Interview on ABC National Wrap with Patricia Karvelas
Topics: TPP-11, China; Religious freedoms; Wentworth




Patricia Karvelas:         Well, Federal Parliament returns tomorrow, and all debates will be had with an eye to the crucial Wentworth by-election. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham joins me first up tonight. Minister, welcome.       


Simon Birmingham:     G’day Patricia, good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas:         Your Trans-Pacific Partnership legislation is up before the senate this week. Labor may seek to make some changes in a bid to address their concerns. Will you accept any of the changes, or are you prepared to listen?


Simon Birmingham:     Well Patricia, this agreement is one that has been negotiated over a number of years. It provides significant, real benefits to Australia, some ultimately $15 billion worth of annual lift to our national income by 2030. There are direct benefits that we’ll miss out on if it’s not implemented and ratified very quickly, and for that reason we want to see it agreed to and ratified in its current terms, not to see any delays, because ultimately Australian farmers, our wool producers, our beef exporters, our wine makers, as well as steel producers and others, will miss out on benefits, but also will be put at a competitive disadvantage to other countries if Australia doesn’t get the deal done this year.


Patricia Karvelas:         Labor has promised to renegotiate elements of the TPP if it wins the election. In your view, is that feasible?


Simon Birmingham:     Well that’s up to the Labor party, and we don’t believe…


Patricia Karvelas:         But will it be easy to do?


Simon Birmingham:     We don’t believe that that’s necessary, of course, and we don’t want to see the Labor Party win the next election, but any government of course, can with the agreement of other parties, sit down and negotiate terms with those other parties. So that’s something that the Labor Party can promise. I think the fact that they’re making these types of statements in the way in which they are, is a demonstration of just how difficult it would be for any future Labor government to be able to do trade deals in the future. Indeed, if we look back at the Rudd and Gillard years, there was zero progress in terms of trade discussions and agreements being reached. Compared with the Liberal-National years, where we have managed to secure huge gains, which means that we’ve gone from Australian producers having preferential access into export markets, to around 30 per cent of our products and exports, to now on track to having preferential access into export markets that covers around 70 per cent of our export products. That’s a really big lift and it’s something that would be at- in danger under a change in Labor government.


Patricia Karvelas:         There are reports that China might join the TPP agreement to counter the impact of Donald Trump’s anti-China trade push. Would you welcome that?


Simon Birmingham:     We would welcome any country who came to the table embracing the ambition and comprehensive nature of the CPTPP. This is an agreement that ensures it covers the field in terms of providing areas of investment certainty, providing free and fair competitive arrangements in the way in which businesses engage, and of course, provides for the reductions in terms of tariffs across a whole range of different goods in different markets that is significantly beneficial to Australia’s farmers and businesses in getting their exports into those markets. And, as I say, we will welcome any nation who comes to the table…


Patricia Karvelas:         Including China?           


Simon Birmingham:     Well, yes, including China, if they were to come to the table with the same terms of ambition and comprehensive approach that the agreement has in place.


Patricia Karvelas:         You go to Shanghai next month for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s import expo. Has there been a thawing of diplomatic tensions? Is it fair to say relations with China are improving because Beijing’s relationship with Washington is so bad? 


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I think as a government, we are very committed to having the best possible relationship with China, as we are indeed with all of our significant partners around the world, and we have no greater economic partner in terms of our trading relationship than that with China. We saw very positive discussions between our new Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and the Chinese Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly not too long ago. I indeed hope to be in Shanghai for the China International Import Expo, which is one of President Xi’s hallmark-landmark economic objectives and priorities in terms of this very large event. I hope to be able to be there, paying appropriate recognition to the contribution China is making to the economic environment in our region and globally, they have spurred on growth that has lifted many millions out of poverty, and that’s a great thing, it’s of course been a significant positive to the Australian economy as well, and we want to keep building on those positives.


Patricia Karvelas:         Last week we saw Australian markets crash, partly on fears about the US-China trade war. Do you see any signs of this being resolved, or is it getting worse?   


