Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator, good morning to you.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
David Bevan: And Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Labor Member for Port Adelaide, good morning to you.
Mark Butler: Good morning everyone.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, can you just bring us up to date. How many people have now resigned or offered to resign from Cabinet, what’s the latest figure?
Simon Birmingham: David, look I’m not aware of all the discussions the Prime Minister’s had. But a number of ministers have approached the Prime Minister. I think one or two have actually resigned, others have simply indicated to him that they were willing to resign if he wished. He asked them whether- my understanding is he’s secured from them and received from them commitments of their full support to him and to the policy agenda of the Government and he is very happy for them to continue as ministers. Because what we want is to make sure that we move on from yesterday’s events.
David Bevan: So you put it at one or two – one or two, you’re not sure – one or two have resigned and one or two have offered to resign but that’s been declined?
Simon Birmingham: Well ministers like Michael Keenan and Steven Ciobo…
David Bevan: Are you sure it’s not more?
Simon Birmingham: Ministers like Michael Keenan and Steven Ciobo I believe have put out public statements making clear that they support Malcolm Turnbull and the Government, that yesterday’s matters are behind us and that we get on with the job from here. And so if anything, that means Malcolm Turnbull’s position is stronger today than it was yesterday.
David Bevan: You don’t really believe that do you?
Ali Clarke: I don’t think anyone believes that, unfortunately.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, how can that possibly be?
Simon Birmingham: Because what you saw yesterday was Malcolm Turnbull in a gutsy move walking into the Liberal party room and deciding of his own volition to declare the leadership of the Liberal Party vacant and to then recontest that, he won. He won clearly. He’s now been speaking to those members of the ministry who supported Peter Dutton who in a fair and open contest – and it was an open contest because Malcolm Turnbull called the position vacant – Peter put his hand up. Some members of the ministry supported him. Malcolm’s met with those members of the Cabinet and they have indicated their support for Malcolm Turnbull going forward.
David Bevan: Well I was told just a few minutes ago by a Dutton supporter that another challenge this week is inevitable.
Simon Birmingham: Well people can make those claims if they want on background in secret conversations to journalists but we had a clear result yesterday and we have in the Prime Minister, in Malcolm Turnbull he has a strong track record that we ought to take to the next election. We ought to be going to the next election with Malcolm as leader so that Australians can consider the fact that as a Liberal prime minister he has managed to deliver tax relief for 700,000 South Australians and tens of thousands of South Australian small and medium size businesses. As a Liberal prime minister he’s managed to bring the budget to a position where it will come back to balance next year. As a Liberal prime minister he’s managed to create record jobs growth. These are the types of things that I believe Liberal Party supporters expect good Liberal governments to do and we’ve seen Malcolm Turnbull deliver on all of those fronts; balancing the budget, creating stronger jobs growth and delivering tax relief.
Ali Clarke: But also this time yesterday Christopher Pyne was telling us there wasn’t going to be a challenge. We hang up the phone and half an hour later it has been, you know, the Prime Minister has stood aside and said here we go, let’s do this. So then you would understand people sitting here listening to you saying – jobs, we’re ready to go and we’re going to govern this country that there would be doubt.
Simon Birmingham: Well Ali that’s because Malcolm Turnbull showed guts and courage in leadership yesterday. He walked into that room and decided himself that he wasn’t going to allow continued speculation, that he would declare the position vacant, initiate it himself and throw it open. That’s what occurred. We got a clear result. He got a higher proportion of support in the Coalition party room, in the Liberal Party room yesterday in terms of his vote than he did when he first won the leadership a number of years ago.
Ali Clarke: So who knew he was exactly going to do that yesterday? Are you suggesting Manager of Government Business was surprised by Turnbull’s move and that Christopher Pyne had no idea until he walked into that room?
Simon Birmingham: I think this is entirely Malcolm’s decision and in doing so Malcolm was showing his conviction, his willingness to put his job on the line to end this. He got strong endorsement and we ought to get on and make sure that he now has the chance to sell to the Australian people the very strong achievements of this government. I mean South Australia has had no better friend as a prime minister than Malcolm Turnbull, South Australia in terms of the defence industry investment, the way in which he’s approached the fix to the GST, significant infrastructure spending, infrastructure spending on North-South Corridor, on Oaklands Crossing, on the Northern Irrigation Project, on the Gawler line electrification. It is a big list of achievements and we ought to be making sure that we give people the chance at an election to contrast the achievements of Malcolm Turnbull, what he’s delivered as a Liberal prime minister with the fact that Bill Shorten as the Labor leader has a long list of tax hikes that will result in people taking home less of their wages, being taxed more on housing, being taxed more on their business earnings, being taxed more on their retirement savings and ultimately facing higher electricity prices.
