Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham 
South Australia’s energy security; Cory Bernardi; Delivering more affordable, flexible and accessible child care for Australian families; delivering fairer paid parental leave; Salary of Australia Post executives

Matthew Abraham: Joining us now in what the Prime Minister says is a socialist paradise in South Australia is the Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Education Minister, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide. She’s the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Development, TAFE, and Vocational Education. Good morning, Kate Ellis.

Kate Ellis: Good morning, great to be with you.

Matthew Abraham: And Nick Xenophon, South Australian Senator, Leader of the NXT Party. Welcome, Nick Xenophon.

Nick Xenophon: Good morning. I actually live in paradise.

Matthew Abraham: You do, but is it a socialist paradise?

Nick Xenophon: No, it’s just called paradise.

Matthew Abraham: It is. Simon Birmingham, Malcolm Turnbull seems to think we’re a bit of a joke here. Do you think people could come away with that impression?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think it’s a joke- I don’t think he thinks it’s a joke at all. I think he thinks that it is a serious problem that the state with the highest unemployment in the nation also has the least reliable, most expensive electricity in the nation, all of which is an impost to generating the type of investment required for jobs growth.

Matthew Abraham: Was he making a joke of us, though?

Simon Birmingham: No. He’s identifying that there are serious problems, and we need to be honest and front up to those problems. You don’t manage to address problems unless you recognise they exist in the first place. And while our government has taken action through the Defence Industry Investment Plan to put in place arrangements that will see billions of dollars of investment flowing to SA in the future as well as significant transport and infrastructure investments, there are also significant things that we need to see happen – particularly at a state level – to put SA on a more competitive footing with the rest of the nation, more comparable to the type of success in jobs growth we’re seeing in other states that SA is frankly not benefiting from at present.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, do you as a Labor MP have a backup generator under a tarp in the shed?

Kate Ellis: I do not have a backup generator, under a tarp in the shed or anywhere else.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Do you have torches charged? Do you have torches charged? Keep your torches charged just in case, though?

Kate Ellis: Not particularly, but what I do …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Candles?

Kate Ellis: … is make sure that we have a policy when it comes to energy and electricity prices, unlike this government, who all they can do is play politics, which we saw again yesterday. And the only policies that they have put out there that the Prime Minister’s been allowed to have by his party room have been said by all of the experts to actually increase electricity prices. I mean, this is ridiculous, and I think everybody expects more from Malcolm Turnbull.

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, all the talk about somehow stabilising our power supply, somehow getting cheaper power. We seem to miss out on this in South Australia. It seems to apply for other states. Is there any hope for South Australia in terms of cheaper power?

Nick Xenophon: Well yes, there is, but the great paradox here is that back in 2009 when Malcolm Turnbull was Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull and I jointly commissioned Frontier Economics – Danny Price – to come up with an alternative emissions trading scheme. That was embraced by the Coalition party room, soon abandoned. Labor at the time called it a mongrel of a scheme. Seven years later, Labor embraced that scheme and the Libs abandoned it. So it’s pretty weird politics, because that would actually stabilise prices, lower them, and ensure more reliable supply, because it would encourage gas-fired generators to come into the system, which would actually- and encourage investment in those base load gas-fired generators which would be good for the environment and also very good for energy stability.

Matthew Abraham: Let’s move on to one of the stories of the day. We’ll get to Cory Bernardi in a moment, but Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, we’ve just seen you on ABC News 24 on our TV standing shoulder to shoulder with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. You are announcing what many will see as a desperate measure to get your budget through, and that is watering down some of the cuts that were planned to child care and Family Tax Benefits. Why are you doing that?

Simon Birmingham: Well firstly, Matthew, there were never cuts planned to child care. We’ve always been proposing additional investment, and what we’ve always had on the table are reforms to make sure that we can pay for that additional investment and that it also contributes to budget repair in some way. And today we’re announcing that there are some concessions, particularly concessions that will better help Australian families in a number of way. And so the combination of our child care reforms that provide more support to the lowest income, hardest working Australians, that remove the cap that many families face in terms of the child care rebate, coupled with now more generous support for low income families when it comes to paid parental leave will still be a package that helps to repair the budget and is actually positive for the budget, but do also far, far better target assistance to those who most need it to participate in the workforce or to stay home with their young children in that first year after their birth.

