Interview on ABC 891 Adelaide, Breakfast with Spence Denny
Topics: Cabinet reshuffle; Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Higher education changes announced in MYEFO; Citizenship of Parliamentarians

Spence Denny: Super Wednesday – this is the last one for the year as we make our way into the Christmas period. Rebekha Sharkie is here in the studio, the Member for Mayo and Member of the Nick Xenophon Team.

Rebekha Sharkie, good morning to you.

Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning, Spence.

Spence Denny: As a matter of interest, how was Portrush Road when you came in this morning? Because the irony is that when the lights are out traffic sometimes flows more freely.

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, I live up at Birdwood so I came down North East Road.

Spence Denny: Ah. Okay.

Rebekha Sharkie: And it was great. I got in here super early so.

Spence Denny: Okay. Good. Senator Simon Birmingham is on the phone, Minister for Education and Training. Senator, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Spence and good morning, Rebekha.

Spence Denny: And Mark Butler, ALP Member for Port Adelaide and Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. Mark Butler, good morning.

Mark Butler: Good morning, everyone.

Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham if can start with you, we just heard extensive coverage in AM of the ministerial reshuffle. Should South Australia feel a little aggrieved that- of our Liberal representation that we still only have two ministers and an assistant in South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, South Australia has, as you rightly say, two Cabinet ministers. Both Christopher and I are now in the leadership group of the Government as well in respected management positions, as well as our portfolios in Defence Industry and Education, Anne Ruston handling, of course, critical issues for the state in agriculture and water resources. So, SA has a strong voice and South Australia is the envy of pretty much every other state. When you look at the Defence industry investment and spend that has been secured for this state over recent years and yet more evidence of that in grant announcements that I see Christopher spruiking today. But of course the big deal there being the significant investment across the Offshore Patrol Vessels, the Future Frigates and the submarine fleet, which will deliver some $90 billion, the bulk of which investment will be made here in SA.

Spence Denny: Mark Butler, can I come to you? Can I ask what your reaction was when you learnt of the elevation from the backbench of David Littleproud to Agriculture and Water Resources?

Mark Butler: Well, I think like most people, it was a big who? The only thing I remember about this fellow is him calling a division on the marriage equality vote, and I don’t think really anyone knows anything more about him really. I mean this really does look like an extraordinary act of self-indulgence by Barnaby Joyce to settle what appear to be a mix of personal feuds and a bit of payback for what happened to the deputy leader ballot a week or two ago. But really the story is not so much self-indulgence on Barnaby’s part, but really that the Prime Minister let him do it. It was quite clear that Malcolm Turnbull was pretty horrified yesterday of the decision by Barnaby Joyce to drop Darren Chester, who appeared to be a pretty competent, popular Cabinet minister for really little reason other than the fact that he backed the wrong horse in the deputy leader’s ballot.

Spence Denny: Rebekha Sharkie, I mean agriculture obviously very important to South Australia, how did you feel about that?

Rebekha Sharkie: Probably concerned I think is the best word because, as you say, agriculture and water, I think, two of the most critical portfolios for South Australia and for Australia, and to elevate a very new backbencher all the way up into Cabinet, yeah, quite an extraordinary decision and one that I’m concerned about for South Australia.

Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham, is that going to put more pressure on Anne Ruston in the assistant ministerial role?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David will absolutely be ably helped by Anne Ruston, who of course, is an enthusiastic and hardworking South Australian Senator. She’s from the Riverland, so nobody knows the issues of the River Murray better than Anne. She was there yesterday at a ministerial council meeting of water ministers and really has been playing a central role in all of those decisions and I’ve already been in touch with David, and I have no doubt that he will continue to work really closely with Anne on those issues. But he himself brings extensive agribusiness experience in particular. So I’m sure as the nation’s Agriculture Minister he will have a real focus on how we continue to grow agricultural business and agricultural exports, which are essential right across the country, including here in SA, one of our biggest expert sector.

