Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan and Ali Clarke
Topics: Mayo by-election; Liberal Senate pre-selections; TAFE
08:33 AM

David Bevan: That’s because it’s Super Wednesday …

Ali Clarke: Yeah, we probably should have put that in there.

David Bevan: … so we- yeah, I get it.

Ali Clarke: That just confuses people, including two of our guests who are in the studio.

David Bevan: Who are wearing their underwear where they should.

Simon Birmingham: Underwear for everybody appears to be in the right place from what I can tell.

Ali Clarke: I’ve gone red.

Penny Wong: What are you lot talking about?

Cory Bernardi: I wish I was on the phone, Penny.

David Bevan: Well, Penny Wong, you’re not here so we don’t know where your underwear is.

Penny Wong: I’m safely in my office and I think I might be pleased about that right now.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham …

David Bevan: You don’t get those sort of introductions from Fran, do you, on Radio National?

Penny Wong: No, no, you don’t. You don’t, it’s like being with my kids, you know? Talking about undies again.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

Penny Wong: Good to be with you all.

David Bevan: Labor Senator and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. And in our studio, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator and Federal Education Minister. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, everybody.

David Bevan: And Cory Bernardi, South Australian Senator and leader of the Australian Conservatives. Welcome to you.

Cory Bernardi: Thank you, good morning to everyone.

David Bevan: Georgina Downer; now, she wants to be the new Liberal Member for Mayo. And this is a very significant seat, it’s got quite a heritage and she knows that very well. But Ali was talking to her after 7 o’clock this morning and raised the issue of the minimum wage. Now, just a few days ago in the Weekend Age, Georgina Downer was quoted to saying: well, we should have a think about the minimum wage and getting rid of it. On the program this morning, she was a little more diplomatic and said, what was it, it was something for the Fair Work Commission to discuss.

Ali Clarke: That’s right, yeah.

David Bevan: Yeah, so she wasn’t wanting to buy into that. Maybe she was just stirring when she said to The Age we should think about getting rid of the minimum wage. Cory Bernardi, you’d be keen to get rid of the minimum wage, wouldn’t you?

Cory Bernardi: I wouldn’t say that, David. I understand the policy purity that groups like the IPA argue, they do it from an academic or an economic perspective, but we have to be mindful that, ultimately, people’s lives are at stake here and their quality of life. So there’s a minimum wage I think all around the world.

David Bevan: So you think we should have a minimum wage?

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, I do. I think there’s a completely reasonable debate about where it should be and at what level it should be …

David Bevan: Oh, is it too high?

Cory Bernardi: It may be for some. You could make a plausible argument that employment growth has been stifled because it’s unaffordable, uneconomic for people to employ people. But you know, you have to get the balance right, it’s as simple as that. So she’s argued it from an economic perspective or a purely rationalist perspective, but in politics, you can’t do everything in that sense.

David Bevan: So you think, look, in her heart of hearts, she probably does want to remove or tinker with the minimum wage …

Cory Bernardi: I’ve learned not to gaze into the hearts of others. I can only examine my own. I think Simon might be better connected into [indistinct] …

David Bevan: Well, what, do you think she wants to raise the minimum wage? I don’t get the impression she wanted to raise the minimum wage.

Cory Bernardi: I don’t know. You know, Georgina Downer is the Liberal candidate and she should be there to explain it, or the Liberal Party to explain it. I can only put forward the perspective from a Conservative sense that I want to see the maximum number of jobs generated. I recognise that there are some businesses that find it uneconomic to employ people, and I think a bit more flexibility in the system is probably worthwhile.

Ali Clarke: We do have a caller now asking if Georgina Downer is more conservative than the leader of the Australian Conservatives. That’s just been thrown out there.

Cory Bernardi: You know, that would be a challenge, Ali, is what I would say. But she may be one of the most conservative people in the Liberal Party, but …

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Georgina of course addressed those issues this morning with Ali …

David Bevan: Well, she dodged them.

Simon Birmingham: … and- no, Georgina’s position is exactly what the Liberal Party’s position is, and that is it’s for the Independent Fair Work Commission to hear the annual wage cases they do in terms of adjustments, increases to the minimum wage and to determine the rate at which it increases. To your bigger picture question that you started off there with as to should we have a minimum wage, look, my view is yes, clearly we should, just as we have a social safety net put in place in terms of support through the aged pension, through Newstart payments, et cetera. We of course should also expect that there is a minimum level of wage associated with employment. Now, then working through the issues of what that is, that’s why we have a fair tribunal, the Fair Work Commission that sits there, hears evidence and the arguments backwards and forwards in terms of different award cases and how you make sure you set that in a reasonable way.

