Subject: (The Recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution; Q&A; Recent Polls)


KIERAN GILBERT: With me this morning, the Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham and Shadow Citizenship Minister, Michelle Rowland. Simon Birmingham, today this conference in Sydney, what do you hope comes out of it? What does the Government comes out of these talks? Obviously, they can’t come up with a final question for the constitutional referendum but, what do you think is the best case scenario out of today?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I really hope that today’s conference to discuss the recognition of Indigenous Australians, bringing together Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, opposition leader, Bill Shorten, indigenous leaders from around Australia, can deliver a unity of purpose, a unity of process, a unity of direction in terms of this really important national reform that is not just important for Indigenous Australians, although it is very much for Indigenous Australians, but is important for all Australians to make sure will build a stronger nation; a nation in which all Australians can be proud of the recognition we give appropriately to the first Australians, that we correct some injustice that exists in our current constitution and that we get the right process forward that is achievable, that is unifying and hopefully today is a big step forward in the right direction.

KIERAN GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, I guess the risk is if some are pitching up an idea which is too ambitious in terms of change because the history of referenda in this country shows that people won’t buy it.

MICHELLE ROWLAND: Kieran, you’re right on the point that the history of referenda in this country has had unfortunate results. By and large, referenda that go up end up failing, but the ones that we have seen succeed have a few common elements. Firstly, there needs to be bipartisanship, there needs to have a strong community backing for that, but on this particular point that we’re in right now, we need to be looking at the mechanics as well as the method. So the mechanics in terms of the questions of the timing, questions of how a civics education campaign is going to be done and the method, of course, making sure that as many people as possible are involved, but Kieran, I’m incredibly optimistic. I think that Australians, by and large, would be absolutely mortified to know that there’s a provision in our constitution which enables people to be excluded from voting on the basis of their race. I think that having that as a starting point of the need to make sure that people know about that and are educated about that is really important. I think Jason’s comments earlier where quite insightful too, at the elite level we have strong support for that. We have really strong support at the corporate level, we have in the business community as well, reconciliation action plans, across many local Governments as well as private sector enterprises, so I’m incredibly optimistic and I really want to see this change happen and I think the majority of Australians would feel the same. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Well 85% according to the survey today in the Fairfax papers, so that’s encouraging, Simon Birmingham, but I guess the question I put to Michelle I’ll put to you as well in the context of Noel Pearson’s proposal for a representative body for indigenous people in the constitution. Others, like Warren Mundine, are worried that that is too ambitious, that that will enable, basically, a second guessing of the constitution through the judiciary, that that would fail because it is too ambitious, what’s your sense?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it is important to be appropriately cautious through this agenda. We are seeking to, first and foremost, remove the wrong elements in our constitution, the elements that provide for discrimination in inappropriate ways which Michelle just spoke about. Secondly, it has long been, of course, discussed now about having a sense of recognition of the first Australians in the constitution and how that can be facilitated. To then go further, you need to be very cautious, you need to be cautious that we don’t run conflicting messages in a referendum where you’re saying “we want to remove racial discrimination from the constitution” but in other ways inject a different form of discrimination in terms of setting up specific bodies for particular races of Australians. So, I think it’s very important that we take cautious steps through this process, today is about really trying to…

KIERAN GILBERT: …you have a number in your party who are worried about the changes. Probably more than…well Labor is behind it pretty much 100%, but there are a number of your colleagues who have expressed concerns. You need to, I guess, plicate those concerns as well, don’t you to ensure that that bipartisanship remains?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We need to make sure that whatever is done is a great leap forward for the entire Australian community and well embraced by the vast majority of Australians. There is no point doing something that becomes divisive, I haven’t seen a single Aboriginal leader who wants to see a divisive debate here, they want to see a unifying debate here. That means achieving what can be unifying, what will be unifying, absolutely shooting for the best that can be unifying, but not overreaching and ending up in a situation where we do have a debate that potentially is divisive and is completely self-defeating in terms of the purpose of this recognition campaign.

KIERAN GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, I guess it’s not just the bipartisanship politically, but across the notoriously difficult world of politics in the Aboriginal sphere among Indigenous leaders themselves, did you make sure that they are all on the same page here; and I guess the risk again goes to whether or not they sacrifice what needs to be done, you know, in removing the racist elements that have been there and not sacrificing that effort which has complete support with going for something like this representative body which might prove to be too ambitious in the longer term.

MICHELLE ROWLAND: That’s the challenge, Kieran, but I think we need to have the debate and I think we need to welcome robust debate. I represent an area which I think still has probably the largest urban Indigenous population in the Blacktown local Government area and I know from experience if you think that there is a single Indigenous voice on matters, then you are mistaken and I don’t think you would expect to see a single Indigenous voice. I think you would expect people to have different views, but that is what this whole process is about. It is about having those discussions and coming to an agreement on what would be the most appropriate proposal to put forward that has the greatest chance for success, so I welcome a fulsome debate and I think that all Australians should be encouraged to participate in that debate as we get to the question, as we consider issues of timing, as we consider those issues of education and, as I said, I think the majority of Australians would be very interested in being involved in this debate as well. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Now to another issue, Michelle Rowland, this ongoing drama, saga out of that Q and A program. Barnaby Joyce was meant to appear tonight, he’s now not, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister told me this morning and I’ll read you the quote “given the ABC is undertaking an inquiry in to Q and A, it isn’t appropriate for the Minister to appear tonight” is that fair enough given that this inquiry continues?

