Subject: (Proposed Changes to Citizenship Laws)


KIERAN GILBERT: With me now this morning, or panel, the Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham joins me from Adelaide and from Brisbane, Labor MP, Terri Butler. Good morning to you both. Simon, first to you on this piece written in the Fairfax papers this morning by Amanda Vanstone, a long serving member of the Howard cabinet and she has been scathing of the cabinet process around this proposal to do with citizenship and namely citizenship of those engaged with terrorism or supporting terrorism. You’ve read that piece, what do you make of it and does she make some valid points?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look Kieran, I think what’s really important for the Australian public is policy rather than process, but I’ll deal with the process allegations. The Prime Minister has been quite clear that the cabinet supported what was put to it. What was put to it was a proposal to deal very clearly with Australians of dual nationality. To be able to withdraw citizenship from those who are involved in terrorism and to go through a proper process of community engagement and consultation led by Phillip Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-wells to talk about what else can be done to strengthen citizenship including consideration of how you might tackle those who hold a single citizenship and whether there is more that can be done in that regard. We don’t make any apologies as a government for doing everything we possibly can to be tough on terrorism, to fight the causes of terrorism, to fight those engaged in terrorism. We’ve introduced four different separate packages of legislation through the life of this Parliament, we’ve committed more than $1.3 billion in additional funding to tackle the terrorist threat and yes, we will continue to pursue policies like this one which is based on the UK law model which we believe can help to put in another level of deterrent and another level of action that Australia can take to keep Australians safe here at home.

KIERAN GILBERT: Alright, I know you don’t want to get caught up in the process, but Amada Vanstone has written an account this morning which is published in the Fairfax papers, as I say, in which she accuses the Prime Minister of essentially throwing out the Westminster system of cabinet government. That this, such an important proposal, particularly from a Liberal government, to remove a person’s citizenship, that it was done below the line. There was no formal cabinet papers put to the colleagues and she, as I say, believes that this is throwing the Westminster cabinet system out the window and she has to pinch herself to believe it according to this piece today. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think the cabinet system was alive and well during this decision making process. Unfortunately, as we’ve read, it was very much alive and well. That there were robust discussions around some of the different factors of it and features of it, but ultimately, we stand as one as a government behind policies that we are convinced will help to strengthen the overall sweep of measures being taken to protect Australians here in Australia and to stop as best we can the spread of terrorism around the world.

KIERAN GILBERT: Now I know, Terri Butler, you obviously, before and during Parliament, had a legal career. Are you worried that your side of politics has jumped on board here without seeing the legislation and knowing that there are senior figures within the Liberal Party, maybe not current ones, but certainly senior figures within the Liberal Party establishment who are worried about this process. As we know there are also those cabinet Ministers that express their concerns about the other idea of targeting sole Australian citizens?

TERRI BUTLER: Well Kieran, what we’ve said is that we’re open to any sensible changes to the citizenship laws, but that obviously requires us knowing what the changes are that are proposed. We’ve asked for a briefing, no briefing has been forthcoming. In fact, the Prime Minister said during the week that we would get a briefing once the laws were tabled in the Parliament. I mean to carry on as though we should give him some sort of firm answer, sight unseen, is just ridiculous and his own Ministers, as you’ve rightly pointed out, have got grave concerns about the proposal which, as I say, we’ve yet to see. I think that Bill Shortens been absolutely right to say that we have an open mind, we are open to anything sensible, but we want a briefing and we want to make sure that there are no unintended consequences of any new laws. I mean I think Amanda Vanstone was absolutely right this morning when she wrote, she quoted the Thomas Moore picture and she said you know “if you cut down all the laws in England, then what are you going to do when the devil turns on you?” and the same question arises when it comes to this idea of giving a Minister an unreviewable right to take away citizenship. You know, I’m a backbencher in opposition, I want to see the laws, I want to see the briefing, I want to know what the explanation is, but that doesn’t mean that people are not going to be open to sensible change and we’ve made that really clear. It’s a process question of how do you make sure in a democracy that representatives have an ability to take a serious and considered look at significant changes to people’s rights and also how do you ensure that there is good decision making? In any organisation, governance really matters. If the governance processes of cabinet are falling down, then that’s a problem for our whole nation…

KIERAN GILBERT: …Terri Butler, are you worried then that your leader might have gone too far here in saying that he supports, in principle, an idea when clearly yourself and others have some serious concerns that it might be giving the Minister too much power?

