Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: ABC; Donald Trump and Trade




David Bevan: Big Super Wednesday. Welcome to Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham:    Good morning, David.


David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance, MP for Mayo, good morning to you.


Rebekah Sharkie: Good morning.


Ali Clarke: And Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, good morning to you.


Penny Wong: Good morning.


David Bevan: Let’s start with Michelle Guthrie – and please, first one to the buzzer gets to answer this. Does anybody know why Michelle Guthrie got the sack?


Penny Wong: Well that’s a question for the board and for the Government isn’t it? But look there’s the reports today, David, I’ve seen are more concerning than simply the sacking of Michelle Guthrie. There is an allegation on the front page of the Fairfax papers that the Government pressured the ABC to sack Emma Alberici because of her reporting, and I would just like to say this as a matter of principle. If this is true, if the Government is pressuring the ABC to sack a journalist because of their reporting, really that is the stuff of tin-pot democracies. It’s not reflective of the Australian democracy. This is a public broadcaster, it serves the public. It’s not serving the government of the day as an organ of the government.


David Bevan: This is an extraordinary story. It’s in The Age. The headline is; they hate her. Emails show ABC chairman told Michelle Guthrie to fire Emma Alberici. Okay, so for people who are new to the program Michelle Guthrie, the managing director of the ABC just got the sack. Emma Alberici is the ABC’s chief correspondent – economics correspondent. And according to this story the chairman of the ABC, that’s Justin Milne, he’s the guy who just announced that Guthrie’s got the sack, he back earlier this year was saying to Guthrie, the Government, that is they, the Government, hate her, that’s Alberici. We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple, get rid of her, we need to save the ABC, not Emma. There is no guarantee they, that is the Coalition, will lose the next election. Simon Birmingham, this is extraordinary stuff.


Simon Birmingham:    Well David, I think it’s important to make sure that listeners understand that the ABC board hires and fires ABC managing directors. It’s not the decision of government as to whether or not managing directors come or go. ABC management hires and fires employees, journalists and others working at the ABC, their hiring and firing rule. So not decisions of government. The legislation that govern the ABC is very clear in terms of the autonomy of the ABC board and of ABC management around all of those decisions.


Penny Wong: Well I think there is a question for Simon. Does he – we know there are public complaints from both Minister Fifield and former Prime Minister Turnbull about Emma Alberici. Does he have any knowledge of the Coalition pressuring Mr Milne, who obviously has very close personal ties to the former prime minister, does he have any knowledge of any pressure being applied as to the sacking of the journalist?


Simon Birmingham:    Well it is well known that the Government absolutely complained publicly and officially about the fact that Emma Alberici got it horribly, terribly wrong when she did a story in relation to the amount of tax that Australian businesses pay. It was an embarrassing failure on her part, on the ABC’s part and…


Penny Wong: There’s a dispute over those facts but that’s not the question. I mean I think Australians have a right to know whether or not this government is treating the public broadcaster as a state broadcaster.


Simon Birmingham:    Certainly not Penny, and the Government absolutely respects and honours the legislative principles that I outlined at the start. The managing director’s hired and fired by the board. The management of the ABC hires and fires its staff and its journalists. But we make no apologies for complaining when an ABC journalist…


Penny Wong: Certainly complain a lot. I mean having the prime minister who shows the extent- the sensitivity, the extent to which senior ministers and the Prime Minister, the Liberal Prime Minister of the day, felt it was necessary for them to make multiple complaints to the ABC about journalism.


Simon Birmingham:    Penny, I remember the story. It was a big story. It was a story that absolutely put businesses working in Australia in terms of reputational damage and it was dead wrong. And you’ve got a senior journalist at the ABC who went out on- went out with this great big splash that was covered across all the different platforms of the ABC; on television, on radio, online and it was completely made up and fabricated.


Penny Wong: Well, I don’t know if that’s- I don’t think that’s the case. But I think – I reckon if politicians complain every time there was a story that had factually incorrect details, I’ll tell you what, we’d be doing nothing but complaining and certainly wouldn’t be focusing on how we improve Australia’s schools, Australia’s hospitals or make our economy stronger.