MICHELLE ROWLAND: That’s the Prime Minister’s call, we’ve already had a summary inquiry report released from the Department of Communications, and I understand that an external inquiry is being undertaken. Mark Scott has also made some statements in relation to this. We are in to week three of it, I think it is unfortunate that certain members of part of our Parliament aren’t going to be allowed to appear, it would be interesting to see whether the Minister for Communications appears next week; I understand he is scheduled to appear, but that’s a call the Prime Minister has made and I guess Simon and his colleagues will need to abide by that. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, isn’t it better to be engaging with an audience even if it might be seen as a hostile one as the Prime Minister clearly believes the Q and A program is?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well the Government wants to engage right across the community in selling our important messages around building a stronger and more prosperous economy and ensuring national security for all Australians in the face of increasing terrorist threats. Of course, we make no apologies for the fact that when it comes to tackling terrorism we have been quite strong in providing additional funding to tackle it at its source, to engage internationally, passing new laws through the Parliament to strengthen provisions for our security agencies and we do, as a Government, find it completely unacceptable that the ABC failed in its process by giving a national television platform on the high rating Q and A program to a terrorist sympathiser, to a convicted criminal, ultimately the ABC is reviewing its processes around this. That review is welcome, it’s a step forward, we want to see outcomes from that review.

KIERAN GILBERT: But given…I mean, as much as I would like every person to be watching AM Agenda and to hear the points that you’re making…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …Why aren’t they!?

KIERAN GILBERT: Well they should be!

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Exactly right!

KIERAN GILBET: But the fact is that Q and A has a big audience and it’s a chance for you to prosecute your case. I can’t imagine John Howard ever boycotting a national television program. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I’m not sure John Howard faced a situation like…

KIERAN GILBET: …he had a shoe thrown at him in one of the episodes!

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I’m not sure he faced a situation as grave as this one where the error of judgement on the part of the ABC’s producers of the Q and A program was so grave as to allow a terrorist sympathiser on air, putting forward arguments as to why people would go and fight overseas for terrorist organisations. It’s a pretty serious error of judgement; it’s a pretty serious failure to have somebody mounting those arguments on your national broadcaster. We think they need to get their internal mechanisms right and I guess this is a strong signal to make sure that they follow through on that. 

KIERAN GILBERT: And I guess…well Michelle said it would be interesting to see if Malcolm Turnbull is there next week, he’s a favourite on that program.


KIERAN GILBERT: …with the leather jacket!

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, the leather jacket was obviously a highlight for the program! And clearly having a terrorist sympathiser on there was a lowlight for the program. Hopefully the ABC can manage to turn around its mistakes and come out quickly with measures that restore confidence. 

KIERAN GILBERT: And Michelle Rowland, let’s finish off, if we can, on this poll that shows Bill Shorten’s approval rating has been in quite a dramatic decline. Is this a worry given that Labor, overall, is doing quite well, but the leader seems to…his rating seems to be a drag on the overall vote? Imagine if you had a popular leader.

MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well Kieran, I think it’s an incredible result to have at the moment when you consider that nearly two years ago we were expected to be virtually wiped out from the opposition benches and have much lower numbers than we are. So the fact that we are polling in a position that we are now, I think says something about the tenacity of Bill Shorten, but also of our team to be able to come together after such a devastating defeat in 2013, but I will say this Kieran, you know, Simon and the Government have been throwing everything they can at Bill Shorten, a $61 million inquiry for which I know that Bill will appear and will come out of it showing that he is someone who stands up for workers, has been doing that his whole life, has been someone who has been putting in to practice the actual philosophy behind the accord, making sure that employers and employees are able to work together productively in the best interests of our economy. So as much as the Government will like to throw stuff as much as they can at Bill, I know that he is going to come out of this inquiry and continue to prosecute his vision for a country which is one of smarter young people, getting people in to the jobs of the future and not being caught in the past like this Government. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Well that’s the best case scenario, obviously heading in to this royal commission hearing and his appearance on Wednesday, but for the Prime Minister, even though it has been a very difficult few weeks for Bill Shorten, the worst of his time in the job and yet, you’re still trailing 52-48 in the Newspoll, 53-47 in the IPSOS poll in Fairfax.

Kieran look, the public research that interests me and that the Government is focussed on is the fact that consumer confidence is up, business confidence is up, employment growth is up around Australia, these are all signs that our plans to restore confidence in the budget, that our plans to investment and productivity from small business are all starting to pay dividends. It’s particularly important when you look at the result of the Greece referendum and the uncertainty on the other side of the world that we do have these strong levels of confidence in Australia, that we are engaging more in our region through the free trade agreements we’ve signed, us as a Government focussed on continuing to drive that economic agenda, making sure we grow our economy…

KIERAN GILBERT: …the polls will turn around eventually?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we have confidence that good policy will lead to good electoral outcomes.

KIERAN GILBERT: Simon Birmingham, Michelle Rowland, thanks so much; have a good day.