Super Wednesday panel discussion on 891 ABC Adelaide with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan

Matthew Abraham: It’s Super Wednesday, when we get politicians who are local to their bootstraps but also walk the federal stage with influence and we have three this morning. In our studio, Kate Ellis, a Labor MP for Adelaide; she’s the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Development, TAFE and Vocational Education, Kate Ellis, welcome.

Kate Ellis: Good morning.

Matthew Abraham: And Rebekha Sharkie, she’s the Nick Xenophon Team Member for the Seat of Mayo, the Federal Seat of Mayo, welcome.

Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning, thank you for having me.

Matthew Abraham: And on the phone because he has something called Cabinet to attend to, is Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister in the Turnbull Government, Simon Birmingham. Welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody.

Matthew Abraham: I think we should ask the three of you a question that Bob Day wants to ask. He’s got a few questions to answer, but he’s calling on all MPs and Senators to immediately disclose whether they have any financial interests in any property or company that has a contract lease or agreement of any kind with the Commonwealth. This includes Defence Service Housing Loans to or from companies that do business with the Commonwealth. Simon Birmingham, do you?

Simon Birmingham: Well all of my meagre interests are declared and not that I’m aware of.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis?

Kate Ellis: I can give you a definitive no.

Matthew Abraham: Rebekha Sharkie?

Rebekha Sharkie: I’m with Kate there. I’m a complete, definitive no. I have one house and a big mortgage.

Matthew Abraham: Well you have your boat registered.

Rebekha Sharkie: I do have my boat registered.

Matthew Abraham: Do you own your boat outright?

Rebekha Sharkie: We do, we do. I don’t know if you can call it a boat, it’s certainly a glorified tinny.

Kate Ellis: Is Matt trying to slip fishing talk into Super Wednesday?

David Bevan: No.

Rebekha Sharkie: No.

Matthew Abraham: Possibly.

David Bevan: Now Simon Birmingham, it’s interesting you put the little caveat on the end of your response by saying not that I’m aware of. Doesn’t that go to the heart of this matter; that this is a grey area and Bob Day says that he had advice that what he was entering into was perfectly legal. Indeed Dennis Hood from Family First told our listeners earlier this morning that Bob Day had advice from the Special Minister of State going back some time ago that these arrangements were fine. So it’s understandable that you would say, not that I’m aware of.

Simon Birmingham: Well David, the Government thinks that it’s appropriate based on the legal advice we have to hand, that the Senate should refer this matter to the High Court for consideration. I understand that Bob Day’s indicated that he would contest that matter at the High Court, which of course is entirely his right and the right of Family First or other parties to the proceedings, and that will then be a matter for the High Court to determine and yes this is a grey part of the Constitution, Section 44, Part 5 which as I understand it has only been tested once before back in the 1970s by a single High Court judge in a finding that has been questioned by many legal scholars over time.

Matthew Abraham: And in quite a narrow term according to our constitutional expert this morning. You’ve known about this since August, have you not though, the Government, in other words a red flag went up in August and yet you were quite happy to continue accepting and courting Bob Day’s vote.

Simon Birmingham: Well I think on AM just before, Senator Day, sorry Senator Scott Ryan, the Special Minister of State made clear that Bob Day approached him on 4 August for advice that triggered people to look more closely at the matter, which led to the seeking of legal advice. Now the final independent legal advice on this matter was only provided to the Government after close of business last Thursday and so on Friday the Government wrote to the President of the Senate to instigate the proceedings that are now publicly known about.

David Bevan: Is there an issue here for Labor senators and Labor lower house MPs who might be renting accommodation from unions? We’ve had texts asking that question from our listeners. In other words, alright people involved in private sector arrangements might be caught out, but what about people on the left side of politics?

Simon Birmingham: Well the question is a matter of direct or indirect pecuniary interests in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth. Now, as I say, it’s one for the High Court to determine, but certainly I think it is publicly known that a number of Labor Senators and Members of Parliament over time have leased their electorate offices from the Shoppies union or the Miscos union or others that are directly affiliated.

