Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan

Topics: Citizenship, Murray-Darling Basin Plan

David Bevan: In our studio, Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for the Labor-held seat of Kingston in the southern suburbs. Good morning, Amanda.

Amanda Rishworth: Good morning.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi, the former Liberal Senator, now leader of the Australian Conservatives, in our studio. Good morning to you.

Cory Bernardi: Hello David.

David Bevan: And on the phone line, Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister and the Liberal Senator from South Australia. Good morning Simon Birmingham.

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

David Bevan: Now can I begin with our guests in our studio? This business over Canavan: he says I didn’t know I had an Italian citizenship. I’ve never been to Italy, as far I know I’ve never even set foot in an Italian consulate. It turns out my mum did this without me knowing; that she applied back when I was in my twenties to become an Italian citizen. Are we buying this? Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: I’m not sure if I’m buying it. I know Matt Canavan. He’s a good guy and he’s absolutely straight-up as far as I’m concerned so …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Why aren’t you buying it?

Cory Bernardi: Well, because it’s a bit like the dog ate my homework, isn’t it? I can’t imagine as a 25-year-old, you have someone else apply for citizenship with you. My father was Italian. We enquired into these citizenship matters many, many years ago and we found it was simply impossible to do as an adult, unless you were part of it yourself.

David Bevan: Amanda Rishworth?

Amanda Rishworth: Well look, I guess the question is that it seems to be – and I’ve been reading Antony Green’s blogs, which are always very informative – seems to be there is two questions here, and there are grey areas. So it is being referred to the High Court and I think people will be watching that very, very closely; about whether or not – I think the question is – whether or not he chose, and actively chose to become a citizen, and whether or not he should have taken steps to denounce it. So I guess we’ll be looking very closely at the Court of Disputed Returns. But I think there’s also a question for Malcolm Turnbull. He came out very, very critical of the Greens Senators; calling them sloppy and a range of other things.

David Bevan: Well so did Mark Butler on this program last week. The Labor Party’s been throwing this around. You better be sure there’s none of it going on your [indistinct].

Amanda Rishworth: [Talks over] Well we’re very confident that the checks have been done within the Labor Party. But Malcolm Turnbull probably should’ve been a little more careful with his words when he attacked the Greens, considering his own house doesn’t seem to be in order.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, look I imagine that the Nationals must be pretty confident with this guy’s story; otherwise you wouldn’t take it to the High Court. I mean the High Court’s not going to tolerate fools here. You’re not going to get away with anything in the High Court.

Simon Birmingham: Well David, the Government, through the Senate, is proposing to refer this matter to the High Court. And that’s the right thing to do where there’s doubt over the eligibility of an election of a Member of Parliament or a Member of the Senate. I mean I think there are profoundly different circumstances in terms of the Greens Senators, who were both born overseas, and therefore had every reason to clearly dot the I’s, cross the T’s and make sure that any issues of citizenship were resolved prior to their election versus this very extraordinary case of Matt Canavan. And Amanda’s right to highlight Antony Green’s blog. I’d encourage listeners to take a read of it, where he rightly highlights that there are legitimate questions to ask. A person has absolutely …

David Bevan: [Talks over] But there must be a form. I mean how can somebody else – even if it’s your mum – apply for you to be- successfully apply for you to be an Italian citizen, without you knowing? I mean there must be a form you sign, surely?

Simon Birmingham: Well Matt was very clear that he’s never signed anything, never received anything, and that the Italian officials have confirmed that to be the case. And I think what he is indeed working through now with the Italian officials, is whether this is actually a valid citizenship, given he never signed anything, or took any steps himself. So there are several questions to be answered before this matter lands in the High Court, one of which is at the Italian end, that perhaps this citizenship was never valid at all.

David Bevan: So this will, look all of the evidence rests with the Italian Government in terms of who signed what, who applied for what. So we will rely on the Italian Government to provide us with the evidence so that we can make a decision in this country.

Simon Birmingham: I think Matt Canavan is pretty eager to make sure that all of that will be furnished and available, so that he can prove his statements …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs]

Cory Bernardi: Having dealt with Italian bureaucracy, I say good luck with that.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well I think one wag out there did suggest that by kind of criticising his mamma, Matt may have revoked his Italian citizenship somewhat automatically. Probably a rule of law in Italy not to criticise mamma. But more seriously …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But is the thinking in the Government, that if Canavan wins his case, that will not have any repercussions for the Greens? Because I mean surely that would open the door for them to say, well alright he didn’t know about it, well we didn’t know about it. It’s just a matter of degree.

Cory Bernardi: But David, the big difference is on the Greens, both of them were born internationally. On their Australian passport, it would have place of birth. And it would have New Zealand or Canada. That is an alarm bell every single time, you would look into that. But if you don’t know you’ve become a citizen of another country – and I don’t know whether Matt Canavan knows, has known or not – but if you don’t know, how can you be held responsible for it?

Simon Birmingham: Antony Green’s blog outlines a completely preposterous scenario, but it’s a good way of highlighting this. He says, what if Vladimir Putin were to wake up tomorrow and decide to grant full citizenship rights of Russia upon Malcolm Turnbull? Now, clearly we assume that’s not about to happen, but it is entirely possible that you can have circumstances where other countries gave Australia Members of Parliament citizenship, even if we didn’t want it. Now, the High Court has indicated previously – and apparently that is similar to an analogy they’ve used in hearing these sorts of cases in previous decades – and they’ve indicated there have to be some sensible limits around this. And if you have no reason to believe or know that you could possibly have been a citizen in another country, then that seems to be a fairly clear indication that how could you have been expected to take steps to revoke it?

