Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Health documents; Newstart; Naval Shipbuilding
David Bevan: Well, let’s welcome to ABC Radio Adelaide Simon Birmingham, South Australian Liberal Senator, Minister for Trade… good morning to you…
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, good to be with you.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator from South Australia… good morning, Sarah…
Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.
David Bevan: And Nick Champion, Labor MP for the seat of Spence, in Adelaide’s northern reaches and heading up from the suburbs into rural areas just north of Adelaide… good morning, Nick Champion.
Nick Champion: Good morning.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, let’s start with you. What business is it of the State Government to be handing over Cabinet documents to a Liberal candidate, Georgina Downer?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I’m told that no Cabinet submissions were handed to Georgina Downer, that Stephen Wade lobbied the Federal Government and indeed lobbied the Federal Opposition to try to secure funding commitments to South Australian health projects during the election campaign and, yes, he lobbied Georgina Downer in relation to projects in the Mayo election to try to ensure that she was lobbying us to support them and indeed we did support those projects. This has got to be one of the most ridiculous beat-ups I’ve ever heard, to be frank.
David Bevan: Well, hang on, we’ve got an email, here, from James Murphy in Stephen Wade the Health Minister’s office, and attachments to that email include ‘briefing to Minister, attachment letter to Minister Hunt, Cabinet submission attachment 4, summary of proposals, Cabinet submission attachment 3.’ Now…
Simon Birmingham: It’s attachments, David, attachments that I understand are otherwise non-classified documents.
David Bevan: Well, what’s a Cabinet submission?
Simon Birmingham: A Cabinet submission is indeed a submission that goes to Cabinet – it will often then have documents attached to it. Those documents may not…
David Bevan: And wouldn’t that be a Cabinet document?
Simon Birmingham: Those documents may not themselves be Cabinet-classified.
David Bevan: Which bit of a Cabinet submission is not a Cabinet document?
Simon Birmingham: David, those documents may well… I mean, you will sometimes attach a public report to a Cabinet submission, because it’s relevant to the submission.
Ali Clarke: So when does something become a Cabinet document, then?
Simon Birmingham: Well, you can argue that every document that goes into the Cabinet room is a Cabinet document but, equally, many documents that go into the Cabinet room are public submissions, correspondence that’s been publicly released or sent to other people outside of normal Cabinet processes – all of those sorts of things can be shared with a Cabinet as part of the decision-making process. Not every document that goes into the Cabinet room is necessarily a private, Cabinet-classified document if it’s an attachment to the Cabinet submission, as these clearly were described as being.
David Bevan: Okay, so Wade is sending off these documents, which are seen by Cabinet, to a Liberal candidate, Georgina Downer, and then the Liberal Party’s out there saying ‘oh, Sharkie, she’s irrelevant, she’s not helping, she’s not out there campaigning, trying to get due value, she’s not relevant for Mayo, make Mayo matter’ – I mean, really, Simon Birmingham, what’s going on behind the scenes is something very different.
Simon Birmingham: Rebekha Sharkie was never going to form government. The Liberal/National party were in a position to form government, the Labor Party was in position to form government – Stephen Wade wrote to the Labor Party’s Federal Shadow Minister for Health, listing the priorities that he wanted the Labor Party to consider supporting and, yes, he was lobbying Liberal candidates to try to get support for projects in SA, as well. I think South Australians should…
David Bevan: Okay, so these are public documents, are they? Why am I looking at redacted documents, then, because the Freedom of Information which was handed over to the State Opposition is full of blanked-out bits?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I haven’t seen… I can’t say I’ve seen the documents myself, I haven’t gone and looked at them myself, I don’t know. I don’t know what the information, there, was, in terms of what you’re talking about as being redacted, and that’s, you know, matters that others can answer but, frankly, South Australians…
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, is this fair?
Simon Birmingham: Stephen Wade is doing a good job arguing for money for South Australia.
David Bevan: If Georgina Downer was handed the documents without the redactions, then a breach of the ministerial code has occurred?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t know what has been redacted, David, so I can’t comment in relation to that.
David Bevan: That’s the question to you, though – if she was handed un-redacted documents, that would be a breach of Cabinet?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t know, David, because I haven’t seen the documents. You’re asking me to comment on something that I have not seen.
David Bevan: No, I’m asking you: if she was…
Simon Birmingham: Well, you’re asking me, then, a hypothetical – I haven’t seen it.
David Bevan: If she… this is a pretty straightforward question: Minister, if a Liberal candidate was handed un-redacted Cabinet documents, wouldn’t that be a breach of Cabinet protocol?
Simon Birmingham: ‘If a Liberal candidate was handed un-redacted Cabinet documents’ – well, I just went through with you that documents that can go in to Cabinet could include a letter from a local mayor. That’s not a Cabinet document, necessarily, that’s not a classified document; that’s just a letter from a local mayor that’s been attached to a Cabinet submission.
