Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Mark Butler’s criticism of Labor Party factions; Universities criticism of foreign influence laws; AEMO’ consultation paper; Connection between wind farms and health adversities; Nick Xenophon’s stance on renewable energy

David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister to the program.

Good morning, minister.

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

David Bevan: And where are you talking to us from?

Simon Birmingham: I am in Adelaide this morning just juggling a couple of events. I couldn’t get to the studio.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, talking to us from Davos, is that right Sarah?

Sarah Hanson-Young: That’s right. I’m in chilly Davos, actually. I think last time I checked the temperature it was minus 7. So I’m sorry that you guys are sweltering while I’m over here freezing.

David Bevan: And what are you doing there? Is this work? Did our listeners pay for this?

Sarah Hanson-Young: No. I paid for this myself. But it is work, of course, because it’s important that Australia remains connected to the rest of the world. I’m here, I’m talking to world leaders and business people and other community leaders about how Australia can help transition to the new economy. Obviously the TPP and trade deals are being discussed here, but as is really how do we train our young people to make them fit for the future.

David Bevan: Alright. And Mark Butler, outgoing national president of the Labor Party and Federal Labor Member for Port Adelaide, welcome to you.

Mark Butler: Good morning.

Ali Clarke: Is it true that you’re only actually in our studio because you’re hiding from the rest of your party right about now after what you said on Monday night?

Mark Butler: No, it’s not true. I’m not sure who told you that, Ali.

Ali Clarke: [Interrupts] Well, I mean you did …

Mark Butler: [Talks over] I’ve had a very positive response from party members to the speech I gave the other night.

Ali Clarke: So, some of the things you said is that, essentially, Labor is treading water, with falling numbers, only about 50,000 members out of a country with a population of 25 million. One quote: I’m sorry to say that ours remains a party that gives ordinary members fewer rights than any other Labor or social democratic party I can think of. And you’re really sick of the backroom buffoonery of factional warlords.

Mark Butler: Well, the speech was really a call to arms for our national conference this July to get on with the job of party reform that we’ve been dealing with, really since Bob Hawke and Neville Wran issued their first blueprint 15 years ago. And the speech was directed, particularly, at the two larger branches where that reform effort has stalled. You’ve seen really good reform happen here in South Australia, in Queensland, in Tasmania, in the territories, but in the two big states – particularly in Victoria I have to say – reform efforts, particularly to give members a vote in selecting Senate candidates, have stalled. So, this July, we have a conference coming back to Adelaide for the first time since I think 1979. We’ll have our national conference here in Adelaide. And I want to have a full debate about making sure that across our country, not just in states like South Australia, but across our country, members are given full rights to vote in all important decisions in our party.

Ali Clarke: So, Simon Birmingham, were you one of the most positive to Mark Butler about that speech?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs]

Mark Butler: He hasn’t called me yet about it.

Ali Clarke: [Indistinct]

Mark Butler: [Talks over] I’ve been waiting with baited breath for Simon’s analysis.

Simon Birmingham: Very happy for Mark to expose factions in the Labor Party, but of course, there’s a bit of hypocrisy from Mark there. David, who was covering state politics all though the year of what was known as the machine, would well recall the period where Mark, as head of the Misco’ union, would sit down with Don Farrell as head of the Shoppies union and carve up every single Labor pre-selection in the state. And frankly for all the talk of democratic change in the Labor Party, I’m not sure much has changed.

Mark Butler: Well, I mean, the challenge in party reform I think is giving up power. Simon would understand this. There is a debate in New South Wales within the Liberal Party to give members more of a vote. And Simon’s group, the left of the Liberal Party, is crushing that movement. The challenge is to give up power, to give up influence. Jay Weatherill here, Peter Malinauskas, when he was the president, led a reform effort that is giving members of the South Australian branch of the Labor Party, for the first time, a vote in selecting Senate candidates. And that was my call in the speech the other night, for Victoria to do the same …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So, who’s running the show in Victoria and New South Wales?

Mark Butler: It’s very hard to decipher …

David Bevan: [Talks over] No, it’s not hard at all. You know exactly- especially because it’s not many people. So you’d probably be able to name them.

