SENATOR THE HON SIMON BIRMINGHAM
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate Senator for South Australia
Interview on ABC News, Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas.
Topics: Pauline Hanson’s comments in relation to the Family Court; social activism by businesses; Gladys Liu; trade negotiations with the UK and EU; PM Scott Morrison’s visit to the US.
Patricia Karvelas: I’m joined now by the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, welcome to the program.
Simon Birmingham: G’day, Patricia. Good to be with you.
Patricia Karvelas: What is the Government getting from One Nation in exchange for making Pauline Hanson deputy chair of this inquiry into the Family Court?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I’m not aware of anything in that regard. We are seeking here to genuinely address an issue that afflicts and impacts upon so many Australian families. Around 100,000 Australians find themselves – sadly and tragically, often – entangled in family law disputes. And what we want to do here is make sure that the harm that occurs to children, to women, to men is minimised in all cases and that the system works as efficiently, as effectively as possible. And I just find it astounding that the Labor Party seem to think that we can’t improve on the operation of our family law system and that it’s not worth inquiring into it.
Patricia Karvelas: Actually, that’s not what Labor has said. Labor says they won’t support the inquiry if Pauline Hanson plays a lead role, given she’s accused women of making up domestic violence allegations to win custody. So, that’s actually their dispute. Do you think it’s appropriate for her to make those comments given she’s deputy chair?
Simon Birmingham: Well, this inquiry hasn’t even been established yet. So, nobody has anything in that regard. But I think-
Patricia Karvelas: Well, hang on a minute. The Government’s offered her the deputy chair role, haven’t they?
Simon Birmingham: But I think that what is important is that there will be an opportunity, for anybody who comes with any perceptions, misperceptions or otherwise, to hear from Australians, and that’s what this
inquiry is all about: hearing from Australians. We want it to be very much an apolitical exercise. We want it to be an exercise where Australian families, whatever circumstances and experiences they’ve had through the family law system, feel able to bring forward their concerns and the way in which that they might suggest that things could have been improved for their experiences to ensure that future Australians who find themselves in similar tragic family circumstances, a family breakdown, don’t have to go through the same thing again.
Patricia Karvelas: But there’s a deputy chair in Pauline Hanson who has alleged that women make up domestic violence allegations in order to win custody of children. Do you believe that there’s any evidence for that claim?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I am sure there may be some cases – and there are many cases where that is certainly not the case and where women genuinely the victim of domestic violence, take those concerns through the rightful processes, including, where appropriate, into the family law domain.
Now, overall, though, what we want to do is ensure that whether it is the wellbeing of those women, the wellbeing of children – tragically, in these circumstances – or the wellbeing of fathers, that they are all effectively accounted for in the family law system. Our Government has had am extensive review from the Australian Law Reform Commission looking at the detail of the Family Law Act and the detail of how it operates. We have been working through the court’s structures in terms of rather than having competing courts operating as to whether we can have a consolidated entity. And yes, we want to have a public parliamentary inquiry that rather than looking at those very legalistic aspects, also looks at how it is other things can help prevent family relationship breakdown, can minimise the impacts of families as they are progressing through the family law system. That is something that hopefully can change the perceptions of those who may have incorrect perceptions or misperceptions about different issues, but most importantly, hopefully, can ensure that we come up with any improvements to the system that can make life better for people who find themselves in those circumstances.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But it is key here that she’s going to be the deputy chair and she clearly has very strong views about women making up these claims. You say you don’t think there’s evidence that this happens at a large scale level. So if it doesn’t happen, how are women who are fronting this inquiry meant to feel, given she is going to be the person cross-examining them?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I mean, I would encourage everybody to share their stories and I would hope and expect that every member of this inquiry, whomever they end up being, will approach it in a way that shows respect to every person who is willing to come forward and tell their story and their experiences and to listen to them and to give them a fair hearing and make sure that really what you are drawing out of this process is an understanding of how we can make life better for families in the future. This is something that we wish didn’t happen to anybody in terms of fronting up in the family law system, but it does-
Patricia Karvelas: Sure. But the question I’m asking you is in relation to these claims that women make up domestic violence claims. Are you alarmed by that statement? Were you worried when you heard Senator Pauline Hanson making that statement this morning?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I didn’t hear her making that statement this morning, Patricia. I’ve been a bit busy with the UK Trade Secretary in town today.
