Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Topics: Lucy Gichuhi; 457 visas; Higher education funding
Matthew Abraham: This is Super Wednesday, when we get politicians who have their feet on the ground here in South Australia, South Australians and represent South Australia but also have a lot of influence on the federal stage. We welcome to our studio Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, spokesperson for the Greens on finance and trade. Welcome.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.
Matthew Abraham: Mark Butler. He’s the Federal President of the ALP. He’s a Labor MP for Port Adelaide, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. Welcome Mark Butler.
Mark Butler: Good morning.
Matthew Abraham: And on the phone from Brisbane, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister in the Turnbull team. Simon Birmingham, welcome.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, everybody.
David Bevan: Can we first start with a bit of housekeeping? Mark Butler, the- Lucy Gichuhi has been chosen by the Family First Party to replace Bob Day. She was second on the ticket, and that’s the way that seems to have progressed through, and she’ll be taking up her position in the Senate. Or will she? Will the Labor Party be challenging her position in the Senate based on her citizenship?
Mark Butler: So what is happening this morning is that the High Court is reconvening. They made a decision to order a recount. That recount happened, as your listeners know, and Lucy Gichuhi was declared elected to the vacant position created by Bob Day being declared ineligible. The court also asked all of the parties whether they would make further submissions, including about the eligibility of Ms Gichuhi, because the Government solicitor had raised a question that there might be- or raised the point that there might be a question about the eligibility, and that goes to whether or not Ms Gichuhi has renounced citizenship as is required under the rules of nominating for Parliament. So the Labor Party will be raising that this morning at the what I suspect will be a directions hearing of the High Court. I’m not sure what the Government’s position will be. They’re the ones who raised it in the earlier hearing. But the Labor Party will be saying that there remain questions to be answered definitively about Ms Gichuhi’s eligibility, and we think that’s important. We’ve taken advice, and the legal advice we have is that there remains a question about this matter, and particularly given where we’ve gone over the last couple of years. With the question marks over Bob Day’s eligibility, we’ve taken a view that particularly given the High Court is convened now that this question needs to be answered once and for all definitively so that if Ms Gichuhi is eligible, she can take up her position and will be welcomed by Penny Wong and the Labor Senate team, but if there is a question about the eligibility, it is resolved now.
Matthew Abraham: Well, let’s be clear about this, though. Anne McEwen missed out by a whisker, the Labor Senator. Labor wants this seat, correct? This is not a matter of principle. This is sheer, cold, hard politics.
Mark Butler: [Talks over] No, this is a matter of principle. Where have we been over the last couple of years? The Government knew at the latest by 2015, but probably in 2014 that there was a serious question over Bob Day’s eligibility, but they didn’t raise it. They let him run at the 2016 election, and you can ask questions about why the Government did that, but we cannot afford to be in a position like this again where there is an ongoing question about a Senator’s eligibility. It needs to be resolved now, and we’ll be taking the argument to the High Court. The High Court ultimately will obviously make that decision.
David Bevan: Is that maths pretty clear, though? If you succeed in having Lucy Gichuhi knocked out, it automatically goes to Anne McEwen, the Labor candidate.
Mark Butler: No, I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s right. I mean, look, you can cut this a number of different ways. There are different views about this with all of these, all of the [indistinct] experts about Senate counts – and I don’t pretend to be one – about whether it would be the Labor candidate or One Nation candidate or something else altogether. But the position we’ve taken is based on legal advice that we’ve received which suggests that there is an ongoing question that has not been answered about Ms Gichuhi’s eligibility, and that’s the reason we’ll be making the submissions we make this morning.
Matthew Abraham: Why don’t you use the word citizenship? That’s what this is about, isn’t it?
Mark Butler: No- no. It’s about the conditions in the constitution about nominating for Parliament, and that is whether you’ve renounced your right to be a citizen of a second country. That is the question. It’s very clearly set out in the constitution. The High Court will make a legal determination about whether or not Ms Gichuhi has dealt with this. A whole range of candidates have had to deal with this matter because they’re …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] But why don’t you- what does Labor- what does Labor Party know …
Mark Butler: … was born in England or what have you.
Matthew Abraham: What evidence would the Labor Party have to be the basis of the challenge? You say you’ve looked at this, you’ve taken legal advice.
Mark Butler: We’ve had some legal advice about it.
Matthew Abraham: But she’d be the only one who’d know, wouldn’t she?
Mark Butler: Well, frankly, I’m not- I don’t think she’s been entirely unequivocal about this, and look, we’ve dealt with this question on countless occasions about the citizenship laws of Britain, for example, because a whole bunch of people have had a mum or a dad born there or were born there themselves. I think there remains questions …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Tony Abbott.
