Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke

Topics: Same-sex marriage; Auditor-General finding on SA State Government grant to One Community; Murray-Darling Basin Plan




Ali Clarke:                    Good morning to Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, Ali.

Ali Clarke:                    And leader of the Australian Conservatives, Cory Bernardi.

Cory Bernardi:             Good morning, Ali.

Ali Clarke:                    And also member for Kingston and Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Development and for Defence Personnel and Veteran Affairs, Amanda Rishworth.

Amanda Rishworth:     Good morning.

Ali Clarke:                    Are you enjoying your week off?

Amanda Rishworth:     Well look, I’ve been keeping myself busy but it would be good to be in the Parliament. It would be good to be debating a whole range of issues, including the national redress scheme for those survivors of sexual abuse in government and other institutions, but instead Parliament has been not sitting unfortunately and there’s a lot of issues that we could be dealing with. Indeed, if the Senate passes the same-sex legislation today- marriage legislation today, we could actually be debating that this afternoon.

Ali Clarke:                    Well, Simon Birmingham, did the Prime Minister get this wrong given that?

Simon Birmingham:     Well no, Ali. Look, it’s for the Government to order the business of the Parliament and that’s exactly what we’ve done and we wanted to make sure this matter was handled in an orderly and sequential way and that’s precisely the case. The Senate will deal with the same-sex marriage legislation this week; it will clearly – based on the votes to date – deliver equality for Australians in same-sex relationships and provide them with the opportunity to marry as was clearly demonstrated to be the will of the Australian people in the recent postal survey; and then next week the House of Representatives will get on with debating the legislation themselves and, I trust, passing it too.

Ali Clarke:                    Well look, Cory Bernardi, you’ve been talking about the ructions that have been created by a lot of the discussion in and around the same-sex marriage bill and, in fact, you were last night on The Bolt Report and described this scene of disunity within the ranks of the Government. Here’s what you said.


Cory Bernardi:             It’s chaos. Members in the Government ranks would admit to that. And I’m happy to tell you, Andrew, I’m going to confirm the story that you put out a couple of weeks ago that there is a member of the governing party that is preparing to leave. I can confirm that because they’ve said the same to me. Now, I’m not going to do the injustice of saying who that is; I’m sure you know who it is because you reported on it and I can confirm that. So that’s an illustration to me of the chaos that is engulfing the Government. There are ministers that are preparing the exit strategies for them; they’re just walking around going: what next? The Australian people deserve better.

[End of excerpt]

Ali Clarke:                    Cory Bernardi, with no names and the details, is this nothing but mischief making from your part?

Cory Bernardi:             No, it’s not mischief making at all. I think the Government is in chaos, it’s in disarray. You’ve got people like Senator Birmingham and Senator Smith openly voting against Government amendments brought in by Senator Brandis to protect religious freedoms in same-sex marriage; you’ve got someone who is preparing to leave the Government ranks in the next week or so; you’ve got a Government that is running scared of its own party room by cancelling Parliament; and you’ve got the National Party members, of course, openly preparing for a banking inquiry bill which the Government doesn’t want. I mean, this is not how Parliament is meant to function and I think the Australian people are really, really disappointed in it, quite frankly.

Ali Clarke:                    Well then, Simon Birmingham, anything you need to tell us? Is it you that’s leaving?

Simon Birmingham:     No, unlike Cory, I was elected as a Liberal and I’ll stay as a Liberal, and I would hope that every other member of the Liberal and National Parties who were elected under that banner will stay with us. The Liberal and National Parties afford all of our members the right to cross the floor without being tossed out of their respective parties, so unlike Labor we grant people that freedom and that means that sometimes people exercise their will and their right to do so and that is, of course, entirely in keeping in with the traditions of our party. It happened under the Howard Government, the Fraser Government, the Menzies Government; it will happen again in the future. That’s just part of the Liberal and National Parties and the very robust individuals we elect to the Parliament.

Ali Clarke:                    But with that being a tradition, I mean, this morning you’ve got Nationals’ Andrew Broad saying that Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership on same-sex marriage is a failure, it wasn’t consultative enough, he didn’t go to all the trouble of speaking to people enough. If this tradition is there, why wouldn’t Malcolm Turnbull put more effort into making sure everybody’s on board and understands where he’s coming from and ask their opinion?

Simon Birmingham:     Well look, Malcolm Turnbull got the opinion of the Australian people. He stared down the opponents in relation to having a say for the Australian people and he delivered the postal survey and it was a resounding success – 80 per cent of people participated, 62 per cent said yes, Andrew Broad’s own electorate said yes. Now, we had committed all along that it would be a free vote scenario, a conscience vote scenario for every member of the Liberal and National Parties thereafter and there are some people, like Andrew, who have been vehemently opposed to changes to the Marriage Act for a very long time and no doubt still would prefer it not to happen. And they, of course, are in some instances running every possible argument still to try to frustrate the legislation.

