Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Australian Conservatives merger with Family First; Senator-elect Gichuhi; Regional influence of China; Oakden nursing home
08:34 AM

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon would love to be doing this, but he’s on the Gold Coast somewhere. Senator Nick Xenophon, welcome.

Penny Wong: What’s the weather like there?

Nick Xenophon: I’m in Sydney and it’s 21 degrees in this room for this committee meeting.

Matthew Abraham: Your leader of the NXT Party, South Australian Senator, and SA Best as you are known as South Australia, Senator Xenophon, welcome. And formally we do welcome Liberal Senator for South Australia, Education Minister of Turnbull Team, Simon Birmingham. Senator Simon Birmingham, welcome. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, and good morning Nick. 

Matthew Abraham: And Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia, welcome to you.

Penny Wong: Good morning. Good morning, all. 

Matthew Abraham: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Simon Birmingham, only- well, this time last year, I think, Cory Bernardi was number two on the Liberal Ticket. He’s now not only leading his own party, the Australian Conservatives – he’s tired of you – but is now, according to Sydney Morning Herald, depends on the view of this, absorbing Family First, a takeover.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll let Cory Bernardi and Family First talk about their new marriage or whatever is happening there. That’s really a matter for them. I’d note if the media reports are correct that Cory and Family First are merging, that the new Family First Senator is not. So this appears to be a merger that has fallen apart already before it’s even got off the ground. 

Ultimately though, if we look at the history of Family First, it’s been around in Australia for about 15 years. Its voters variously bounced it between three and five per cent; it was less than three per cent at the last election. I think many people would have anticipated if Cory Bernardi was going to defect – and let’s be honest, there was a bit of speculation about that over the years – that he may have gone into Family First, but with the Bob Day difficulties there were brand issues, shall we say, around Family First, and it seems as if they’ve found a different way of getting the same outcome. 

Matthew Abraham: Do you think they’ve abandoned Lucy Gichuhi, or was she … said thank you, but no thanks?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s a matter for Lucy Gichuhi to have to explain that. Obviously, she ran as a Family First candidate at the last election. It looks like she has said no, she doesn’t wish to be part of this merger. That would seem to be the case if the media reports are correct, and of course, given her party has chosen to merge into a different political entity then that’s within her rights, I guess, to choose not to do so.

David Bevan: Penny Wong?

Penny Wong: Well, I think this is all about the hard right of the Liberal Party flexing its muscles, I mean, in trying to work out what’s the best way to do that. I mean Cory’s a disgruntled Lib; Bob Day was a disgruntled Lib. I think this is all about them trying to work out the best way to flex their political muscles. 

I suspect the real target is Malcolm Turnbull, and the real reason for this is about keeping Cory elected. On Lucy Gichuhi, the Senator-elect, what I would say is I think she’s been smart enough not to go along with what is self-evidently political gain that’s got- seems to have very little to do with voters and a lot to do with political gains in Canberra.

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, we’ll come back to some of these issues, but Nick Xenophon, your view of this.

Nick Xenophon: My view is it’s going to be very tough for Lucy Gichuhi, and it’s a brave new world there in the Senate if you’re a rookie. And whatever help she needs, whatever- even though we’ll have a number of policy differences, I just think it’s important that she transitions into the job so she can do her job to represent South Australians that voted for Family First in the first place.

Matthew Abraham: And you’ll be there for her.

David Bevan: Yeah, have you already spoken with her?

Nick Xenophon: No, I haven’t. I met her at a [indistinct] community function last year, had a quick chat with her. But I think it’s important that even cross-benchers that may disagree with each other quite a lot to try and help each others on issues of process, and I think it’s important that she be given a fair go in terms of doing her job.

Matthew Abraham: So- Penny Wong and Simon Birmingham, when he- when you heard there Nick Xenophon saying that she’ll need guidance, he’s there, you’re both- a bit of a wry smile there?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re a collegial- we’re a very collegial lot in the Senate, and we will all be there to help a new colleague. [Indistinct].