Mark Butler: Well, my focus was particularly Victoria because there are- that’s a bit of a moveable feast I think in the factional arrangements there. In New South Wales, I think there’s been a very positive approach to party reform. They led the debate around …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Yeah, but hang on.

Mark Butler: Kennedy pre-selection …

David Bevan: But you say there isn’t grassroots power in Victoria and New South Wales. So, who’s running the …

Mark Butler: [Talks over] Senate pre-selections.

David Bevan: … So who’s running the show in Victoria?

Mark Butler: Well it is hard to work out. There are shifting sands and my focus was on …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So you don’t know?

Mark Butler: My focus was on some decisions to carve up influence in the Victorian branch …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Mark Butler, you know.

Mark Butler: [Indistinct] Taken before Christmas.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, you know.

Mark Butler: I could go through a long list, but the point is …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well it doesn’t sound like it is a long list at all.

Mark Butler: The point is there’s a carve up of influence in Victoria that is derogating from the reform effort, not advancing it, and that’s really my call for the party conference in July to deal with. I mean, our party needs to be a party not just of ideas. At the end of the day, your listeners will vote for Labor or not vote for Labor according to our ideas. But our ability to implement those ideas, those policies, depend on the health of our party organisation. We’re not a think tank; we’re a movement that has to be able to put thousands and thousands of shoulders to the world to implement those ideas.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look Mark, I actually think your speech is a really important one and I think it’s a warning sign for all political parties at a time when the public are increasingly frustrated with politics. How on earth do we expect people to be active members of whatever political party- you know I want people to join the Greens, but I also understand there are diverging ideas and passions out there. I just hope people are involved in politics full stop. I think that’s the priority and then let’s have a good debate about what those ideas are. But in order for people to be engaged, they have to feel like they have a voice in their party. So, I think it’s a really good message and a think when we look around the world, whatever you think of people like Jeremy Corbyn, for example, he has generated a massive interest where he now has so many young people joining the Labour Party there in the UK.

David Bevan: Moving on.

Sarah Hanson-Young: And we’ve got to find ways to engage people.

David Bevan: Moving on to another topic. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. We heard an interview in AM a short while ago that the universities are worried that anti-spy laws that your Government is going to introduce could damage research into cancer and AIDS. Can you explain what are your new security laws and do you say they pose any threat to academic independence?

Simon Birmingham: There’s a bit of hysteria coming in those interviews and I note that other academics, in fact, other academics like Clive Hamilton, who’s a former Green Party candidate, were welcoming the new foreign interference laws that the Government has before the Parliament. But the first point to make here is those laws are before the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. They’re taking submissions and hearing evidence in terms of…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But what do the laws actually do? What do the laws do?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, sure. So, what we’re seeing is an increase in foreign intelligence services engaging in covert influence, in activity and interference across Australia. What the law seeks to do is make it easier to identify where entities are taking funds, engage in activities on behalf of foreign governments, and engaged in policy lobbying or advocacy on behalf of foreign governments. And so, the laws set in place a register, if you like, that allow governments and the public to have greater transparency over activities of foreign governments within Australia and put obligations on Australian entities.

Now, the idea that a researcher undertaking clinical research in different health fields is somehow going to be prevented from doing their work, and clearly that is not the intent. We don’t believe it would be captured by the laws as they’re written, but they’re before a parliamentary committee. Universities of Australia’s arguments will be heard, and if there need to be amendments to those laws before they pass the Parliament to make sure and get absolute certainty, well then, we’ll make it.

David Bevan: Mark Butler. Does it worry you, Mark Butler?

Mark Butler: Well, we work as hard as we can with the government through the committee that Simon just referred to, to try and bring bipartisanship to national security laws, and we’ll do some relation to the laws that are currently under consideration as well. But I think all of us would agree that the ability of Australia universities to work with universities overseas is incredibly important to the research, particularly medical research effort that has been supported by governments of both political persuasions for decades now. So, we’ll work constructively with the government on these laws, but we also want to engage with universities to understand their concerns about them.

