Subject: (SA Shipbuilding; Geelong and Ballarat Manufacturing; Marriage Equality)
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, joins us now. Good evening Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening Patricia, great to be with you.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, this week the Prime Minister was in Adelaide announcing $40 billion worth of work to build new surface ships for the Navy in South Australia and now we have more announcements in Geelong. Is the Coalition trying to sand-bag all the seats where the government has now become desperately vulnerable?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well not at all. We are trying to deliver the policies that Australia needs to transition our economy in to advanced manufacturing areas to support continued growth of job opportunities and we do recognise that areas, like Geelong and South Australia with the demise of the car industry which has been happening over the last decade or so, have particular problems…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …But those declines have accelerated under the Abbott government and there is anger, red hot rage, in those areas and you know…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …Well Patricia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Ford, these were decisions that pre-date the Abbott government. Yes, we see the decisions of Holden and Toyota that will see car manufacturing come to a close and I understand the concern of people in those industries. Equally, on a day like today, we’ve seen employment data out and we’ve seen Australia having a record level of employment ever. Significant jobs growth over the last month, so we are seeing the economy transition.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Unemployment has jumped to 6.3% and passed 800,000.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: and the participation rate lifted significantly in the last month. We have more people in the labour force than at any time since 2001, which is a big vote of confidence that people are getting in to the labour force and looking for work…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …that is the highest rate since 1994, that’s a crisis level, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, what is the good news out of this is that employment keeps growing strongly. We want it to grow faster to keep up with the fact that more people are entering the labour market, but we have more people in jobs than ever before in Australia, we’ve had the biggest rise of people wanting to be in the labour force, in the labour market, since 2001; so these are significant growths for us in terms of jobs that we are seeing generated across the economy and all of our government settings at present, as Tony Abbott said today, are about jobs and growth. The budget this year was about, of course, inspiring growth in small business. The announcements around shipbuilding this week are about inspiring growth in advanced manufacturing, the establishment of the advanced manufacturing centre in Geelong is about making it a continued hub of manufacturing, but of modern manufacturing and skills that will sustain many businesses in to the future.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Lets go to that because your release talks about linking manufacturing centres around the country, linking local companies with global companies and the growth centre will, and I quote “consider areas for reform in regulation, manufacturing, transformation and growth” it’s all fairly vague kind of language, it is very bureaucratically written actually, what does it actually mean?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well what it means is actually helping Australian companies connect with global supply chains. What we will see increasingly is that Australian manufacturing companies of high technical capacity will be making products that feed in to larger products around the world. Ian Macfarlane, before the announcement today, was out at a company called Carbon Revolution in the Geelong area and they’re exporting products that go in to Ford motor vehicles worldwide, so Geelong is still playing a role in the global supply chain now for Ford, so still playing a role in car manufacturing. Later today, I went from Geelong out to Ballarat before coming to see you and whilst in Ballarat I visited a company called Gekko and Gekko makes mining equipment for the world market and a small grant we have provided to them has allowed them to skill their workforce to win a $70 million contract in Canada. Now they’re developing real manufacturing of real equipment, but it’s about all of these small and medium sized businesses now feeding in to the global stage.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you acknowledge though that you have huge problems in the seats down south in South Australia and Victoria? That the Abbott government is bleeding support?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I don’t really care on a day-to-day basis about the political level there, what I worry about is delivering good policy and I’m confident that the good policies that we are announcing at present will see strong support come the next election. What we’re about in the three years between elections is governing well and delivering good policy, we’ll worry about the political support of the voters come election day.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well I think you’re worrying about it already from my observations. Let’s get to what Nick Xenaphon says. In South Australia, a big announcement this week and you are a South Australian Senator so this is something I know you welcome but, Nick Xenaphon, independent Senator, says that the government’s failure to commit to a local build of the $20 billion future submarine project was a continuing kick in the guts for South Australia. This is still a huge problem despite the promise you made this week, are you disappointed that the government hasn’t moved on this?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m really disappointed that Nick Xenaphon and Bill Shorten can’t applaud good news when it is made. This was the best economic news for South Australia in decades this week. The delivery of a continuous shipbuilding program, the first ever by an Australian government, that will see not just a few years of opportunity for Australian shipbuilders, but a few decades of opportunity is something that everybody should be clapping and cheering. Sure, people can want more, people can always campaign for more, but there should be credit where it’s due and recognition that we actually need to lift optimism and confidence in a state like SA to get other people investing as well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But the Abbott government is in a position to secure the sub building as well, but isn’t stepping in to do that, to secure that work for South Australia. You must be disappointed, at least with your South Australian Senator hat on?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I am happy that we have a process underway for the submarines that will give the navy the capabilities they need, will give the taxpayer value for money and ultimately will optimise Australian industry, content and involvement and I’m very confident that the final product we will see will be great news for South Australia; that will be hundreds, likely thousands, more jobs on top of the 2,500 jobs that were sustained this week. Commissioning new submarines, a next generation of submarines, is an incredibly complicated process, it has high levels of risk to the manufacturing and construction process and we do have to go through a proper process to get that best value for taxpayer money and we should remember that the ASC themselves have said that they do not have the capacity to build and design this submarine from the ground up in Australia. They need an international partner to work with them to do this. This process we’re undertaking at present is about getting the right international partner and I’m confident coupled then with the skills we have that we will get a great outcome that, as I say, will be thousands hopefully more jobs on top of the 2,500 shipbuilding jobs that were secured this week.