The legislation that’s passing through this Parliament ensures that churches, ministers of religions, don’t have to have anything to do with same-sex marriage. Their right to still act in accordance with their faith, their doctrines, is clearly protected under this legislation.

Ali Clarke:                    Well there you go, Cory Bernardi, it’s steady as she goes it seems.

Cory Bernardi:             It’s a self-serving argument. Malcolm Turnbull, during the postal survey, said religious protections were more important to him than same-sex marriage, himself. He’s squibbed. He’s walked away from it –his ministers have walked away from it. This has been a fix and a stitch-up, right from the word go.

Now, don’t think this is sour grapes. I accept the will of the people. More than 80 per cent of the people voted and 60 per cent of those people said that they wanted to change the Marriage Act. But I know, when we asked for some basic religious protections and freedom of choice for parents in school, freedom of speech protections and they’ve walked away from it. Now that, I think, is going to be a very, very difficult thing for them to deal with and for many years to come. But people like Simon and Christopher Pyne and George Brandis and things have been plotting to traduce, I guess, one of the great traditions of the Liberal Party in defending marriage for many, many years and this is the end result.

Simon Birmingham:     We’ve been plotting to do something that 62 per cent of the Australian people agree with, Cory.

Cory Bernardi:             Well you have, Simon. Let’s put this in perspective: the longest …

Simon Birmingham:     I haven’t been plotting. My position’s been public for seven years, Cory.

Cory Bernardi:             Yeah, but that’s exactly right, Simon, and as a member of Cabinet you are bound by..

Simon Birmingham:     It’s been out there in the public domain, and apparently 62 per cent of people agree with me.

Cory Bernardi:             As a member of Cabinet, you are bound by the Party’s position. The Party’s position was always to defend marriage – until relatively recently – and you were openly speaking against that. Now, if you think that’s Cabinet solidarity, if you think that’s the Westminster system of government, we have a different understanding of it. You’ve done it, Christopher Pyne’s done it, George Brandis has done it, Malcolm Turnbull has done it. They have been plotting against their own party and that’s why your base is walking away in droves.

Ali Clarke:                    Cory Bernardi, what was the first thing that went through your mind as you stood there and watched the result come through from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that over 60 per cent of people supported same-sex marriage?

Cory Bernardi:             Look, I was disappointed, I make no bones about that, but it was an emphatic result. A majority of people in a majority of states did that, and to be frank, as flat as I felt over it, I saw there were many people who were very happy about it, and it then turns to the thought of, okay, how can we make the best out of this circumstance? And that’s why I made an appeal, I accepted that we lost, but I made an appeal that can we please implement some of these very basic protections for freedom of speech, freedom of religion and parental rights. Unfortunately, that appeal has fallen on deaf ears, despite the assurances during the campaign that they would be upheld.  

Amanda Rishworth:     Well look, I’ll make a couple of comments about the division within the Liberal Party. I don’t agree with Cory that this has all stemmed from the marriage equality debate. The divisions have been on show for a long time. It doesn’t matter whether it’s energy, whether it’s marriage equality; in fact, whether it’s any issue, we have deep, deep divisions within the Liberal Party between the National Party and the Liberal Party. Take water for example: the Liberal Party says we agree with the Basin Plan; the National Party is pretty much walking away from the Basin Plan. So we’ve had a deeply divided government and a Prime Minister that hasn’t been able to lead on a range of issues.

But when it comes to marriage equality, I think the point is that this bill that we are debating before the Parliament was a cross-party bill. It has already been subject to a Senate inquiry and, as Simon has pointed out, does include a lot of religious freedoms. So, certainly I believe that the balance is right and I believe that we need to get this done. The people have spoken, despite it being very, very difficult – and I would disagree with Simon to say the plebiscite was a big success. I spoke to many people that felt quite distressed and upset during that process, but we’ve had it. The result is very, very clear and we need to now get on with the job. And the House of Representatives could be getting on with the job this afternoon to actually make this law and I think that is pretty disappointing.

Ali Clarke:                    It’s a quarter to nine and we’re in the middle of Super Wednesday here on ABC Radio Adelaide. Simon Birmingham is with you, Cory Bernardi and also Amanda Rishworth.

Amanda, do you agree with the South Australian Auditor-General that the State Government’s grant of $757,000 of taxpayer dollars to One Community SA last May for a campaign against federal health education cuts was party political?

Amanda Rishworth:     Well look, I think that the State Government has been very, very consistent in standing up against Canberra’s cuts to health and education; we’ve seen that time and time again. I mean, in terms of the Gonski money, there was huge cuts to South Australia. A lot of that money that was going to support our schools and help our schools achieve their best were in the years 5 and 6 within the agreement and they were abandoned by this government. So having significant cuts to education, significant cuts to health, I think the South Australian Government is within its rights to actually stand up against those cuts, because they’re not in the interests of South Australians.

Ali Clarke:                    But even the Premier said yesterday the process was not up to scratch. So what, you’re okay with it though?