David Bevan: [Talks over] And these would be unions, and Minister, these would be unions who had bankrolled, which had bankrolled that particular MP to get them into Parliament in the first place.

Simon Birmingham: I think that’s a fair summation.

Matthew Abraham: On that basis, this could blow the whole game wide open could it not?

Simon Birmingham: Well that would be a question really for the court and depends upon how the court determines definitions of pecuniary interests and the direct nature or indirect nature of that with the Commonwealth and just how far I guess an indirect nature stretched in that regard.

Matthew Abraham: What about Joe Hockey renting premises from a house his wife owned and receiving living away from home allowance from the Commonwealth? Could that potentially… we’ve had these questions from listeners from before six this morning. Could that potentially be covered?

Simon Birmingham: I think that would be a stretch; Joe, at the time, like every Commonwealth Member of Parliament, simply receives a nightly travel allowance that you’re then entitled to spend to cover your accommodation as you wish. It’s not a – it’s not a contractual relationship or agreement as such as with the Public Service, it’s a reimbursement for work expenses; that’s all.

David Bevan: Okay. Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide, are you aware of, I imagine it would be Labor MPs, can’t imagine Liberal MPs being bankrolled by unions, who rent their premises from unions that bankrolled them and got them into Parliament in the first place?

Kate Ellis: I’m not aware of the owners of any electorate offices in South Australia or Australia other than my own. It’s not something I’ve ever looked into and I don’t think that that is the matter that Australia needs to decide now. The matter that we have at the moment is that once again we have a Parliament which is now focussed on sideshows, on questions of validity, rather than on the issues which are affecting the Australian population and I think people are sick and tired of it.

David Bevan: Well we have to do that because the numbers are so tight.

Kate Ellis: Well and we have to do that because there are serious questions which have been raised.

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well it’s your fault for doing so well in the election.

Kate Ellis: Sorry?

David Bevan: It’s Labor’s fault for doing so well in the election [indistinct].

Kate Ellis: [Talks over] Well I’m not going to apologise for that but it’s- this is really serious. We had the last sitting week which was dominated by questions of whether there had been exchanges of gun law promises in return for votes, now we have serious questions which have been raised about the timeline, when the Government knew that there were potential constitutional issues which ensured that a senator whose vote they were relying on was indeed invalidly elected. These actually go to the heart of how much Malcolm Turnbull is willing to sacrifice in order for votes and once again it goes to a government which is focused on trying to scrape across the line as opposed to getting out there and focusing on the needs of the Australian public.

Matthew Abraham: Rebekha Sharkie, would you say though the Government is doing the right thing here in that it has had a – first of all we’re told Bob Day approached and they got legal advice, they’re the ones who will be referring it to the High Court for a ruling on this?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well I think the timeline here is really interesting. I mean we’re talking about the beginning of August; we’re now in the beginning of November. Did legal advice need to take three months? I think that that’s a fairly valid question to ask, and what was the role of the Solicitor-General in this?

David Bevan: Some people might argue it’s in the interests of the Government to go slow on this one, because while they’re going slow, they’ve got Bob Day’s vote.

Rebekha Sharkie: Correct. I mean that’s where my concerns are and we know the Government’s very keen to get the ABCC legislation through and of course the plebiscite, they were counting on Senator Day’s vote for that as well. So I think it raises a number of questions and I think that we need to have some clear answers and quite soon.

Matthew Abraham: So it’s just – Simon Birmingham though, do you scratch your head at this? I mean because it’s hard to get into the Senate; Bob Day’s been trying to do it all his life. Why enter into this sort of arrangement? You know, and it now has to go to the High Court and, you know, it’s all enmeshed. Why do it? There are simpler ways, are there not? You just rent a building from someone who you do not know from Adam.

Simon Birmingham: There are simpler ways, Matthew and look I guess in that sense yes I scratch my head at the fact that this actually, well this is unusual and this particular clause of the Constitution coming into play is especially unusual, we do every ten years it seems, have somebody who’s elected to the Australian Parliament who didn’t end up discharging of their citizenship responsibilities appropriately or ended up having questions of holding an office of profit under the Crown but the actual frequency of an incident occurring that brings into question the validity of members and senators to sit in the Parliament does happen and has happened on numerous occasions in my political memory and many more that have been documented and I do question as to why it is that people find it hard to make sure all of their affairs are in order. Now in this matter, Mr Day contests that his affairs were in order and that will be a matter for the court to determine.