Simon Birmingham:     I’m someone who likes to be optimistic, and we continue to urge all parties to respect the longstanding rules of international trade to not engage in market-distorting subsidies or unilateral tariff measures, all of which can only harm people in those nations, but also potentially slow global economic growth and have a negative impact right across the board. Now, what will happen in the future, that’s harder to tell. Of course President Trump did recently settle terms for a new North America Trade Arrangement with Canada and Mexico. That’s positive in the sense that rather than simply walking away from that as had been threatened, we actually saw something agreed and settled there. I would hope that we can see a similarly positive resolution to some of these disputes, but how long that takes is yet to be seen. In the interim, the best thing that Australia can do is to continue to do exactly what we will this week with the TPP legislation. Ensure that our farmers, our businesses have the type of preferential access to export markets that provide insulation for them from the types of negative impacts or consequences of these types of trade disputes between other nations.


Patricia Karvelas:         Let’s move to a domestic debate, and on that gay teacher and student discrimination debate we’re having. The Prime Minister’s offer to change the laws is limited to children or students. Do you think you should get rid of exemptions that allow religious schools to fire gay teachers as well?      


Simon Birmingham:     I think the Prime Minister’s shown strong leadership this week as details of this review were released, and where the discussion occurred, where I think many people were frankly surprised to know that the statute books contained provisions that allowed for such discrimination against students, and the Prime Minister’s made clear that his views align with those I think of every sensible Australian, that that discrimination is not acceptable, and ought not be in our statute books, and we’re going to take that out. Now, when it comes to employment practices of faith-based organisations, there are fair arguments to make that those organisations ought to be able to employ people who align and accord with their faith, particularly where they are engaged any way in the teaching of that faith, and so I think we have to tread carefully through some of those other factors. They’re not quite as simple a debate as the one about children, and that’s why we will carefully look at the recommendations of the Ruddock review, and respond to that in the proper way.


Patricia Karvelas:         Okay. Minister, an Ipsos poll just published finds that 74 per cent of voters oppose laws to allow religious schools to select students – and teachers, crucially – based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status. So, given the answer you just gave me on teachers being a different category, are you out of step with public sentiment on this?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Patricia, I’d want to look very carefully at the detail of such a poll because I do think it depends how you frame such questions. If you ask a question of do you think people should be able to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality, not unsurprisingly you will usually get an answer that that’s unacceptable. If you ask the question of, do you think that faith based schools should be able to positively work to employ people of their faith and who live by that faith, I suspect you’d get a very different answer. So…


Patricia Karvelas:         Sure but the-okay, let’s have an honest…


Simon Birmingham:     That’s where we need to ensure that we actually deal with the law in a careful and sensible way.


Patricia Karvelas:         Okay, let me just set some clarity on this. Do you think that it should be looked at? Are you entirely comfortable with religious schools having the right – the right – to sack teachers because they’re gay?


Simon Birmingham:     Patricia, I’m not entirely comfortable with such proposition. But what I do think we need to make sure is that religious schools and religious institutions ought to be able to ensure that if they want to employ a Jewish teacher or a Christian teacher or an Islamic teacher because that’s part of the way their school operates in terms of passing on that faith as a faith-based institution, well, that is not an unreasonable proposition and it’s one that we ought to make sure is equally protected in the law.


Patricia Karvelas:         Okay. But do you think a teacher should be sacked legally by a Catholic school, for instance, or an Islamic school, because they’re gay?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Patricia, I’m not going to go into a hypothetical…


Patricia Karvelas:         Well, it’s a really simple question, Minister, it is not hypothetical. In fact it happened to teachers. Not hypothetical.


Simon Birmingham:     No, no, no, I’m not going to go into a hypothetical case because what we need to deal with here are the matters of law. The Parliament of Australia makes the laws of the land, the law of the land ought to find the right way to ensure that we minimise and eliminate discrimination wherever we possibly can. But we also ought to respect freedom of religion. And that means freedom for religious schools to work in a positive and proactive way to ensure that if they want to, as part of their operations, to employ people of their faith, that ought to be respected. And that’s a form of discrimination, it says that some people need not apply, however I think that it is one in that respecting religious freedoms as well as all other freedoms in this country, we need to get that right.