David Bevan: How many National MPs have offered to sit on the crossbench if Dutton is elected?
Simon Birmingham: Look I’ve seen some media speculation on that, David. That’s the Nationals MPs to speak for themselves. But my view and the view clearly of the majority of the Liberal Party room is that Malcolm Turnbull having been reconfirmed as leader yesterday with a strong majority should now be supported through to the election.
David Bevan: Yeah, but how many National MPs have agreed to sit on the crossbench if Dutton is elected?
Simon Birmingham: You would have to ask National MPs if…
David Bevan: But you don’t know? Are you telling our listeners you don’t know the numbers?
Simon Birmingham: It’s a hypothetical question, David, because Malcolm Turnbull…
David Bevan: No it’s not. I’m asking you how many have offered.
Simon Birmingham: Malcolm Turnbull is the leader and he’s the leader who was endorsed again yesterday – and we keep going around on this if you like – but yesterday he threw the positions open in the party room, he stood against the leadership, he won. He won with a bigger proportion of the vote than when he was first elected leader and we now ought to get on proceeding with governing all the way through until next year when we have an election due and then next year at the election stand on our record as a Liberal government bringing the budget back to balance, offering tax relief, growing jobs, record investment in infrastructure – they’re the things that we ought to be talking about.
Ali Clarke: Mark Butler, you’ve been through this. Are you licking your chops this morning?
Mark Butler: No, I’m not licking my chops. At a human level, I sort of understand what Simon is going through and it’s all well and good for him I guess to outline what Malcolm Turnbull might have done for South Australia. But at the end of the day, it’s not going to count for much because as much as Simon might protest this, the Prime Minister is cooked, I think. Let’s be clear what he did yesterday; he ambushed the party room. Whether Christopher Pyne knew or not what he was going to do, is not really to the point. No one was given- no one else was given notice within the party room that there would be a ballot for Liberal leader, and therefore effectively for prime minister, and still more than 40 per cent of the party room voted for Peter Dutton. It’s impossible to see how Malcolm Turnbull can survive – if he survives beyond this week – how he survives beyond a fortnight. And what goes with that, I think, is a massive reduction in the South Australian Liberal Party’s influence within the Government given that Simon Birmingham and Christopher Pyne are effectively numbers men for Malcolm Turnbull.
So, what we have here is a government who, I think, everyone expected to come into this parliamentary fortnight with a plan to deal with energy policy. That’s certainly what I was ready to deal with as the shadow spokesperson for energy. And to try and get their company tax cuts through the Parliament and instead what they’ve done is declare war on themselves. And I imagine that your listeners in South Australia and listeners across the country, at best, are disappointed and probably are just completely angered and frustrated that when we have some really serious issues facing the country, the Liberal Party is focused on itself.
David Bevan: But will Labor be in a better situation after the next election? I mean, you’re almost certainly going to win the next election, but you almost certainly won’t control the Senate. So, will your energy plans be scuttled by the Greens and the Conservatives? So, you’re going to be in the same position as Frydenberg in eight, nine months’ time.
Mark Butler: Well, the long term story – once we get over this civil war within the Liberal Party – the long term story out of this fortnight, I think, is that the Liberal Party has walked away from really any interest in trying to adopt a bipartisan investment framework for energy. And we know from all of the experts that the lack of that framework beyond 2020, in particular, is at the centre of the energy crisis that has emerged under this Prime Minister and that’s an extraordinarily important, pretty devastating signal that the Liberal Party has sent for our economy…
David Bevan: But the last time that Labor was trying to sort out energy and emissions, it was the Greens which scuttled your plan. So can you address that, Mark Butler? Are we going to be any better off in eight months’ time? It would just be different players playing out the same script.
Mark Butler: Well, it was the Greens with Tony Abbott and there are a lot of parallels unfortunately through this parliamentary fortnight with what happened back in 2009. Malcolm Turnbull effectively is being stalked by the hard right of the Coalition party room over climate change and energy policy just that he was back in 2009. And Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton, and all of their supporters within the Coalition party room that look like they’re going to become a majority pretty soon have no interest in settling a bipartisan energy policy that will deliver the certainty that is needed to start to push down power prices and that, I think, is going to be devastating for Australian business and households.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator, and you’re going to be- you’re looking after the environment now, aren’t you? After the next election, which Labor will almost certainly win, will the Greens come on board and be prepared to compromise on energy? Or will you scuttle their plans?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, let me just say first up that Simon said that the Prime Minister walked in to his party room yesterday with courage and conviction. Pity he had more courage and conviction for his own job than he does for action on climate change or protecting the environment because what he has done in the lead-up to that party room vote was absolutely sell his soul; and really undermine any possibility for the Coalition to have a common sense climate policy going forward – whether under him, if he in the very, very thin chance that he could remain as prime minister or under a new leader. The Coalition now have just absolutely abandoned any framework to reduce carbon pollution. And I’d just say that going into this next election, I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion who will win government but I do know that whoever does, will have to work with the Senate and yes, that of course means the Greens, to ensure that we do have a policy framework for reducing pollution; arresting climate change seriously; and doing something to give certainty to our renewable energy sector.