Mark Butler: This continues a direction really that Malcolm Turnbull chartered to give control over the Murray-Darling Basin to the agriculture portfolio. I mean, John Howard recognised that the Environment Department and the Environment Minister should have oversight of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as did Prime Minister Rudd and Gillard, and even Tony Abbott. This decision to give the Agriculture portfolio and an upstream Agriculture Minister, like Mr Littleproud, control over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I think is a cause of very real concern, particularly given what happened at the ministerial meeting over the last couple of days, where it appears that Commonwealth is not willing to step in and ensure that the big, upstream states stick to their commitments under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Spence Denny: Mark Butler, does it have an impact on the royal commission looking at how upstream states are using Murray River water?

Mark Butler: Well of course it does and we saw over the last couple of days, the big states looking to start to walk away from particularly the extra commitment that South Australia extracted from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which is the extra 450 gigalitres that would go into the river system. An extra amount of water that the Wentworth Group of Scientists has said is essential to retaining the health of the river. Now the big states perhaps trying to walk away from that is no real surprise, but the fact that the Commonwealth is not stepping in and taking a very strong, assertive role to ensure that everyone sticks by the plan that was agreed to five years ago, is a real concern for South Australia.

Simon Birmingham: That’s just actually quite misleading from Mark. If you take a look at The Advertiser today, it’s very clear in Anne Ruston’s statement that she’s warned the bigger states that if they don’t come through and broker a deal to ensure that water is delivered, there are consequences in terms of the things that they want out of the plan.

Mark Butler: Well that’s not what Barnaby Joyce said and we’ll see what the [indistinct] Minister says.

Simon Birmingham: And indeed as Anne has said very clearly, as Anne said very clearly, essentially the states need to be careful they don’t set themselves on a path of mutually assured destruction, that none of them get what they want out of this, when in fact the plan, which indeed- I was working very closely at the time to make sure there was bipartisan support for its adoption. The plan was carefully crafted to ensure there was an opportunity for irrigation communities across the country to continue to thrive, whilst delivering the environmental flows that are necessary, and that balance is a carefully struck one and it must be maintained.

Spence Denny: Well surely, that’s the actual intention though, isn’t it? And it depends on your perspective. I mean, from your point of view, Rebekha Sharkie, as consumers, as irrigators, and people who have an interest in the environment, should there be any confidence from your point of view in the accurate implementation of the plan?

Rebekha Sharkie: I think what we’ve seen, I mean if you go back a year ago, we as a party essentially downed tools and said: until we have some written assurance from the Prime Minister that the plan would be delivered in full and on time, we were not prepared to continue to negotiate on legislation. Now at the time, David Littleproud – who was then a brand new backbencher – called Nick Xenophon a terrorist for- you know, pretty harsh words, and so I think that we have seen in that time an unravelling of the plan, or at least a threat to unravelling of the plan and that’s why we need to make sure that the plan is delivered in a way that puts the environment and all communities first. This should not be about state and state pitting against each other and that’s what we’re seeing with the plan.

Spence Denny: Sixteen minutes to nine is the time. You are listening to ABC Radio Adelaide. This is Super Wednesday with Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy and Labor Member for Port Adelaide; Rebekha Sharkie, who’s the Nick Xenophon Team Member for Mayo; and Simon Birmingham, Education Minister and Liberal Senator. If we look at the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, or the MYEFO, it’s the tertiary sector that really is wearing a fair bit of this. Simon Birmingham, was this just convenient because it doesn’t require any sort of parliamentary debate?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s actually an increase essentially to funding spending across tertiary education compared with what had previously been forecast. So, in MYEFO the Government’s written down around $500 million of projected savings had been proposed in previous reforms. But overall, we’re still making sure that we live within our Budget in fact we’re pleased that as a government we’re improving the return to budget balance and that we’re seeing strong inroads being made there. But to get there we have to ensure we live by our budget each and every year and across each and every portfolio. And that means that in my portfolio when we couldn’t find parliamentary success in terms of legislating one way to live within our budget, we have to find another way to live within that budget. Now, universities have enjoyed phenomenal revenue growth over the period since 2009. All we’ve proposed is that one of their payment streams has a short-term, two-year freeze in terms of growth. Other payments streams, in terms of research funding, regional loading, equity funding, will continue to grow during that time. So, this is …

