Interview on Sky News Live with Ashleigh Gillon
Topics: Citizenship of Parliamentarians; Same-sex marriage; Latest Newspoll

Ashleigh Gillon: Let’s take you back live to Canberra now, joining us from there is the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, appreciate your time. We’ll get to same-sex marriage in a moment. First though, your reaction to the news this morning that Jacqui Lambie will be leaving the Senate that she also is a dual citizen. Will her presence be missed in the upper house there in Canberra?

Simon Birmingham: Well thanks Ash. Look, I feel for Jacqui Lambie. I have had some constructive dealings with Jacqui, particularly in relation to reforms around school funding, as well as some dealings that have perhaps not been so constructive or positive in the outcomes. So the Government’s had mixed dealings, but Jacqui is a passionate individual. I’ve no doubt she did her best for the people of Tasmania and the people that she sought to represent and I understand this would be a bitter blow for her personally. But in the end, the Turnbull Government has put in place a process where every member and senator will have to thoroughly check their background, will have to comprehensively declare that to the Parliament to make sure we draw a line under this saga and can ensure everybody can get on with talking about the things that really matter to Australians.

Ashleigh Gillon: I’m also, for your views, Minister, on the same-sex marriage vote. I mentioned we’ll be hearing results this time tomorrow. What do you make of your colleague James Paterson’s bill arguing that conscientious objectors should be able to refuse to provide services to gay weddings? It does seem to have some support within your own party, considering that, isn’t this something that should at least be debated in the party room?

Simon Birmingham: Ash, look I give credit to James Paterson for doing what few have done. Many have spoken over the last couple of months about notions of religious protection, but few have actually sought to codify what it is they actually mean by that. James Paterson has done that and he deserves credit for doing so. It does expose I think a number of the flaws though in some of the proposals that James has put forward. For example, the idea that somehow those who are running for-profit businesses who currently have anti-discrimination laws that apply to the provision of goods and services should somehow be able to discriminate against same-sex couples who are getting married, when at present they’re unable to discriminate against same-sex couples in any other way, shape or form.

So, I think there are some particular problems in regards to the proposals that James has put forward, but they rightly can be crafted in the shape of amendments to be considered as part of a debate based on what’s known as the Dean Smith bill and the reason I believe that the Dean Smith bill is the logical starting point is because it’s been the one that’s been on the public table for the entire duration of this postal survey period. It also has a comprehensive history behind it in terms of being built upon a series of different bills that have been put to the Parliament over the years, an exposure draft that was released by the Attorney General as part of the original plebiscite process, a parliamentary inquiry that then assessed the Attorney General’s exposure draft and Dean then developed this based out of some of the recommendations from that parliamentary inquiry. So, it really is a comprehensive background that makes it a logical starting point for parliamentary debate. People including James Paterson can then bring amendments to the Parliament which of course will be comprehensively debated and considered.

Ashleigh Gillon: Minister, we’ve seen all the warnings from the no campaign in recent weeks about the consequences of a yes vote. A pamphlet your Senate colleague Eric Abetz sent out during the campaign claimed that one consequence is of a yes vote would be that compulsory radical gay sex education taught in schools and that parental rights would be rejected. Can you reassure parents as Education Minister that that won’t be the case if the yes vote does prevail tomorrow?

Simon Birmingham: There is nothing about changing the marriage law to recognise same-sex relationships that would require or see automatic changes to the way in which sex education occurs in our schools. The only change that might occur is if people are teaching the law of the land and the law of the land as it applies to marriage, they would of course be rightly stating that legally a marriage extends to any two people in Australia, not just two people of the opposite sex. That would be the only logical flow-through in relation to education in schools and even then, even then, those particularly faith-based schools already have the right under the Sex Discrimination Act to teach according to their doctrines, to their faith, which would be to say that according to the Catholic faith or any other religious faith or doctrine, it is our belief that marriage only applies to people in these circumstances, to people of opposing sexes. So, realistically there is no logical reason as to why when it comes to sex education, there would be any change at all in practices that school systems apply.

Ashleigh Gillon: There have been warnings that we could see primary school children and grade 7 children asked to act out as if they were in a homosexual relationship and how they would interact with each other as a result of this and also that sex education in classes could teach kids how gay couples have sex. Just to clarify this for us, you’re the Education Minister, would you approve of that sort of education program? Do those education programs already exist in some schools?

Simon Birmingham: So the Turnbull Government has a very clear belief that when it comes to sex education programs, parents ought to be fully informed and they ought to have the right to opt out of programs that school systems may be deploying if they are contrary to the values that those parents have; just the same indeed as in many instances for religious instruction in schools, parents have those same rights. However, the operation, the practical day-to-day operation of our school systems around the country is something that states and territories have clear constitutional responsibilities for. So it does fall upon them to make sure that’s the case.

Now, in terms of, for example, the Safe Schools program for which the contract and funding has concluded: we made sure as a government that there were changes to the content of that to ensure that it was age appropriate, and indeed made it a requirement that if people were using those resources while that contract was live, that clearly they had to go and get parental consent from the school community in relation to the use of those resources. I think that is the standard and test here that we ensure parents have full knowledge and full consent and that is something that I expect state and territories to uphold.

Ashleigh Gillon: Minister, do you still believe that same-sex marriage can be legislated by Christmas?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. We, if the Australian people when the results are released tomorrow morning, have indicated support for this change, ought to and will get on as a Parliament to make sure that change is enacted, to ensure the will of the Australian people is acted upon, and to give that right for equality to all loving couples in relationships regardless of the composition of those couples.

Ashleigh Gillon: Just finally, Minister, another terrible poll for the Government today, this time the Guardian Essential poll showing that Malcolm Turnbull’s personal approval rating is down five points. We’ve seen a 46-54 per cent two-party-preferred vote with Labor in the lead. It follows that Newspoll yesterday which had the Government sitting on 45 to Labor’s 55 per cent on that 2PP rating. What is your view about how the Government’s going to turn this around and how long your colleagues are going to put up with these sort of polls until real pressure starts to be applied on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership?

Simon Birmingham: Ashleigh, unfortunately governments tend to pay a price for distractions and there’s no doubt that the citizenship saga which you asked me about at the start of this interview has been a very big distraction in recent weeks and months in fact. Of course inside the Government it hasn’t distracted us from getting on with developing new energy policies for reliability and affordability and to deal with cost of living pressures inside the Government; to get on with implementing our new child care reforms that will also ease cost of living pressures for many Australian families. And we’re trying to keep our focus on the things that matter to Australian households and businesses. But if you were sitting at home watching the news, you would be forgiven for thinking the only thing happening in Canberra related to the citizenship crisis; that’s wrong, but unfortunately and sadly it’s reflected in some of these polls I suspect.

Ashleigh Gillon: Minister Birmingham, appreciate you joining us live there from Canberra this morning. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Ashleigh.