Patricia Karvelas: Well, I’m letting you know. I’m sure you know now. Does it alarm you?
Simon Birmingham: So I’m responding to your questions, I’m taking them all at face value. And as I said, those allegations have been put to me, put, I’m sure, to other members of Parliament and, in some instances, they may have been the case over time. And making sure that the system responds in relation to those sorts of allegations is important, just as it’s important – critically important – in making sure the system deals with those instances where family violence is genuinely occurring and make sure that protection is there for the victims of that family violence and that appropriate support is there for those victims.
Patricia Karvelas: I want to talk about something else which has been dominant today. Alan
Joyce says that Qantas will not pull back from advocating on social issues. He says marriage equality, for instance, wasn’t just morally right, there was also a business case for it. Do you agree?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ll let Alan Joyce make his determinations about what the business case for Qantas is. I was a supporter of marriage equality and was pleased to see it legislated. It’s an issue that was resolved in the last Parliament.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but the question on business and whether they should get involved with these social issues – do you think business has a right to get involved with these social issues?
Simon Birmingham: It’s up to individual business leaders, who have to be answerable to their shareholders, but they also need to make sure if they are engaging in public policy debates, they’re also engaging in public policy debates that do go to their bottom line, that do go to making sure that they are in the best possible position to employ as many Australians as possible, to return dividends that top up your superannuation fund and that of every other Australian who has super funds that are invested in these companies, and they’ve got to have a very firm eye in that regard: return to Australian investors, job creation for Australians, and advocating for policy settings that get the best possible outcomes, not for them as business leaders or corporate leaders, not things that just make them feel good, but absolutely things that go to creating those jobs and that wealth for Australians.
Patricia Karvelas: There are reports that Gladys Liu promised to write permanent residency references to foreign students who volunteered on her campaign. Do those reports need to be investigated?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I think what we are seeing now, is people keep claiming and making unfounded allegations. If people have clear evidence in any of these matters, they ought to bring them forward. Otherwise, we ought to respect the fact that Gladys Liu has been a hardworking, highly engaged member of her community who has been duly elected as the Member for Chisholm. And we should be celebrating the fact that we do have the first Chinese-born Australian in the Australian Parliament representing her community and its diversity.
Patricia Karvelas: With respect, Minister, there is not really time to celebrate when questions are not being answered by the Government. Why doesn’t the Government inquire into the allegations, and they’re being published literally every day, about Gladys Liu?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, if there is any proof to back up the allegations, then people ought to bring them forward.
Patricia Karvelas: Isn’t that up to you to try and- when an allegation like this is made, to actually take it seriously and to investigate rather than to bat it off?
Simon Birmingham: So you’re taking guilty before innocent, are you?
Patricia Karvelas: Not at all, no. But you’ve got to look into it, don’t you? That’s the question – investigate.
Simon Birmingham: No, no. I mean- the Labor Party will smear anybody in this Government they get the chance. We saw that quoted the other day in the media that Labor MPs are basically saying they’re so bitter from losing the last election that they will happily play dirty at every possible opportunity. We’re not going to be distracted by that and we’ve got a job to do, which is governing in the Australian interest, to keep growing jobs; in my portfolio, to expanding the record volume of exports we have and to create new opportunities for Australian businesses to get out there and export. And that’s what we’re going to focus on doing, not engaging in the grubby tactics of the Labor Party or being distracted by them.
Patricia Karvelas: There are also accusations made today that Assistant Minister for Customs Jason Wood’s electorate office is being listed as the address for the Pinnacle Club, an associated entity of the Liberal Party. What do you make of that?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I am not aware of the full detail of those. I know that there was something running in the House of Representatives today. But I think there is a distinct difference between listing an address for reporting purposes versus actually conducting any events and the like. And if the best the Labor Party has got to go on is an address that receives information for reporting purposes, then that’s not much.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Is it appropriate to use that address if the correspondence and the work is being done out of the parliamentary office?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, if the address is simply for reporting purposes, and from there, volunteers, as is usually the case in terms of Liberal Party fundraisers, volunteer treasurers who operate across the country, collate information and report that back as part of our reporting requirements to the Electoral Commission, well that doesn’t sound like much to me.