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Let’s just say Nick’s a very good operator.

David Bevan: Well, maybe you should be- maybe you should be courting her vote?

Penny Wong: We are very happy to talk to Senator Gichuhi. We obviously aren’t going to agree with her on some issues, and we’ll agree with her on others. But I think we have been more than willing, with the exception of One Nation, to engage very closely.

Simon Birmingham: David, look, I’ve reached out, offered congratulations to Lucy, and of course in a practical sense we will help a new senator. The Government seeks to offer certain assistance to new senators in a very practical way. That’s been the case with previous Governments as well. There’s nothing new there in terms of trying to help cross-bench senators to effectively do their job which is a challenging role for them.

Matthew Abraham: Penny Wong, Labor party challenged her eligibility in the High Court; it got slapped down. The High Court said that Anne McEwen should- had adequate time, former senator, to prepare her case and knock it out. We’ve been told that if fresh information surfaces about her eligibility that the Labor Party may have another go at questioning that in the High Court. Is that totally out of the question?

Penny Wong: Well, that’s not something I’m aware of. I mean, my view about it is it’s resolved. Those issues I think were raised, and on the public record; not just by Labor, but by others. It was raised before the High Court. The High Court’s made its decision.

Matthew Abraham: On the information it has.

Penny Wong: Well I mean- I think this issue of eligibility, both of initially of Senator Day – obviously he’s been around for a long time and we didn’t want to see those issues continue. I think it was raised. The High Court said look, we’re not considering that, so I think the matter’s closed.

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon?

Nick Xenophon: Yes?

Matthew Abraham: Is there any talk of fresh information?

Nick Xenophon: Look, I’ve heard that there might be, but that’s a matter for those who want to contest it. My view is that Lucy Gichuhi is there, and the presumption is that unless it’s challenged, she’ll be there until the next election. She’s only got a three year term, or effectively another two years till 1 July 2019, and that’s that.

David Bevan: Could you mount a case for the High Court saying look, Family First have been arguing for months now that they own that spot, it goes to their girl in this case. At the same time, they were negotiating to dissolve their existence. And you weren’t be upfront with the High Court as it was managing this case. Could you mount a case on those grounds?

Nick Xenophon: I don’t pretend to be a constitutional lawyer, but my- the vibe, the vibe would tell me that the issue here is what [indistinct] …

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Denis Denuto…

Nick Xenophon: … time of nomination.

Matthew Abraham: Is what?

Nick Xenophon: Because we’re looking at the time- it’s what is relevant at the time of nomination.

Matthew Abraham: Okay.

Penny Wong: I think what- the points you make, David, are reasonable in terms of the court of public opinion.

David Bevan: Please expand.

Penny Wong: Oh, simply that. I think many people would look at this announcement today and think oh, we’ve just gone through this whole process. You had your first senator who was rendered ineligible because he wanted a deal with the Government on a building. You’ve got issues, and all the time that you were contesting in the High Court both for- advocating his eligibility and telling people it was okay, you were actually engaged in a background discussion with Cory Bernardi to dissolve the party.

Simon Birmingham: None of which it would seem, of course, as being any of Lucy Gichuhi’s dealings …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Oh, no, no.

Simon Birmingham: … just [indistinct] to make sure that it’s still clear that she comes in as the new senator, and if media reports are correct, she’s going to come in having said well, I’m not going to be part of any new deal that might be being struck. 

Last week when we were discussing the High Court case, I think it’s fair to say Mark Butler was talking up the Labor Party’s challenge to her citizenship, and expecting that the matters wouldn’t be resolved last Wednesday. Obviously, the High Court found that there was very little to the evidence put to them, and they made a clear decision on the day in terms of appointing Lucy as the new senator. And I think we should all assume that that is the matter resolved, that we go forward for the remainder of this term with Lucy serving in the Senate, and hopefully she does a good job for South Australia, and hopefully she’s good for us all to work with, particularly for the Government.