Mark Butler: … over the proper application of Kenyan law, and that is ultimately a matter not for me or for Sarah or for Simon. This is a matter for the High Court to deal with.
David Bevan: And with the High Court [indistinct]- I suppose the High Court does whatever it likes. It’s the High Court. But is it possible the High Court would take evidence on that, or would it refer it off to another body, or would it decide it today? How does this?
Mark Butler: I doubt that there’s any chance they’ll decide it today. I think this morning will be in the nature of a directions hearing, so we’ll stand up and we’ll say that we think this is a question that requires further argument, and I presume then the High Court will set further hearing dates for that matter.
David Bevan: But you’re challenging her right to take up the position. Let’s cut to the chase. You’re challenging it.
Mark Butler: Yes. We’re saying that it is not yet clear that she is eligible to take up this position.
David Bevan: Yeah, okay. Simon Birmingham, you’re a Senator. You think this is a good thing to sort out now?
Simon Birmingham: Well, of course it needs to be sorted out. I think Ms Gichuhi and the Kenyan High Commission have both been fairly clear in their statements that dual citizenship is not held and does not apply in relation to Kenya, but ultimately the court can hear the arguments in this matter from the Labor Party and hopefully then get it settled once and for all in this case and we can get on with the business in the Senate of governing with a full complement of Senators once again.
David Bevan: Will you join that argument?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the Government of course will want to make sure that eligibility is beyond question, but …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] So the Federal Attorney-General would … appear?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Matt, the Government initiated the case in relation to former Senator Day, and referred that matter to the Senate for referral to the High Court. In terms of this matter, we’ll obviously have to hear what the Labor Party’s arguments are and then consider whether there are any positions on behalf of the Government to be put to the court.
Mark Butler: I make the point again, it was the Government Solicitor that raised this question first of all in the earlier High Court hearing. Now obviously what position the Government takes will depend on the legal advice they’ve got, but this matter was raised by the Government Solicitor in the early hearing.
Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think it makes sense that if there are questions being asked about this that it gets resolved upfront so it doesn’t continue to hang over any individual senators’ heads while they’re in there if she takes up her spot. But I think more importantly from my perspective and from the perspective of many South Australians is that if indeed Family First continues to hold this seat, will they continue just to be a patsy to the Government and to the Coalition? Because that was the problem with Bob Day, is that he was just counted as one of the Liberal Party votes. He never voted separately, didn’t really ever stand up to the Government, didn’t play his role as being part of the Senate House of Review.
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] I think all of that’s code for he didn’t agree with the Greens enough for Sarah’s liking.
Sarah Hanson-Young: He- it’s really got nothing to do whether he agrees with me or not.
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Oh, but the fact that he agreed with us was the problem.
Sarah Hanson-Young: I just don’t think that somebody sitting on the crossbench should just be a patsy for the Government. No, I don’t think that that is the role that they’ve been given by the people of South Australia.
Matthew Abraham: Mark Butler, just coming back to this though, the Labor Party has a lot riding on this, doesn’t it? I mean … you’ve got to read your lips when a politician says it’s a matter of principle. No offence to you particularly …
Mark Butler: [Laughs].
Matthew Abraham: Oh, okay, then maybe I [indistinct] …
Mark Butler: [Talks over] With the greatest of respect, you mean. [Laughs].
Matthew Abraham: … with the greatest of respect.
Mark Butler: I’m reading your lips as you say that.
Matthew Abraham: Well, you’re reading my mind, but …
David Bevan: We respect you.
Matthew Abraham: [Laughs] The Senate is very finely balanced. Another Labor Senator will make a big difference to the complexion of the Senator- the Senate. There’s a lot riding on this.
Mark Butler: Well, but as I said, even if the High Court determines that Ms Gichuhi is not eligible – and that is a long way down the track – by no means is it certain that the Labor Party would take that position, so it might not affect the …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Well, One Nation may.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Some of the numbers are actually show that …
Mark Butler: [Talks over] One Nation may.
Sarah Hanson-Young: … One Nation might.
Mark Butler: So- yeah. So look, we’re taking this because there’s been uncertainty over this Senate spot now for a considerable period of time, over Bob Day’s spot. We think it’s important that there is a very clear, definitive view from the High Court about this question, and then as Simon says, we can get on with the business.
Simon Birmingham: I think we should be clear, though. There’ve now been two separate counts involving two separate Family First candidates, and on both occasions, the Family First candidate has been successful. So in terms of what the will and the intent of South Australian voters at the last election was, it was that there would be in the twelfth spot elected a Family First Senator. Bob Day [indistinct] …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well, she got 520 votes, I think, in her own right.
Simon Birmingham: Well, the vast majority of those votes were above the line votes that [indistinct] and they flowed through to her …
Mark Butler: [Interrupts] [Indistinct]. Doesn’t mean eligibility rules don’t count.
