Interview on Sky News Live AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Turnbull Government’s plan to make early childhood education and care more affordable, accessible and fairer; Newspoll; Marriage equality; Accessing superannuation to purchase your first home; Labor’s hypocrisy on penalty rates

Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham, the Newspoll today must be a relief to you and the Cabinet?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, as I’ve said before, Kieran, polls don’t distract us from getting on with the job at hand, particularly not when we’re still less than 12 months since the previous election and we’ve got a long way to go till the next one. So our job at hand is to focus on the issues that matter to Australians, in terms dealing with their cost of living pressures, making their jobs more secure, ensuring we grow the economy and attract more investment and the Turnbull Government won’t be distracted from those.

Kieran Gilbert: It looks like people like what they saw in the Snowy Hydro proposal, though? That was announced Thursday and this poll, quite encouraging for Malcolm Turnbull as well in terms of preferred Prime Minister now doubling that lead over Mr Shorten. 

Simon Birmingham: The Snowy Hydro project is a fantastic project, because it comes on the back of a number of areas where Malcolm Turnbull is showing we are acting in the energy market to invest in storage, to invest in new ways of storing electricity, particularly through these types of pumped hydro projects. So at Cultana in South Australia, now the Snowy Hydro project, as well as tackling issues around the energy market. They’re all sensible reform measures that make the current situation we have more viable into future in terms of affordability. 

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] You look like you’ve got a decent path forward, at least in some respects, when it comes to that debate. But then you’ve got other things that remain – as your colleague, Matt Canavan described it – distraction for the Government. One is on same sex marriage. Although a poll today suggesting that most people– even in conservative seats, they’ve polled a dozen conservative seats, Galaxy. Sorry, I should say it’s a ReachTEL survey in the Fairfax papers. And a majority are in support of legalising same sex marriage. 

Simon Birmingham: Governments will always face distractions that come along and events that basically governments have to face up to at different points in time. That won’t distract us from the main issues. We just have to deal with them as we walk along, getting done, of course, important education reforms.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Can you get a compromise? Because there are such strong views on either side within the Coalition. You’ve got George Christensen saying he’s going to walk away from the government if this is- if the policy’s changed. And yet you and your moderate colleagues are very supportive of legalisation. How do you get through this?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ve long had different views on this substantive issue and nothing has changed there. Now of course if the plebiscite legislation had have passed Parliament, we would probably be, right now, debating and passing marriage equality laws and it would all be done and dusted. And sadly, Bill Shorten denied Australians the opportunity to have their say and denied the Parliament the opportunity to get it done and dusted and settled right now. But if the plebiscite looks like it’s never going to pass at any point in the future, well then of course people will rightly debate what alternative pathways should be. That’s up to them to do so. 

Kieran Gilbert: But in a political sense- in a purely political sense, shouldn’t you then just say, well okay, given how difficult this is with a large chunk of your own party, you’ve got the plebiscite policy, you retain it? Because, as you said, you could have that legalised today if there was agreement across the board. If that 11 February vote was taken …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] And we have the plebiscite policy and that’s dead right, Kieran. It could’ve been legalised today. Of course I don’t see much prospect of the plebiscite policy passing this Parliament unless we see a change of position. Now I hope Bill Shorten does change his position, but ultimately, there will come a point where people will say, we need to discuss what policy scenarios we take to the next election or beyond. And that’s every Member of Parliament’s right to do so. 

Kieran Gilbert: Peter Dutton had a crack at the CEO’s for their intervention. You defended them. It shows you the level of disagreement here, even within the Cabinet. 

Simon Birmingham: It’s no great news that Peter and I have different views in relation to marriage equality, we have for a long time. It doesn’t stop us working very, very cooperatively on a whole range of other issues. 

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s look at the issue of child care. You’re hopeful of getting this through in the next two weeks. It sounds like Labor are supportive of these child care measures, but they’re not going to countenance any of the savings in order to pay for that. Are you hopeful that you’ll get this through in the next fortnight before the break, pre-budget?

Simon Birmingham: Well this really is a case of Bill Shorten speaking with a forked tongue, where he says on the one hand that he bleeds compassion for Australian families over child care changes, but then won’t actually come to the party in terms of making the difficult decisions that are required to put in place a more effective child care model. 

Now the Turnbull Government’s presenting the most comprehensive reforms to Australian child care subsidies. So we can put in place a price mechanism to keep the lid on fee growth, so that’ll give more support to low and middle income families, so that we remove the level of capping that exists in terms of how much support many families receive. All of those are critical reforms to help people to work more hours. Goodstart, Australia’s largest child care provider, yesterday released data showing 61 per cent of people would work more hours if child care support was more effective.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] So will you get it through? Will you get it through?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’re going to work as hard as we can over the next two weeks and we believe that we can work our way through these issues, but it must still be paid for. That’s the critical pre-condition so that we don’t worsen the budget …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So you’re relying on the cross bench obviously in that regard?

Simon Birmingham: Well we hoped that Labor would come to the table on this. It is a critically important issue and the data keeps amounting as to why it is so important, and that should provide reason enough for Labor to change its mind and actually engage in constructive discussions.

Kieran Gilbert: Alright, a couple of issues to conclude with, and Paul Keating has savaged the idea of being able to tap super for first home buyers. He says it’s scandalous and it would pull the backside out of super.

Simon Birmingham: We’ll have a housing affordability policy statement that of course is being worked on. That is something that we are constantly working towards in terms of looking at the policy options that are available to us. And we realise that people have many pressures they face, and those are issues that we’ll consider. I’m not going to flag what may or may not be in there. They’re matters for the economic portfolio ministers.

Kieran Gilbert: And finally the issue of penalty rates. The front page of a number of News Corp papers today, the Government was quite wishy-washy in your initial response to the Fair Work Commission. Is this going to signal a change of tact?

Simon Birmingham: I think what the newspapers today show is the hypocrisy of Bill Shorten on this issue. And let’s look at the facts in relation to that. As a union leader, he negotiated deals that negotiated down penalty rates. His union, the AWU, has done such deals where they get back door payments coming through to them. Some of those deals left workers far worse off than what the Fair Work Commission decision is. As Employment Minister Mr Shorten commissioned this very Fair Work decision to be undertaken [indistinct] …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But Labor has defended those deals …

Simon Birmingham: … As Opposition leader he said he’d stand by the independent umpire …

Kieran Gilbert: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: … and all of those things demonstrate the absolute hypocrisy of this.

Kieran Gilbert: But Labor’s defended those deals in recent weeks by saying that they were part of a negotiation that left workers no worse off than the award. That was their defence. 

Simon Birmingham: And what is also clear, is that these were deals done, that do leave, it seems, some workers worse off. And some to the tune of around $10 an hour. Equally they’re also deals that seem to have put money into the pockets of the trade unions, unbeknownst to the workers themselves. The ample evidence there, that the trade union movement, and Mr Shorten, have been acting in ways far more egregious than anything that the Fair Work Commission’s done. In fact it would seem all the Fair Work Commission has done is put small and medium size Australian businesses onto a more level playing field with big Australian business when it comes to the capacity to open and trade on Sundays.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.