Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Topics: Queensland state election; Same-sex marriage; Bennelong by-election.

Kieran Gilbert: I spoke to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham and began by suggesting to him that given the size of the swing against the LNP that the PM will cop some of the flack.

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, there are lessons to learn out of all number of election campaigns. Now, this was an election campaign fought on Queensland issues, so of course that’s the focus of it, but you always have a look at other ramifications from election campaigns. And we have to make sure that in terms of our campaign preparedness and strategies, that they are up to the task of dealing with an electorate that continues to in some ways turn against major parties. This is not just an issue that our side of politics faces. You’ve seen that Labor’s vote has dropped in quite a number of places across Queensland as well. That’s consistent with a long trend in terms of the Labor vote dropping and dropping steadily in expense of the Greens or at the expense of One Nation.

Kieran Gilbert: But George Christensen, your Coalition colleague, he blames Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership; that’s what he did in a Facebook post yesterday.

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s ridiculous. Of course it was a state election, fought as we said on state issues and you acknowledged that before. What we’re seeing at a federal level is Malcolm Turnbull getting on with the job of providing record jobs growth, providing reforms that can help people in easing the cost of living, opening up access to export markets to continue to grow the Australian economy. Now, all of those things are messages that George Christensen and all the other members of the Liberal and National parties need to go out and sell hard in their electorates and make sure that people understand the benefits that we are delivering and the risks that come, not just from a Shorten-Labor Government, but from voting for minor parties like One Nation as well; the risk to exporters in being able to access their export markets. We have to make sure that people understand. Flirting with parties like One Nation doesn’t just – as has happened in WA and Queensland – get you a Labor Government, but it is also a threat to your economy, to exports, to jobs.

Kieran Gilbert: Can you understand why Christensen is nervous though? Even though One Nation had a bit of a fizzer of an election in terms of, I think maybe winning one seat at best at the moment is the projection, possibly two at an outside chance – but 14 per cent state-wide vote and importantly in a couple of seats around like his seat up near Mackay, they’re polling much, much more than that.

Simon Birmingham: So this goes to the question of how do you fight back against that leakage of votes to minor parties and to One Nation in particular? And you don’t do it by trying to become One Nation light, you do it by taking the fight up to them in terms of explaining to the electorate the benefits of open markets, the benefits of trade, the benefits that will accrue to those communities because we’re increasing exports and generating more jobs, the risks to them if we actually get pushed into becoming a closed shop economy; that of course people will find their standard of living will drop, their opportunities will drop …

Kieran Gilbert: Is it also about differentiating between the Nationals and the Liberals? Was the LNP merger a mistake for example? So you can’t give the Nationals like Christensen a point of difference to the southeast Liberals?

Simon Birmingham: Well I come from a state that’s basically never had a functional National Party so …

Kieran Gilbert: But you observe politics.

Simon Birmingham: … so I don’t pretend to be an expert on the National Party and the differential that occurs there. That’s really a matter for the Queenslanders as to whether the LNP structure is the right structure. Of course federally we still very clearly have a Coalition of the Liberal Party and the National parties. Even from Queensland, Liberal Party MPs and senators and National Party MPs and senators. They bring different things to our party-room in terms of their perspective. It’s what makes us a broad church. And that broad church is important to the success of the Coalition in ensuring that ultimately we are delivering jobs, opportunities, standard of living, economic growth, and things that Australians care about.

Kieran Gilbert: And Matt Canavan says – the Minister, your Cabinet colleague, Nationals Minister – he says that they will be campaigning very strongly as Nationals and differentiating themselves from the Liberal Party in any subsequent election federally. You’d welcome that and encourage them to differentiate themselves?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ve always run Liberal Party campaigns and National Party campaigns, with a shared, of course, mission and policy focus and that policy focus has a really strong legacy from this government to be able to run on at the next election. And we have to make sure that we’re not distracted by the likes of One Nation, but that we focus on our game, and our game is to get out there and make sure people understand; 370,000 jobs in the last 12 months alone. Real reforms passed through the Parliament to deal with cost of living pressures like child care.

Kieran Gilbert: But they want bank inquiries and that sort of thing. We’re not saying …

Simon Birmingham: Real action on banks, not just talking about banks but action.

Kieran Gilbert: … Barry O’Sullivan this week’s going to move a commission of inquiry, private members bill. Obviously he believes he was emboldened by looking at the way that Dean Smith acted on the same-sex marriage legislation, so he wants to do this on his own – a bank inquiry – and looks like he could well have the numbers in the lower house as well via George Christensen and other Nationals. Would that be devastating for the Government if there were to be an inquiry authorised without Liberal Party support?