Simon Birmingham: No, no, it doesn’t mean eligibility rules don’t count. But nor I think if it ends up that Ms Gichuhi takes the seat in the Senate should there be any question that in the end, she’s been elected as a Family First Senator, consistent with the democratic will of South Australian voters.
David Bevan: Mark Butler, was this a difficult decision for the Labor Party because of other factors? Lucy Gichuhi, is- she’s Kenyan born, she would be the first- she’s a woman, she’s a lawyer, she’s come out here as an immigrant. She ticks many boxes, I would think, for a constituency that should have representation in the Senate – putting aside for which party. I mean, I would think you’d love to have a candidate like that filling up a vacancy in the Senate, correct? And was that a factor for Labor Party?
Mark Butler: Well no, we’ve tried to take this decision based on legal advice and on our view that there should be certainty around the eligibility of all members of the Parliament, in the Senate and in the House of Reps. At a personal level, I think it would be a great thing for Lucy Gichuhi to take up a spot in the Senate. Obviously, we don’t agree with a great deal of Family First’s policy platform. But we didn’t take the decision on that basis. We took the decision not on the basis of Ms Gichuhi as a person, or Family First as a party with their policy platform. We took it based on legal advice that there remained a question over the eligibility of Ms Gichuhi as a candidate and that could not remain unanswered.
Matthew Abraham: And Simon Birmingham – just to be quite clear – if she is knocked out, you’re not suggesting that Family First be able to put up another candidate who wasn’t on the ticket at the last Election.
Simon Birmingham: No, if she is knocked out it will be a matter firstly, for the High Court to then determine how the vacancy is filled. I would assume that consistent with the approach they took in relation to Bob Day, that they would order another fresh count of the ballot, having removed Bob Day [indistinct] …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Right, so you got to work with whoever was on the ticket on the day.
Simon Birmingham: … And then it will flow to whomever that may be. The Labor Party is obviously taking a punt and very hopeful that it would be Anne McEwen. But it could equally be One Nation, it could be Sean Edwards, but I do think it’s important for your listeners to appreciate …
Mark Butler: [Talks over] I thought he was running for state leader.
Simon Birmingham: … Once this matter is resolved by the Court, if Ms Gichuhi takes that seat, then of course, that is a genuine reflection of the voter intent from the last Federal Election.
Matthew Abraham: Right, that’s the voice of Simon Birmingham, he’s a Liberal Senator for South Australia, he’s also the Federal Education Minister. Also in our studio is Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide and President of the ALP- National President. And Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens.
Simon Birmingham, 457 Visas. The Government has announced they’re gone. They’re going to be replaced with another scheme. Will it also be the case that employers who bring foreign workers in – on this new scheme – will have to put money in to a fund to train Australian workers, to eventually fill those vacancies?
Simon Birmingham: We have indicated that there will be a training fund associated with this program. And that’s to make sure that in future a much better job is done of ensuring Australians are trained to fill the jobs that people under temporary visa categories, have been occupying, and perhaps has been the case in the past. Details of that will be announced closer to the Budget. But work is absolutely proceeding on such an arrangement.
Matthew Abraham: What’s the deal with Malcolm Turnbull, now, having his press conferences accompanied by sort of – was it Barry Morgan on his organ? – the sort of …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Laughs]
Matthew Abraham: … There’s music, there’s flags.
David Bevan: Who’s Barry Morgan?
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Laughs]
Matthew Abraham: He’s a Fringe performer.
Simon Birmingham: Matt, so far as I’m aware …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] It was very well scripted though, you’ve got to give him that.
Simon Birmingham: … It was a standard Prime Ministerial courtyard press conference, yesterday.
David Bevan: Okay, Mark Butler, when you look at the ….
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Accompanied by Peter Dutton, without an organ [laughs].
Sarah Hanson-Young: Thank goodness for that.
David Bevan: [Laughs] … When we look at the occupations, the list of occupations are now not going to be allowed to get 457- well the equivalent of work- short term visas; radio presenter, broadcasters, jockey, judge, interior decorator, goat farmer, historian, futures trader, deer farmer, bed and breakfast operator, amusement centre manager …
Simon Birmingham: Electorate officer.
David Bevan: … author. Do you agree that it is- had become a rort?