David Bevan: Penny Wong, I understand why you would be questioning the Government and they’re fair questions. But, what about the role of the chairman here? Is ABC chairman Justin Milne, if these emails are correct, is he doing his job properly by saying- by linking the sacking of an ABC journalist with future relations between the Coalition government and the ABC? Because this is saying we are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC not Emma, there is no guarantee. They, the Coalition, will lose the next election.


Penny Wong: Well I think Mr Milne needs to come out and make a very clear statement responding directly to these accusations because if the story is correct and if that email was in fact sent by him it is inconsistent with his obligations as a chairman of the ABC. It is inconsistent with the legislation. But it is more importantly inconsistent with what your listeners and the Australian public expect of the public broadcaster. They expect independence. They do not expect someone who obviously had close personal links to Malcolm Turnbull doing what appears to be the bidding of the government of the day. But he needs to respond.


Ali Clarke: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP, you’ve been listening to all of this, what’s your take?


Rebekah Sharkie: Well I think it’s pretty clear that for some time since Tony Abbott came in – and let’s remember when he came in, he said there would be no cuts to the ABC – we have seen budget cuts and we have seen a pressure on editorial content through members of government, and there have been many, complaining about the reporting of the ABC. I think it’s extraordinary that Justin Milne – if it’s true – would pressure Michelle Guthrie with respect to her staff. I mean you know, it’s such an overreach from a board position. And to know that we’ve lost, you know, $338 million from the ABC since 2014, $84 million in the recent budget, I think it just goes to show what pressure Michelle Guthrie was under. When she came in a lot of people were very concerned about her role and how she would manage that role and I think what we saw most recently from Michelle Guthrie was that she actually stood up to government and to the pressure that’s happened to the ABC around their independence and I think that Justin Milne needs to come out and explain to the Australian public why he is sacking Michelle Guthrie. And we need to have more opportunity for the ABC to be frank and fearless and independent in their reporting.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, does Justin Milne, the chairman of the ABC need to explain why they sacked her?


Simon Birmingham:    Well Justin Milne, as I understand it, has done numerous media interviews since the announcement earlier this week. It is for the ABC board to justify.


David Bevan: Yeah, but I don’t think he’s explaining what- he was very careful not to say why they sacked her. And that’s not good enough is it?


Simon Birmingham:    Well as I say, it is for him and the ABC board to explain. They have the statutory right to hire and fire.


David Bevan: Yes, I know it’s for him to explain. What I’m putting to you is: do you think it’s good enough that he hasn’t explained it?


Simon Birmingham:    David, I haven’t read the transcripts of his interviews. I don’t know what explanations he has or hasn’t given. I know that he has fronted the media – as he should – to answer questions in relation to these matters and that’s for him to continue to do.


Ali Clarke: We’re in the middle of Super Wednesday, it is 8:43. That’s the voice of Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Rebekha Sharkie’s with us, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo and Penny Wong Labor Senator for South Australia, also shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.


David Bevan: The US president says he rejects the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Simon Birmingham, you’re the Trade Minister: what does that mean


Simon Birmingham:    Well again, I’ll let Donald Trump explain what his statements mean. But …


David Bevan: Well, what do you think they mean?


Simon Birmingham:    But Australia absolutely appreciates and recognises the fact that our engagement with the world over many years has helped to grow the Australian economy. Around one in five Australian jobs are dependent upon export activity. We urge all nations to continue to respect, abide by what are now-long established international rules in relation to the way trade occurs. We’re deeply disappointed by the fact that the US administration has applied unilaterally tariff measures that go against those established rules, just as we are concerned by actions of other countries in terms of industrial subsidies that they might apply in different ways. The big thing that we’ve achieved as a government to protect Australian farmers, businesses, exporters, is to ensure that through the various trade agreements we’ve negotiated, they have better market access to millions of potential customers around the world than they did years ago and that that will continue to improve and that is a big protection for Australian farmers and businesses at a time when there’s clearly a lot of uncertainty around what players like the US and China are doing.


