Interview on ABC News 24 with Greg Jennett
Cory Bernardi; Making child care more affordable, accessible and fairer
01:50 PM

Greg Jennett: So, that was the lead up to where we are now and Liberal Party members are all wondering when, how and if fractures between their moderate and conservative bases might be repaired, now that Cory Bernardi has done what he’s done and left Liberal ranks. Well, the Education Minister Simon Birmingham shared the Liberal Party Senate South Australian ticket with Cory Bernardi and he joins me now in the studio. 

Welcome, Minister. Over the years, I suppose he has been something of an ideological rival and yet a party running mate as well, as we just noted. What is your response to what you’ve just witnessed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is something of a dog act for the hundreds of thousands of South Australians who voted for the Liberal Party at the last election, dutifully electing four Liberal senators in the process and they would’ve all expected those four Liberal senators to serve out their terms as Liberal MPs, as Liberal senators.

Greg Jennett: A dog act is akin in claim to, I suppose, what Labor would call a rat?

Simon Birmingham: Well, people can put their own words around these things. Of course, it is as many have said deeply disappointing for party members, for party voters, for party supporters. People, of course, at the last election had a choice. They had a choice to vote for the Labor Party or the Greens, for Nick Xenophon in South Australia, for One Nation, but 345,000 plus South Australians chose to vote for the Liberal Party and they rightly expect that people will serve as Liberals when elected here. And here were are just seven months after that election, this is terribly disappointing for those voters and of course we can only but hope, if Cory Bernardi isn't, as he has indicated, going to do the decent thing and vacate this Senate seat and contest under his new umbrella that he will at least cooperate as much as possible with the Liberal Party in the future.

Greg Jennett: Right, because obviously there's limited number of things you can do. You’re not going to be able to convince him to come back for one, so how do you treat him now? There's the disappointment that you’re expressing but you seem to be acknowledging at the same time that you've got to go after his vote?

Simon Birmingham: Well, as we've always said in relation to this Senate, we will work with the Senate we have and the Turnbull Government has had great success to date with this Senate, in getting through the Registered Organisations Commission, the Building and Construction Commission reforms, which were stalled under the previous Parliament and which Malcolm Turnbull has delivered through this Senate, along with tax cuts for middle income Australians, protection for volunteer fire fighters. A lot of wins we had at the tail end of last year, we’ll build on those this year, starting off with things like reforms to protect and support hard-working Australian families through a fairer, better child care system, company tax reforms to help small businesses; these are all core Liberal things and I hope that Senator Bernardi will support us in all of these measures.

Greg Jennett: You have limited time with us before your own Question Time commitments in Parliament, so I will ask you about child care which is in your portfolio in a moment. Is there anything open to the Liberal Party in South Australia? I know they've looked at it before with early resignations and forced by-elections, about seeking to recover costs and investments that were made in Cory Bernardi? Or is that just good money after bad now?

Simon Birmingham: Well, perhaps all of those things can be looked at. They’re matters for the party organisation. I mean, I heard Cory's arguments at his press conference before and there’s something illogical about going out there and saying you were motivated because there were more people voting for minor parties to say your solution to that is to start up another minor party. Or to say that you think there’s a breakdown in trust and yet to break the bond of trust with more than 345,000 people who helped put you here as a Liberal senator.

Greg Jennett: So, in that sense you think he might have written his- or you’re hoping, perhaps, that he’s written his political death warrant at the beginning?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m confident that the Liberal Party will maintain its place as the central, core right of centre but mainstream party that Robert Menzies founded to bring together Liberal and Conservative traditions and values, which requires us to compromise, requires us to work together across the broad church that John Howard often spoke of, and that’s exactly what we’re all committed to doing.

Greg Jennett: Were you and others in the South Australian division asleep at the wheel on this? Because clearly some signals, public signals, were laid down by Cory Bernardi through the second half of last year, after the election, throughout his time in the United States, and yet he’s gone ahead and done it in early February. Were there not things that you could or should’ve done to try to peg him down to the ground in the Liberal tent, as it were, before we got to today?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think our failure was in taking Cory at his word. He said repeatedly that he thought the right of centre of politics was stronger together, stronger more united, that he was not intending to leave the Liberal Party, that he was committed to continuing to work for the good of the Liberal Party, and sadly those are commitments that he has broken today.

Greg Jennett: Is that always wise in politics to take people at their word? I mean, sometimes you don’t, right? Sometimes you …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Well, I think we’ve learnt certainly not to take Bill Shorten at his word and I guess in this regard it’s disappointing that Senator Bernardi has broken that faith, that bond with the party members in South Australia, but importantly with the more than 345,000 South Australians who voted for the Liberal Party ahead of all of the other choices they had, including others on the right of centre, like One Nation, like the Liberty Alliance, the anti-Muslim party, or the like.

Greg Jennett: Okay, child care. You've been promising a bill which now combines the welfare cuts and the child care benefit increases, in many cases increases. Will that be introduced into the Parliament tomorrow?

Simon Birmingham: That will be introduced this week and that is an important bill because firstly it delivers on our commitment to benefit hard-working Australian families, to better direct child care support to those working the longest hours but earning the least amount of money. So, there’ll be more support for the hardest-working, lowest-earning Australians. We will remove the cliff that many families fall off mid-way through the financial year where they no longer get any support. So, low and middle income families will no longer face that cap. But it is being combined with this omnibus package so that we can clearly demonstrate how it is being paid for as part of our responsible budget measures.

Greg Jennett: And it’s that second element which obviously Labor’s going to stand and fight on, which means in the Senate you have to do it the hard way. So, are we right in assuming you’re not doing this without the numbers? You are either there or within sight of getting those numbers in the Senate?

Simon Birmingham: We believe we can work this package through the Senate. As I said before, we have had many wins over the last six months of last year. We’re confident we can work it through but it’s one step at a time, working cooperatively with each necessary member of the crossbench if we can’t convince the Labor Party to come to their senses and support this important reform that provides better, more targeted child care assistance to thousands of families leaving around one million Australian families better off.

Greg Jennett: Alright, well we’ve timed the run from our studio to the Senate Chamber and you have to take that now for Question Time. Simon Birmingham, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much.