Matthew Abraham: It is interesting, isn’t it? Because you said in that recount that was done that confirmed her as a senator, the recount effectively says that Cory Bernardi’s still a Liberal Senator, doesn’t he, on the recount? It doesn’t say Cory Bernardi, Australian Conservatives, does it?

Simon Birmingham: The AEC went back through all of the ballots to determine who would fill Bob Day’s spot, and that did spit out all the different results, which yes, showed Cory Bernardi as a Liberal Senator. Look, at the time of Cory’s defection, I expressed my disappointment, as did many other members of the Liberal Party, but we’ve moved on from that. We’ll get on with our job. We will prosecute our case as to why we think people should re-elect the Turnbull Government, why they should stick with voting for the Liberal Party. And as I’ve said before, we’ve seen Family First rattle around South Australian politics for 15-odd years, and their votes bounce between three and five per cent, and the test is …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well, they’ve got two- they’ve got a senator and they’ve got two in the upper house here.

Simon Birmingham: Two. Sure, David, but- Matt. But if you look at, I guess, the extent to which some of the commentary has talked this up, are we seeing a profound shift, or is it really just a continuation of yes, there is a Family First-type party that sits there that may attract a few per cent of the vote. And of course, we will work with them if that’s the case and they get elected representatives, but it may not be as profound as some of the media hype is making out.

David Bevan: Nick Xenophon, you’ve written a thinkpiece for the Sydney Morning Herald regarding Australia’s relationship with China and with the United States, and it paints a disastrous future for us if things go badly wrong. You say that is Australia ready for a relentless parade of funerals. Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, if Australia was to become involved in a war with China, there would be relatively- where there were relatively few casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, this time we may see large numbers of body bags returning or never returning at all. Is Australia ready for this relentless parade of funerals for calls for the extreme political fringe- from the extreme political fringe for Chinese-Australians to be interned in camps, for India reinforcing its troops along its border, et cetera, et cetera. Can you explain to our listeners why you think something fundamental has changed and the stakes could not be higher?  

Nick Xenophon: Well, firstly, that opinion piece was an edited version of a speech I gave to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last Thursday night in Canberra, and it’s based in- to a large degree on an analysis done by the Rand Corporation in the United States, which is a mainstream think-tank on defence issues. I think it even gets some funding from the US military to do its work. They said that a war with China over the South China Sea, for instance, would not be a laydown affair(*). It would go for at least a year. There would be no clear winner. There would be heavy casualties and heavy losses in the US, between the US and China, that there would be a 30 per cent contraction of China’s GDP, a 10 per cent contraction of the US GDP, and in Australia, we are so much more reliant on China for trade, it could see a 30 per cent reduction in our GDP; in other words, plunging the country into depression. But the point I’m making is [indistinct] … 

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But you say China may choose to kill the chicken to scare the monkey. What are you talking about?

Nick Xenophon: Well, that’s an old Chinese proverb which basically says that sometimes- and it’s something that was used as recently as Deng Xiaopeng in the Tiananmen Square …

Matthew Abraham: Massacre.

Nick Xenophon: … Massacre, it was a massacre, back in 1989, where it’s based on a Sun Tzu proverb that basically says sometimes you flex your muscles against a weaker ally or a weaker power in order to let the stronger power know that you mean business. So that’s the point.

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Okay. Labor Senator …

Nick Xenophon: And that is based on defence analysts who I’ve spoken to who say that we’ve got to be very careful about our engagement, diplomacy obviously – and that’s something that Malcolm Turnbull, to his credit, has been pushing very hard – in resolving the South China Sea dispute before it blows up and all.

Matthew Abraham: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong. Is this scaremongering?

Penny Wong: Look, I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about body bags and wars. There’s always a lot of scenarios you can construct in foreign policy. The world is a place where you know there can be conflict, but I think two things: the first is governments of both political persuasions have sought a constructive relationship with China. We have a strong bilateral relationship. It’s- they’re our largest trading partner, and they’ve demonstrated a willingness to engage with Australia constructively. 