David Bevan: But you’re appalled with Labor’s energy policy, aren’t you?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well…
David Bevan: And their remissions target?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, at the moment it’s a whole lot better than the Coalition’s. Let’s be honest about that. Malcolm Turnbull has…
David Bevan: So, do you think you can cut a deal with Labor?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Malcolm Turnbull has thrown any possibility of the Liberal Party ever really having a serious policy on climate change.
David Bevan: But Sarah Hanson-Young if we get it- we’re going to run out of time quickly. Our listeners are busy people.
Sarah Hanson-Young: We are going to have…
David Bevan: Can the Greens cut a deal with Labor? Or is Mark Butler going to be in the same position in eight months’ time?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, I hope that we can work constructively together just like we did when we introduced a carbon price after the 2010 election, where we got serious action on climate change. Remembering it was all [indistinct] by Tony Abbott.
Simon Birmingham: And there you go. The Greens hope that they can work with the Labor Party to reintroduce a carbon tax; push up Australians’ electricity bill. Mark Butler and the Labor Party and their emissions target…
Sarah Hanson-Young: Simon, get real about climate change.
Simon Birmingham: …are about twice what the Paris targets are.
Sarah Hanson-Young: We’ve got to get real about reducing carbon pollution.
Simon Birmingham: …and the consequences of that will be Australian households, pensioners, South Australian businesses all paying more for electricity.
David Bevan: Alright. Well, Simon Birmingham, Simon Birmingham…
Sarah Hanson-Young: I don’t think Coalition can crow about it.
David Bevan: …can we agree on this, Simon Birmingham, that even without another challenge, there’s going to be significant ministerial reshuffles in the next few days?
Simon Birmingham: No. At this stage, as far as I’m aware, there’s one resignation from the Cabinet.
David Bevan: So it’s just- sorry, I thought there was Dutton and there was another one. Didn’t you say one or two?
Simon Birmingham: There might be an assistant minister. I can confirm there’s one Cabinet minister and one outer minister that I’m aware of.
David Bevan: Alright. And as far as you’re aware that’s the latest tally? So, that’s Dutton…
Simon Birmingham: Sorry, that’s hardly a significant reshuffle, David.
David Bevan: Alright. Can you tell our listeners that this is not causing enormous disruption to the Government?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, it’s clearly a distraction or you wouldn’t be asking me about it; and we wouldn’t be talking about it
David Bevan: It’s not our fault.
Simon Birmingham: But I can also tell your listeners that yesterday I continued to meet with a bunch of stakeholders on early childhood education matters and the like. And that this morning the Senate will resume business; hopefully finish with the government’s enterprise tax reforms, hopefully pass them although it would seem probably not based on the current Senate numbers. And then we’ll move on in terms of government business to our cashless debit card; the reforms that are really focused on ensuring that people in vulnerable circumstances aren’t spending taxpayers’ money, aren’t spending their welfare support in ways that exacerbate their problems rather than help their families.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, do you take responsibility, some responsibility for the Government’s present circumstances? I mean, you could have handled the Catholic education sector much better. Agree?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, it’s a- you’re wrapping up and it’s a long topic in terms of school funding. In terms of school funding, we have done what no government did before, and that is seek to apply consistency to the way school funding works. Now, we’re working through what is a difficult issue in terms of the way Socioeconomic Scores are calculated. We have an independent review on that which Catholic ed asked for. It came back last month and we’re working as quickly as we can with both Catholic and independent education sectors about how that discounting of funding for non-government schools works. Noting that we’re giving record funding overall to all sectors and that those changes don’t have any bearing in relation to our record and growing funding for government schools.
Ali Clarke: This is Super Wednesday on ABC Radio Adelaide. Ali Clarke, David Bevan with you, and that is the voice of Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister. We also have Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for SA, and Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Labor Member for Port Adelaide with you.
Let’s go to Grant who’s called in. Grant, what did you want to say?