Matthew Abraham: Is it, though, the budget repair job – in inverted commas – getting to the point where you’re having to water these down so much that it’s almost … it’s almost worthless? So paid parental leave shift, the savings have been revised from 1.18 billion to – this is according to Sarah Martin’s piece in The Oz – to 491 million, and who knows what it’ll get down to by the time the Senate has finished with it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think that $491 million savings [indistinct] needs that. Of course, we think that the proposals we put forward initially were fair and reasonable, but we’ve been working hard to get proposals that will actually pass through the Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated – he did in the last six months of last year – that his leadership is about getting things done; making the concessions necessary to get the building and construction watchdog through the Parliament, to get tax cuts for middle income families through the Parliament. Those types of changes that we legislated last year – some of which had been rejected multiple times by the previous Parliament – that he got done. 

And similarly, we are intent on seeing child care reforms that provide better, more targeted support to those who need it most, that remove problems from the system like the cliff that families fall off mid-year in terms of the support they get. We want to get them through the Parliament, and yes, we’re willing to make concessions to work constructively with Nick Xenophon, with others on the crossbench, or I would hope that the Labor Party, the Greens would recognise there are very progressive elements to the reforms we’re proposing here in better targeting assistance and that they should come on board in terms of supporting these changes which can better target support and help repair the budget simultaneously.

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, you’re one of the crossbenchers, you and others in the Senate. You’re one of two Senators from South Australia who can now pass these measures. Will you?

Nick Xenophon: No, not yet. It’s a question of further negotiations. The Government has shifted, as a result of concerns that have been expressed as a result of negotiations, which is good. We’ll keep talking. I think it’s fair to say that the child care package is a significant improvement, but the Government is seeking to fund it by changes to Family Tax Benefits, but we are still talking to the Government about that. There are just so many moving parts in this. But I think, to be fair to the Government and to all parties, there needs to be a resolution of this in the next two to three weeks, because if the measures- if some measures don’t pass, then the Government will need to plan accordingly in the next budget.

Matthew Abraham: Okay. Surely you’ve got to get to a point where you end up arguing over rats and mice, do you not?

Nick Xenophon: We’re not at that point yet.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Do you regard this as a substantial concession?

Nick Xenophon: Yes, there are some substantial concessions, but there are a whole range of other factors, and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m very worried about the tens of thousands of jobs that will be lost when the car sector closes down, and the Government is hoarding $1.3 billion from the Automotive Transformation Scheme that ought to be released to allow those small and medium businesses to transition so that people can have jobs when Holden closes down in South Australia as a carmaker.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis. This is your patch as Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Development. Labor MP for Adelaide. Do you concede that while you’re complaining about the budget situation and the challenges facing Australia, Labor and the crossbenchers are blocking savings measures worth $8.4 billion? 

Kate Ellis: Well, I certainly concede that what we’re doing is standing up for the families, the new mums, and the pensioners that will be worse off as a result of their bill that the Government’s about to introduce into Parliament. I mean, this is absolutely all about priorities, and what the Government is saying today is that they’re going to cut Family Tax Benefits, they’re going to cut paid parental leave, and they’re going to make 70,000 new mums worse off, and they’re going to abolish the Energy Supplement and once again hit the pensioners out there in our community that are already doing it too tough. I don’t apologise for saying that we will stand up for these people in our community who the Government just continues to turn to, when at the same time this is the Government who still have a plan to give over $7 billion in tax cuts to the banks. This shows their priorities, and Labor’s priorities are very, very different.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, we read that the Government’s revised proposal to set a 20-week limit for those on employer schemes seeking a top up will leave about 68,000 people worse off with an average loss of $5600. Where do you suggest in a flat job market, particularly in South Australia, that those families find that $5600?

