Interview on Sky News Live with Patricia Karvelas
Topics: High Court rulings and continuing the business of government; Higher education reform; Same-sex marriage postal survey

Patricia Karvelas: My first guest tonight is the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good evening, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Let’s start with the biggest story in town: citizenship. After being disqualified by the High Court, Barnaby Joyce admitted that he’d always been pessimistic about his chances. Why didn’t he resign?

Simon Birmingham: Well Patricia, these matters needed to be tested by the High Court. The Parliament referred them to the High Court and Barnaby, of course, has fully accepted that verdict of the High Court. In doing so he’s apologised to the people of New England for the inconvenience they’ll face in going to a by-election. But of course, nobody, nobody, could have foreseen the circumstances that led to all of this. Nobody expected [indistinct] those circumstances.

Patricia Karvelas: Well actually, Barnaby Joyce says he did and yet he stayed in Cabinet.

Simon Birmingham: No, Patricia, I don’t think at the time of the last election or any time before, indeed, this whole saga of citizenship started to come about from Scott Ludlam, that anybody saw anything like this on the horizon. Now in the end, of course, these matters have been dealt with by the court. The Government accepts the verdict of the court, as you would expect, and in the case of Barnaby Joyce, that means there’s a by-election in New England. He is out there campaigning as he has done before in two previous elections and I’m confident that the people of New England will once again see that Barnaby Joyce is an effective local MP for them.

Patricia Karvelas: Labor are suggesting decisions made by Barnaby Joyce, who remained in Cabinet after he was referred to the High Court, could now be open to legal challenge. Do you concede that you opened up a can of worms here?

Simon Birmingham: Well Labor would say that and they will of course try to play politics with this in every single step of the way…

Patricia Karvelas: There’s logic in them saying it though.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Labor will try to play politics with every step of this. That’s not going to distract us from getting on with the job of governing. And there’s all this desire at present to create some sort of suggestion that the Government doesn’t have a majority and can’t get on with its business. Well, the Government still has 75 out of 149 seats in the House of Representatives, that is a majority, the Government will get on with its business. We, of course, look forward and hope that we can welcome Barnaby Joyce back in early December, but in the meantime we just keep getting on with business and we will let Labor play the political games. Australians want us to get on with things like delivering the National Energy Guarantee and the like that will actually impact on them rather than politics.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you accept that there could be legal challenges as a result of Barnaby Joyce staying in Cabinet?

Simon Birmingham: I have no doubt that people like GetUp and the Labor Party and the Greens will rush to the cause because that is, of course, what they will do with all of the money in the world that they have behind them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be successful but of course they will seek to play politics with it and it’s up to the Labor Party, they could say, no, we’re going to be bigger than that, we’ll put people first and politics last, but I doubt that’s what Tony Burke will say. I’m sure they will be there egging GetUp along at every step of the way.

Patricia Karvelas: So you’re saying only those three groups, what, Labor, GetUp and the Greens, are you really saying that other people – quarantine, for instance that Tony Burke raised this morning on the ABC – are you saying that others may not challenge? I mean, it seems inevitable that you’ll face challenges.

Simon Birmingham: I’m saying I’m pretty confident those who will want to cause most trouble are the political activists and that of course will be, not lead by the Labor Party, they won’t do it themselves, they wouldn’t have the courage to put their own name to it, but they’ll rely on the likes of GetUp and so on to do their bidding for them. It might be that they egg others on – that’s up to them, really – but the Government believes that we’ve done everything by the book. We, of course, will get on with governing as people would expect and we will put the Australian people before playing politics which is not what I expect from the Labor Party over the coming few weeks.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so you think it’s wrong but you accept that it’s going to end up in the courts?

Simon Birmingham: Well, as I say, that’s up to others. The Government doesn’t think that that should happen, but that is entirely in the hands of other people and of course the legal processes will run their course.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you support a full audit of Australia’s parliamentarians in the wake of this decision?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m not sure that that’s necessary. The Prime Minister though, as you said in your introduction, has referred the matter around this High Court finding to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. They can look at a range of different factors out of that. They may well have a look at how it is MPs are considered either by the Parliament or by the Australian Electoral Commission, what type of advice ought be provided to potential candidates in future by the AEC. It’s not just a referral that deals with the actual Constitution; it’s a referral that could look at a whole range of other practical factors.

