Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Barnaby Joyce; Murray-Darling Basin plan

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham is Federal Education Minister, he joins us now, good morning Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning and happy Valentines today.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for SA, good morning to you.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.

David Bevan: And Nick Champion, Labor member for Wakefield in the northern part of Adelaide. Good morning to you.

Nick Champion: Good morning.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, is Barnaby Joyce’s leadership on toast?

Simon Birmingham: No, now the leadership of the National party is entirely a matter for the National Party, Barnaby is getting on with his job as Minister for Transport and Infrastructure and that is entirely what I expect him to keep doing.

David Bevan: There will be a delegation meeting him today from the National party, what do you expect to come out of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well that is what you’re saying David. I’ve got no reason to expect that’s the case.

David Bevan: So you think there won’t be a delegation meeting Joyce today and that he will remain in the position of Leader of the Nationals which will mean he will remain as Deputy Prime Minister?

Simon Birmingham: I have no idea what meetings are or aren’t in Barnaby’s diary. But I know that he’ll spend his day getting on with his job as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Infrastructure.

David Bevan: He’ll spend his day trying to save his job.

Simon Birmingham: He’ll spend his day getting on with his job.

Ali Clarke: We heard Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop on AM this morning Simon Birmingham, she is due to be overseas next week but essentially said she is almost putting things on hold because she could change her plans if she needs to, she doesn’t seem as definite as you?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Foreign Minister is very agile I know, and of course Julie does an exceptional job and she’s being doing a great job for Australia representing the country in Kuwait this week where we can be very proud of Australia’s efforts to help defeat ISIS and help restore in Iraq stability and a better future for those people.

Ali Clarke: So do you think Barnaby Joyce should be Prime Minister next week in Malcolm Turnbull’s absence?

Simon Birmingham: Who is acting Prime Minister is simply a matter of the order of precedence and I expect that will be followed.

David Bevan: Does this come down to Simon Birmingham an interpretation of the Ministerial code, that is that the Ministerial code bans people from receiving benefits to their partners but not to their lovers?

Simon Birmingham: Well let’s be clear, Ms Campion who was very highly qualified, a former journalist, I don’t think anybody disputes she was qualified for the job that she was hired for, who is now Barnaby Joyce’s partner, is no longer in the employment of the Government, so she’s now his partner and is not in breach of the Ministerial code because she is not in the employment of the Government.

David Bevan: Not now, but she was in the employment of the Government, and clearly then they had some kind of relationship, he might not have been her partner but they had some kind of relationship, she was in the employment of the Government and was being moved around to various positions?

Simon Birmingham: And David your allegation, suggestion is what?

David Bevan: Well my point to you is that the Ministerial code which would have made it a breach to give a benefit to a partner or a family member would not apply to a lover, is that what the public are being asked to accept?

Simon Birmingham: Well David I think the public can understand very clearly that Ms Campion had left the employment of the Government at the end of last year, that yes it’s been very clear that she is Barnaby’s partner now, these are of course all very difficult personal issues and my heart goes out to Barnaby’s wife Natalie and his daughters for the pain that they would be suffering from the public exposure of this. It’s difficult for all parties but we’ve made sure that the code is being followed and will be followed.

Ali Clarke: If the baby is due in April it would seem she did become pregnant with Mr Joyce’s child while employed by the Government?

Simon Birmingham: And these are matters that are all on the public record, ultimately she was highly qualified to be hired, there is no suggestion that at the point she was hired by the Deputy Prime Minister that there was any relationship, a relationship obviously occurred, that is a matter of fact and public knowledge, she is no longer in the employment of the Government.

Ali Clarke: Well hang on, but if your pregnant with someone’s child, are you not a partner or have a relationship that is a little bit more than well that’s just a passing relationship.

Simon Birmingham: There clearly was relationship, nobody is disputing that there was a relationship.