Spence Denny: [Interrupts] But a cap on funding for student places and a reduction in a threshold for earnings from $55,000 to $45,000, I made the point earlier living on $45,000 for a young person is going to be a real challenge. I’ve already had a couple of texts. Neil says: try doing so. That’s what he does as an aged pensioner and I appreciate that. And also someone who says: my wife and my two kids under seven, we live on 48, bank won’t lend us any money, we need to borrow money because we’re $10,000 in debt. It’s a tough threshold, $45,000. And if you’re a young person potentially maybe wanting to start a relationship or maybe save for a house or some of those luxuries like a car and stuff like that, to then pay back at that level – you would have to agree, Simon Birmingham – that’s a big ask.

Simon Birmingham: Look, Spence, we also have to realise – and I think many of your listeners might be surprised to know – that currently taxpayers are holding about $50 billion worth of outstanding student loans. And that on the current settings around one-quarter of those are estimated never to be repaid. Now, the student loan scheme is a fundamental pillar that allows kids to be able to go to university without any upfront fee. So, ensuring that that scheme…

Spence Denny: So, it’s just a case of suffer in your jocks basically.

Simon Birmingham: Well, ensuring that scheme is viable into the long-term is critical to make sure that future generations also get to go to university with no upfront fees …

Spence Denny: Mark Butler, do you want to …

Simon Birmingham: Now, we haven’t just proposed a lower threshold, we’ve also proposed a lower starting rate of just one per cent, which equates to less than $9 per week in terms of the repayment rate that people would be making.

Spence Denny: Mark Butler, do you want to make a contribution here?

Mark Butler: Well, this is the trouble. It was the trouble with Christopher Pyne, and now it is with Simon Birmingham, that he presents the issue of higher education funding as a cost to the community, as a burden on the taxpayer rather than an extraordinarily important investment in our future and the future of young Australians. And budgets are about priorities. So, when Simon Birmingham talks about the need to fix the Budget, instead perhaps of giving taxpayers earning over $180,000 a tax cut – which they did this year – or instead of handing out $65 billion in tax cuts to big business, perhaps we can invest in the future of our young children and our young adults, a little bit more than this mid-year Budget review tries to do. And as you point out, Spence, young people are doing it really tough. They’ve suffered a tax increase if they’re earning over $21,000 this year under this Government, as have seven million other Australians. They’re finding it more difficult than ever, in Australia, to get a foot into the housing market. And now, Simon Birmingham wants to make them pay even more for getting a start in further education.

Spence Denny: Rebekha Sharkie, we’re never going to return to the days of free education, are we?

Rebekha Sharkie: It’s not lost on young people that many of the Cabinet ministers did get that free education. And what we’re seeing – and I agree with Mark on this – is that the challenges for young people now are enormous, as enormous as they were for young people in the Depression years. The idea of being able to own your own home has been taken away from young people in one generation. And we have seen budget after budget since 2014, I think, an attack on young people, whether it’s been plain cuts to university funding, whether its been lowering thresholds, increasing university fees, or indeed cuts around Youth Allowance, budget after budget it’s been an attack on young people. And if we want the next generation to thrive, if we want them to be able to get a good job, own a home, start a family, we’re going about it the wrong way.

Spence Denny: 8.49. Rebekha Sharkie, while you’re here, I mean, we see that the Turnbull Government has this renewed confidence in the wake of the Bennelong by-election, and calling for all parliamentary members who still have a cloud over their citizenship to basically throw themselves at the mercy of the High Court …

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, they’re not asking for all parliamentarians with a cloud, they’re just saying anyone who’s non-government to do it.

Spence Denny: So, I mean, you have detailed the steps you went through. Wouldn’t it be in your best interests then to get that clarification from the High Court?

