Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with David Bevan
Topics: Emissions standards of new vehicles; Prime Minister’s Disraeli Prize speech; Women in politics; Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools
David Bevan: A big Adelaide Breakfast welcome to Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister and South Australian Liberal Senator.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David.
David Bevan: Nick Xenophon, Liberal Sen- South Australian Senator. I’m all tongue-tied.
Nick Xenophon: Defaming both be in the Liberal Party.
David Bevan: I’ve defamed you and the Liberal Party. South Australian Senator, Nick Xenophon, good morning.
Nick Xenophon: Morning.
David Bevan: And Labour Member for Wakefield, Nick Champion, good morning.
Nick Champion: Good morning.
David Bevan: Well, first of all, Simon Birmingham, did you choke on your Wheaties when you saw the report that the Federal Government was considering a carbon tax on cars?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I saw it last night so it was well before my Wheaties …
David Bevan: [Talks over] So you got on the phone straight away and said tell me this is not happening?
Simon Birmingham: … and I had a laugh once again at a bit of sensational journalism. There won’t be a carbon tax on cars. It’s a ridiculous idea. It’s not something the Government will do. Call it whatever you want to call it, it’s not about to happen. We are going to keep working with industry to try to find ways to encourage fuel efficient cars that will drive down people’s household costs in terms of their petrol bills – that’s where it starts and ends.
David Bevan: You’re not going to put up the cost of an SUV?
Simon Birmingham: No.
David Bevan: At all?
Simon Birmingham: No.
David Bevan: Okay. The Prime Minister’s been in London and he’s given a landmark speech – a very important speech. You were telling me just before we started that it was quite an innocent speech. In what way was it innocent? Because isn’t he sending a very clear and premeditated message to people within his own party about what he says is the Government’s agenda?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, the first thing I’d encourage people to do is, if they’re interested, have a look at the whole speech. Look at the speech, which is about the defence of freedom. It goes on to talk about how it is in the era of terrorism and security challenges you deal with – the types of topics he just discussed at the G20 – freedoms around use of the internet, but also making sure that terrorists can’t hide in dark places of the internet. He put that in a contextual sense, talking about historic fights for freedoms, the values of political parties, and yes of course, the values of the Liberal Party …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] But he could have said that without talking about Robert Menzies and saying that he founded this party as a progressive party. And Malcolm Turnbull’s no fool, he knows exactly what buttons he’s pressing there. He’s telling the conservatives in his party, look, this is the true nature of my party and this is where we’re going. Expect more progressive policies, not arch-conservatism. That’s his message, isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, he absolutely wants to lead a party that is a party that works for everyday Australians in a pragmatic, yes, centrist type of way. True to liberal values, true to conservative values, but one that is as the Liberal Party has always done, trying to work for the bulk of Australians: hard-working Australians who occupy indeed the centre ground, people whose main cares are about having a job, owning a home, looking after their kids, the welfare of their parents – all of those types of concerns. And that’s really where the Government’s focus is, and that’s absolutely what Nick Malcolm was trying to make sure people appreciate.
David Bevan: Nick Champion?
Nick Champion: Well, this is a Government divided on personality and fundamentally divided on who they are. They’re now having sort of very deep-seated identity crisis questions asked of them, both internally and externally, and we see this speech just in the context of that division on personality in terms of the leadership – Turnbull versus Abbott – and division in terms of who they are, whether they’re conservative or whether they’re liberal, whether they’re progressive, whether they’re reactionary.
David Bevan: But isn’t the problem that we’ve got in this country – and maybe it’s a worldwide problem – that we can’t remember where the centre is anymore? Whether it’s on marriage, whether it’s on climate change, whether it’s on economic policy, energy policy, we can’t remember where the centre is anymore, and that’s why you two are in so much trouble and Nick Xenophon is doing so well.