David Bevan: Yeah but, if these were public documents, why would they be redacted in the Freedom of Information request that was handed to the Opposition?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t know, David, because I haven’t seen them because it’s a State Government document. Yes, it was given to Georgina Downer. I don’t know, maybe it was sent to me – I haven’t gone back and looked in my records to see. I know that Stephen Wade and I did speak about getting the support at The QEH for additional services down there and I’m delighted that the State Government and the Federal Government were able to secure those additional services for The QEH in the western suburbs of Adelaide. That’s me doing my job, lobbying for part of the constituency in South Australia, and Stephen doing his job, getting the best possible outcome of funding for health services in South Australia and they’re to be applauded for doing so.
Ali Clarke: Okay, well, Nick Champion, Labor Member for Spence, should we care?
Nick Champion: Well, this is a State Liberal Government behaving like a banana republic, sort of public administration…
Simon Birmingham: Was he doing that that when he wrote to Catherine King?
Nick Champion: …in a partisan way. Well, we could have an inquiry, Simon, to clean up or query or help us to understand the torturous explanation that you just gave. Maybe a public inquiry into this Minister’s administration of the Health portfolio, particularly as it relates to the matters we’re talking about this morning, would be helpful, because you seem to be casting some doubt about whether this is a Cabinet document or not – it seems to me that that is a very serious issue and should be the matter of a public inquiry.
Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young, do you care about this?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, I think what this shows is that every trick in the book was used to try and get Georgina Downer elected in Mayo and, even then, when the rules were being bent, when she was being handed information that other people didn’t get, including the incumbent Member, she still couldn’t manage it. I mean, I think that this…there can be as many explanations as Simon Birmingham wants to give and the State Government wants to give. The reality is: those of us listening didn’t know about… that this was going on, it all looks pretty dodgy and pretty fishy and yet Georgina Downer still couldn’t get over the line. Good on Rebekha Sharkie for managing to run a clean campaign and increase her vote! I think people in Mayo should be very thankful that they’ve got a more honest person than someone who was using tricky tactics at the last election.
Ali Clarke: It’s 18 minutes to nine, that’s the voice of Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for SA. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment is with us, as is Nick Champion, Labor Member for Spence. You are listening to ABC Radio Adelaide.
David Bevan: Nick Champion, your Labor colleague Mike Freelander from Western Sydney wants the Newstart Allowance increased from $275 a week to $400 a week – do you agree?
Nick Champion: Well, what I said in that article is that the ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Service’s figure, calling for a $75-a-week increase is a figure that I think all parties in the Parliament should sort of look at sensibly. It’s impossible to live on Newstart at the levels it’s on at the moment. It’s impossible to live on $14,000 a year. It locks people into poverty traps, it prevents people getting to work, it prevents people having health care, sometimes it prevents them eating on some days. Anybody who holds a shopping-centre stall or a street-corner meeting, if you’re a politician, and talks to anybody on Newstart is confronted by the levels of poverty that people are experiencing, so I think the Parliament does have to act and, in particular, the Government does have to act, because this is a payment that has been left at a certain level for 20 years, it’s been indexed to CPI rather than to wages and so it’s lost value over time and what we’ve got is a very serious problem of poverty which the Government haven’t addressed.
Ali Clarke: A listener’s saying, here, ‘$400 a week for Newstart? My son has just started an apprenticeship and he gets $420 a week, so what’s the incentive? I understand there are people who are genuinely in need of help but is there also a culture of reliance there?’ Sarah Hanson-Young? Sarah, are you there?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Yes, I am. Hello?
David Bevan: We’re asking whether or not Newstart should be increased from 275 to 400 dollars ($275 to $400) a week.
Sarah Hanson-Young: We’ve been saying for a long time that Newstart needs to be lifted by at least that $75 a week, which is what the Business Council of Australia, what ACOSS and others have kind of come to a consensus needs to be done. It needs to be done quickly. In fact, next week… and I’m glad to hear that the Labor Party has now accepted this, because, in the lead-up to the election, they wouldn’t agree to at least that figure. Next week, when Parliament goes back, there’s going to be a bill before the Senate to do this and I look forward to the Labor Party voting for that and the other crossbenchers, because we do need to get it lifted and it’s been spoken about too much already. Let’s just get it done and help people get out of poverty.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, will the Government finally come around and do what everybody is asking and that is increase Newstart?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I’m not sure that everybody is asking…
David Bevan: Well, Sarah Hanson-Young just listed off quite a group of people. It includes the former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard – he’s called for Newstart to be increased. Business groups have called for it to be increased and all the usual welfare cheerleaders who call for these things to be increased. I mean, they’re still out there, as well, so it crosses the political divide.
