Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Counter-terrorism proposals; Gun laws; Same-sex marriage survey

David Bevan: A big welcome to Simon Birmingham, Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister. Good morning Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David, good morning Ali and everybody else.

David Bevan: Labor Senator for South Australia Penny Wong and shadow Foreign Affairs Minister down the line, good morning Penny.

Penny Wong: Good morning.

David Bevan: And Cory Bernardi, Leader of the Australian Conservatives and South Australian Senator, good morning Cory Berrnardi.

Cory Bernardi: Good morning all.

Ali Clarke: We’ve just heard the Prime Minister in AM talking about Government wanting to get their hands on information on driver’s licenses, they say it’s the motherload that it needs to build a powerful law enforcement tool. Penny Wong, should states hand over driver’s licenses to Government?

Penny Wong: Look all I’ve seen on this announcement, is the reports in the papers and obviously the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, was on radio this morning. Look, I’m a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on intelligence and security, it’s a committee which has looked at pretty much every piece of anti-terrorist related legislation, national security legislation over the last years and consistent with Labor’s bi-partisan approach, we take a very collective approach to looking at the sorts of proposals, I assume that the Government will go through the same process, and Labor always is prepared to look at what laws are needed to ensure that we keep Australians safe and we will consider these laws that the Prime Minister is flagging very carefully and including what safeguards are required.

David Bevan: So is that a qualified yes?

Penny Wong: It’s we will approach this with the usual bi-partisanship we always do, but I would like to actually see what is proposed first. I don’t think that is unreasonable.

David Bevan: No no, I’m not suggesting it was unreasonable but I’m just trying to work out whether there is a yes in there, with qualifications, but there is not even that, it’s a no I need to see this before I….

Penny Wong: Your putting words into my mouth, please don’t. Let’s have a nice conversation.

David Bevan: I’m just trying to work out whether you are positive or neutral.

Penny Wong: We are always willing to support legislation which we believe is necessary to ensure Australians are safe, and that has consistently over many years been the approach the Labor party has taken and I’m explaining to you the process that usually occurs. Legal proposals, such as this usually go to this Joint Parliamentary Committee on intelligence and security, we consider all of the laws that the Government has put forward, most of them have been amended by the Government on recommendation of the committee of the public inquiry, and I assume the Government will go through the same process and we would approach it with the same spirit of bi-partisanship that we have approached every other national security proposal.

David Bevan: I really wasn’t looking for fight Penny Wong, just want to know whether you approach it with a positive attitude whether on the face of it sounds like a good idea or whether you’re neutral and I just need to see what’s being put for me before I can give any response, that’s it.

Penny Wong: I think I answered.

David Bevan: I think you have, let’s move on, Cory Bernardi do you think this a good idea?

Cory Bernardi: David, I’m a bit with Penny, I don’t know. There’s three parts to this that I think are important. Firstly, I’m concerned about privacy and diminishing levels of privacy, both through Government and also through other surveillance that is taking place online, so I’d want to consider it through that prism. Second aspect, is our national security, I don’t want to compromise that so you’ve got to see if this is going to have a meaningful and beneficial impact. Thirdly, it’s the cost that is going to be attached to it, and if we’re going to start gathering data on particular people I’d like to see that actually happen more in the welfare space as well because I think there is a lot of people that are ripping us off on welfare and it might be an opportunity to tie in a coordinated approach to identify individuals who are accessing the welfare system.

David Bevan: We’ve been in touch with the Premiers office, because this is the state’s information and it’s their data, and a spokesman for Premier Jay Wetherill says yes they are supportive but the question was, is the South Australian Government agreeable to handing over the states driver license photo database to the Federal Government and the answer was yes supportive. But this will be nutted out tomorrow when the leaders meet for their anti-terrorism summit. Simon Birmingham, Senator for South Australia, you’d think it’s a great idea because your boss wants it?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think as my boss, as the Prime Minister outlined on AM this morning, the Federal Government already has photos and facial recognition technology that’s applicable through passports to around half of all Australians. Obviously, the effectiveness of that in terms of our national security agencies generally, law enforcement overall could be enhanced by having access to a broader reach of the population which driver license data would provide, clearly this is something that requires state and commonwealth cooperation and I’m pleased to hear the South Australian Government will be coming to Canberra with a cooperative attitude in relation to this.

Ali Clarke: What about Cory Bernardi’s idea of extending this from not just a safety and security measure to using this information to look at social welfare platforms.