Nick Champion: I disagree with that analysis. I mean, I think it is an age of extremes, and I think people are somewhat ideologically unmoored in the electorate, but it’s not that much different to, say, 1997 when the democrats got 20 per cent of the vote. I mean, broadly similar to the sorts of votes that the Nick Xenophon Team is now getting, or One Nation and the others. So there is this sort of ideologically unmoored voter and they’re reflected in some ideologically unmoored members of parliament as well, I would argue, but the Labor Party’s stayed pretty true to its philosophy and stayed pretty true to doing what we do, which is primarily defending blue collar communities – working class and middle class communities – and trying to orientate an economy and a social system to that end.
David Bevan: Nick Xenophon, this is why you’re doing so well.
Nick Xenophon: Can I say, it’s only 21 per cent according to the polls.
David Bevan: Only 21 per cent.
Nick Xenophon: Yeah. Look, it’s going to depend on the day. There’ll be a state election coming up in March next year. I guess I’ll talk to you around 19 March and we can talk then about it. But it’s a question- people want solutions to problems; they don’t really care about ideology. This debate about the heart of the Liberal Party, I think that it’s obviously got more to do with Tony Abbott pestering the PM – and I actually have some sympathy for the PM – but I think Labor’s seen this before with the Rudd-Gillard in-fighting.
I just think people want solutions to problems. They’re actually worried about their power bills, they’re worried about how their kids are going to be educated, they’re worried about childcare, they’re worried about their jobs, and that’s why there is a huge challenge in South Australia when Holden closes down in just three months’ time, what that will mean for the state in terms of all those supply chain businesses.
David Bevan: Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson – they would both say that they represent the sensible centre, that they represent ordinary, decent …
Nick Xenophon: [Interrupts] I don’t know if Pauline Hanson’s ever referred to representing the centre.
David Bevan: No, no, but she would argue that she represents just ordinary people. Just ordinary people, and that’s my point: everybody’s claiming the centre.
Nick Champion: Well, it’s a bit trope isn’t it? When you hear a politician say, oh, I’m all for the ordinary people, I mean, it’s now just become a bit of political speak, I think, right across the spectrum. I think it is important that politicians retain their view of history. The Labor Party’s always had a very keen view of history. I think the Liberal Party …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] You think we’re closer to the 1930s now [indistinct].
Nick Champion: I do.
David Bevan: Why so?
Nick Champion: Well, in the 1930s there was a great deal of political, I suppose, splintering across the spectrum – left and right – and it was an age of extremes. Before the war, a resurgent Germany, a resurgent imperial Japan, a lot of uncertainty about how nations deal with each other, and a lot of uncertainty about the economy because of the wake of the Great Depression. I think it’s a lot more like that than it is …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] The media was a not more partisan. People think a partisan- because of social media now you can just seek out your own views and they’re constantly being reinforced to you. So you think, oh, I read this online and it’s telling me I’m spot on. Well, actually you’ve sought out those views and they’re just reflecting back what your opinion already is, which I think is a great challenge for the ABC as it becomes more podcast-based. The great beauty of radio is that it’s linear and if you can provide interesting programs, you’re effectively forcing your listeners because they want to hear the interesting stuff – they hear a wide variety of views; whereas if you amortise the ABC and just break it all up into podcasts, you can seek out the things that want.
Nick Xenophon: Have you told Michelle Guthrie this?
David Bevan: I’m sure she’ll get the transcript. But maybe it’s trying to convince us. I think it is an important point.
Simon Birmingham: A message from David for everybody there.
David Bevan: Yeah, but in other words, the partisan nature of media is the norm, and what we’ve seen post-war is actually an aberration. Is that fair?
Simon Birmingham: Well, to a certain extent it is. I mean, if you look way back in history, people basically got their news from somebody who was likely spruiking an opinion, pushing it through their own lens, and they did that through very localised newspaper, flyers – pamphlets, they called them back in the day – that were locally printed, locally produced, and really were just the views of the proprietor or the author. Today, blogs, social media, podcasts to an extent, all of those sorts of things have a certain tendency to reflect that, in the sense that again they’re through the views and the eyes of the author and people can pick and choose to only listen to or read authors, broadcasters, who they agree with.
