Interview on SKY News with Kieran Gilbert
US election; Migration Act; Legislative agenda.
7 November 2016
8:42 AM

Kieran Gilbert: In the meantime, some local reaction to the campaign and the prospect of a Trump presidency, particularly in the implications for the alliance. I spoke to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. 

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, it of course will have implications in terms of the type of issues we may have to work through with whoever the administration is in Washington, but in terms of the alliance, we are confident that we will be able to work with whomever the President of the United States is, and that we will of course maintain the strength of the Australian relationship. I know I have my personal views about who might be the better President and if I were a United States citizen who I might vote for. But in the end as a member of the Cabinet of the Government of Australia, we will work in Australia’s best interest which is to maintain a strong alliance with the US, well into the …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Your fellow South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi spoke out on this program last week very strongly in favour of Mr Trump. My guess is that you might be the opposing candidate, the one that you favour.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] You can have your guess, Kieran. As I said, as a member of the Cabinet of the Government of Australia I’m going to stick to the position that we have to work with whomever the American people elect, and of course we will maintain a strong alliance with the US under whomever they choose on Tuesday.

Kieran Gilbert: Does it worry you the nature of some of the campaigning, though? We’ve seen the chants at various rallies, threats of violence and so on, and no guarantee that Trump will accept the outcome if he doesn’t win.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there’ve been some areas of tone, shall we say, to this campaign that you’d rather not see, and America is a great democracy. It is a beacon in many ways for much of the rest of the world, and it has been and it’s important that it continues to be in the future. To maintain that- those principles, around democratic principles, around types of liberties that the American people hold dear, talk a lot about, and ought to be the type of principles that we seek to encourage other nations to embrace.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, on the issue- the broader issue of principles that you referred to, what about the principle that refugees have a right to asylum, in terms of this legislation the Government’s going to put to Parliament? It seems to be going much further than any proposal to this point, in banning people from any point entering this country once they are granted refugee status in a third nation. Labor’s right to have concerns about this, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, there are carve-outs that exist there in terms of the capacity of the minister of the day to be able to grant exemptions and so on. But the principle behind this legislation is incredibly clear, which is that illegal maritime arrivals to Australia, where we have said and the Labor Party have said for some period of time they will not be settled in Australia, we want to enshrine that principle into law. Now, that is just giving effect to current Government policy, to policy that was put in place allegedly by Kevin Rudd, who made that declaration way back when he was Prime Minister. What we see from Bill Shorten now is great insecurity from the Labor Party when it comes to their border security policies. Because they say one thing – they say that they are just as strong and firm as the Government – and yet when given the chance to vote that way, they’re giving every indication that they will go in the other direction.

Kieran Gilbert: But if you really want their support, why not detail the whole package? Because the understanding is, and various reports suggesting that this will be the start or the plank of a final deal with third nations for resettlement. So if this is part of that, why not explain the whole thing and then you might- you might secure Labor’s support? Because at the moment it seems a gratuitous attempt to further punish people that have already been left to- in limbo in Manus and Nauru.

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, again, let’s understand. This is simply about putting into Australian law that which is already Australian Government policy, and which the Labor Party says is their policy. They say their policy is that illegal maritime arrivals should not be settled in Australia. We say well, that’s great. Let’s put this into law so that it is beyond any doubt, so that the people smugglers or people thinking of making an illegal journey to Australia hear that message, get it loud and clear, and [inaudible].

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But it’s going further than that in saying that they not only can’t resettle, but they can never come here and visit.

Simon Birmingham: Kieran- and Kieran, again as I said, there are carve-outs that can exist in that basis for specific circumstances. But overwhelmingly, yes. We want to be very clear. If you try to come here by illegal purposes, you don’t get to settle here. We have one of the world’s most generous refugee programs, a refugee program that is in many ways the envy of much of the rest of the world. What we want to do is maintain the good order behind that refugee program that allows us to settle huge numbers relative to our population, relative to any other nation on the planet, significant numbers of people here in Australia in an orderly and systemic way.

Kieran Gilbert: Now let me ask you about the uncertainty around members of the Senate. What’s the Government’s approach as a senior member of the Government in the Senate, what will be your approach in terms of your agenda? Will you be pushing ahead regardless of the cloud over to … the one that’s quit, but another Senate member as well?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re certainly pushing ahead this week. We had significant legislation in my portfolio area, the reforms to fix Labor’s failed VET FEE-HELP program and put in place a new student loans program that will save billions of dollars in the future in terms of wasted money by better targeting support to students in areas where they are most likely to receive training that aligns with improved employment outcomes. So that will be before the Senate this week, and I hope and trust it will pass.

Kieran Gilbert: But you don’t think it’ll have any impact on your success in getting legislation through that you’ll- this is neither here nor there in terms of the Government’s agenda?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m confident that we can work through my portfolio’s reform priorities, these VET Student Loan programs. Of course across the rest of the board we’ll take it one week at a time, as Mitch Fifield has said in terms of what we bring forward to the Senate, and make sure that we bring things forward that have the best chance of success at the time that they have the best chance of success.

Kieran Gilbert: On the issue of 18C, the section of that Racial Discrimination Act that has caused a lot of angst within some elements of your party. Phillip Coorey this morning in the Financial Review reports that New South Wales members of the Liberal Party are nowhere near as keen on change to 18C as some of your other colleagues might be. This is a tender issue for the Prime Minister to manage, isn’t it, within the party?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is a sensitive issue. It’s sensitive in parts of the community and it’s sensitive indeed within parts of the party, and that’s been known for some period of time. But we’ll work through that. There’s a proposal on the table that the Prime Minister has acknowledged, and acknowledged as perhaps a reasonable pathway in terms of the use of the Senate and Parliamentary committee processes to consider this issue. Ultimately, this is not the Government’s number one priority. It’s not something we’re seeking to rush legislative change through. But it’s an issue that a number of people have highlighted and when we see circumstances as Bob Carr, the former Labor Premier and Foreign Minister has reflected, circumstances where university students or newspaper cartoonists are being hauled through different processes, I understand why people would raise those issues.

Kieran Gilbert: But Julian Leeser, Liberal Member from Berowra in Sydney, he says that rather than change the law-, the law doesn’t need to be changed, it’s just better protection against vexatious claims that needs to be put in place. 

Simon Birmingham: And they’re the types of things that could well be assessed if there were to be a Parliamentary inquiry into this matter and to consideration of whether in fact it’s the law or the way the law works and the application of it by the Human Rights Commission that needs to be considered. So again, wide debate on this issue. Members of Parliament are of course entitled and should be debating issues that are important to their constituencies. Before the Parliament this week though, important issues of how we deal with the legal maritime arrivals, how we fix the student loan support for vocational education students; they’re the things that we’ll be focusing on as a Government in the Parliament.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate your time. Thanks very much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Kieran.