Caller Grant: A couple of things. Look, I met Peter Dutton a few years ago up in Queensland when I was living there through a pre-selection process. Found the guy to be a pretty genuine type of bloke. A 20-minute chat turned into a two-hour talk. But, I’m really, really angry about this whole thing and that anger stems back to Rudd and Gillard. It followed through to Abbott and Turnbull and now this. We put prime ministers in place. It is not up to the party rooms and their egos and their machinations, regardless of party, to go about business this way. It diminishes the Parliament. It weakens the parliamentary process in the view of the people. It belittles, it devalues. Angry? You bet. I am really, really angry.
Ali Clarke: Grant, thank you very much, in fact I just want to give some time now. Simon Birmingham, how do you respond and let’s throw on the back of that what so many people are saying on the back of this. Why do we even bother to vote? That’s what it feels like some times.
Simon Birmingham: I understand why voters are angry when it looks like the discussions in Canberra relate to people in Canberra, rather than the circumstances of people in Adelaide and across South Australia and their lives. All I can say is to give them the reassurance that in terms of the work Malcolm Turnbull’s doing, the Cabinet and Government are doing, we are trying to keep focused on the policy issues. Just this week, we announced new energy reforms that will…
Ali Clarke: Okay, and we’ve heard this- sorry to cut you off…
Simon Birmingham: …put in place a default price for households that will mean pensioners no longer confuse [indistinct] electricity bills…
Ali Clarke: For time though, Mr Birmingham. If there is another leadership challenge within a week, are you going to come on this show and give people like Grant and Robert and Sally and people on the text line exactly the same answer?
Simon Birmingham: Well Ali, I can only tell you what I see happening here at present and that is government this week, yes, with a ballot for the leadership, but at the same time announcing reforms that will mean no longer if a pensioner doesn’t work out a new complex energy plan to switch to with their energy retailer, that they’ll be pushed on to a higher rate. There’ll actually now be a clear, fair default price. They’re important reforms and they’re things that we’ve done this week at the same time.
Ali Clarke: Okay. Well we’ve had the leader of the Australian Conservatives Cory Bernardi ring in. Good morning.
Cory Bernardi: How are you Ali?
Ali Clarke: I’m going well. Where are you sitting on all of this?
Cory Bernardi: In respect to the leadership changes?
Ali Clarke: Yeah.
Cory Bernardi: Yeah, well I sit outside of that tent. I’m removed from it. I lament that a once great party is ripping itself to pieces as it’s- the foundations are being steadily eroded by people who, I guess, are less committed to the enduring values.
Ali Clarke: So then what do you think it’s going to mean for South Australia?
Cory Bernardi: Well ultimately I think the party needs to- if it wants to make a difference in South Australia it needs to make some substantive changes to their policy areas, and that includes migration. We need to make sure that the electricity market works as a market rather than just a rorted [indistinct] of big producers and generators. We need to make sure that Australia’s bureaucracy is trimmed and that red and green tape is reduced because that is the only thing that is going to revitalise business and is going to connect people with the government again.
Ali Clarke: Okay, but you’ve been in parliament a long time.
Cory Bernardi: Not that long.
Ali Clarke: Well, how do you think this is going to pan out.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Too long.
Cory Bernardi: Too long, some would say. How’s it going to pan out? Well, Malcolm Turnbull’s in his political death. Who’s going to replace him? At the moment it’s likely to be Peter Dutton, but in order for the Liberal Party to have any chance at all it has to draw its base back. It’s got to reaffirm its commitment to the enduring principles upon which it was founded. Free speech. It’s got to lower bureaucracy. It’s got to reduce taxes. It’s got to put forward a vision for the future of the country that people can have confidence in.
David Bevan: Cory Bernardi, thanks for your call. Simon Birmingham, if we can finish with you. ABC News is reporting, and this was updated four hours ago, the Prime Minister’s political crisis has worsened with a total of nine frontbenchers offering their resignations. Are you sure it’s only two have resigned and two are willing to resign? The ABC’s saying nine.
Simon Birmingham: David, I said there were two who have resigned, and two Cabinet ministers, or two or three cabinet ministers; two who I know have put out public statements subsequently of support for the Prime Minister. There may be others in the assistant ministry.
David Bevan: Okay.
Ali Clarke: We’re actually now even getting news through. The ABC is now reporting 10 frontbenchers. I can’t keep up. So I’m not sure what that is. Also Rebekha Sharkie, we wanted to speak to her today and this is her statement: I offered confidence and supply to the Turnbull Government when elected in 2016. If there was a Dutton government I would need to speak to my community and Senate colleagues about whether that support could continue or should continue. My community has just been through an election. I know they don’t want another one and with the presidential-style elections we now seem to have I believe many in my community believe they elected a Turnbull Government and would like a prime minister to finish a term. But I will wait and see if that view is confirmed over the coming weeks.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister. Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and until recently national president of the Labor Party, Labor Member for Port Adelaide; and Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator from South Australia.