Now, that’s just a battle that we all have to face. It’s the reality of a modern media market. We’re not about to be able to change it as politicians, as leaders. Our job is to focus on issues. And I go right back, David, to your question before about, well, what is the centre, and you cited a list of issues like climate change, like marriage. These are issues, of course, that decades ago nobody could foresee we would be grappling with today. So, you know, what is the centre in an historical context for these issues? Well, there isn’t really an historical context, and so you have to sensibly work through the issues. As a Government, I know Malcolm Turnbull’s guiding approach is, well, how can you be pragmatic and sensible about dealing with these issues for the best interests of Australians based on the evidence before you today, and that’s really what we have to do.
David Bevan: We’ve got a text here saying, David, where are the females in this segment? That’s a very good question, and some significant effort was made to have some women MPs join us today, but they couldn’t make it. In the meantime, Nick Greiner – a former Liberal Premier in New South Wales – says the Liberal Party has got a significant problem with women, and Tanya Plibersek – Deputy Leader of the Labor Party – says, well, she makes the point that there are more women on Labor’s federal front bench than the Liberal Party has in the entire House of Representatives. Simon Birmingham?
I mean, women are good if you want them for factional purposes, and you and Christopher Pyne have had some success in that here in South Australia. I see that Pyne’s staffer, Hannah March, has been elected president of the SA Liberals Council, but where are the women in positions of power?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, last night more than a couple of hundred Liberal Party grassroots members – all of them women – gathered as part of the participatory process of our party, and I hope and I know that one of the real topics they discussed last night were how do you help more of those women to have the motivation to pursue preselection, to be successful in pursuing preselection, and to enter parliament.
David Bevan: Well, you’ve got to give them safe seats. Greiner’s right, isn’t he? You haven’t got enough women in safe seats.
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] We do not have enough women in parliament. I absolutely concur with that, and I want to see more, and that is why …
David Bevan: [Talks over] Especially if they’re moderates.
Simon Birmingham: … I want to see more women in parliament full-stop, particularly in Liberal Party ranks. I want to make sure that we are representative. And this is something- and I would encourage anybody- and last night was an example of grassroots political action in place in the Liberal Party, and frankly, to anybody’s who’s engaged out there, go to the Liberal Party website, get a membership form. This is the way we actually get more people engaged and involved in the future.
David Bevan: Nick Xenophon?
Nick Xenophon: Can I just throw something out there? This is not a policy of mine, but it was a thought-bubble that was put to me by a politics lecturer about a year or two ago, and a couple of other people have come up with a similar idea, so it’s interesting that it’s sort of percolated through. And the idea was this: That you actually – I don’t know if it would be practical or completely impractical – that you actually reduce the number of seats, but have two representatives in each seat – one female, one male.
David Bevan: You think that’s a good idea?
Nick Xenophon: I don’t know about the practicalities of it, but the fact that people are talking about it is interesting. You automatically would have 50 per cent representation of men and women. Now, that’s not my idea, it’s not a policy, but the fact that people have come up to me and suggested it – unrelated people, on two or three occasions in the last 12 months – is interesting.
David Bevan: You think it’s a good idea?
Nick Xenophon: I’m not sure. I just think it’s the sort of thing that people need to get out there.
Nick Champion: Nick just finished telling us how we need solutions and then he just comes up with yet another harebrained idea out of the middle …
Nick Xenophon: No, I think we need to talk about it.
Nick Champion: How about the Liberal Party just do what every other political party – including yours, Nick – does, which is put women up for public office? And there are women who are interested in public office, and they run for public office.
David Bevan: Hang on, Nick Champion, you’re sitting there very smugly saying, oh, the Labor Party is doing so very well. The South Australian Labor Party has an appalling record when it comes to …
Nick Champion: [Interrupts] What, Penny Wong, Kate Ellis, Amanda Rishworth?
David Bevan: No, no, I’m talking about the state parliamentary party. When was the last time …
Nick Champion: [Interrupts] Jayne Stinson was running, Susan Close, Annette Hurley, Trish White.