David Bevan: Okay that’s the voice of Simon Birmingham. He’s the Liberal Senator for South Australia, Federal Education Minister. This is Super Wednesday. Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide is in our studio and so is Rebekha Sharkie, Nick Xenophon Team Member for the Seat of Mayo.

Let’s move onto the topic of asylum seekers. In the last few days the Prime Minister has announced an even tougher line on asylum seekers, which has been applauded by Pauline Hanson who said, look it’s quite clear, we just don’t want refugees here, to which the Prime Minister on this program yesterday said, well, actually that’s not what we were saying: we do welcome refugees, not just people coming via boat.

Nigel has called from Marino. Hello Nigel.

Caller Nigel: Yeah, hello. I’d like to ask, particularly Simon Birmingham, the question that why isn’t the physical turning back of boats enough to be a deterrent for asylum seekers, and why can’t we be a bit more kinder to the people on Nauru and Manus Island?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we saw what happened back in 2007, that when people were given the impression that they could easily come here and settle in Australia we had a floodgate of some 50,000 illegal arrivals, and tragically around 1200 people that we know of died at sea in trying to make the journey.

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But what’s happened in the last few days or weeks to prompt this even tougher reaction? Because I thought the line from the Government was that it had got the boat arrivals under control.

Simon Birmingham: The Government does have boat arrivals under control, and we are very proud of that, that our policies have worked there.

David Bevan: [Talks over] So why be tougher? So why be even tougher?

Simon Birmingham: Because we have to be ever vigilant. We know that people-smugglers are continually looking for opportunities to sell a product of travel to Australia. We want to make sure that what is Government policy is embedded in law so that we don’t have the mistakes of the past, such as Kevin Rudd’s unravelling of Government policy, easily repeated in the future. So all we are doing here is seeking to put Government policy, instigated by Kevin Rudd on his return in 2013, into law.

David Bevan: Okay, they’re picking up Kevin Rudd’s ideas.

Kate Ellis: Well, Kevin Rudd disputes that today, and I think most of Australia would dispute that. I mean, I think most people are scratching their heads and saying, who is this Malcolm Turnbull, and what happened to the guy that they thought they were getting as Prime Minister? Instead we’ve now got someone who is so desperate to appeal to One Nation voters, to the right wing extremists within his own party …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But how is this different from Kevin Rudd’s appeal to the right wingers?

Kate Ellis: Well, this is an extraordinary announcement, that they would be saying that people in years, or potentially decades to come, couldn’t come and visit Australia on a holiday visa when they were citizens of another country.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So this is a simple- this is now a simple decision, by the sounds of it, for the Labor caucus and for Bill Shorten – that is, you will not support this. Is that what you’re saying? Is that what we’re to read into your words now?

Kate Ellis: Well, I don’t think you should read into my words. What I am saying is all we’ve heard is sound bites from ministers and from the Prime Minister. We haven’t seen a proposal, we haven’t seen any legislation, and I don’t think …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So you’ll consider a proposal?

Kate Ellis: Well, my view is we haven’t heard any compelling argument why this is necessary. But on all issues to do with immigration, to do with national security, of course we’ll be briefed by the Government and look at legislation.

David Bevan: So you’re giving yourself a bit of wriggle room here.

Kate Ellis: Well as I said, we haven’t seen any compelling argument and we haven’t …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So you might support him? You might support him?

Kate Ellis: Well, I can’t see any reason that the Government have put forward so far that we would consider supporting this.

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] So you’ll oppose it?

Kate Ellis: But I have to also say that we haven’t seen anything that even makes sense from the Government around this. We’ve seen their own Health Minister has been unable to explain what this means and how it would work. So I think it’s a bit much to ask Labor whether we can explain that, or agree or disagree when we haven’t seen any detail or any serious argument.

