunt there I guess it has already found six members of Parliament in breach of Section 44.1 of the Constitution. Do you subscribe to the view, that some of your colleagues have put forward, such as Tony Abbot this morning that there could be more?

Simon Birmingham: I have no reason to believe that, my understanding is that proper processes in terms of Liberal MPs have been undertaken and that everybody should be in compliance with their obligations under the Constitution. Now, essentially those who have gone before the High Court and left the Parliament are individuals who have volunteered information. We have of course had the High Court bring down a finding that has significantly clarified in some ways even changed the way in which people have historically understood this section of the Constitution to work. So, this is an appropriate response that Malcolm Turnbull’s announced today to the High Court ruling. It will give a clear process for the Parliament to comply with. It’s consistent, very much with the type of declaration and parliamentary process that Labor seems to have been talking about in the last couple of days. But it’s been developed carefully with the consultation with the clerk of the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Cabinet, and of course should allow us to now get this issue dealt with and progressed once and for all.

Matt Doran: You mentioned there that this has been something that the media has been pushing, and there is some discussion about – we’ve already heard from the Greens in fact, Richard Di Natale very quick to comment on this proposal – saying that this new policy of this forced disclosure – you could still see someone like the former One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts saying he believes that he’s only an Australian citizen, that he isn’t in breach of the Constitution. Is there any follow-up to when people do make these declarations to actually investigate whether or not they are true and accurate?

Simon Birmingham: As always, exactly like members of parliament release declarations and disclosures of gifts and travel and all of those sorts of things, as well as financial interests, there is the follow-up of public scrutiny and accountability. That the information is on the record, and that it is there for us all to be held to account. And then, were an individual to have given misleading information to the Houses of Parliament, they would be in contempt of the Parliament, which is a very serious offence for anybody, but particularly for a member of Parliament. The Houses of Parliament then have their own processes in place to deal with contempt issues. But of course, if an individual has disclosed information that brings into question their citizenship, then the rightful referral of that to the High Court could take place, and the High Court is as the Prime Minister and the Government have been at pains to say for weeks now – is the only body that can make a conclusive determination on these matters. There’s no point having some audit over here that sits on the sidelines that is incapable and legally unable to make a conclusive determination, the matters ought to be disclosed, declared, and then if there’s an issue, the court can deal with it.

Matt Doran: We all, I guess, thought this might be over when we heard the High Court’s decision a few weeks ago, but since then, we have had the revelation that your former Senate colleague, Stephen Parry, was also in breach of the Constitution and also learnt that he confided in a Cabinet minister ahead of revealing his concerns. What does it say about the Turnbull Government’s ethos, or attitude, that a senior Cabinet minister was informed of this but advised Stephen Parry to keep quiet?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Matt, I think the Government has, at every step, had individuals who have quite voluntarily, including, ultimately, Stephen Parry as well, come forward of their own volition and said, “We believe there’s a problem here.” Now that is to the credit of each of those individuals. Yes, there’s a debate about the timing of Stephen Parry’s announcement, but in the end, he still stepped forward, took responsibility with no media pressure or any other scrutiny applying to him at the time, and has left the Parliament, and his parliamentary career is at an end as a result of his own honesty and declaration. Now, the Government wants to make sure that everybody makes a full declaration, and that is exactly what Malcolm Turnbull has outlined so that every member of the House of Representatives, every member of the Senate, would make a declaration not just that they are an Australian citizen, but where they were born, where their parents were born, if indeed they have ever held another citizenship, and if they had, the steps they’ve taken to ensure that they no longer hold that citizenship.

Matt Doran: You are a Senator, so no doubt you are aware of the debate about who should replace Stephen Parry as the Senate President. It seems like the Nationals are, particularly John Williams saying it should be a National who takes that position. What are your views on that? .

Simon Birmingham: Convention has always been that the Liberal Party fills that role. I expect convention will hold. But we’re a happy family in the Coalition, we can have these sorts of discussions, like many families.

Matt Doran: Happy families backgrounding against each other?

Simon Birmingham: You can have these sorts of discussions like families do from time to time. That won’t stop us working together constructively as a Government, like we always have.

Matt Doran: And just very briefly, picking up on something in your portfolio, rather than just discussing citizenship, the higher education changes, we only have three Senate sitting weeks left in the parliamentary year. How likely have it that we are going to see any resolution to that, and how are those negotiations with the crossbench going?

Simon Birmingham: I continue to hope that we can see a breakthrough in that regard. It would be really very useful to provide certainty into next year for universities, for students. Ultimately, we have a very significant budget challenge that needs to be met. Important reforms in relation to higher education. And the Government’s been clear that if we’re unable to see progress in the Senate, then we’ll have to take a look not just at the higher education policy parameters, but the budget implications and how they will be dealt with in different ways.

Matt Doran: Does losing someone like Senator Nick Xenophon at that negotiation table hamper your cause, because he has been someone that has come to the rescue of the Coalition quite a few times recently?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not sure that Nick would agree with that way of phrasing things, but look, his senators, his member of Parliament, have been very good to deal with in a number of other policy areas. I hope that we might find some way to make progress with them on this issue too.

Matt Doran: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Matt.