David Bevan: So you’re pretty relaxed about this Simon Birmingham. Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister, he seems pretty relaxed about allegations of enormous rorting of the water system in New South Wales. Now, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill: he wants some kind of judicial inquiry, other people are saying a Royal Commission. But Barnaby Joyce – we would have heard him a short while ago – was saying well, it was a small amount of water. Are you buying into this Simon Birmingham? Or do you think this is a serious issue which requires an independent inquiry, not relying on the New South Wales Government to do the work?

Simon Birmingham: This is a serious issue, and we do intend – in Government – to get to the bottom of it. The Coalition Government has been very disciplined in turn, in making sure the Murray-Darling Basin plan is implemented and delivered on time and in full under my stewardship in the early days of the Government, under Anne Rustin and Barnaby Joyce [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So you don’t agree with Barnaby Joyce that this is a small amount of water?

Simon Birmingham: Look, in the overall scale of water flows through the river, of course it is a small proportion. But it’s a significant proportion in terms of individual allocation. It’s unacceptable for water users to be rorting the system. It is of course completely unacceptable if a state government was at all complicit in that occurring. We must get to the bottom of it, as I think has been indicated by the Turnbull Government already. We expect to hear – in very short order from the New South Wales Government – their response to these allegations, what they’re doing. And then of course we will take that right through the proper ministerial council processes to work out how everybody can have confidence in the process, and if there has to be an independent inquiry, there will be one.

David Bevan: That’s the voice of Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister. The most senior Liberal here in South Australia, might be some people would argue about that with Christopher Pyne. But I… [Laughter].

Cory Bernardi: [Laughs] I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. The most influential one, that’s what I would say.

David Bevan: You’d certainly rather do business with Simon Birmingham than Chris Pyne, Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: You know, sometimes it’s a toss-up. Isn’t it, Simon?

David Bevan: And that’s the voice of Cory Bernardi, from the Australian Conservatives, and Amanda Rishworth from the Labor Party; she’s the Labor MP for Kingston in Adelaide’s southern suburbs. In the last few minutes, the issue of – well, I haven’t asked you two what you think about the River Murray issue. Do you think, Cory Bernardi, there should be an independent inquiry?

Cory Bernardi: I think we’ve got to get to the bottom of this quickly. I think the Minister Barnaby Joyce should get an independent judicial inquiry or appoint a former judge to report within 30 days. They then need to take it to COAG – say this agreement is broken, or here are the facts, or someone’s rorted the system – and get a result. But I’ve got to declare an interest. Some of those people who are most affected by this the other day are friends of mine, and appeared in the Four Corners program.

David Bevan: Right, as in, the victims of this alleged behaviour? Yes.

Cory Bernardi: As the victims. You know, the McBride family – Torlano Station up there – who have been on about this for a very long time. To me, anyway…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So you weren’t surprised when this came forward?

Cory Bernardi: No, but I didn’t know the scale of it. The sheer size of the levies and the banks and the pipes that have been installed and the pumps was extraordinary…

David Bevan: Well, Leyonhjelm says it’s none of South Australia’s business.

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, he would say that.

Amanda Rishworth: I mean, I have to say I am incredibly concerned about Barnaby Joyce’s attitude. He has been though – but I’m not surprised – he has been talking down the plan as of December last year. He was saying, we’re not even going to realize the plan of the figure of 3,200. So I’ve had, for some time, concerns that he is not truly committed to this. But more than commitment to the plan, I mean, this is a really- such serious allegations. And getting the New South Wales Government to investigate this when, you know, evidence was presented and alleged on the Four Corners program that senior bureaucrats had been involved in this, will not get to the bottom of what’s happening. And therefore, confidence needs to be restored in that plan and it needs to go thorough COAG.

Tony Burke, our Shadow Minister, has written to the Auditor-General, because taxpayer’s money – Commonwealth taxpayer’s money – has been caught up in this, buying back water for the environment that is allegedly not gone to the environment. An independent judicial inquiry commissioned by COAG is also, I think, an incredibly important point. But we need to get confidence back into this plan, and I disagree entirely this has nothing to do with South Australia. The health of the whole system is incredibly important.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, last word to you on this issue of the Murray. Do you agree you’re going to have to restore faith in the system and the only way to do that will be with some kind of independent inquiry? Regardless of what New South Wales tries to convince us, you’re going to need an independent inquiry.

Simon Birmingham: Look, David, I’ll be very surprised if that’s not where it ends up. We want to hear New South Wales’ response and give them the right to respond first, and see what action they’re proposing. Then of course, we’ll actually make sure that every state and territory has confidence in the pathway forward. That’s the only way this works. I know from having chaired many meetings of the Murray-Darling ministerial councils that actually getting each state minister to agree is tough, but you’ve got to make sure everybody has confidence the process is there …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Simon Birmingham, thank you. Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: Just one thing. Early in my Senate career, we did an inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin. There were 6,000 kilometers of illegal water retention structures in New South Wales alone – illegal structures retaining water – and they say there’s no problem.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi, Leader of the Australian Conservatives, Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister and before that, Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for Kingston. Thanks for your time.