Patricia Karvelas:         So, you don’t think it should be up for discussion? Because Bill Shorten says, today, it should be up for discussion.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I think we will have a hopefully proper, thoughtful, considered discussion along the terms that I’ve just outlined in our conversation. I hope what we don’t see is something that becomes a knee-jerk response in that space, which has the potential then to undermine the capacity of faith-based institutions to operate in a way that is in accordance with their faith and their doctrine. So, I think we have to tread very carefully and appropriately and sensitively. I have to say as somebody who was education minister for a number of years, that I think overwhelmingly, if not completely, schools handle these matters incredibly sensitively and appropriately already. And in some ways what we need to do is ensure that the law of the land reflects the operation of what our school systems do already and in that regard when it comes to the changes to the law we’ll be making that affect children, that certainly is just bringing that into line with what I saw as being the reality of the way schools handle those circumstances.


Patricia Karvelas:         Well, on that, you said everyone just realised that this law existed. You were education minister, you knew it existed, didn’t you?


Simon Birmingham:     Oh, of course, Patricia. And however, I also knew it wasn’t a problem in the sense that schools practically on the ground were, I think, and are incredibly respectful and thoughtful in the way in which they approach all issues in relation to their students. And I don’t think that I’ve ever encountered a school where there was an attempt to positively discriminate against a student. I think in that sense schools are, I think, very cautious of and mindful of their responsibilities as they ought to be.


 Patricia Karvelas:        Minister, on Wentworth, this is Scott Morrison’s first electoral test and all of you are saying essentially this is going to throw the government into chaos if the seat’s lost. That’s a pretty risky thing to argue, isn’t it? Because if the seat is lost, you still want to hang on to government but you’re saying that it’s going to be difficult or not possible.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’re just reminding the voters of Wentworth that the reality is the government is a one seat majority government. Now, I am sure that we will work with the crossbench, were there to be a negative outcome in Wentworth. But what I hear from voters time and time again is that they want to see – they want to see – government in Canberra focussed on getting the job done and that they remember the minority government of the Gillard years as being something that they was not focused necessarily on getting the job done with the type of unity of purpose that a majority government can have.


Patricia Karvelas:         Hang on a minute, hang on a minute, I don’t think any of my viewers will let you get away with that or me get away with not asking about that. You talk about the not having the unity of purpose under the Gillard government, what have we seen under your government in the last couple of months? You can’t seriously argue that.


Simon Birmingham:     And Patricia, it won’t be helped – it won’t be helped – if we have a minority situation in the parliament. Scott Morrison has done an incredible job unifying the team, ensuring there’s a strong sense of purpose and making sure there’s continuity of building on the legacies of Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott and ensuring that as a government we go through to the next election presenting people with not only plans for the future but making sure they understand the achievements of our government. The people who vote for the Liberal and National Parties want a government that balances the budget – which we’re doing, they want a government that delivers tax relief – which we’re doing for small businesses; which we’re doing for householders, they want a government that grows the economy and creates jobs – which we’ve done at record levels. These are the great accomplishments upon which we will stand at the next election, and we’ll do so with Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. But we want to make sure we can keep building on those accomplishments. And that will best be done with a majority government, which requires people in Wentworth to vote for the only Liberal candidate in the field, who is Dave Sharma.


Patricia Karvelas:         And, Minister, just a final confirmation. And this has been raised with me by a couple of people. In terms of the discrimination laws that you want to change this week, will transgender students also be included in that or is it just gay students, can you clarify?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I haven’t seen the precise amendments but the announcement the Prime Minister’s made has been very clear that discrimination against students on the basis of sexuality – frankly any other grounds – is not something to be tolerated and I’m pretty sure that will be all encompassing in terms of the amendments brought forward.


Patricia Karvelas:         Minister, well, I hope your parliamentary week is very exciting. Thank you so much for joining me.


Simon Birmingham:     I hope it’s very successful in getting our trade laws through. Thank you, Patricia.


Patricia Karvelas:         It looks like you’ve got the numbers, than you so much.