Ali Clarke: To you, Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: I think, obviously, if there’s security issues, then let’s deal with that and let’s come up with recommendations and ways forward. But I think the broader issue here – and this is what the universities are worried about, and it’s something I’ve been hearing really disturbingly quite a bit while I’ve been in Davos the last couple of days – is that there is a growing sense that Australia is starting to shut its doors, that we are starting to pick on particular groups, whether they’re international students or migrants from certain areas or workers that are coming to Australia from certain areas, and saying: you know what, we don’t really need you or you’re not really welcome, you’re not going to be of equal value when you come to Australia. I think that’s a really concerning trend, and we’ve got to be careful about when you talk about these issues, that we don’t do it so broadly that you paint an entire group of people with the same brush. And the student Chinese community, other international students; universities are worried that they are copping the brunt from a government that just doesn’t know how to talk about migration properly, and is worried that…

David Bevan: [Talks over] But, Simon Birmingham, is it- is it just the universities, Simon Birmingham? What about state education departments and some of the liaisons that they’ve had with the Chinese state governments sponsoring various programs? The Sydney Morning Herald did a lot of work on that a year or so ago.

Simon Birmingham: Well looking in, David, you could go to state governments and their dealings with Chinese government-owned companies in relation to Australia’s ports and pose questions about at what point disclosure needs to be made on those issues that were, of course, revealed in The Advertiser just over the course of the last week. Look, these laws put in place the register. They also tighten as it is laws around espionage and treason in a way that will ensure that we have adequacy in terms of prosecution if it comes to that at some stage down the track. This is about safeguarding Australia’s interests and putting them first, but nobody wants a situation where our universities – in particular, our researchers – can’t engage with others. We expect collaboration and we gain much from collaborating universities around the rest of the world, and other research institutes around the rest of the world. It should absolutely be safeguarded…

Ali Clarke: [Interrupts] It’s 8.46. Just to move on, you’re listening to ABC Radio Adelaide. I’m Ali Clarke, David Bevan is with you. Sarah Hanson-Young is as well, as is Mark Butler and Simon Birmingham.

And just staying with you, Simon Birmingham; front page of the Sydney Morning Herald is talking about a new radical plan outlined by the Australian Energy Market Operator that says that they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than twice the rate proposed by your government. They’re also flagging that they’re expecting trouble from you. So, Simon Birmingham, are you already lining AEMO up?

Simon Birmingham: No, this is a consultation paper that AEMO’s had out since 17 December. It looks at a range of scenarios from an engineering point of view to allow them to plan in relation to the energy market, and they’re looking at how different target scenarios would affect transmission investment and therefore transmission infrastructure and the like. And that’s AEMO properly getting on and doing its job. Now, the government has our targets for emissions reduction between 26 and 28 per cent reduction by 2030 that are out there on a per capita basis, on a GDP basis. They’re world leading reduction targets…

Ali Clarke: [Interrupts] But they’re saying a potential cut of 52 per cent to all electricity emissions by 2030.

Simon Birmingham: And that is one scenario that they are modelling out of an abundance of caution on behalf of AEMO to look at all of the different scenarios from an engineering perspective that they need to be conscious of. Now …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Mark Butler, you’d be welcoming this.

Mark Butler: Well, we’re looking forward to looking through this report in detail. I mean, just demonstrates again that there are two parallel universes operating here. There’s the government which is having to play- not particularly to Simon, because I think he understands these issues well, but to Tony Abbott, to Barnaby Joyce, to Craig Kelly and others who just want to stop the world and get off, and pretend that there’s not around the world a massive transition happening in our energy systems and in our transport systems, in our passenger vehicle systems, around the world. And what I think the AEMO report will reflect is the views that are being canvassed for a number of years now, which is the electricity sector should be doing more than its mathematical share of the abatement task around the economy. And I think that that’s not a particular new revelation, but it’s very challenging for a government that’s trying to hold things back rather than lean forward.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, do you think it’s appropriate to ridicule people who claim wind farms have affected their health?

Mark Butler: Well, look, I’m not into ridicule, but I think it’s appropriate to be evidence-based about these things and the National Health and Medical Research Council and its equivalents overseas have been quite definitive about this, that there is no evidence to suggest a causation between the operation of wind farms and some of the health effects that are claimed by some groups.