Ali Clarke: Okay.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Rules are different for one’s wife but not for one’s mistress. I mean this is what is ridiculous about this situation, it doesn’t pass the sniff test. I must say, you know I feel a little bit sorry here for Simon Birmingham here on the other end because it’s not a mess of his making but boy oh boy it is a mess made by Barnaby Joyce. And I feel like there are so many poor women involved in this story who are being dragged through this by a Deputy Prime Minister, a bloke who needs to take responsibility for his own actions and he is distracting the entire government. The Prime Minister is going over to the US next week unless this is sorted out, I mean unless he resigns, it’s going to be distraction over there, that is not good for Australia. Then only way forward is for him to do the right thing and step down from being the leader of the Nationals.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, you say that they were clearly in a relationship when she was working for Barnaby Joyce, and then she left his employer, and went to other Ministerial offices or other MPs offices, would that relationship not be caught by the Ministerial code of conduct?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, it would seem technically not but really this is a debate and a discussion about an issue that doesn’t impact on whether or not Australians have a job, doesn’t impact on the electricity prices, I mean people I talk to say we just want you guys to get on with the job of governing and that’s precisely what we’re doing and what we want to do, I get that there is great scintillation and interest from the media in talking about this but I’m sick to death of the topic, I want to spend my time as Minister worried about education in my portfolio, worried about getting the National Electricity Guarantee in place to drive down power prices for Australians.

David Bevan: So you say it’s…

Simon Birmingham: Continuing to create jobs, which we’ve had great success doing.

David Bevan: So Simon Birmingham you say it’s technically not caught by the Ministerial code of conduct in which case do we have a breach in spirit if not in actual fact?

Simon Birmingham: Well look you form your opinion and have your arguments…

David Bevan: Well, I’m asking you.

Simon Birmingham: Well I want to talk about jobs, I want to talk about power prices, I want to talk opportunities for Australians.

Sarah Hanson-Young: This is why it is distracting the Government.

Simon Birmingham: I want to talk about our education reforms, I don’t want to talk about this topic.

David Bevan: Well just because you don’t want to talk about this topic, doesn’t mean it’s not in the public interest to talk about it.

Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t think it is in the public interest David. This is a matter, frankly, that is about personal lives, private lives. Now ultimately what is in the public interest is the government of the day’s ability to create 403 000 jobs like we did last year. What is in the public interest is for the government of the day to reform our electricity markets to drive prices down which is what we are doing.

David Bevan: Is it worthwhile having a…

Simon Birmingham: …They’re the things that are in the Government’s interest and in the public interest…

David Bevan: Is it worthwhile having a Ministerial code of conduct?

Simon Birmingham: Of course.

David Bevan: Ok is it worthwhile keeping to the spirit of that code of conduct or do we allow things to happen which technically are not a breach?

Simon Birmingham: People want to create a lot of fears, and slurs and whispers and so on around this, nobody has pinned a clear allegation or accusation that there has been a misuse of public funds or anything of that sort and that’s why we ought to focus on the issues that are important. I answered the questions before very clearly, Ms Campion was highly qualified for the job for which she was hired. There was no relationship at the time, clearly a relationship emerged, she is no longer in the employment of the Government now that she is the partner of Mr Joyce.

Ali Clarke: Nick Champion, Labor member for Wakefield. You’ve been very quiet and listening to all of this. Do you think it is time that maybe the Ministerial code of conduct gets tidied up?

Nick Champion: Well look, I think the key problem for the Government is that they’ve got a divided and paralysed National Party and the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet of the Liberal Party seems to be saying to the country that it is up to the National Party and the Deputy Prime Minister to if you like to be the judge of how they use this section of the Government’s staffing quota and I don’t think that is good enough. I think it is the Prime Minister’s job to interpret the Ministerial code of conduct, the buck stops with the Prime Minister, it’s his job to make judgments about his Minister’s, it’s his job to make judgments about whether the code has been breached or not, but Sarah is right, this has now got to a point where it is no just paralysing the National party, or the Government, it is paralysing the nation and we would all prefer to be talking about something else. I know I’d rather be talking about jobs, I’d rather be arguing about the River Murray, and we could be talking about how Barnaby Joyce didn’t do his day job on the River Murray and that’s why we’ve got an apprentice minister who came from nowhere from the backbench, is now our water minister, and is making a hash of it because Barnaby Joyce had made a hash of it, that directly affects South Australians, it directly affects the River Murray and we should be talking about that but instead we’re talking about…

Simon Birmingham: Well let’s talk about…

Nick Champion: …this soap opera. Well Simon we’re not going to talk about it and the nations not going to talk about it until this private matter is put back into the private domain. None of us brought it into the public domain. It should have remained in the private domain.

Simon Birmingham: You’re the ones going into question time asking questions about it.

