Interview on Channel Ten’s The Project with Carrie Bickmore, Peter Helliar and Waleed Aly
Same-sex marriage plebiscite 
13 September 2016
7:05 PM

Carrie Bickmore: Well, Senator Simon Birmingham was in Cabinet when this plan got signed off, and joins us now. Simon, you’ve got the date, you’ve got the question. But do you believe it’s actually going to happen?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope that it will happen. What we have here is a process now that can ensure that on February 11 next year, all Australians will get to have their say in relation to marriage equality. I hope that it passes at that plebiscite, and that we will then, in a very short period of time afterwards, see it come into law and see it come into law with the acceptance and the endorsement of the Australian people, which I’m sure will mean that it is a very, very positive and well-embraced reform if it happens.

Peter Helliar: Simon, public funding of the campaigns is a major point of contention. What’s the Government’s case as to why taxpayers should foot the bill?

Simon Birmingham: The approach we’ve taken is to try to model this as closely as possible on the last public vote that occurred in Australia on an issue, which was the republic referendum in 1999. So there was public funding for a yes case and a no case then, so we’ve taken the approach of applying the same types of rules around that. Those rules mean that there’s a limited amount of funding. That funding is controlled by appointed committees in terms of how it can be spent, and that there’s a safeguard mechanism of oversight to make sure that it is only spent in appropriate ways that are relevant to the debate that’s being had.

Waleed Aly: Are there any conditions that you’ll be placing on the content of the advertising, for example? Can people make up things that are not factual in the advertising that you’re going to be funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s got to be relevant content, and it actually will have to go through the same types of approvals processes that general Government advertising dictates. So…

Waleed Aly: [Interrupts] So is it political advertising? It qualifies as political advertising?

Simon Birmingham: It actually will go through as Government advertising, going through those safeguard mechanisms that apply to Government advertising in terms of a Cabinet subcommittee that approves the ads that actually go out there. Now, of course they will be different ads from the yes committee that develops theirs, and the no committee that develops theirs, but we can have confidence they won’t be irresponsible or reckless, because they will have those safeguards in place.

Waleed Aly: Yeah, but I’m just interested …

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Others may …

Waleed Aly: …in the nature of those safeguards. For exa- because we know for example, if something is classified as political advertising, you can effectively say whatever you want, as long as you have that thing after it that- you know, the written and spoken by Simon Birmingham thing at the end. You can get away with- you could come on and say vote no in this plebiscite because gay people will eat your children, or something, and there would be no way …

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] I’m pretty confident that …

Waleed Aly: …of stopping that happening. Are you stipulating that that sort of thing can’t happen?

Simon Birmingham: Let’s be clear here. Where the public funding is being applied to advertising, I can guarantee that will not happen. Guarantee it will not happen. Now…

Waleed Aly: [Talks over] How so?

Simon Birmingham: Because of the exact safeguard mechanisms I spoke about before. Because …

Waleed Aly: [Talks over] And they are- they are as regards content.

Simon Birmingham: Because there will be a vetting process going through the same type of process as Government advertising that means it has to be relevant to the question that’s being asked, the debate that’s being had, and it has to be based in some degree of fact and truth. Outside of public funding- outside of public funding, the yes and the no cases will be free, of course, to raise their own money and spend their own money as they see fit. They’ll have to fit, of course, within any other laws that apply in relation to advertising content, but where the public funding is applied, we can be confident it will be used safely and responsibly.

Waleed Aly: Alright. So I’m taking that as a guarantee that there won’t be any vitriolic ads that are being funded by the Government purse. You can correct me if that’s not true, but that’s what I’m taking. But then …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] That is- that is absolutely my understanding and my expectation.

Waleed Aly: Okay. Now that leads to a follow-up question: if people are successful in getting this funding, are they allowed to get other funding as well?

Simon Birmingham: So the structure is that there will be a designated yes committee appointed and a designated no committee appointed who will exclusively deal with the public funding. There are other entities out there in relation to the marriage equality campaigners, the Christian lobby and others, who will no doubt run their own separate campaigns. That’s up to them, and that’s their business as long as they abide by the law of the land. But the public funding entities will only be able to use either public funding or money raised specific for use only by those committees.

Carrie Bickmore: Alright Senator, we appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, guys.