Simon Birmingham: Matthew, let’s be clear: we’re proposing to increase the level of paid parental leave that every family gets from 18 weeks to 20 weeks a year. That will benefit almost 100,000 families. Now, the only families who will lose some support there are people who are getting fully funded paid parental leave from their employers. These are families who are often earning more in paid parental leave than some of the families we’re supporting receive in an entire year in terms of income. So this is about having a fair and progressive arrangement that guarantees a minimum level of paid parental leave for everybody, provides more support for those who get nothing or very little from employers in relation to paid parental leave, but doesn’t allow a system to run where of course we’re providing significant taxpayer subsidies to people who are already receiving very generous paid parental leave entitlements from their employers.

Matthew Abraham: You’re listening to Super Wednesday with three MPs who you elected and who are significant players on the federal scene: Simon Birmingham is Education Minister, one of the most senior people in the Turnbull team; Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide, very experienced minister, and now Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Development; and Nick Xenophon, kingmaker, South Australian Senator, and Leader of the NXT Party at 14 to nine on ABC Adelaide, where we’re headed for a stinking 41 degrees today.  

Simon Birmingham – Cory Bernardi’s defection from the South Australian – or from the Liberal Party, he was number two on the ticket, he gave no indication, did he, before being elected at the last election just a few months ago that he was going to leave and the Liberal Party had outlived its usefulness to him?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Matthew, quite the contrary. Cory gave every assurance to everybody that he was committed to the Liberal Party, that he thought that the right-of-centre side of politics was stronger if people were united around mainstream parties like the Liberal Party. He even continued to say those things after the election and so it’s terribly disappointing that in that sense he broke his word, his bond of trust with the party preselectors, the party members and of course the 345,000 South Australians who chose not to vote for One Nation, not to vote for the Liberty Alliance, not to vote for Nick Xenophon, the Greens, the Labor Party or anybody else but who voted for the Liberal Party and in doing so expected to get four Liberal Senators elected who would serve out there term.

Matthew Abraham: Well Steven Marshall doesn’t seem worried; I mean he seemed to be going for Steve the appeaser approach. Doesn’t think that Cory Bernardi’s going to run candidates here or drag votes away from him. So why should you be worried?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not terribly worried about what Cory will do in the future. I am however concerned that he has effectively stolen a seat from the Liberal Party. That is a seat that South Australian elected a Liberal for. When you vote in the Senate, the overwhelming majority of people vote above the line in the Senate. And I don’t kid myself into thinking that the 345,000 people are all in love with Simon Birmingham. They were in love with having Liberal representatives as part of a Turnbull Government representing them in the Senate. That’s what they voted for, that’s what they deserved to get and unfortunately Cory has broken that bond of trust with those voters.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide, did Jay Weatherill deserve to be this lucky?

Kate Ellis: In regards to Cory Bernardi, sorry?

Matthew Abraham: Yeah, yeah, I mean it doesn’t help the Liberal brand does it?

Kate Ellis: Well it certainly doesn’t help the Liberal brand but I don’t think it’s anything to do with luck on the part of the Premier. This is about the fact that the South Australian Liberal Party are in disarray and that Malcolm Turnbull can’t keep his team together. But I mean in all seriousness, I don’t think that it’s particularly luck for any member of parliament. This is yet another example of why it is that the Australian community are sick and tired of politics as usual, are sick and tired of political games and I know that the last thing the Australian community would have wanted is for the very first day that the Australian Parliament was sitting, the entire government is going around talking about Cory Bernardi instead of talking about the problems facing the Australian people and the Australian economy. We want a government …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] No one in the Labor Party complained about Martin Hamilton-Smith playing political games, did they? You were quite happy with those games, joining your party. Your government.

Kate Ellis: No what I’m saying is we had the first day of Parliament yesterday and we had members of the Government running around talking about Cory Bernardi all day long. This is at a time when there are serious issues confronting South Australia and Australia and I think that – I couldn’t really care less whether Cory Bernardi is a member of the Liberal Party or not. What I could care less about is that we have a productive Parliament that is focusing on the people of Australia and focusing on jobs, not on their own jobs.

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, Senator, have you been workshopping new names for Australian Conservatives?

Nick Xenophon: Well, some people suggested that if I’d joined up with Cory Bernardi – which won’t happen – we could call ourselves the Xenocons, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Look Cory clearly has a significant grassroots support base. I accept that he’s had, you know, 50,000 people signing up and that he’s had hundreds of donations so I think it won’t be good. It will dilute the Liberal horse of the conservative voice and I find it hard to believe that he won’t be running candidates, or won’t have some influence at the state election in just over a year’s time.