David Bevan: Penny Wong.

Penny Wong: Well, two things. I guess the first is I hope Georgina is going to be upfront with every waitress and retail worker and hairdresser and everybody else who relies both on penalty rates and minimum wages that she doesn’t think they should get either penalty rates or minimum wages. I mean, that is the position she’s clearly previously articulated. But look, the broader issue here is you’ve got someone who’s been given Mayo as a consolation prize. I mean, she put her hand up for two seats in Victoria. She stood for the seat of Goldstein, I think it was, and didn’t win pre-selection, and now at five minutes to midnight is rushing back to South Australia for her consolation prize, and I actually think that the people of Mayo deserve a little better.

David Bevan: Well, she’s not rushing back, is she? I mean, she’s got the heritage here … She grew up here and she came back to have a baby …

Penny Wong: I’m not going to get into the family stuff, but- and that’s fine. People are entitled to go to Victoria, but over 20 years she’s been there. She’s …

Simon Birmingham: Actually, she spent some of that time working in the Australian Embassy in Japan as well, Penny. So …

Penny Wong: Well, fantastic. But she …

Simon Birmingham: Yes. Fantastic, indeed. A skilled young woman from the Adelaide Hills went and represented Australia in our embassy in Tokyo. That is fantastic.

Penny Wong: She’s from Victoria, mate. She stood for pre-selection there and didn’t get it, now she’s coming back because she’s been given it as a consolation prize. Now, I mean, be upfront about that. That’s the reality. Now, you can argue that she grew up here, so it’s okay, but the reality is she wanted pre-selection there, couldn’t get it, now she’s coming back.

Simon Birmingham: Georgina’s work history and background is absolutely there, and nobody’s hiding any aspect of it …

Penny Wong: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: … but what is also clear is that if elected, she would give South Australia another strong and powerful voice within the Government. She’d give the people of Mayo somebody who absolutely understands the local area because she does understand it. She grew up there, she knows it well and inside out.

David Bevan: Do you have to be on the electoral roll in an electorate that you’re choosing to stand for for a certain amount of time? So that if you live in- if you want to stand for the seat of Mayo, you have to be on the electoral roll in Mayo for a certain amount of time before you can nominate.

Cory Bernardi: No, the short answer to that is no. There are many members of Parliament who don’t live in the electorates that they represent. Now, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, that’s the reality.

Ali Clarke: Well, is it a good thing, Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: I’ve always thought that it’s best for people to live in the area in which they represent, but with boundary shifts, it’s not always possible. You can’t expect people to move three streets every four years in the event that they get pushed out. But …

Penny Wong: People usually live in the state they represent.

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, well, that’s always helpful, Penny. And I do note that …

Simon Birmingham: And Georgina is.

Cory Bernardi: … there were some Labor senators, I think, who lived in New South Wales who were pre-selected in Western Australia, if I recall.

Penny Wong: Oh, I don’t think that’s fair.

Cory Bernardi: But it’s true.

Penny Wong: It’s all correct.

David Clarke: While we’re talking about finding seats for people, Penny Wong, have you found a seat for Mark Butler yet?

Penny Wong: Well, look, I think the Electoral Commission obviously put out its draft report. We’ll wait and see – as, obviously, people make further submissions – wait and see what their final report says. But obviously with Kate going, we’ve actually got the same number of seats as we have candidates, and the party will have a look at what the best configuration is if and when the Electoral Commission hands down …

Simon Birmingham: That sounds like a pitch to put Steve Georganas into Adelaide, who finds himself living in Adelaide under the draft boundaries, I think.

Penny Wong: He does find himself living in Adelaide. You’ve been studying things, haven’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I know that part of town pretty well. I think I’ve letterboxed Steve’s house, I don’t think he’s taken the material too well, but …

David Bevan: But the right aren’t going to give up Adelaide. They’re not going to let Steve Georganas move across to Adelaide, are they?