David Bevan: [Talks over] Hang on, I’m talking about leadership positions. I’m not talking about people who will fill up factional- Annette Hurly was the last woman to hold a leadership position.
Simon Birmingham: The last and only.
David Bevan: Annette Hurley, is she the only woman to ever hold a leadership position in the South Australian Labor Party?
Nick Champion: Perhaps a leadership position. She was the first, yes.
David Bevan: Right. And that was in opposition. You’ve been in …
Nick Champion: And we also have the first party secretary, we’ve got the Senate leader…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Hang on, Nick. You’ve been in government almost 16 years, and not once has a woman held a leadership position in the Cabinet. I’m not talking about in the upper house either; I’m talking about where it counts, in the lower house.
Nick Champion: Well, I mean, there’s only the premiership and the deputy premiership. I mean, I guess we’d have to wait for one of those to become vacant. I’m hoping they won’t any time soon for obvious reasons. We want a re-election of the Weatherill Government.
David Bevan: What, you don’t think you could win with a woman?
Nick Champion: Yeah, we could, but we’ve got a good premier and a good deputy premier there at the moment
David Bevan: It is not hard to find Labor women MPs in the State Parliament who are appalled at their by a small group of men who have run the party for the last 15 years.
Nick Champion: Well, I mean, I haven’t come across them. Maybe you have, but like I’ve said, Zoe Bettison went into a by-election and into the ministry very quickly. There’s been numerous other, over the years, female candidates, female ministers. Would’ve thought our record was pretty good.
David Bevan: Just before you leave us, Simon Birmingham, educational standard – you’re the federal Education Minister – Gonski is going to head up a review. He’s going to have a panel and they’re going to look at teacher standards across the board. Will that look at something as basic as teachers, when they graduate from teachers courses at universities, that they can write, spell, add up, basic things like that? Is that what you’re looking at?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as a Government, we’ve already taken some action on that. We actually now have in place a mandatory literacy and numeracy test for people graduating from universities in the teaching profession, that before they can be registered and enter the classroom they must undertake a test to guarantee they’re in the top 30 per cent of Australians for their own personal literacy and numeracy skills. So there’s action there, but in terms of the actual proficiency capabilities of teachers coming into the classroom and those already there, I fully expect that David Gonski and the panel will take a look at this. It’s about really the next stage. We’ve dealt with needs-based funding, we’re putting an extra $23 billion in, it’s going to be distributed fairly, but we have to make sure it’s used as effectively as possible across the country, and that’s this work that will now be undertaken over the next six to nine months.
David Bevan: And while we’re talking about education, Nick Xenophon, is the Australian Education Union, have they got you in their sights?
Nick Xenophon: Well, there’s a long queue. So I guess it’ll be an interesting election – state, federal, whatever. That’s part of the business.
David Bevan: What, you expect them to campaign- I mean, and they’ve got some considerable sources there, the AEU.
Nick Xenophon: Yeah, they said they would, but look, at the end of the day, the negotiation with Simon Birmingham, good faith negotiations, and in fact in the Greens, I think eight of the nine Greens in the Senate wanted this to go ahead.
Simon Birmingham: It’s a funny sense of democracy when eight out of nine want something and they still go the other way.
Nick Xenophon: $4.9 billion extra in spending, a package of some $23 billion of additional spending, and of course Labor wants to spend more, that’s terrific.
Nick Champion: But Nick, this comes down to- you promised at the last election full Gonski. You gave us a bit of a lecture in your first Senate speech how you’d never horse trade, and what do we find? We found you horse-traded over Gonski. That’s what happened.
Nick Xenophon: There’s no horse-trading. The choice was either get extra money for education or not get extra money, and that was what the [indistinct] …
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] And we delivered better Gonski, real Gonski, endorsed by Gonski.
David Bevan: Gentlemen, thank you for coming in. We have to wrap up. Nick Xenophon, Senator for South Australia, thank you; Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you; and Nick Champion, Labor Member for Wakefield in Adelaide’s Northern Suburbs, stretching out to some of our beautiful rural areas.