Interview on SKY News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Legislative agenda; Reforming superannuation; Same-sex marriage plebiscite; National Skills Week and Australian Apprenticeships Ambassadors
08:32 AM

Kieran Gilbert: Good morning and welcome to the program. The Coalition party room meets this morning to re-elect Tony Smith as their nominee for Speaker, among other things, and then during the morning and early afternoon backbench Coalition committees will be briefed by ministers on more than 25 reforms the Prime Minister wants passed by Parliament this week. Now Parliament returns tomorrow, but it’s the ceremonial opening of course, no legislative business tomorrow. That’s happening Wednesday and Thursday. More than 25 reforms the PM wants through the Parliament, and he wants to show that he’s in control not just of the Parliament but of his Government, the focus on Budget savings, on the company tax cuts, and on industrial relation reforms. On these matters and the other of the day, I spoke to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: The Government’s been returned with a strong mandate, more than 960,000 Australians chose to vote for the Liberal or National parties ahead of the Labor Party at the recent election. We’re the first Government returned in our own right since 2004 in Australia, which shows just how hard it is in the current climate for governments to win elections. But we come back with a strong agenda of work, a large legislative program, and a determination to ensure that we deliver on the promises and the policies we took to the election.

Kieran Gilbert: But it’s not just a narrow majority, it’s also a fractious party room right now, particularly on issues like superannuation, on 18C, even on same sex marriage. Can that be all held together?

Simon Birmingham: The Coalition party room has always had strong opinions and will always have strong opinions. That’s the beauty of the Liberal and National parties. So I don’t think today’s party room is any different from any other. We will of course work through the different issues that different members have, that they bring from their many diverse constituencies around the country. But we’ll do that without losing focus of the central components that we took to the election: the focus on economic growth, the focus on repairing the Budget. These are critical issues for our nation on which there is complete and unanimous agreement across the Coalition.

Kieran Gilbert: And that’s where the Prime Minister wants the focus today, and on Wednesday and Thursday when the legislative business begins in Parliament. Can you talk us through exactly what’s going to be put to the Parliament? There’s been reports of some 25 reforms, is that right, that the Government’s going to be pushing ahead with?

Simon Birmingham: There are more than 25 different bills that will be considered by backbench committees and then Coalition party room today for introduction to Parliament this week, a demonstration of the large agenda we have, that we took to the election, that we’ve been working on as a Government since the election, and that we will now bring to the Parliament for consideration.

Kieran Gilbert: So a big focus on the economy with the savings, the cuts, the tax cuts for companies, the IR …

Simon Birmingham: A massive focus on Budget repair and getting the economy into a competitive position. And if you look at the different bills, particularly those focused on Budget repair, they firstly have the objective in part of ensuring that we do bring the Budget further back under control; secondly that we ensure the competitiveness of Australia and Australian businesses; but thirdly, also funding important reforms like the more than $3 billion extra we want to put into early childhood education and childcare services, or the NDIS, which Labor left without a plan to be fully funded, but our types of Budget measures are designed to go into a bank account to save for the NDIS and to pay for that in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: The Prime Minister wants this to be an asset test on Labor though, doesn’t he? In terms of the Budget and economic management, as opposed to having the focus on the more difficult issues for the Government like superannuation, those changes which have split the party, basically.

Simon Birmingham: Well Mr Shorten faces some real leadership tests in how he comes into this Parliament. He’s promised a lot in terms of wanting to be conciliatory and working in a consensus-driven fashion. The Government wants to see Labor actually put their actions where their words are in this regard, hence the six and a half billion dollars of Labor Budget savings measures that we will bring to the Parliament. But already this morning I hear Anthony Albanese questioning whether Labor will support all of those measures, well, the Government will bring in legislation that is exclusive to the types of savings Labor said at the election they would make if they were elected. And we hope and trust that they will support us in having those savings implemented and demonstrate they are willing to be consensus-driven on these issues.

Kieran Gilbert: On the superannuation changes, they’re going to be put to the party room, as I understand it now, 12 September, so not this week. It won’t be put to the party room this week, and therefore not to Parliament this week. Are you confident that the Treasurer will be able to bring together the different views on this, given how much it’s resonated with the Liberal Party base, with donors? It’s caused quite a headache. 

Simon Birmingham: Well firstly we need to keep that in perspective. There’s more than $6 billion worth of changes to superannuation and the area that really is under debate relates to around $500 million of that more than $6 billion package. So overwhelmingly the reforms have achieved support right across not just the Coalition support base, but importantly they will clearly get through the Parliament as well. Now there's one component that Scott Morrison and Kelly O'Dwyer have been talking to colleagues and others about, and we'll resolve those considerations in a sensible way. We won't be doing what Mr Shorten proposed last week, which is to say that you're going to strip out the measures of the superannuation reforms that help small businesspeople, help women returning to work, help those in their 60s or 70s who are just entering retirement. That is a ridiculous proposal from Mr Shorten to say you'll actually harm those who most need assistance in superannuation to fix an issue that really relates to people who can afford to half a million dollars in …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Given it's $500 million in terms of the revenue, it's not the biggest component of the super changes. Is there a chance that the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Government will scrap it altogether, just dump it?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we want to make sure that the Budget savings are realised, so we're working through all of the possible issues, and that's what Scott Morrison and Kelly O'Dwyer have been talking to colleagues and stakeholders about to consider what the alternative changes to it might be that can ensure it is acceptable but preserve the Budget position as well. 