Penny Wong: Well, I …

David Bevan: The right have made it quite clear, Penny Wong. You sort this out yourself. If you love Mark Butler, you sort it out. You find him a seat.

Penny Wong: And look, if it were all up to me, wouldn’t life be interesting? I tell you. But …

Cory Bernardi: Would Mark Butler make a good senator, Penny?

Penny Wong: It would be interesting. We’d have a lot to talk about on the radio, but look, the party will have to resolve this down the track if the Electoral Commission retain this approach. They may not, and we’ll make sure that we put the best people forward. I mean, Mark’s a senior member of the team, so- and he’s part of the future Labor government as a senior cabinet minister if we win. So you know, obviously he’s an important member of our team. Similarly, as you might recall, I ran Steve Georganas’ early campaigns to get into the Parliament, so he’s a very good friend.

Ali Clarke: It’s 17 minutes to nine, this is Super Wednesday. That’s the voice of Penny Wong, Simon Birmingham and Cory Bernardi in the studio.

Simon Birmingham, what are you going to do with Lucy Gichuhi?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope and trust that Lucy will be on our senate ticket along with Anne Ruston and David Fawcett, and the Liberal Party has a democratic process. The couple of hundred-plus members of the party state council will get together and make that decision. But Lucy is somebody who brings strong family values. Anybody who read the rather wonderful statement she put out for Mother’s Day would see very clearly coming from that the type of values that Lucy holds that I think are entirely consistent with Liberal Party values and the family of the Liberal Party. I think that party members have been enjoying getting to know Lucy and I hope that the added diversity and value that she brings to our party room will be able to continue after this election.

Ali Clarke: Where are you going to put her on the Senate ticket? What position?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that will be up to those party members …

Ali Clarke: Where would you put her?

Simon Birmingham: I will be completely transparent, I have a vote in that pre-selection.

Ali Clarke: So who will you vote for?

Simon Birmingham: I will be voting for Anne Ruston and David Fawcett and Lucy Gichuhi in that order, and I’ll be very clear about that so the whole world knows. And that is because I think that Anne and David, as experienced members of the team, bring real value to the team and a diverse background there, and with her regional background; David with former military service. Lucy of course is a migrant to Australia, a lawyer who’s worked in a number of different fields, but most importantly, I think brings a sense of values and perspective that is different from virtually anybody else in the Parliament, let alone anybody else in the Liberal Party room.

David Bevan: So, sorry, where do you think she should be on the ticket?

Simon Birmingham: I’ll be voting for Lucy to be in the third spot.

David Bevan: In the third spot. The third spot.

Simon Birmingham: We have three incumbent Liberal senators. I’ll be supporting all three of them, and …

David Bevan: Because the way it is she’s going to end up on number four.

Simon Birmingham: And look, that will be up to, of course, the members, the other 200-plus members. I will be but one vote. I’m being very open about my vote in that regard, supporting my two long-serving colleagues. Lucy is the newest member of the team, but I’ll certainly be supporting her to continue in that winnable spot.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, can I just ask Simon? So you won’t be following the official left faction ticket, which clearly never puts a conservative on anywhere and normally it’s just a stack. Or is this the new approach that you’re following?

Simon Birmingham: Funny, Cory, I actually think once upon a time I might have even voted for you at one stage …

Cory Bernardi: Oh, come on, you say that now.

Simon Birmingham: … to be there on the ticket.

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, after you. After you.

Simon Birmingham: When we were both on the same ticket there at the same time.

Ali Clarke: Oh, Penny Wong, you so wish you were in the studio right now, don’t you?

Penny Wong: I’m enjoying this sort of kiss-and-make-up – well, the fake kiss-and-make-up – that’s happening here between these two.

David Bevan: Well, we started with their underpants on the outside and we’re going to finish with a kiss-and-make-up.

Penny Wong: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s better when I’m out. It gets too serious when I’m there.

David Bevan: Yeah, yeah, okay. Now, before you all leave us …

Penny Wong: Can I just make a comment about …

David Bevan: Yes, please.