Nick Champion: And the way to put it back in the private domain is for Barnaby Joyce to simply resign and let everybody else get on with their day jobs.

Ali Clarke: Well let’s use the water from the River Murray to wash away all of this a little bit, and let’s stick there. Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator, you actually have a disallowance motion that the NXT party have said they will support. How does this work exactly because we’ve discussed all of this for so long, it’s coming to ahead this week?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look that’s right, this is a motion to stop the Government allowing less water to go to the environment and more water to go to the big corporate irrigators. This motion, there is two on the books, the first one to be dealt with today is in relation to the Northern basin, and we’ve seen just overnight another scandal come out from reporting of the ABC on the 730 report, that shows that more water is being ripped out of the water illegally, and we’ve heard from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that they’ve got no capacity to even know how much water is being stolen, let alone do much about it. And the whole thing is in a shambles and yet the Government wants to say we’ll give some 70 gigalitres less water to the river, less water to the environment and reward this bad behaviour of big corporate irrigators upstream. I’m trying to stop that from happening in the Senate, I’m thankful to the support from the Nick Xenophon team and from the Labor party and hopefully we can knock this on the head.

David Bevan: So what is the actual effect of the disallowance motion, is it to do with 70 gigalitres of water which is a drop in the ocean?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well it’s not really David, because it actually sets this precedence for then what also happens in the southern basin. The Government wants to rip out 70 gigalitres from the environment in the northern basin and 605 gigalitres in the southern, sorry in the northern basin 70 gigalitres, the southern basis 605 gigalitres. We’re actually talking about hundreds of billions of litres of water, rewarding bad behaviour.

David Bevan: Yeah but just to be quite clear, your motion relates to the 60 gigalitres?

Sarah Hanson-Young: There is two motions on the table. One relates to the northern basin which is 70 gigalitres and the other relates to the 605 gigalitres in the southern basin.

David Bevan: And when is that going to be voted on?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well there both listed for today, we’ll see how far we get. I think the northern basin vote will have to happen today because the timeframe ends today, but look, let’s just be clear, we’ve had 12 months of exposès of water theft, of corruption, of people fiddling and dodging the figures as to how much water is being bought at huge taxpayer expenses. Let’s not forget we’ve put $13 billion on the table to do this and the Government wants to reward bad behaviour, well we are not having it.

David Bevan: Well let’s give the last word to the Government, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: The Labor party, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon team today are voting to have no basin plan. They’re voting to destroy the agreement…

Sarah Hanson-Young: That’s not true Birmo…

Simon Birmingham: …that was reached in 2012, Tony Burke, then Labor Minister, to get agreement from all of the states and all the parties agreed that there would be a review of the northern basin component in November 2012 he made that agreement. It’s taken nearly five years for all of the scientific work and so on to get to a point where its proposed change to the northern basin which Ian Hunter himself signed off him at the Ministerial Council last year, the South Australian Labor Minister, now I find it remarkable we’re now at a point where because they think they can posture ahead of the South Australian election, we have all of these parties willing to risk tearing the plan up that took so long to develop, risking the upstream states using this as an excuse to say well you’ve betrayed us, you’ve double crossed us, you’ve gone back on your word that was struck in 2012 so we’ll now walk away from the process. That if they walk away from the process we are left stranded with a 2100 gigalitre basin plan rather than the 3200 gigalitre basin plan we all committed to.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Maybe if they stuck to the rules and stopped covering up for people stealing water, we could actually…

Simon Birmingham: You referenced the 730 story, last night, I watched it, I saw images of people, of police cars, charging people and investigating issues of corruption, so in fact compliance is happening when people are breaking the rules.

Sarah Hanson-Young: The head of the Murray Darling Basin Authority says they don’t even know how much water has been stolen, yet they want to give more water to irrigators.

Nick Champion: It’s as simple as this though, the National party cannot be trusted with the River Murray, that’s the simple fact. They should put Simon Birmingham in charge of it and then we might get somewhere.

Ali Clarke: This is a taste of what will play out a bit later today.

Simon Birmingham: I was in charge of it for a while and I progressed the northern basin review while I was there because that was part of the deal, Tony Burke the Labor Minister struck in 2012 and Nick you should stick by the deal your party struck.

Ali Clarke: Thank you very much, education Minister Simon Birmingham, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and also Nick Champion, Labor member for Wakefield.