Patricia Karvelas: So you don’t support constitutional change around this, a referendum?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters should rightly have a look at this with an open mind on all factors to make sure that in Australia where so many Australians, of course, were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas, that there are no unreasonable impediments to them freely standing as candidates for Parliament. Now, how we make sure that they have the right advice so that in future people with ancestry of parents who were born overseas or who have a potential chance of citizenship have absolute confidence. Well we’ll get the committee’s report back and then we can consider that well in advance of the next election as to what will be necessary to give that confidence to Australians. But I think everybody would expect it’s only reasonable following a decision like this that has ensnared people in circumstances where it’s never been contemplated really before, that we make sure we look at how we provide certainty so that whichever country you come from, whichever country your parents come from, if you’re an Australian you have the right to run for Parliament in Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: Don’t we already have that certainty? I mean I’m a dual citizenship holder, I think I’ve revealed before on this show, but certainly I know that if I want to run for Parliament, I don’t, but I know if I do that I have to make sure the Greek Government knows that I don’t want to be a citizen of that country. I know that. Everybody knows that. Where’s the ambiguity?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, you’re saying everybody knows that and of course we’re all wonders now …

Patricia Karvelas: Of course they do.

Simon Birmingham: … with the benefit of hindsight of the last few months but there were five individuals across three different political parties who were just deemed by the High Court to be ineligible despite having been elected. Lord only knows how many other candidates at the last election across other political parties or elsewhere may have been eligible but were not elected. So clearly people did not know. Clearly there is an issue there. Now awareness is much much higher as a result of this. It’s notable that neither of the big parties, neither the Liberal Party, nor the Labor Party had candidates in these circumstances, but nonetheless, we ought to make sure that whatever party, whatever background, Australians are given at least clear advice when they’re nominating, have a certain understanding of how it is that they discharge their obligations which aren’t always clear in the case of foreign governments to make sure that they take every reasonable step to get rid of any dual citizenship rights they may have.

Patricia Karvelas: On university reform I know you hope to get this through by the end of the year, it’s dead now isn’t it? What options do you have?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll keep talking and working away with the Senate where we can. I hope that there will be reconsideration of position by some on the crossbench. We saw some strong positions taken in the Productivity Commission report last week, not all of which I agree with, but it certainly did indicate that there was much greater need for a focus on getting more efficiency from government and taxpayer and student investment in higher education, that there ought to be more accountability with universities in terms of graduate outcomes and these are some of the things that the Turnbull Government’s reforms actually focus on already. So I hope that might give cause for reconsideration by some parties. If not, well then we will consider of course where we go in terms in higher education policy and also in terms of continuing to live within our means and chart the course towards balancing the budget in a few years time.

Patricia Karvelas: So given the timeframe we have left ‘til the end of this year, it’s certainly not going to happen this year. Do you hope to get some kind of university package through by the middle of next year now? Is that your next benchmark?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not ruling out this year. We are ever hopeful and we’ll continue our discussions and you never know, there’s still three Senate sitting weeks to go.

Patricia Karvelas: I just want to know what you think will happen now on the marriage debate, on the gay marriage debate? Because we get this verdict on 15 November, if I remember correctly. If it’s a yes vote, of course we don’t know, but if it is, do you still think you can get this done by Christmas given the kind shenanigans we’ve seen the fact that, you know, you don’t have a Deputy Prime Minister at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Deputy Prime Minister’s position is irrelevant to that. The Parliament will keep doing its job. Again, I predict the Labor Party will seek to play all manner of games in the Parliament. But the Government will get on with its job and if the Australian people when the postal survey result comes back have indicated a yes vote, well the Government will get on with what we promised the Australian people we would do which is facilitating debate on legislation to deliver marriage equality. And I would trust that nobody else in the Parliament, least of all the Labor Party, would want to play games with that or stand in the way of that given the commitment we’ve made is that we will do so and we see that there is no reason that that cannot be delivered before Christmas.

Patricia Karvelas: Still, even despite all these issues you think this could get through with the religious exemption debate by Christmas?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, despite all these issues, really. There’s a by-election happening out there. The Australian Parliament has on countless occasions got on with the job of passing legislation whilst a by-election is being held. Now we have a government that has a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives, that has a Cabinet getting on with its job and we’ve got a clear commitment to pass this legislation, and that’s exactly what we’ll do. The support will be there I’m sure in the Parliament to pass this legislation through those final couple sitting weeks of the year should the Australian people have voted yes as I hope they have.

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for your time tonight.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Patricia.