David Bevan: Do you agree with Nick Xenophon that increased tension between the United States and China seems inevitable?

Penny Wong: No, I don’t think anything is inevitable. I think human agency and diplomacy and statecraft have a role to play. I think the second one I was going to make is precisely that. We do have an interest in a strong and stable US-China relationship, and just as we invest in our relationship with the US and with China, we also need to do what we can to encourage stability between the United States and China, whether it’s in the South China Sea or more broadly. That’s the way we should approach these matters. Yes, the South China Sea has been a point of tension, and we have consistently said that this should be resolved peacefully. We do support freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. They are in Australia’s national interests, and we encourage all parties, all claimant parties to resolve these matters peacefully.

Matthew Abraham: It is an case, isn’t it, because you’ve got so many- it’s such a narrow, effectively narrow sea. You’ve got so many nations trying to enforce their maritime zones, their 200 nautical mile maritime zones. You’ve got China in there saying well, no, we’re going to build an island here, put a base on it. This is ours. Sending very clear signals. Not just to Australia and the US, but to all those other countries that border it.

Penny Wong: And I think what’s important to recall is this: that every country, China included, and certainly Australia, has an interest in continued freedom of navigation. We all have an interest in global trade continuing. We all have an interest in making sure people can get things where they need to get them, and that international trade continues unimpeded. And I think China does too, and in fact, some of the figures Nick quoted just now reminds us that China also has an interest in that. So I don’t think this sort of language is helpful, and describing these sorts of scenarios as a political leader is helpful.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham. As Education Minister, a bit out of your brief, but …

Simon Birmingham: A little out of portfolio, but from a Government …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] It’s also a long way from pokies- it’s a long way from pokies to Beijing, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] It is. Look I think it is in nobody’s interests for these matters to be inflamed. And I think that we would urge Nick, as we did Stephen Conroy, a former Labor Senator, and others to exercise restraint in their commentary around these matters. We’ve seen the Labor Party, through some spokespeople previously, claim that Australia should proactively consider undertaking freedom of navigation exercises. That’s not something that the Government thought was helpful. I’m not sure Nick’s comments are terribly helpful either. 

We urge within Australia – as we do in our engagement with both China and the US – restraint between parties in their commentary around this. We urge respect for those freedom of navigation issues that ought to be showed. We encourage and have made it very plain to China that we discourage the militarisation of the islands in the South China Sea. And that we want to see peaceful resolutions to these matters in accordance with international law. 

Matthew Abraham: Finally on Super Wednesday here on ABC Radio Adelaide at 8.52, Simon Birmingham, as a member of the Government, do you accept failure on the Commonwealth part to run the Oakden facility? It was a Commonwealth accredited facility. Putting aside what’s happened here and at state level. You’re the lender of last resort on these things and you presided over an absolute disgrace. 

Simon Birmingham: Well Matt, I don’t accept the idea that we presided over it. I do accept that we absolutely need to make sure that in terms of the federal regulatory bodies that exist, that if there were failings in any of their actions, we ought to get to the bottom of those failings to make sure that they are clear. But it does seem to be quite apparent that there were various warnings that were certainly made known to the State Government, to the State Minister in particular, that were not heeded. They are the operator managers, the administrators …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] It does make you wonder about the federal accreditation process, doesn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we don’t run the centre.

Matthew Abraham: No, but it can’t run without your accreditation. 

Simon Birmingham: We don’t run the centre. The warnings plainly were made to those state agencies. Now if there were failings in relation to the federal agencies, that is something we ought to get to the bottom of and understand what can be done to fix those processes in future. But we know quite clearly there were failings at the state level where warnings were given, given direct to the Minister, and they were not acted upon. 

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham thank you for joining us on Super Wednesday, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia thank you. 

Penny Wong: Good to be with you. 

Matthew Abraham: And Nick Xenophon, he’s the Nick Xenophon Senator for South Australia, thank you here on ABC Radio Adelaide.