Subject: (Submarine contracts; Marriage equality)


FRAN KELLY: Simon Birmingham is the Assistant Minister for Education and Training, he’s a Senator for South Australia and he’s in our Parliament House studios. Senator Birmingham, welcome back to Breakfast.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Fran, a pleasure to be with you.

FRAN KELLY: I want to talk subs with you. You’re a South Australian and a proud one, I know. Defence Minister, Kevin Andrews, will soon head to Japan to discuss the tender bid for the submarines. It’s been reported in the Japanese press that military officials believe Japan is “highly likely” to win this so called competitive evaluation process, do you agree? Japan is highly likely to win this contract? Is it a foregone conclusion?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Certainly not, Fran. This is a competitive process, it is a process where we have the Germans, the French and the Japanese all bidding to be the international partner in building the next generation of submarines, it’s a process that Kevin Andrews and the whole government are very serious about ensuring that it delivers the best in defence capability to meet our future naval needs and our future defence requirements; the best financial outcome for Australia in terms of value for money for taxpayers and a process that seeks to optimise Australian industry involvement which will help to ensure that there are many, many more jobs in South Australia and in naval ship building and sustainment in future than there currently are.

FRAN KELLY: Well let’s go to that optimising Australian industry involvement because both the European bidders say they are willing to build the subs largely in Adelaide, the Japanese bidders have made no such promise and it is unlikely, if Japan wins this contract, the subs will be built in Adelaide. How much weight should that carry in the final decision?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well in fairness, Fran, the Japanese have visited Adelaide as well. As have the Germans and the French…

FRAN KELLY: …They have not made the promise though…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Indeed, but it is up to them to choose how they conduct their bidding process and they’re obviously doing it behind closed doors. Ultimately, we set out that there were three key parameters that Kevin Andrews announced to be assessed, defence capability, cost and value for money and optimising Australian industry involvement. The Prime Minister has made very clear that there will be more jobs in Adelaide as a result of this and I’m very confident that we will get a good outcome for South Australia, we need to always remember that the current Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) contract, the previous Collins Class submarines were all international collaborations, they all had international design partners, they all have significant international components to them. It is not a binary decision of whether they’re built in Australia or built overseas, these are about collaborations and I’m confident that the Australian workforce…we have the skilled Australian workforce…will a big part of the future in procuring and sustaining these submarines.

FRAN KELLY: It’s not a binary operation but the build is important in terms of ongoing jobs. The Prime Minister has promised South Australia 500 jobs will be created as part of a submarine contract, no matter who wins the contract. That’s a lot less than would have been created if ASC in South Australia had won the contract to build them and now there’s concern from others, I’m not sure whether you share them, that these 500 jobs are unlikely to be construction jobs, they’ll be design jobs, testing jobs not building jobs and presumably therefore, not much maintenance either. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Fran, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister in announcing the 500 jobs target was very clear that it is a minimum, it is about what happens if the bare minimum occurs in terms of sustainment operations and support for the build operations…

FRAN KELLY: …What do you want as a South Australian?…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …I want the absolute best outcome for South Australia which of course is many more jobs but, I also want the best outcome for Australia which is that we get submarines that are fit for purpose, that give us the best of defence capability and that taxpayers get the best value for money. There’s no point burying our heads in the sand and pretending there haven’t been issues in the development of the AWD or in the Collins Class. We have to confront those issues and Kevin Andrews and Mathias Cormann as the joint shareholder Ministers for the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) are working very hard to get the AWD project back on track to reduce the cost overruns and all of that will help to create a far more competitive bid for those international players who are partnering with ASC or coming up with a model that involves ASC to see a maximum level of build happen in South Australia. I trust and hope all of that goes exceedingly well and that we do see significant construction aspects occur in Australia alongside sustainment because we’ve got all of the factors right- cost, capability and Australian industry involvement.