Penny Wong: Just one comment. Obviously, Lucy, there’s the recent story about Lucy, but there’s a broader issue here, which is- Simon talks about hope and trust. Well, I think women in the Liberal Party can’t hope and trust for much support. I mean, the reality is there are fewer Coalition women in the Parliament today than at any time since 1995. So this is a party, a coalition that is going backwards. We’ve got 22 out of 106 Coalition members and senators are women. Now, we might have a discussion about merit. Clearly, only having 22 out of 106 is a clear message that the Coalition doesn’t think that there are sufficient women of merit to put into the Parliament, and I actually think that’s regressive and I don’t think it’s a good thing for democracy. We’ve seen Jane Prentice de-selected, we’ve seen rumours about Anne Ruston, Jane Hume, and also obviously Senator Lucy Gichuhi, and I think there’s a pretty clear pattern of behaviour here.

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is a government that has put Australia’s first female foreign minister into office, Australia’s first female defence minister into office …

Penny Wong: You’ve gone backwards in 20 years, Simon. You can talk about all that, you’ve gone backwards.

Simon Birmingham: … we’ve been talking this morning about Georgina Downer, Lucy Gichuhi, Anne Ruston – all strong women. I want to see more. I’m working to see more. I’m voting for two out of the top three positions in her upcoming senate ticket to be filled by Liberal women …

Penny Wong: Seventeen per cent of your senators and nineteen per cent of your lower house MPs.

Simon Birmingham: … and I want to see more in the future. And I hope that, indeed, Georgina Downer will add to those numbers of strong, independent-minded Liberal women filling seats in the Australian Parliament.

Penny Wong: Who can get de-selected down the track as you reduce the number of women in the Parliament.

David Bevan: Senator Penny Wong, really, look at Labor’s record in your own state: South Australia. You were in office at a state level for 16 years – no woman ever reached the position of Deputy or Premier or Treasurer. That has actually happened under a Marshall Government. You were there for a long time, you could have found women who could have done those jobs.

Penny Wong: Well, I’m in the Federal Parliament. We have …

David Bevan: Yeah, yeah, but you represent your party.

Penny Wong: Yeah, I do, and I’m in the Federal Parliament, and we have a deputy leader who’s a woman, we have a leader in the Senate – that’s me – who’s a woman. We have 45 out of 95 women- of our caucus are women, the highest levels …

David Bevan: But your party was running the state and your mate was running- he was the premier.

Penny Wong: And we had more women in the Parliament. I’m just making the point …

David Bevan: But not those leadership positions?

Penny Wong: I’m not suggesting that we don’t have more to do. What I am saying is the facts demonstrate that the Liberal Party has gone backwards over 20 years, and all this talk about we want more women in the future, we’ll bring them through, has resulted in fewer women from the Coalition in the Parliament now than when John Howard was Prime Minister.

Simon Birmingham: And whilst we want more and will work for more, I make that point that those senior positions like Foreign Minister and Defence Minister, we have broken through in terms of putting strong women into those positions representing Australia on the international stage.

Penny Wong: Fewer women in the Cabinet, mate, so.

David Bevan: Why can’t you get more women in?

Penny Wong: That’s a very good question.

David Bevan: Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: In many cases- and this is where the work- and we actually have done some research work to see what are some of the barriers, because the hurdle is actually getting people nominating for the pre-selections in the first place, quite often.

Penny Wong: Yeah, and why? Because they’ve got a pretty clear indication about what happens to Liberal women.

Simon Birmingham: Well, no, they- that’s not true, Penny. Look, there are …

Penny Wong: You got Prentice de-selected, you’ve got Hume under pressure, you’ve got rumours about Ruston, you’ve got rumours about Gichuhi, and you’re going backwards. I mean, why would any right-minded woman say: hey, I’m going to get…

Simon Birmingham: And Penny. Penny, Penny, Penny. This is like sitting in senate estimates when you like to interrupt continuously.

Penny Wong: I apologise, I’ll stop talking.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. Look, there will be plenty of men who lose pre-selection, as there have been over the years; the occasional woman will lose pre-selection, as there have been over the years. The challenge to getting more women represented is to ensure that we get more women running in pre-selections in the first place, and that is something that we’re working from the grassroots level up to try to encourage more of, because, from my experience, there’s never a hurdle in terms of women winning a pre-selection once they’re in the race. It’s actually getting people to nominate in the first instance that we need to get a much bigger uplift in.

Ali Clarke: So, you’ve done that research …

Penny Wong: Gone backwards over 20 years.