Amanda Rishworth:     Well look, I don’t know the details of the process. What I am talking about is the principle that state governments have a right to stand up against cuts to their education, to their health services. And I think we’re seeing South Australia once again have to stand up against the Commonwealth Government, because they’re showing no leadership when it comes to water; having to initiate a royal commission because of the inaction by the Commonwealth Government in actually enforcing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I think is really shameful of the Commonwealth Government who is taking no leadership on this.

Ali Clarke:                    Well, to the tune of $750,000, that’s how much you have to stand up to this. Shadow treasurer Rob Lucas for example says the government should be punished. I mean, do you think the money should be repaid?

Amanda Rishworth:     Well look, I can’t comment on that. All I can comment on is the fact that I think state governments are within their rights to hold Canberra to account. And I think when cuts are made to health, to education, indeed when – like I said – the Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot deliver the plan because of the recalcitrant states – and in New South Wales in particular – and the Commonwealth will do nothing about it, I think state governments have to stand up.

Ali Clarke:                    Well as Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, do you think the money should be repaid?

Simon Birmingham:     Absolutely, Ali. Look, let’s understand what happened here. In the middle of the federal election campaign, the Labor Government in South Australia took $750,000 of South Australian taxpayers’ money and gave it to an external organisation to basically run a vote Labor campaign. Now, at the time this was exposed – at the time this grant was exposed earlier this year I think it was – I thought it border line corruption. Frankly the Auditor-General’s report suggests that my call on that was dead right, that the state Labor Party was looking at how they could funnel taxpayer’s money to run a vote Labor campaign, and the Auditor-General has called them out, and the Labor Party should repay every single cent.

Ali Clarke:                    Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi:             Simon Birmingham’s exactly right. This is dodgy, it’s indefensible and it’s telling when even the Premier says that there’s a problem with it.

Ali Clarke:                    Simon Birmingham, returning to you again, Federal Education Minister; what’s the point of having more students in university than ever before if a lot of them aren’t finishing off the degrees and then those that do aren’t getting jobs?

Simon Birmingham:     Well Ali, I think that’s a fair question and it’s why we proposed in this year’s Budget – and I’m disappointed that it stalled in the Senate – that an element of university funding ought to be tied to performance. Right now our universities enjoy incredible autonomy to be able to enrol as many students as they want in whatever subjects or disciplines they want and they receive guaranteed funding per student for each of those enrolments.

Now, if they want that autonomy, it ought to come with some performance incentives to make sure that they’re enrolling students in courses and disciplines where there will be jobs, that they’re enrolling students who are capable of completing their courses, that they’re giving them every support to complete and that ultimately those students are getting quality outcomes in terms of employment and employment in good jobs. I don’t understand why the Labor Party stands opposed to some element of performance funding for universities to make sure that when they’re making those decisions and using that autonomy, they’re doing it in the best interest of students.

Amanda Rishworth:     Well Simon, you’re cutting billions of dollars out of the university sector. I have no problem with encouraging universities to support students and ensure that they get the best out of their university experience and that they do get a job after. Of course, that is pretty self-evident, but what you want to do is cut billions and billions of dollars from the university sector. How is that going to enable universities to support students in a better way? How is that going to enable universities to perhaps give extra attention to those that have a disability or those that might come from a disadvantaged background.

Ali Clarke:                    Are you saying though that universities can’t be managed better and there can’t be fat cut off the top of universities to manage this shortfall?

Amanda Rishworth:     I would say that I think in the order of $5 billion is a significant cut from our university sector and will do nothing to improve the experience that students have. And I think- why Simon would think that making cuts at the same time as saying: we want a better experience for students. The two things just don’t add up.

Simon Birmingham:     See, Ali. Consistently today Amanda tries to talk about cuts, when she knows the truth is simply slightly lower rates of growth. That under our reforms …

Amanda Rishworth:     That’s a cut. That’s a cut, Simon.

Simon Birmingham:     No, no, it’s a lower rate of growth. Universities will receive funding growth over the next four years of 23 per cent. Amanda was going on about schools before. Well, South Australian government school sector will receive some 10 per cent extra next year compared with this year. That’s hardly a cut, that’s 10 per cent more funding next year than they’re getting this year and it keeps growing thereafter.

Amanda Rishworth:     You can dress it up any way you want Simon, a cut is a cut is a cut.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, Amanda, your understanding of maths suggests that perhaps we really do have some failings in the education system, because this is growing funding.

Amanda Rishworth:     Excuse me, I saw forward estimates. There were agreements made about school funding and you cut years 5 and 6; that’s the truth of it, Simon. You did not commit to the agreements that were signed, even though before an election you promised to do so.

Simon Birmingham:     An extra $85 million for South Australian schools next year. That’s growth, that’s real extra money.

Ali Clarke:                    Okay. Well, we’ll leave it there, maths homework for all. Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister; Amanda Rishworth, Member for Kingston; and Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives; thank you all for your time.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you.

Cory Bernardi:             Thanks, Ali.