Rebekha Sharkie: Look, I put my name forward, I asked to be put on that motion that we had in the last week of Parliament. And that had nine members of Parliament on it, four from Government side, four from Labor and myself. It can’t just be that non-Government members are referred. It’s not going to end the citizenship saga. We need to make sure that the Government members, as well – and there is some very clear question marks for Jason Falinski, or Nola Marino, Julia Banks, and Alex Hawke – for them to go as well. Now, if they think that they’ve got nothing to hide and nothing to fear; why would we not all go together?

Spence Denny: Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Well, none of the individuals that Rebekha just mentioned are or were dual citizens. Whereas on the Labor side and indeed Rebekha, were dual citizens, there are questions in some of those cases as to the timing of renunciation. Indeed, there’s one Labor MP who has not been referred whose renunciation process still appears never to have been completed. Now, you’ve got to have a look at the different circumstances of each of the different members.

I heard Tanya Plibersek on radio, on AM just before saying the circumstances of these members were all absolutely identical. Well frankly if you look at the case of Josh Frydenberg, that’s disgusting to suggest that…

Mark Butler: He wasn’t on the list, Simon.

Rebekha Sharkie: Josh Frydenberg was not on the motion, Simon, and you know that.

Simon Birmingham: Well, certainly not the way Mark Dreyfus was carrying when he was Shadow Attorney-General …

Mark Butler: Why don’t you respond to Jason Falinski and tell us there’s no question over him?

Simon Birmingham: I’m happy to tell you there’s no question over Jason.

Mark Butler: There’s a clear distinction between the National Archives and Mr Falinski’s declaration.

Simon Birmingham: And I’m not sure, Mark, that you’re an expert in Polish law, or citizenship laws in Poland.

Mark Butler: No, it should go to the High Court, I’m not an expert in Polish law.

Simon Birmingham: But indeed, Jason is not a dual citizen, never has been, whereas there are Labor members who had not completed their declaration. Now in the end there’s a test case now before the High Court in terms of Katy Gallagher who from the Labor Party in the Senate was happy to be referred even though her circumstances are essentially the same as a number of the Labor MPs in the lower house and Rebekha, and so we’ll see what that test case holds and then of course if Katy is found to have been invalid there’ll be consequences for other Labor MPs and possibly Rebekha.

Spence Denny: Mark Butler, isn’t this a case of- I mean from a pure confidence point of view, from people who elect our parliamentarians and senators, because I mean in reality we’ve probably never actually had a constitutionally valid parliament in Australia when you think about how long it’s been since the rules over relinquishing your citizenship were brought in place. We probably never actually had a constitutionally valid parliament in Australia. Wouldn’t from a confidence point of view, it be better for all those with a cloud to have an adjudication courtesy of the High Court?

Mark Butler: As Rebekha pointed out that’s exactly what all of the Labor members of the House of Reps and every single crossbench member from the Greens to Bob Katter and everyone in between, every one voted up to refer a list of MPs across all parties, including Rebekha who spoke in favour of that resolution even though her name was on it, including all of those Labor Party MPs that Simon’s referred to, but the Government refused to refer a single Liberal Party MP. Now I point out Josh Frydenberg was not on that list but there are people are on the list about whom there is a debate around their eligibility.

Now, Simon’s right, I’m not an expert in Polish law, neither is Simon, neither is Rebekha. The High Court should be determining this. But to say that a government that has a bare majority of one on the floor of the House of Reps can now use its numbers to refer only those who aren’t in the Government to the High Court is a very very disturbing precedent.

Spence Denny: And there we must leave it – at seven to nine, Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, merry Christmas to you and thanks for your involvement in Super Wednesday.

Mark Butler: And to you, Spence, and all your listeners.

Spence Denny: To Senator Simon Birmingham, same compliments to you. Thanks for your involvement. I hope your festive season is a beauty.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Spence, and a wonderful season’s greetings and merry Christmas to all South Australians.

Spence Denny: And to you Rebekha Sharkie, merry Christmas and all the best and I hope you have an equally quick trip back to Birdwood.

Rebekha Sharkie: Off to work now, thanks Spence and merry Christmas to everyone.

Spence Denny: Thank you so much.