David Bevan: Well Penny Wong, you’d like to be the Foreign Affairs Minister: what do you think Donald Trump means when he says: we reject the ideology of globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism?


Penny Wong: Well the first thing I’d say is it isn’t unusual for a world leader; he’s not the first to focus on a domestic audience rather than an international audience when speaking at the UN. But the principle I think is important and that is this: Australia has a direct interest in a strong multilateral system. We’ve got a direct interest in sound, fair, open transparent trading arrangements. We’ve got an interest in the world working together to tackle those problems which no one country can solve – whether it’s climate change or nuclear proliferation. Fundamentally we do better together as a world. When we work together we do better on the economic front and we create a safer world.


David Bevan: Look, you’re both being very diplomatic here.


Penny Wong: No, well so my point is that if – as Simon said and it’s up to President Trump to explain what he meant – but if the assertion is that multilateralism and working together are not good things, that is not the approach Australia, where under a Coalition or a Labor government, has taken in the past and nor would it be if we see a Shorten Labor government.


David Bevan: Are you worried, Penny Wong, by Donald Trump’s comments?


Penny Wong: Oh look, they are not new are they? I mean this is the same kind of rhetoric we saw in the primaries. It’s the same kind of rhetoric we saw in the election campaign. And I think the best way to read much of what Mr Trump says is probably to think about the way in which he’s speaking to an American audience.


David Bevan: Yeah, but again that’s not the answer to the question. The question was are you worried. I didn’t ask you have you heard this before. Are you worried?


Penny Wong: I think we’re all worried about certain actions. I think we’re worried about the tension in the relationship between the US and China, in particular the trade retaliation and the trade conflict which has been generated currently. I think Australia stands to lose economically in the world as well as obviously increased competition and tension isn’t conducive to a more secure world.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, are you worried?


Simon Birmingham:    David, we are worried about the actions and policies of the US administration in so far as they’re disruptive to the effective operation of the World Trade Organization, that they are disruptive in terms of some of the dispute resolution mechanisms that Australia relies upon quite heavily and that obviously any semblance of trade disputation between the US and China with competing tariffs and subsidies going backwards and forwards has the potential to slow global economic growth and if it slows global economic growth then that’s bad for everybody; the consumers and the businesses in the US and China but also elsewhere around the world. We convey those concerns very directly; I do when I meet with US trade representatives and other representatives of government and as does Prime Minister Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne in their engagements.


Ali Clarke: It’s 8.48. Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, do you love this government under Scott Morrison more or less than the government when it was under Malcolm Turnbull?


Rebekah Sharkie: Look, I don’t think it’s really a matter of my personal affection for government or whether it’s not there at all. I’m just there to work with government for good governance. I might just say, with respect to Donald Trump, that he does appear to be doubling down in his isolationist policy but on the other hand, I mean, we’ve just had the TPP-11 or TPP number two agreement come through the House of Representatives. And what we haven’t seen from that – and what we were calling for – was the Productivity Commission to make a good assessment of the agreement. Because we just don’t know what the impact will be on the labour market testing rules; which means that they don’t need to test any more. What’s that going to do to affect Australians’ employment? We don’t know with respect to the ISDS provisions that are in there, which will give the opportunity for the multinationals to sue our government if we don’t like- if they don’t like our particular legislation. So, I think that there’s a balance to be made where we are marching ahead with the TPP, where Labor says that they’ll be able to make changes if they come into government and where Donald Trump sits.


David Bevan: But just to return to Ali’s question, and you’re going to have to make a decision after the Wentworth by-election, are you more in love with Scott Morrison than you were with Malcolm Turnbull?


Rebekah Sharkie: I think the Australian community wants to see the Morrison government continue to the end of their term. I have no intention of being a wrecker of government but I am hopeful that we will have a greater ability to work with government, and I obviously am keen to see the crossbench expand.


Ali Clarke: Okay. Thank you very much. Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo and Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia and Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.