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m not sure initially how facial recognition arrangements would necessarily help with welfare compliance. As a Government we have on a number of fronts managed to successfully and better use technology and particularly different data sources to be able to identify areas of potential welfare fraud, saving the taxpayer many hundreds of millions of dollars as a result and we will continue to explore all new avenues where we could possibly clamp down in relation to the welfare problem.

David Bevan: What are you suggesting Cory Bernardi? That somebody is on welfare, if they’re picked up on a security camera at a Guns and Roses concert they might be asked where did you get the money for that?

Cory Bernardi: Let’s break this down, I know that there is any number of instances where Medicare cards for example are been used by multiple individuals, that’s been reported to me by both the medical professional and anecdotally people involved in associated fields. So what’s the problem with having, if you’ve got a driver’s license and national database, what’s the problem with having a Medicare card that is linked into that system as well. But this is about saving tens of billions of dollars I suspect from wilful and deliberate fraud and I just wonder whether if we’re going to go down the path of having a facial recognition database for all Australians we should tie it into accessing services as well.

Ali Clarke: At the very start of this conversation though, the very first thing you said Cory Bernardi was you were concerned about losing our privacy, and our increasing loss of privacy.

Cory Bernardi: That’s true Ali and this where the delicate balance is, we face this all the time in areas of national security, in areas of accessibility to Government benefits, and individuals concerns and that is the fine point and I’m sure people have different ideas about where that should be, but I think we have got to have a very serious conversation about what is going on in this country in certain areas. Not just security but also from accessing the very generous benefit package that is slowly sending the country broke.

David Bevan: The Prime Minister has signalled he is prepared to revisit the issues of guns, following the Las Vegas shooting, Cory Bernardi do you see any merit in that?

Cory Bernardi: It depends on what he is proposing; I actually haven’t seen any compelling case to revisit our gun laws, I think they’re pretty tough, they’re strict and I think some would argue they’re too strict in certain circumstances, but I don’t want to see more people carrying guns in this country, I don’t think it is necessary, and yet if people do have a legitimate use for it, like farmers or hunters which is a sport that some people enjoy, I think they should be able to have access to it under strict conditions,

David Bevan: So for you if there was a package that would be put to the Senate and you had to vote on it would you be saying well we can do some horse trading here, maybe there are some areas of gun laws that can be relaxed and others that could be strengthened?

Cory Bernardi: Yes, I’m absolutely open to these sorts of things and I’ve met with a lot of people who are professional shooters for example that say they have had difficulties in accessing certain things, I know farmers who have upgraded from one air rifle or slug gun to another, and there is a three or four month waiting period to upgrade. Those sorts of thing seem unnecessary to me, but if the question is, do I want to see people carrying guns in this country, do I want people to have access to automatic weapons, the answer is absolutely no. I haven’t seen a compelling case for that at all.

Ali Clarke: Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia and also shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. What’s your take on this?

Penny Wong: Can I say first and I know all of us share in this. It was such a tragedy in America and the stories that are coming out, I think are reminders of why it was that Australia went down the path we did under John Howard and Kim Beasley where we had a bi-partisan approach to restricting gun laws and I think we would certainly be open to the Prime Ministers suggestion, I can’t recall the last time we actually reviewed the gun laws, but they’ve been in place for some time and if he thinks there is merit in having a looking whether they are fit for purpose, then I think there is merit in that. But it is a reminder isn’t it, that was a very important bi-partisan step that was taken over a decade ago, we had a dreadful, tragic, set of events at Port Arthur and we haven’t had another event like Port Arthur since, in Australia and that is a very good thing.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, the big response to the postal survey on same sex marriage, that’s being seen as a vindication, an endorsement of the Government’s decision to have that survey. Do you agree?

Penny Wong: No I don’t at all, but what I think it’s an endorsement of, is Australian’s willingness to participate and get out and have their say. And I’ve been very touched as well as very sad by this whole process, I’ve been touched by the number of people who have been prepared to stand-up, not just members of the LGBTIQ community, not just gay and lesbian Australian’s, but our friends and allies, parents and friends, mothers who have come out and supported their kids. That’s been very heart warming, but it’s also been very sad, there’s been a lot pretty awful things said and a lot of things said perhaps politely but still demonstrating, and basically suggesting that we are different. I would have preferred not have had this survey, it’s not binding and it’s costing us a lot of money, but this is the fight we’re in, so what I would say to anyone listening who is a yes supporter, we’ve still got seven million votes out there that haven’t come in, we’ve had a good turnout so far but we do need to keep going until the end to try and ensure the best result possible for the country.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi, are you proud of what is being said and done during this debate in the same sex marriage.