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On RN Drive my guest is Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, who has been in Victoria today making some announcements both in Ballarat and in Geelong. Our number here at RN Drive 0418 226 576 of course you can tweet us @RNDrive what do you think about the government’s announcements in South Australia and Victoria and are they coming at the right time? And I’ll put that to you, Minister, are the policies coming too late? So, we’re seeing these announcements now in these areas that are critical to your survival at the next election, but the announcements are only coming now, it has been some time since this has been a crisis point.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It also takes some time as a government to get your policies to the point of real action. The policy around a continuous shipbuilding program as actually something we were talking about in opposition and credit should go to David Johnston as the then Shadow Defence Spokesman and the early Defence Minister for getting the ball rolling there, for getting all the groundwork done which Kevin Andrews has picked up on and delivered as part of the government. So it is not as that this was a sudden knee-jerk policy, this has been about working out how we can bring forward the construction of offshore patrol vessels by two years, of the future frigates by three years to help accelerate the level of shipbuilding investment in Australia that wouldn’t have been there but for the decisions we have now taken based on the research and evidence; and quite frankly, once again that should be widely welcomed because it is these types of decisions that will fill in the downturn, the so called “valley of death”, for shipbuilding that was created by the inaction of the previous government to deliver any shipbuilding projects during their six year watch.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: If you don’t mind, there is a big issue going on and every day everyone is talking about it; it’s entitlements, so I will ask you about it. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared political fundraisers an important part of learning about how the country works and said that MPs should be able to claim the cost of travel. Do you this that’s reasonable, political fundraisers, would that pass the public sniff-test?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia I think that every politician I know makes sure that the travel they’re undertaking brings together engagement with the electorate, engagement in their portfolio responsibilities and where it’s warranted, engagement with the party in whatever way is deemed necessary, but it usually all brings that together as a package and the Prime Minister…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …Shouldn’t that be kept very separate though? It seems alarming to the public that campaigning for your own political party and getting fundraising for your political party would be done on the taxpayer’s watch, at the taxpayer’s purse, using our money that we all collect so that you can fundraise for your political party and also, of course, the ALP.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: and I think we need to be very cautious in the way some of the language is used in this regard as to whether or not fundraising occurs at taxpayer expense. What we are talking about is travel costs associated with Members of Parliament being in different cities, like I am today, I’m not doing any fundraising today, but I think you’d be hard pressed after the day of multiple events in three different cities in Victoria to say that I haven’t been fully on duty as a Minister of the Crown working and focussing on Parliamentary duties. Now, were there another event that I was scheduled to do later tonight, would that be a problem on top of everything else that I’ve done today? Ultimately, what the Prime Minister has done is say that we do need to do a check to make sure that the arrangements are in line with community expectations, we’ve all heard the message that there are concerns that they’re not at present and so we’re going to have that root and branch review to put in place a system that does make them in line with community expectations.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I know that you’re a Senator, I have noticed, but who do you think should be the speaker in the House of Representatives?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [Laughing] Nice try, Patricia, nice try! But I don’t have a vote either in the Liberal Party room or on the floor of the House of Representatives and there are some great candidates running and I’m sure that anyone of them would do a brilliant job.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok, and just…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …That’s my pitch for a future life as a diplomat.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I like that; you’ve said something that’s completely meaningless!
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [Laughing]
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to ask you though, just finally before I let you go and I do appreciate you coming in to have this chat with us, on gay marriage, you were one of the first, if not the first, in fact I remember writing the story, Simon Birmingham…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …You did, around five years or so ago from memory.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You were one of the first Liberal MPs who came out to support gay marriage and at the time it was quite controversial. Since then a lot of your fellow MPs have come on board your position. Should this issue come up next week in the party room?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think it certainly will come up in the next few weeks or months before the end of the year. I’m well aware of colleagues who have been working with people, Members of Parliament, from other political parties on a cross-party bill and I anticipate that those colleagues will bring the matter to the Liberal Party room in the foreseeable future.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Prime Minister says that there are other issues to get on with and has…it has been widely interpreted as a no vote this year, do you think it should happen this year?
SIMON BIRIMINGHAM: Well I want to have the discussion in the party room first and foremost. Of course, we have a decision to make consistent with what the Prime Minister said at the last election about whether or not there is a free vote. Now in the meantime, he and I and every other member of the government are getting on with issues of jobs and growth and national security and they’re our priorities, but we should have that discussion in the Liberal Party room when those colleagues moving that private members bill choose to bring it up.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok I’ll ask it another way; would you be deeply disappointed if the issue of same sex marriage was not voted by the Parliament this year with a changed free vote position for your party?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I want to take one step at a time and that is to have the discussion in the Liberal Party room first and I don’t want to pre-empt that outcome. I obviously hope that the Liberal Party room does support a free vote. My views on that have been known for a long period of time and from that I would then hope that that led to a discussion in the Parliament, but one step at a time on this is important and in the meantime it is important that all of us as members of the government focus on the other roles we have within government while those Members of the backbench who are bringing forward this legislation do so at a time of their choosing.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, thanks for coming in to RN Drive.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: a pleasure, Patricia.