Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Latest Newspoll; Marriage equality; Australia’s relationship with Russia

Kieran Gilbert: Now to my interview this morning with the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we see a lot of change globally. We shouldn’t get too built up about whether this is a dramatic shift in Australia. You can look back and see periods of time such as the 1998 election when more than eight per cent of voters in Australia voted for One Nation when John Howard was, of course, the Liberal leader. Equally significant votes back then for the Australian Democrats that were still being had. So there’ve been these junctures in our history before. 

What we will focus on as a government is getting on with the important job of doing the things that matter for Australians: cheaper, more affordable, more reliable power prices and more affordable, more accessible child care and providing the type of leadership people want. And just last week people saw in Malcolm Turnbull a leader, a Prime Minister, who stands up for Australia’s interests and gets things done in doing so.

Kieran Gilbert: Does it worry you that the primary vote over summer, not a lot happening over much of the summer in terms of people’s, I think, engagement with politics, normally they switch off a bit but the primary vote, now four points down and below Labor.

Simon Birmingham: We’re still less than one year from the last election and more than two years until the next election so I can’t say I’m spending a lot of time worrying about opinion polls. I and all the members of government are spending a lot of time worrying about how we can be the most effective Government possible; how we can make sure that we do see delivery of our key policies and commitments to ensure that we have cheaper and more affordable, more reliable electricity. To make sure we do implement our child care agenda and get that through this Parliament. And really we are focussed on working with the Parliament, with leaders around the world as well, to get the best possible outcomes for Australians. That’s what people elect us to do, that’s what people pay us to do, that’s what they expect us to do and that’s exactly what our Government is doing.

Kieran Gilbert: Is a risk here though that people have made up their minds about the Prime Minister and won’t budge now. Do you fear that?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I have no such fears. I am focussed entirely on the next two and a half years of governing and making sure that we get on with the job and deliver for the Australian people. That’s what Malcolm Turnbull’s shown he can do in spades already. A number of measures getting through the Parliament in the last half of last year that had been stalled under the previous parliament, defeated numerous times successfully passed through the last Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull’s demonstrated he can get things through the Parliament, he can work and get deals done and stuck with global leaders and of course we’re moving on to new priorities this year.

Kieran Gilbert: You have supported the legalisation of same sex marriage well before, well in fact a lot of prominent Labor people who now support it and didn’t at the time, but you’re in a part that’s saying and the Prime Minister’s saying that there’s going to be no shift off the plebiscite policy despite some of your colleagues flagging that they want a free vote on this. Where is all of that at?

Simon Birmingham: Well I was in the party room …

Kieran Gilbert: Do you see a chance for a free vote?

Simon Birmingham: I was in the party room that had a decision and a discussion that led to the plebiscite policy and it’s a policy that we took to the last election and it’s policy I would still like to see implemented and delivered. And the only person standing in the way of Australians who could have, next Saturday, had a vote in relation to same sex marriage, had that public plebiscite, had their say – I predict would have passed and said yes to that – which would have then seen laws passed through this parliament, deal done and settled is of course, Bill Shorten and the Labor Party …

Kieran Gilbert: He’s not the only person, a lot of advocates as well of same sex marriage, the groups who support this, who advocate it, they stood In the way as well.

Simon Birmingham: Well they don’t have a vote in the Australian Senate. Bill Shorten, who has previously advocated for a plebiscite does have a vote in the Australian Senate, or at least his Labour Party senators do and they of course, blocked implementation of that policy. We could still get that done. We could pass a plebiscite bill through the Parliament in the next couple of weeks, have it held in the next couple of months and actually see this matter resolved once and for all.

Kieran Gilbert: But a lot of your colleagues want a free vote and have cited comments made by Tony Abbott back in 2015 in which he said that the last parliament would be the only time that you would really be bound and then beyond that indicating that a free vote might be likely. Why is that not the case now?

Simon Birmingham: Well they’re an accurate reflection of Mr Abbott’s quotes at the time and of course colleagues are free to raise these matters in the party room, as they were raised in the previous parliament which saw the adoption of the plebiscite policy

Kieran Gilbert: Is there any chance of a change though, that a free vote could happen this term?

Simon Birmingham: Well colleagues are always free to raise matters in the party room and the party room will have their discussions in confidence as it’s meant to.

Kieran Gilbert: So it’s the party room that decides whether or not you change from a plebiscite to a free vote? How likely is that, though?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I’m not a commentator on what the party vote will or won’t decide. I’m simply making a fairly obvious point there. The party room is free to discuss matters. Members are free, they are elected in fact by their constituencies to bring their views and the views of those constituencies to Canberra, to represent them in the Parliament and indeed in the parties for which they are elected or members of and I expect that’s what members will do.

Kieran Gilbert: And do you personally support the change to a free vote if there isn’t a plebiscite?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I said before I want to see the plebiscite policy implemented. I’d like to see the Parliament support us to get that policy through.

Kieran Gilbert: If that falls over? A free vote?

Simon Birmingham: My views on the topic have long been known but as a member of the Government, as a Minister in the Government, I want to see our policy implemented.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay so that’s a yes; you would support a free vote if the plebiscite’s knocked in the parliament, if it’s knocked back?

Simon Birmingham: No Kieran, that’s not what I said. My views in terms of this topic and these issues have been known for a long time but I am clearly supporting the Government’s policy of a plebiscite and getting that implemented.

Kieran Gilbert: Now one of your colleagues in the Coalition, George Christensen, said overnight on Twitter he thinks Russia is demonised unfairly, what threat do they cause us or the west? He was asked about that by one of – another person engaging with him. He says Russia’s a democracy, Eastern Ukraine, Crimea, they’re ethnically Russian. Sort of defending Russia to a large extent. What’s your view on that? Do you agree with him?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I haven’t looked at George’s comments. Obviously members of parliament engaging on Twitter can say all sorts of things. We work to have cooperative relations around the world. We are monitoring closely what happens in relation to US – Russia relationships because clearly with the new secretary of state and his background of working with Russia, there may well be some changes there. But equally, Australia has had real concerns in relation to matters particularly involving the Ukraine, particularly, of course, the tragic airline disaster of a couple of years ago that had put tensions in that relationship but we will always work cooperatively where we can, as long as it’s in Australia’s best interests.

Kieran Gilbert: You don’t think that Russia’s been demonised unfairly?

Simon Birmingham: I think there are genuine issues of concern in relation to human rights policy, in relation to relations with some of their neighbours that have been expressed over a period of time. But we always have to be willing to look to the future and work in a cooperative way for the future where it’s in Australia’s best interests …

Kieran Gilbert: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: And that’s what Australians expect us to do and it’s what’s been demonstrated over the last week or so, that Malcolm Turnbull has a keen eye for Australia’s best interests and he’s willing to stand up to anybody to act upon them.

Kieran Gilbert: Education Minister Simon Birmingham, as always appreciate your time, thanks.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Kieran.

[End of excerpt]