David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well firstly, Labor and the Nick Xenophon Team haven’t seen any legislation. However, what Kate’s saying I think is correct. The Government has, at every opportunity, said for years that their policy that they implemented has worked successfully. So where is the evidence that we need to now enshrine the policy into legislation?

David Bevan: So you’d need a compelling argument that the problem could re-emerge if you do not do this, the problem of people drowning at sea arriving by boat?

Rebekha Sharkie: Correct, and we also need to know what’s going to happen to the 320 people who are here in Australia. And also, missing out of this whole conversation, the Government has not talked about the people on Nauru and Manus Island and what their intentions are for those people. We know we’ve got lots of children on there.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Some of the very conservative people who supported you – and you turned up to their rallies and were happy to be photographed alongside of them – they might support this policy.

Rebekha Sharkie: They may support this policy, and I have said- I assume you’re talking- going back to when I went to the FLAG event?

Matthew Abraham: Yes.

Rebekha Sharkie: Yeah, yeah, and I talked about agriculture. At no point did I talk about refugees. I wasn’t asked any questions on that.

Matthew Abraham: No, I know, but they might be pretty keen on this policy, and they might see you as going soft on refugees.

Rebekha Sharkie: We have always said – and I’ve said this to many of the people who asked me- who were at that rally after at different conversations – that we actually support an increase in refugees coming to Australia. Look, we cannot go back to people drowning at sea. We all know that. However, I think we need to look at this legislation and say is this cruel, how does this benefit, and where’s the evidence for it?

Matthew Abraham: Just quickly, paid parental leave. The Government- as I understand what the Government’s saying is we just don’t want people double-dipping. If you get paid parental leave from your employer, you shouldn’t be getting it from the taxpayer. Rebekha Sharkie, are you buying their line?

Rebekha Sharkie: I don’t buy the term double-dipping at all. When you look at where we are compared to the rest of the world, we are down the- sorry, as far as OECD nations, we are offering a scheme that is at the very bottom end. I think America’s the only country that’s below us in what we offer in paid parental leave. And should Hillary Clinton win as President, then we will be on the very bottom.

David Bevan: Well, Simon Birmingham, do you buy the term double-dipping?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t buy the term double-dipping as such because that implies people are doing something wrong. People at present are simply acting within the entitlements that are available to them. But, what we are seeking to do here is to say that anybody who has no access to any other paid parental leave other than the Government’s should of course continue to receive the Government’s paid parental leave without any loss of anything. But for people who get generous workplace schemes – generous Public Service schemes – that they don’t necessarily need to get what is a safety net public paid parental leave scheme applied on top of their already generous provisions which can lead to circumstances where some people are receiving collectively support that is in excess of the minimum wage.

David Bevan: Do you apply that to recently retired MPs who are serving in ambassadorial posts overseas, collecting a handsome salary and perks from the Commonwealth and also receiving their Commonwealth superannuation?

Simon Birmingham: Well there are discounts that are calculated under the law that I don’t understand and will never necessarily need to understand because I’ll never get such a pension. But, there are discounts that mean that the pension or the salary is actually deducted to some extent as a result of having those dual positions.

David Bevan: Kate Ellis, just finally.

Kate Ellis: I am so entirely sick and tired of this government having no idea about the needs of families, and particularly about the needs of young mothers. And that’s what they’re doing here. They- if this legislation passed, 80,000 mothers across Australia will either have to make a decision to spend less time with their newborn baby to go back to work, or to sacrifice about $12,000. Now, why is it that we are putting young families and young mums…

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But that would only be women who are already receiving a private paid parental scheme.

Kate Ellis: It would be teachers, it would be nurses, it would be families that have counted on spending critically important time with their newborn child, which I thought we as a society were trying to encourage.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So they’re already getting something.

David Bevan: Kate Ellis, thank you, Labor MP for Adelaide. Thank you for coming into the studio, Rebekha Sharkie, Nick Xenophon Team member, Member for Mayo in the Adelaide Hills and Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, in Canberra, ready for a Cabinet meeting. Education Minister, thank you. Senator Birmingham.

Rebekha Sharkie: Thanks for having me.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.