Cory Bernardi: Yeah overwhelmingly, I think it’s been carried on in very good spirits, there’s been aberrations on both sides, I mean you know some clown was putting out a Facebook post offering people money to thrown a brick at my head. I mean that’s not healthy and I know it works on both sides. Overwhelmingly, so far we’ve had what 57 per cent of people return their survey ballot, I think if we’re going to take the temperature of the Australian people this is one way to do it. I haven’t had too many problems with what’s gone on so far.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, taking the temperature of the country are we running a fever?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it is really very positive to see the scale of response and engagement to date, let’s think about it in local terms here in South Australia, we run postal ballots for local government elections, and I think they get something like 20-25 per cent response, this is now tracking toward 60 per cent with a number of weeks to go and so we will see a result that is potentially three times greater than that in terms of local government in terms of participation. So it shows a strong level of interest and a strong level of participation that many people have welcomed the opportunity to have their say and of course have seen millions of Australians have done so as result of conversations over kitchen tables, polite engagement in discussions in the vast majority, 99 per cent of cases, where they have exercised their will, we will see the result, and everyone knows my position, and like Penny I would still encourage particularly those who want to see change, if you haven’t sent it back yet, please make sure you do so and of course I urge all Australians to participate.

David Bevan: Senator Penny Wong, for some people the stumbling block is simply their Bible. They believe the Bible and it contains clear condemnation of homosexuality. Now you’re a church goer, how do you reconcile…

Penny Wong: Not a very good one.

David Bevan: Alright not a very good church goer, but how do you reconcile your faith with the bibles condemnation of homosexuality? For many people that is the stumbling block and that’s why they cannot do this.

Penny Wong: Well that’s a pretty deeply personal question, but I guess I’ve got two answers, and the first is the primary teaching of Christianity is to love one another as I have loved you. And the second point I would make is this, there is a distinction between religious belief and the civil society, and the separation of church and state is something I actually fundamentally believe in, it protects freedoms of all, it actually was a principle to protect freedom of religion to ensure the state didn’t intervene but it works both ways. We don’t, well what we are talking about is civil marriage, we’re talking about marriage that the state as a secular state recognises, we are not talking about marriage in churches or in mosques or in synagogues, were talking about the marriages that most Australians engage in, choose to engage, which is a secular civil ceremony. What I would say is you are entitled to your faith and to your particular version of what you think your faith requires of you, but I say that ought not be imposed on the rest of society.

David Bevan: But can you see how for some people, if they support this, they would consider themselves picking and choosing which bit of the text they’re going to believe in. And once they do that, for them personally the whole thing starts to crumble. Do you see the dilemma they’re in?

Penny Wong: I understand that but there are two points, they are many things that the bible says and we don’t enact all of those things as laws. But more importantly whatever your view about what the bible means, we’re talking about civil society, we’re talking about the secular state, we’re talking about the elections of governments and parliaments, state and federal, which are not about religion but are about people exercising their rights as a citizen in a secular society. Now, people have their faith and they’re entitled to that and I respect that but what I say and I think most Australians say is peoples particular faith belief ought not be imposed on everyone including the millions who don’t share that particular view.

Ali Clarke: Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia, Simon Birmingham, Senator for South Australia, thank you very much and Cory Bernardi leader of the Australian Conservatives, before we do let you go, there is a school in the south-east that has contacted us and they’re actually doing as they have done every year, another do it in a dress type fundraiser. Craigburn primary school has topped over $300 000 once you got involved in not enjoying their…

Cory Bernardi: You’re conflating several things. I mean let’s go back, firstly, they turned a casual clothes day into something that it otherwise wasn’t, people can raise money for whatever cause they like, I just don’t agree it’s right for teachers and male students to be encouraged to wear a dress, I’m entitled to that view and the money that was raised, was done because it was a way of giving me a bloody nose or a political black eye, good luck to them, if people want to spend their money doing that I’m not going to complain about it but I just don’t think it’s right for schools to encourage their male teachers to wear dresses.

Ali Clarke: Ok, but you’re still pleased you helped them raise over $300 000 right?

Cory Bernardi: Hey it’s terrific, there is nothing wrong with charity and its good work, so you know I’m always happy about that, I will endorse whatever sort of good cause will be helpful.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives, I will hook you up with that other little primary school, but thank you so much for your time.