Simon Birmingham: No, it wouldn’t be devastating, Kieran. I mean in the end inquiries can happen and inquiries might occur in a talkfest kind of way they …

Kieran Gilbert: Cost millions of dollars as well.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed and they’ve been the arguments against it. Whilst, at the same time, what we’ve done is strengthen the powers of the regulator, strengthen funding to the regulator, put in place …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But if there’s a split in the Coalition, that’d be ugly, wouldn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: … put in place clear penalties in relation to the way in which banking executives can be tackled and targeted …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Sure, but the Nats don’t like that. They’re not accepting that as sufficient.

Simon Birmingham: I think the Nats do like that.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, a large number of them don’t think you’ve gone far enough. So if there’s a split in the Coalition, that is ugly.

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m not clear what they want aside from an inquiry in some of those cases. An inquiry, as I say, costs a lot of money, generates a lot of talk, great for the lawyers. What we’ve done is deliver action in those areas. Now, ultimately you asked the question of the impact. Look, Coalition governments over the years – John Howard’s Government – had members crossing the floor on different issues at different times; that is part of the genesis of Liberal and National parties that unlike the Labor Party, we don’t go out and expel people who have a difference of opinion, we accommodate them. That’s what makes us a broad church.

Kieran Gilbert: But it could well happen. You have to prepare for that, don’t you, in terms of seeing a commission of inquiry authorised by the Nationals and crossbench.

Simon Birmingham: The Howard Government, the Fraser Government, the Menzies Government, the Holt Government, the Gorton Government; they all had members who crossed the floor, it’s not an unusual proposition in the Liberal and National parties, it’s happened under every government that a Liberal and National Party leader has overseen. We want to keep a focus on the type of action that is actually being applied to deal with banks. But, if people want to have an inquiry, that’s their viewpoint. I disagree. I think it would be a lawyer’s picnic.

Kieran Gilbert: On the same-sex marriage legislation and the private members bill from Dean Smith; are you open to greater religious protections in terms of religious freedom in this bill? Because it looks a number of your colleagues – Zed Seselja, Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor among them – who believe you as a Coalition Government have to provide greater protections, because that’s what was promise by Tim Wilson, Dean Smith and others.

Simon Birmingham: Well as the Senate starts debate or recommences debate again this week, let’s start by remembering a few things: 62 per cent of Australians voted yes for marriage equality. They did so with the most exposed and discussed bill out there at the time being the Dean Smith bill, which is the basis of debate at present. Liberal seats voted most strongly for marriage equality; more strongly than Labor seats. So we have a strong basis to say as a Liberal Party: we must get on and deliver this and deliver it in a timely manner. Now I’ve said all along, I’m open to contemplating other amendments, but they must not be amendments that extend new forms or create new forms of discrimination. Religious protection and religious freedoms are important. I don’t believe that there is a significant threat, or indeed any real threat, to religious protection and freedoms out of the Dean Smith bill, but I’ll look at amendments and …

Kieran Gilbert: Are you worried that some members of your party and others in the Parliament want to just delay this beyond the next few weeks?

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s no delay. There will be no delaying. The Senate has passed a procedural motion that says it will be dealt with this week. If it’s not dealt with by close of business on Thursday, we keep sitting and we keep going. And if we’re going into the weekend, if we’re going into next week, well that’s what will happen to get the matter dealt with. Because the Australian people not only want us to act on their will, they also want the issue over and done with.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, I think that’s 100 per cent right. But there are a number of your colleagues – both in the Senate and the lower house – who won’t accept anything short of clear amendments, including on parent’s rights to pull kids out of classes they’re not happy with. Would you countenance that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I will consider any amendment that’s put forward, but I won’t consider amendments that put us in a position where we are creating new forms of discrimination. I won’t support those. I’ll consider every amendment on its merits, but I won’t be supporting those that extend new forms of discrimination. Yes, the Government believes and I believe that parents ought to be empowered with knowledge and choice when it comes to their child’s education. But again, we have the recognise the limits of federal power in this regard, that the states and territories have constitutional priority in relation to management of our education and school system. And as a federalist, I don’t want to trample over those rights either. So again, I’ll look at an amendment, consider it on its merits.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, finally the Bennelong by-election now looming is a key test for the Government, a marginal seat and a key test for Malcolm Turnbull. You’re really not pulling any punches when it comes to Kristina Keneally, accusing her of opening the door to people smugglers. Is he getting a bit desperate?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kristina Keneally’s the desperate one. She’s out there lying about Medicare wait times, reminiscent of course of the last federal campaign where Bill Shorten went out writing a week’s worth of lies about Medicare in the run up to polling day. Clearly they thought that strategy worked pretty well and so they’re running a second medi-scare campaign. The Bennelong election will of course be one where we have to get out and sell our messages, but it also a choice between a hardworking local candidate in John Alexander – who has connected well with his electorate and championed well for his electorate – and Kristina Keneally, where you really get the sense that it’s always all about Kristina and never actually about the local community who is electing a local member of Parliament.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time. Thanks.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.