Matthew Abraham: Do you believe it’s obscene, just to change track here, for the Chief Executive of Australia Post to rake in – and they didn’t want anyone to know this, so it took a while to get the information out to a Senate committee via letter, $5.5 million, so about 4.6 I think salary and another million or so in bonuses.

Nick Xenophon: Yeah and that’s something that I’ve been pursuing through my office with questions on notice and they wanted to keep it secret. $5.6 million is 8 million 70 cents postage stamps. It’s a lot of stamps. They should be transparent; they should be accountable particularly when you consider the cuts to Australia Post and services. I know it’s a very difficult business model but they’re still doing well with parcels. But it’s ten times the PM’s salary so that’s something to think about.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, is the Prime Minister belatedly waking up the fact that he has a grossly overpaid CEO of Australia Post?

Simon Birmingham: Well what the CEO of Australia Post gets paid is not within the direct control of the Government. It’s the Board that has legislative authority to be able to set the remuneration but the Prime Minister has rung and spoken to the Chairman of that board to express his displeasure and his belief that this salary package is excessive when all other matters are considered. So …

Matthew Abraham: What – and that was John Stanhope, no?

Simon Birmingham: Yes I think that’s the Chair of Australia Post but I don’t know.

Matthew Abraham: Is he the John Stanhope’s a former leader of the ACT Parliament?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, yes, he is 

Matthew Abraham: Okay well he got a pretty good job there. I wonder what he’d do with a phone – I mean Labor – a former Labor leader, I wonder what he’d do with a phone call from Malcolm Turnbull.

Simon Birmingham: Well he has responsibility as Chair of Australia Post to of course act under the terms of the Australia Post legislation and acts of parliament but obviously he’s heard loud and clear the views of the Prime Minister, which is that this is an excessive level of remuneration for somebody leading yes a challenging, difficult government business enterprise that has seen some success in changing parts of its model, but of course there are a lot of concerns out there about aspects of what Post are doing to.

Matthew Abraham: Well I think the return form Australia Post to government has gone from around 900 million to around 400 million. Sort of the – but his pay’s gone up quite substantially. 

The other – this is from The Age on the weekend – the NBN co-chief Bill Morrow, he pulls in $3.6 million and his bonus payment was tripled from $480,000 to 1.2 million. Future Fund employees – recent data form the Australian Public Service Commission showed three unnamed Future Fund employees earned salaried of between 1.058 million and 1.235 million in 2015-16 but made $10 million in performance bonuses for staff in 2015-16. Do you reckon any of that’s worth it?

Simon Birmingham: Well in all of these jobs, of course, when government businesses are competing with the private sector for high quality leaders, they’re big complicated businesses to run but I think they are fair questions to be asked and I guess the Prime Minister’s flagged a willingness to do that by talking to the Australia Post Chair this morning in expressing his concern and displeasure and hopefully that’s a message that all government business enterprises who have that autonomy heed and think about when setting their future salary packages.

Matthew Abraham: Just finally, Kate Ellis, on the Australia Post salaries, I don’t know when the last time you posted a letter, as an MP you probably post a few?

Kate Ellis: I certainly do. I use Australia Post regularly and I also hear from the local community about their concerns or complaints about Australia Post. So, I mean …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Would you think this is obscene?

Kate Ellis: Well there’s no question that it’s an incredibly generous salary. What I think is particularly obscene is that Australia Post took measures to try and keep this secret and there is absolutely zero justification for that. It is really important that we’re talking about a public entity, that we’re talking about public dollars and that the taxpayers have absolutely every right for us to be having this very debate. I think it is incredibly unusual and I guess we did see a scene of unity in one of the Senate committees where all parties came together to deny Australia Post’s request to keep this a secret and I think that that was a very good move.

Matthew Abraham: Okay Kate Ellis, thank you. And thanks for this text saying it’s not the former Labor leader; John Stanhope is a former Telstra executive. So he’s not the Labor Leader who was dropped in his speedos into a dam to rescue somebody by helicopter, from memory.