FRAN KELLY: How much of a blow was it, the timing of the HMAS Hobart launched on the weekend, the first of three AWDs? The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill is hailing that as a sign of success, he said “we have the talent, we have the facilities and we have the commitment to successfully build ships and submarines here, show us your faith in us and we’ll repay that trust” but finance Minister Mathias Cormann says “Well looking at the Hobart, ships built in other parts of the world would have cost us just $1B a ship instead of $3B a ship” Considering those savings, it is hard to argue, isn’t it, that ships be built in South Australia at that cost in terms of value for money?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: and this is why Mathias Cormann is just as committed as Kevin Andrews to working through a process that get those costs under control, that ensures that the next two AWDs that are developed and built see the costs come down so that we actually do demonstrate a level of competitiveness and I thought it was a very positive event launching the HMAS Hobart on Saturday. Defence Minister Kevin Andrews was there, he gave a very important speech which I’d encourage people to look at where he talked about the work that is being done around looking at the option of a continuous naval build programme in Australia. It’s one option this government is considering and it’s a very important option that we’re considering that we give the type of certainty to workers and to naval businesses and the industry over the long haul and it’s something that is seen in stark contrast to the previous Labor government who promised much but didn’t even consider how they would build the submarines in 6 years of office. We are working to take these hard decisions, it’s not easy, but at the end of it we will have certainty for our defence industries that they will have the capability and the equipment they need and will also have certainty for South Australia that will demonstrate where the jobs of the future come from and how many more jobs there will be in future than there currently are.

FRAN KELLY: On another issue, over the weekend the Irish voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. What does that result do you think, in Ireland, do for the debate in this country?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think it is a very notable occasion to see the people of Ireland vote by popular vote, the first in the world, to endorse a change to support marriage equality to embrace same-sex marriage as a free option under there constitution and I congratulate the people of Ireland for doing so. It’s another sign and signal I guess to Australia that there is strong public support in western countries for this type of change, we’ve seen many opinion polls indicate that to date, I guess this is the largest opinion poll ever taken in a western country by virtue of it being a popular vote that has actually endorsed the strong desire that many people have to see a change and the strong level of community acceptance that exists. 

FRAN KELLY: What about within your own party room? Earlier we heard from your colleague, Warren Entsch, he says “The time has come now for Tony Abbott to grant a conscience vote for Liberal MPs” do you think that’s right? The time is now for a conscience vote?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Fran, it’s about five years since I first spoke out in favour of my views in favour of a conscience vote and in support of a change towards marriage equality and I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister at the last election and ever since has indicated that it will be a matter for the party room to decide whether we have a conscience vote. I look forward to that discussion happening, hope in the not too distant future happening, and I’m sure that based on the number of people who have spoken to me over that five year journey indicating their changed opinions, their support for a conscience vote, their often changed opinions in supporting marriage equality that we will see a conscience vote on all sides of politics in the future.

FRAN KELLY: Is it time though, for your party room to deal with it now? As you say, Tony Abbott said that the party room view will impact the policy in the end, but of course, you can’t form that view unless you debate it. When should it come in to your party room for discussion? Should it be this week following the Irish referendum?   

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well this week the Senate is in budget estimates, which tends to take a lot of time…

FRAN KELLY: …Should it be this month?…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Fran look, I don’t think it should be done probably in an election year, so I think at some point this year, when it is appropriate, the government has a lot on its plate at present- delivering a budget focussed on small business, delivering national security reforms. Now of course we can always walk and chew gum, I’m sure that at the right time when there is a window during the course of this year, it will be raised, it will be debated and I hope we will see the right and positive outcome. 

FRAN KELLY: Do you agree with your colleague, Josh Frydenberg, who told this program recently there is a shift underway in the Liberal party room. I know that Australian Marriage Equality say that there is 13 coalition members who have privately shifted in favour of same-sex marriage. Are you noticing that and noting that? Have the numbers changed? Support changed?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Fran, as I said, in the five years since I first spoke out on this topic, I’ve been heartened by the number of colleagues who have indicated a change in position. Josh being one of them, Dean Smith being another publically and a number of others privately indicating to me that they support a conscience vote, that they’re open to seeing change to the legislation around marriage and I think that’s really positive and of course it reflects on…

FRAN KELLY: …Simon Birmingham, as you say, for five years you’ve been saying it should happen, but what’s going to be the importance to bring this on as it’s a question in your party room? Will you stand up and call for it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Fran, I’ll talk to my colleagues and I’m sure when it seems the right time when it has a good window of opportunity for a full and proper debate in the party room, one of us will make sure that it is raised and I’m very confident that at that time we’ll have a thoughtful and respectful debate and discussion. I know there are very strong views on both sides and that’s why a conscience vote is appropriate way to deal with this so that each member of the Parliament can stand by their personal views informed by their own moral, personal or religious beliefs.

FRAN KELLY: Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for joining us. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Fran.