Ali Clarke: So if you’ve done that research, Simon Birmingham, why aren’t they putting their hands up? Because Penny Wong’s saying it’s the perception. They think they’re going to get knocked off when they finally do get and do all the hard runs and get into position. If that’s not the case, why aren’t they putting their hands up for this?

Simon Birmingham: It seems to be a lack of willingness to engage in, I guess, the other areas of senior party leadership positions. So we need to encourage and make sure we get more women filling those branch leadership roles, those state party admin leadership roles, and really lift and drive participation at all of those levels to create the pathway through the party for people to think: yes, I’ve got the experience, yes, I’m willing to put my hand up now for those pre-selection positions too.

Penny Wong: Ultimately, I think we do- I’m not suggesting Labor doesn’t have more to do, but we have made enormous progress. You have to change the culture. Business understands that. If you talk to large companies, when they’re trying to ensure that they get more women putting themselves forward- and that is an issue of merit, that there are meritorious women who don’t. You have to change the culture and you have to change the sorts of messages that are given to women.

Simon Birmingham: Anyway, I’m so thrilled that Penny is so concerned to get more Liberal women into the Australian Parliament …

Penny Wong: I am, actually. I actually am.

Simon Birmingham: … and I look forward to her campaigning with Georgina Downer in Mayo.

David Bevan: Okay, well let’s move on to another topic at 8.52.

Penny Wong: I actually do think that democracy would be better if we actually had a slightly more representative Coalition.

David Bevan: That’s the voice of Senator Penny Wong. Simon Birmingham and Cory Bernardi in our studio as well. Before you leave us, Simon Birmingham, you’re the Federal Education Minister. Can you explain why you’re worried that Labor’s promise to pay fees for 100,000 TAFE students upfront will lead to subsidised basket-weaving?

Simon Birmingham: Because the last time the Labor Party played in the vocational education space, they created the disastrous VET FEE-HELP scheme, which saw billions of dollars rorted, which saw completion rates across both private providers and some TAFEs operating in the teens. So you had TAFEs that only had 13 per cent of students enrolled completing because the Labor Party had created basically a great big money pot that people were drawn to, where they claimed the fees, claimed the money, but weren’t studying courses that were relevant to employment outcomes and weren’t completing those courses when they were enrolled. Now, TAFEs do many outstanding things in terms of training skilled apprentices. So too do various industry bodies like Master Builders and the Construction Industry Federation. They’re all targeted qualifications, and what we did as a government was say: we will target support to the qualifications that actually produce employment outcomes; we’ll limit the amount of fees that can be charged or that at least people can borrow to pay those fees, so that you’re not seeing the rip-offs; and we will ensure that performance in terms of student completion is monitored.

David Bevan: Penny Wong.

Penny Wong: Well, I think that was one of those throwaway lines that Simon can’t back up, but that does demonstrate the contempt that this government appears to hold for TAFE and the people who go to TAFE. I mean, you’ve cut money from TAFE, you’ve continued to denigrate vocational education. What Bill announced was that we would scrap upfront fees for 100,000 state TAFE students who choose to learn the skills Australia needs. And he said that we’ve got trades …

Simon Birmingham: You haven’t said what courses, you haven’t said how much.

Penny Wong: … we’ve got trades facing skill shortages, whether carpenters, bricklayers, bakers, pastry cooks. This is a policy about training Australians for jobs that can be filled by Australians in areas where we don’t have the skills, and I would have thought that’s actually a pretty good notion.

Simon Birmingham: It’s another thought bubble without any detail, so when you actually tell us the courses, the costs, how it’s going to work, so Australians can know that you’re not just going to waste billions of dollars again.

Penny Wong: I just think continuing to have a go at TAFE and the people who…

Simon Birmingham: This isn’t about having a go at TAFE. This is Labor’s competence.

Penny Wong: It’s not really the way the Federal Education Minister should behave.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi.

Cory Bernardi: You know, whilst you’re squabbling about all of this, the vocational and tertiary education sectors have done an amazing disservice to educational standards in this country. I think the Government is starting to find some reforms, they’re starting to apply some rigour to it, which is good. It’s not good enough for me, but at least they’re making baby steps in the right direction.

Ali Clarke: We do have to leave it there. Time is away from us. Cory Bernardi, Australian Conservatives leader, thank you. Penny Wong, Labor senator, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator and Education Minister, thank you all.

Penny Wong: Pleasure as always.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Cory Bernardi: Thank you.