TERRI BUTLER: No, what Bill said is that we’re open to sensible changes to the citizenship laws and as you know, there’s already a facility in the laws to take away citizenship in respect of someone who goes and fights for a state military against Australia’s interests. So Bill has said we’re open to any sensible extension of that, but being open to considering what’s put to us and giving something full-voiced endorsement is two different things. We want a briefing, we want to see the legislation, Mr Abbott ought to have given us the legislation by now if he says that he’s got a proposal ready to be agreed to, let alone just considered. Why not show us the legislation, why not give us a briefing?

KIERAN GILBERT: According to Greg Sheridan and his analysis of it, Simon Birmingham, that the Prime Minister, he’s planning something much more decisive, radical and controversial in its approach to stripping citizenship from dual-nationals who pose a terrorist threat. Simon Birmingham, to you on that analysis by Greg Sheridan who, as you know, is pretty close to the PM.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, there’s a proper process underway. We have, as I said before, Phillip Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-wells engaging with the community, talking to people about what they think should be done and what is achievable and what can of course enhance and protect the rights of Australian citizenship and the rights of all Australians to be safe from terrorism. Now I think what we’re seeing from the Labor Party are some interesting plays on words. It’s a very key distinction between whether or not you support something in principle or whether you are open to considering it. Now, does the Labor Party support tackling terrorism in principle when it comes to citizenship changes? Are they actually willing to give that in principle support? Yes, of course they want to see the legislation, that’s understandable, the legislation will go through all the proper processes as the other pieces of legislation tackling terrorism have gone through, but will they be clear-cut in saying they support, in principle, the removal of citizenship from those with dual citizenship rights who are engaged in terrorism? That’s a pretty clear, up and down consideration.

KIERAN GILBERT: But on this Sheridan piece where he is suggesting that the government might consider a restricted visa for those that they strip citizenship off and don’t have somewhere else to go. So essentially, keep them in Australia but as a reduced level of citizen essentially. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well that’s all speculation at present, Kieran. Its speculation, we will go through the proper processes there before we reach a landing point on those issues. That is exactly why the Prime Minister put a discussion paper out there and pointed Phillip and Concetta to be able to engage with the Australian people on this topic to be able to receive all manner of feedback. There is absolutely not a pre-determined outcome from that process, it’s a genuine discussion and engagement. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Terri Butler, you know there is a lot of support in the electorate for tough action against anyone involved in terrorism or supporting terrorism. You would think, broadly, the electorate would be encouraging tougher and tougher action. I guess, as we saw the barometer of the Liberal Coalition back bench in its letter to the Prime Minister suggesting as much. 

TERRI BUTLER: Look, we’ve been really tough on terrorism of course and as you know, Kieran, we’ve had a very strong bipartisan approach to all of the national security legislation that’s come before the Parliament. We are key players in the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security and our work enforcing any legislation to go through that appropriate process in the Parliament has led to significant improvement in each national security bill that’s come before the Parliament. We have been very, very clear around this issue that we’re are shoulder to shoulder with the Coalition in a bipartisan way when it comes to national security, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to buy a pig and a poke, I mean it’s just ridiculous for Simon to say on one hand “that’s speculation, that’s speculation” you want to know what’s speculation? Asking us what we think of legislation that we haven’t seen on the basis of a briefing that we haven’t got. I mean come on guys get serious, we’re talking about national security. If this is an important issue, then let’s see the legislation and let’s have the information that we need to make an informed decision as a group of representatives who take our role in the Parliament very seriously. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Terri Butler and Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for coming in on this public holiday Monday. I appreciate it, we’ll chat to you soon.