David Bevan: I’m referring to the video that your party has released during the state campaign and if …

Ali Clarke: We’ve actually got a bit of it here.

David Bevan: We can play a bit of it. It shows an inter …

Mark Butler: It would be great for the radio.

David Bevan: Well it shows an interview that Nick Xenophon gave about four years ago where he’s saying there is a link, or there may be a link, between wind farms and people’s mental health. Now, you won’t see this on the radio; a tinfoil hat appears from nowhere, lands on his head and there’s this sort of sci-fi music from the 1950s.


Nick Xenophon: How can you have people turn into wind turbine refugees? Because the noise, the infrasound, that low frequency noise that actually affects brain activity is ruining their lives, [scratch] affects brain activity [scratch] affects brain activity [sci-fi sound] …

[End of excerpt]

Ali Clarke: That’s signalling the arrival of a tinfoil hat. I mean that’s ridicule, Mark Butler.

Mark Butler: Well I think Nick Xenophon deserves ridicule for that. He went out there as a national political figure and voiced an opinion that has no evidence behind it, that has been debunked by our peak Health and Medical Research Council. The problem with Nick Xenophon is he tries to walk both sides of the street on renewable energy. He turns up to rallies that are against renewable energy and then rallies that are in favour of it. And he’s supported every weird claim about renewable energy which I’ve seen advanced over the last several years.

David Bevan: [Talks over] But what if a respected university was inquiring into the effects wind farms have on people’s health.

Mark Butler: There may be a university you’re able to pluck out of the hundreds around the world. The Government has asked on a couple of occasions now, the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a full literature and evidence review about these issues and it has come up with nothing. And it’s not just the NHMRC …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But Flinders University is doing just that.

Mark Butler: … other universities around the world have done the same.

David Bevan: Flinders University is doing just that.

Mark Butler: So it might and I am very confident it will come up with exactly the same conclusion the NHMRC and countless other universities and the equivalent bodies of the NHMRC around the world have done as well. There is no evidence to support this suggestion. And frankly national political figures like Nick Xenophon should not be continuing to perpetuate what has been demonstrated to be a myth.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young, is Nick Xenophon going down the wrong track in trying to find support for non wind farms?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well I think there’s always been some concern about Nick Xenophon’s kind of disparaging comments about wind energy. Of course it’s a huge industry for our state and he always talks it down. He does pedal these myths that have been debunked right around the world. And you talk to other countries that have invested hugely in wind energy, they’ve been through these studies. They know that these claims are false. And why are we wanting to be stuck in the old ages when as this AEMO report shows today we can reduce pollution from our electricity production much faster than the Government is saying. We can get away from coal. We know that these fossil fuel power plants aren’t even reliable in the heat. We’ve seen it in the last week with the heat wave across the country. They’re not fit for purpose anymore. And in fact if we invested more in renewables and battery storage in the grid we can move to the future. Why on earth Nick Xenophon isn’t backing this is beyond me.

Ali Clarke: So essentially you would have helped make the tinfoil hat for that ad if you could have?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think- you asked about ridicule I do think Nick Xenophon’s position and policy on this is laughable, but it’s also dangerous because it sells our state, it sells our state [indistinct].

David Bevan: [Talks over] Those people who ring our program and say they are suffering from real distress and it’s being taken seriously by people at Flinders University, those people, they also deserve that ridicule.

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, this is about a political leader who pedals this …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] No, this is about facts. This is about- now Mark …

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, this is about facts and the problem here is Nick Xenophon doesn’t stick to the facts when it comes to renewable energy and that is what is being called out here. When you’ve got community members that are concerned about these things, we are always willing to listen and talk to them and ensure that they get the facts [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Talks over] And patronise them.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Rather than doing. No, no, no. You talk to them and you listen. But Nick Xenophon is the leader of a political party. He wants to be the next premier and he thinks that there are wind farm refugees. I mean, c’mon, get real and get serious.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, thank you for your time. All the way from Davos, Switzerland Mark Butler, the Labor Member for Port Adelaide, thank you for coming in, and Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister, we appreciate your time as well.