Leigh Sales: Other than Darren Chester in Laura Tingle’s studio, we invited every member of the Federal Cabinet to join 7.30 for a studio interview this evening. The only one prepared to show up is Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Trade and Tourism, and the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate.
Thank you Senator.
Simon Birmingham: Hello Leigh, good to be with you.
Leigh Sales: I’d like to start with the resignation of Bridget McKenzie. Is that the way you make grants decisions in your office? That you ignore the advice from agencies, then you get a colour-coded spreadsheet and check which organisations land in coalition seats?
Simon Birmingham: No Leigh, but I have overruled decisions from recommendations of department before. I’ve done that in terms of funding projects, such as for example the Healthy Harold Program which supports health awareness in schools that had been defunded by administrative decisions of departments, and when I was Education Minister, we stepped in do so.
Leigh Sales: You said-
Simon Birmingham: Of course, I said no to grants that I thought were not in the public interest.
Leigh Sales: You said no, that that’s not how you do it. Does that mean you see something wrong with the way those decisions were made?
Simon Birmingham: Leigh, obviously this issue has been through now exhaustive examination by the Auditor-General, and by the-
Leigh Sales: I actually just want your personal opinion, because you’re a member of Cabinet, you’re somebody that is voted for by the public, we expect you to uphold certain standards. I just want to know, you personally, do you think that’s the right way to go about doing that job?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Leigh, I think ministerial prerogative over exercising in public expenditure is part of what the public expect, that there is a compact that exists between the public service in giving advice, and elected officials in representing the views of the community, and that’s what I’ve always sought to exercise in terms of acting on the best advice but also making sure that I do so, consistent with the values of the government elected at the time. And that’s why, as I say, I haven’t always accepted the advice that comes to me. Ministers are not rubber stamped, we are there to make decisions but also then to be accountable to the electorate for those decisions.
Leigh Sales: But when what’s confusing about that is you say it’s got to be consistent with the values of the government – it’s not clear what the values of the government are when nobody seems to have a problem with the that a colour-coded spreadsheet was used to check which organisations landed in Coalition seats.
Simon Birmingham: Leigh, in terms of that program, as I was saying before, it’s now been under exhaustive examination by the Auditor-General who’s made recommendations about the way in which grants are administered, the accountability around those grants…
Leigh Sales: I understand that. I understand that, I was just asking about-
Simon Birmingham: … and the Government has accepted that key recommendation from the Auditor-General, and-
Leigh Sales: Simple question, do you think it’s right or wrong?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Leigh, Minister McKenzie has resigned as a result of the analysis, in terms of her compliance with the ministerial code of conduct. Clearly a mistake was made. Clearly it was an error and wrong in terms of that mistake. That’s why she’s resigned. We now move on to make sure that we also take that advice from the Auditor-General and implement it to ensure that in terms of programs in the future, the public have confidence in the way they are administered.
Leigh Sales: Why isn’t it in public interest for the report by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to be released? Because we’re talking about the allocation of taxpayer money by elected officials.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Leigh, the Auditor General’s report which looked at the allocation of taxpayer money there is a public report, the report…
Leigh Sales: And the other one which contradicts it which the Prime Minister is going with is not.
Simon Birmingham: … the report, Leigh, in terms of the Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Department’s analysis, is a report looking at the ministerial code of conduct. It is looking at that. It has been tabled in the usual way, as such prior reports have been with the governance committee of Cabinet and is a Cabinet document and handled according to all those usual Cabinet processes. That’s the same as it’s always been handled.
Leigh Sales: But regardless of how things have been handled in the past, why isn’t the public entitled to read that document, given that that’s what the Prime Minister is basing his decisions on?
Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister has based a decision which has seen Minister McKenzie resign.
Leigh Sales: Yeah, but why can’t the public read the rationale that the Prime Minister is using on which to base that decision?
Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister has outlined the details and the rationale, but ultimately these reports are tabled as Cabinet documents, they are part of that process, and this is precisely the same type of process that’s been applied when other examinations by the public service chief of the ministerial code of conduct have been undertaken.
Leigh Sales: You say the Prime Minister has outlined it. Why should the public trust the paraphrased words of a former political staffer of the Prime Minister, when he says there was no political influence in the decision making, against the published report of the independent Auditor-General who says there was a problem?
Simon Birmingham: Once again Leigh, Bridget McKenzie has resigned. We are acting on the Auditor-General’s recommendation. This is a grants program where the Auditor-General found that all project recipients were eligible recipients, where the decisions of Minister McKenzie actually increased the number of Labor electorates that received grants, from if the public service recommendations had been accepted, it would have been around 26 per cent of grant recipients going into Labor electorates. That was increased up to around 35 per cent of grant recipients being in Labor electorates.
So, we have though taken the advice of the head of the public service and of the Auditor-General. Minister McKenzie has resigned as a result of the public service head’s advice, and we’re acting on the Auditor-General’s recommendation to make sure that these programs are improved in their administration in the future.
Leigh Sales: Among members of Cabinet, has anybody asked what was the primary determinant by how the grants were allocated, given that the Minister did override the advice of the relevant agency?
Simon Birmingham: Leigh, ministers make decisions based on what appears to be the need in a number of circumstances. I’ve heard MPs defend grant allocations under this program, for example because, very clearly, they were clearly sites where hundreds of participants, often usually given the nature of this program, young women participating in sport, were being denied access to changing facilities-
Leigh Sales: But in this particular case, has anyone asked this question? Just given the sort of furor it’s created, I’m just curious, has anyone in Cabinet actually asked?
Simon Birmingham: Leigh, I think all of these matters have been examined, either by the Auditor-General, by the head of the public service in his inquiry. The point now is we get on to make sure we implement that
recommendation of the Auditor-General. Minister McKenzie has accepted the recommendation and the findings of the public service head. That’s why she’s resigned. And we now move on from here.
Leigh Sales: Should Michael McCormack remain as National Party leader?
Simon Birmingham: The National Party leadership is a matter for the National Party, but Michael is an outstanding leader of the National Party. In the true tradition of coalition leaders, he is a great advocate for rural and regional Australia and we certainly have a very strong Deputy Prime Minister in him.
Leigh Sales: On coronavirus, are you able to put a dollar figure on the estimated impact this could have on Australia’s trade and tourism with China?
Simon Birmingham: It’s far too early to estimate that because of course we don’t know how long the type of restrictions that are in place on travel with China will remain in place. But it will be a very significant impact. China is our largest provider of tourists to Australia, it’s our largest trading partner. That’s why we are engaging very heavily with tourism sector, with the international education sector, and with trade exposed industries to work through the impact on them, and to try to pursue strategies where we can mitigate those impacts by supporting their access to other markets, such as particularly our campaigns that we’ve already launched to encourage Australians to holiday here this year; a crucial message to really support the tourism industry in Australia, that by booking travel to an Australian holiday spot this year, you may well be helping to save a job, save a small business, as well as having a fabulous holiday.
Leigh Sales: Senator Birmingham, we do appreciate your time tonight. Thank you very much.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Leigh, my pleasure.