Simon Birmingham: Mm and you just… or Ali just referenced a message from one of your listeners, before, who highlighted that the type of increase being proposed would then see Newstart equivalent to apprenticeship payments. It’s important, with Newstart, to always try to remember the other facts. Ninety-nine (99) per cent of people who are on Newstart receive other forms of payment in addition to the base level of Newstart, 99 per cent of people – Rent Assistance and other supplementary assistance, depending on their circumstances. Two-thirds of people who are on Newstart are on it and then transition off of it within 12 months, because it’s a transitional payment to get people back into work, into other jobs and into other circumstances and the priority of our Government remains to get people off of Newstart by getting them into jobs.
David Bevan: Ian Henschke, who’s more popular than the Prime Minister at the moment, he seems to be everywhere, he’s advocate for Seniors Australia, he makes the point – and it’s a powerful one, isn’t it? – that many older Australians are on Newstart and these are people who are going to find it extremely difficult to get a job and yet they’re not old enough yet to qualify for the pension. Couldn’t something be done for them?
Simon Birmingham: And there are some specific employment programmes that we’ve released in the couple of years to try to provide greater incentive, greater financial incentive, to employers to help get older Australians off of Newstart so they get the same opportunities as younger people do to get off of Newstart, get back into the workforce, in that period prior to their retirement, which is what most of those older Australians yearn for and want to see happen.
Ali Clarke: Have they been working, Simon Birmingham? Can you give us a percentage of people that have been able to move and have used… or companies that have used those incentives?
Simon Birmingham: I can’t off the top of my head, Ali – I’m happy to get some information for you, on that, and to get the Employment minister to have a yarn to you at some stage, if you like, but my recollection is I think there’s up to $10,000 or thereabouts that’s available as an incentive to employers to employ more mature-age Australians who are currently unemployed and to provide that greater, as I say, incentive there, similar as we do in terms of incentives to get people into apprenticeships, as well, that there are extra payments made to employers to help get those apprenticeship opportunities created.
David Bevan: That’s the voice of Liberal Senator from South Australia Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Trade. Also joining us is Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens and Nick Champion, Labor Member for Spence. At 12 minutes to nine, Simon Birmingham, there’s a piece in the Financial Review, today, saying that Defence minister Linda Reynolds has reminded her French counterpart to ensure Australian industry involvement in the building of the next fleet of submarines is maximised – why does she have to remind them?
Simon Birmingham: Well, because we’re going to be absolutely diligent in getting the best possible outcomes for Australian industry. We…
David Bevan: Yeah but are the French trying to claw it back, are they?
Simon Birmingham: Ah, look, I don’t want to level any accusations at the French – not to my knowledge – but Linda is relatively a new minister in that role, she’s obviously making sure that she stamps her authority on it by making clear the expectations haven’t changed, the Minister might have changed but the expectations haven’t. These submarines are being constructed here in South Australia, as indeed are the future frigates…
David Bevan: But, once everything’s been signed off, it’d be very easy for the French to just go slow, wouldn’t it, for instance on handing over specifications for equipment to Australian companies and then, when the deadline is reached and the pressure starts to build, they say ‘oh, look, well, we’ll just have to do it from our own companies – I’m sorry about that’ and, as a result of that, the French percentage goes up and the Australian workers miss out?
Simon Birmingham: Well contracts aren’t written in a sense where it’s signed and then it’s ‘set and forget’ until one day you turn up and there’s a submarine that drops in the water. There’s obviously many different points of assessment that the Government will make as to whether the contract terms are being met along the way and making sure that the French are doing that in terms of the capability of the submarine but also in terms of the local industry investment – you know, we’ve $90 billion across all of the different naval platforms, the frigates, the submarines, the offshore patrol vessels, into a continuous build cycle so that we have a continuous programme of naval shipbuilding work happening here in Adelaide. We’re deadly serious about making sure that, at the end of that process, there’s a genuine capability that’s in place here in South Australia for that to continue indefinitely into the future and to hopefully be winning other shipbuilding work, here in Adelaide as well as over in Perth at the Henderson shipyards, where Austal, a private-sector Australian company, is doing great things in winning work, building ships here in Australia and we want to see more of that happen and to build that capability for the future and we’ll hold the French, as we’ll hold BAE Systems, the frigate company selected, all of them, to account to make sure that we get that capability established in South Australia as part of this record investment we’re making in our defence industry.
David Bevan: Just quickly, Nick Champion, what mechanisms are in place to make sure that that Australian content is what it should be? Nick Champion?
Nick Champion: There are going to be big problems with the Australian content and there are going to be big problems with skill shortages in our shipyards, because this Government hasn’t retrained and it hasn’t retained skilled ship workers and so we’re going to run into real skill shortages and we’re going to run into real problems with Australian content.
David Bevan: Nick Champion, thank you for your time this morning, Labor Member for Spence – before that, Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, and Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator from South Australia.