Kieran Gilbert: So there'll be some form of non-concessional lifetime cap, but not scrapped?

Simon Birmingham: I'm not going to go into what the possible changes could look like, and they're matters that will be discussed properly through the internal processes, and if the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer discuss …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] But if it's such a small area of the broader change, why not just get rid of it?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, because we want to make sure we preserve the Budget bottom line through this. It is critically important for the Budget position that we actually do deliver the types of savings that can be achieved through the superannuation reforms, which overwhelmingly are fair reforms. They are targeting people with multi-million dollar accounts in superannuation, who far too often use those accounts for estate planning purposes rather than retirement purposes. We want to make sure the focus on superannuation comes back to preparing for retirement. They are fair reforms that reinvest some of the proceeds into helping people who Mr Shorten now says we shouldn't help – small businesspeople, women returning to workforce, people in their final stages of working to actually put more into their superannuation whilst also returning a dividend to fund income tax changes and other things.

Kieran Gilbert: Let's look at the same sex marriage plebiscite. Looks like Nick Xenophon not as definitive as we thought he was on this, that he says to Fairfax today it's something we'll be discussing, and we'll have a formal position in the next few days. So it sounds like he might be wavering a bit. It might be a lifeline for the Government's plebiscite on same sex marriage via Senator Xenophon and his three senators.

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran a message that I would give to the Labor Party, to the Greens, to Senator Xenophon, to anybody who says they support change to same sex – to allow same sex marriage is that a plebiscite is the only way they will see that change occur over the next three years. So to actually enact that change through this Parliament, we will need to see, from the Coalition's perspective, our promise to the people of having a plebiscite fulfilled, and that will then provide the pathway for change.

Kieran Gilbert: So there won't be a Parliamentary vote, no chance, if the plebiscite's not backed?

Simon Birmingham: Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition could not have been clearer at the last election about what our policy was, and our policy was to have a plebiscite put to the Australian people. People who want to see change for same sex marriage, as I've been on the record advocating for many years now, ought to support this plebiscite to enable…

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] But it's like – it looks like they're trying to pressure the Government by saying okay, we're not going to back the plebiscite. They might then revert to a Parliamentary vote. Is that a possibility?

Simon Birmingham: No. The Coalition's policy position is crystal clear, and people who oppose it in this Parliament will only be voting for three years of delay in terms of consideration of this issue, when there is an obvious pathway, the same as what Ireland went down, where the Australian people can be given a choice, and at the end of that process, that choice will be enacted through the Australian Parliament.

Kieran Gilbert: Are you worried though about the impact on same sex couples, on that community by what could be a fractious debate?

Simon Birmingham: I'm confident that we can, as a nation, maturely conduct this debate in a way that is respectful of the different positions. I have a view that we should change the law, but I respect the view of those people who have a difference of opinion to me. In the end, I'm confident that they will respect the diversity of views as well. We can have a respectful debate, we can get this issue dealt with, and we could have same sex marriage legislated through this Parliament by early next year if people actually support the plebiscite as the mechanism the Government promised Australians they would have to have their say on this matter.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you think this is that some of the opposition parties and crossbench and so on seeking to wound the Prime Minister, given the differences of opinion within your party room?

Simon Birmingham: Well I would be very disappointed if the Labor Party and the Greens were simply seeking to play politics with an issue that for many years some of them have proclaimed to be one of the most important human rights issues in Australia.

Kieran Gilbert: Let's ask you finally on the Turnbull Government's focus on apprenticeships. You've got an announcement today; can you talk us through the detail of that?

Simon Birmingham: We're looking to get even greater support for promoting mentoring and assistance in apprenticeships, and encouraging young people to take up apprenticeships. The AFL SportsReady group that Kevin Sheedy will be coming on board to support, a bunch of NRL players as well in promoting the value of apprenticeships.

Kieran Gilbert: And these are sportspeople that have done apprenticeships, is that right?

Simon Birmingham: These are sportspeople who have done apprenticeships and speak with experience and demonstrate that for many people an apprenticeship pathway provides greater certainty of employment at the end of their training than a university degree does, provides higher starting wages and gives them a greater chance of self-employment, being an entrepreneur and running their own business at the end of their training.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time as always, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Kieran, cheers.

[End of excerpt]