Patricia Karvelas: Just getting to your portfolio now. You held talks this morning with your British counterpart, I understand. The UK is keen to get trade deals in place before the Brexit deadline. Is that what
you’re working towards?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we are working towards getting in place a trade agreement as quickly as we possibly can once the UK has left the European Customs Union. How and when they leave the EU is a matter for the UK and the EU to settle and everybody is aware of the difficulties around that. But the UK is Australia’s eighth largest trading partner, notwithstanding the many significant barriers that exist to trade with the EU as it currently stands. Now, we have very positive negotiations underway with the EU that seeks to strike a trade agreement there. And what my counterpart in the UK and I have committed to today is that the moment the UK leaves the EU, we will kick-start formal trade negotiations and seek to conclude those as quickly as we can to ensure that Australian farmers, Australian businesses get the best possible access into the UK in the future.
Patricia Karvelas: So in terms of a timeline, if you like, how quickly would you like to see a trade agreement with the UK finalised? And what is it likely to actually cover?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we want it to be a comprehensive and ambitious agreement, one that gives our farmers, our businesses, maximum access to the UK market. That it doesn’t just cover traditional sectors of agriculture or merchandise goods, but also covers the services, trade and investment flows. The UK remains in fact our second largest source of foreign investment in Australia, so it’s a very significant investment partner for us. So we want it to be comprehensive in covering all of those areas of activity. We also want to make sure we do it as quickly as we can without compromising that level of ambition. But I would hope that it is an agreement that can be negotiated and sorted in months, not years.
Patricia Karvelas: Indonesia is threatening to issue an INTERPOL red notice for human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, who’s in Australia. She’s one of the disseminating evidence of abuses by the Indonesian military in West Papua. Will Australia hand her over if a red notice is issue?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s a hypothetical question, Patricia. My understanding is that the Australian Federal Police are aware of this matter as a result of media reports, but have received no request from Indonesia.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay. And if that request is made – you say it’s hypothetical, but I think it’s fair enough that people would want to know what the Government intends to do. What is the intention of the Government?
Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously that would then depend upon the nature and the terms of that request and exactly what is being asked for and argued. And that would be a matter that I would leave for the AFP and the responsible Minister in the Home Affairs portfolio to respond to.
Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, the Prime Minister is of course going to be going to meet the US President Donald Trump. It’s a pretty significant meeting, as we all know. What do you hope is achieved in that meeting and how robust will the comments the Prime Minister makes in relation to the trade war be, saying that, you know, essentially the US should back off on this trade war?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the PM will be as clear as we have always been publicly and privately in relation to the trade dispute. We want to see it sorted. We share some of the concerns that the US have raised around the need to ensure protection of intellectual property, that technology transfers aren’t forced. But we don’t believe that the unilateral application of tariff hikes is the right way to go about resolving a dispute like this, that clearly it is harming parts of the global economy, and that we urge both parties to engage in dialogue that can resolve it and hopefully remove some of these competing tariffs that are hurting growth in world trade and therefore hurting growth in the global economy, which is bad news for everybody.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, you say you’ll be raising the issues like you have publicly and privately, but this is a pretty key opportunity. Do you think the Prime Minister has any sway in trying to shift the thinking of the president on this?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m sure every little bit helps. Ultimately though, the US-China trade dispute is something that only they can resolve. Just as only the EU and the UK can resolve Brexit between one another, the US and China are the only ones who can genuinely resolve their trade dispute. In the meantime, we get on as a Government with trying to ensure we provide maximum diversification opportunities for Australian businesses. That’s why I’m talking about negotiations with the EU, the UK, to give our businesses maximum choice. I’m sure the PM’s agenda with President Trump will cover the full spectrum of our very strong alliance and that he will be making sure the President understands that we are a valued partner in the alliance, an equal partner in the alliance, and he will be making sure that issues of relevance to our Indo-Pacific region are well explained and understood as part of his visit.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: That’s the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham there talking about a range of issues – of course, he’s a very senior Cabinet minister as well – including the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States.