Mark Butler: Well, we’ve been arguing for some time that this system needed to be cleaned up. And for years now, the Government – particularly Malcolm Turnbull – has been arguing that it’s all fine. A lot of the arrangements that were announced yesterday were recommended to the Government three years ago in a review, including this idea of a training fund, which I hope will go some way towards filling the $2.5 billion that this Government has cut in vocational training funds and the 130,000 fewer apprentices that we have since this Government was elected. We’ve all agreed that this thing needs to be cleaned up, particularly as the mining boom has tapered off. It’s not working as it was intended to. But remember when we tried to clean it up and when we did start to restrict the application of this scheme – back when we were in Government, under Julia Gillard, as PM – the Liberal Party opposed our changes. Malcolm Turnbull made some particularly offensive remarks about our motivations in seeking to clean this up. So look, it’s great to have him come to this position finally – we all have our suspicions about why he’s done it – but they’ve been sitting on this report for three years now. Big splashy announcement, yesterday, that was full of spin but we remain to be convinced the details are going to live up to the hype.
Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, you’re shaking your head.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think we’ve got to call a spade a spade. And here we have the Prime Minister, he is down in the polls, he’s got Tony Abbott out causing mischief and he wants to cuddle up to the right-wing in his own party and deal with the pressures from One Nation. So he made this big announcement yesterday – which is effectively a rebranding of these temporary foreign worker visas – it’s not just a name change, they are looking at the various different lists. But really, what he wanted was a headline to say; no to foreign workers, but then on the side to business; no, no, it’s all okay, we’re still going to keep an avenue for people coming in. It’s pretty rank politics from the Prime Minister.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, before you let us go – because its 08:51am – you’re the Federal Education Minister, there’s a report on the front page of The Fin Review, this morning, suggesting that students are going to have to pay more for their HECS debt and sooner. Is that the case?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, firstly if I can quickly say something in relation to the Government’s 457 visa reforms and refute this idea that it’s either just tinkering at the edges or the like, more than 200 occupations have been taken off the list. We’re going to have much more stringent requirements in terms of people actually having had to work in the profession …
Sarah Hanson-Young [Talks over] You can’t give us any details about how you’re going to train young Australians.
Simon Birmingham: … For at least two years previously, English language proficiency arrangements. Changes that are really dealing with the fact that under Labor we had deals that were seeing McDonald’s and KFC bringing in people under 457 visas. Now we’d already clamped down on that, this is now a wholesale rewrite of the program to address [indistinct] issues, now to David’s question …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Why can’t you clean up the system, without the racist rhetoric? I mean, that’s what I’d like t to know.
Simon Birmingham: There wasn’t any rhetoric in that, Sarah. That was actually going through the facts of what was the case and what will be the case in the future.
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] The Prime Minister’s press conference was full of rhetoric.
David Bevan: Okay now, are you going to make university graduates pay- or students pay more for their HECS and the graduates have to start paying it back sooner?
Simon Birmingham: So over the last 12 months I’ve been going through a process that started with issuing a discussion paper to look at ways we could deal with the costs in higher education. We’ve seen a huge growth in the cost base for higher education since 2009 – around 71 per cent increase in costs, more than twice the growth of the economy – so it’s come to cost tax payers a lot more, around $16.7 billion in 2016 alone, across higher education and research costs. We have a number of Budget savings that were put in back in 2014 …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Is that a yes?
Simon Birmingham: … They haven’t been realised and I’ve been working through ways to ensure that we can implement a sustainable program to make sure everybody has access to higher education in the future.
Matthew Abraham: Right, so is that code for; yes we are considering asking students to pay more, sooner and quicker?
Simon Birmingham: All of those options were contained in the options paper that we released. And these matters are being finalised in the lead up to the Budget.
David Bevan: And in return for that, you’ll drop the $7 billion in cuts that were outlined in the 2014 Budget?
Simon Birmingham: David, I’m not going to specify what will be in the Budget on your program today. But we went through a very transparent process, pre-Election, releasing this Options paper to canvas all of these scenarios …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Okay is 50/50- well then is this a fair process, 50/50 for your degree? You pay half, the Government pays the other.
Simon Birmingham: Well, in broad terms that is not an unreasonable proposition. The Government picks up a significant element of the tab and the other 50 per cent, you need to appreciate – or currently 60 per cent and wherever it lands – is, of course, fully paid for in most cases by the Government up front under one of the most generous student loan schemes in the world, that people only pay back once they’re earning a good wage.
Sarah Hanson-Young: I think one of the other concerning issues is the timeframe by which people are going to have to pay these fees back, $45,000, is a very low income for expecting students who are graduates to start having to pay their HECS fees back. This is another attack from the Government on students and it’s not going to go down well.
David Bevan: Okay, Mark Butler, just quickly from the Labor Party.
Mark Butler: Well I think the 50/50 is the pi model. So if that’s the core of the policy, nothing will of changed.
David Bevan: Mark Butler, thank you. From the Labor Party, Federal President.
That is breaking news, by the way, about Lucy Gichuhi, it is taking off I can tell you around ABC News at the moment, have picked up on that.
And Sarah Hanson-Young, thank you. Greens Senator for South Australia. And Simon Birmingham, Education Minister in the Turnbull team.