Subject: (Marriage Equality; Removing Citizenship from Dual Nationals Associated with Terrorist Organisations; Adam Goodes )


CHRIS KENNY: Let’s cross down to Canberra and catch up with the Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham; thanks for joining us, Simon. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening, Chris; great to be with you.

CHRIS KENNY: First up, I want to ask you about Bill Shorten’s gay marriage bill that’s going to be introduced in to the lower house tomorrow. He was going to co-sponsor this bill with his deputy, Tanya Plibersek, but Tanya Plibersek has said today that she’ll gladly stand aside and allow a Liberal to second this bill so that it can be a bipartisan bill. Do you think that some Liberal, one of your colleagues in the lower house, should do that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No I don’t, Chris. What I think needs to happen is that Bill Shorten should step aside and withdraw this bill. It’s entirely counterproductive to have the leader of the Labor Party, the leader of the opposition, promoting this issue in a partisan way. What would be far more helpful to those who want to see the issue progressed is for partisanship to be put aside, for the Labor leader to step aside voluntarily and to allow, as Tony Abbott rightly said in the Parliament last week, the Parliament to take the lead where ideally you would see a couple of backbenchers work together as has occurred on many other conscience votes in the past. That’s the traditional way of getting things done in a conscience vote scenario. Take it out of the party leadership and let the parliamentarians take charge which requires a couple of good, earnest, hardworking backbenchers to become the champions of this cause from opposite sides of the aisle. 

CHRIS KENNY: But you’ve been one of the more active members on the Liberal side, campaigning for this reform yourself and talking to colleagues about possibilities. Surely, to get the Parliament involved you need a bill before the house and if there’s not one there then there’s a chance tomorrow to make it a bipartisan one.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well bills have been around on this topic for a long time. Everybody knows that the threshold discussion to be had before we get to dealing with the bill properly, is whether or not the Liberal Party has a free vote or a conscience vote on the matter and that’s what is really required, I think Tony Abbott is…

CHRIS KENNY: …just on that, is that a threshold question to deal with beforehand? Isn’t Tony Abbott’s argument that the party room will deal with that issue when there’s a bill to be considered? Until the party rooms looking at a bill, you’re not going to decide whether or not you’ve got that conscience vote to be exercised?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: and Chris, look, there are bills before the Parliament already, none of them of course have any likelihood of coming to a vote in the near future, nor does Bill Shorten’s bill have a likelihood of coming to a vote. But a properly structured arrangement where you have the traditional approach occur, where members working on opposite aisles came together to say “this is our intention” took it to their relevant party room and caucus to then enable that discussion to happen there. That’s the right way to go about this.

CHIRS KENNY: You’ve made that clear, but I’m very interested in this point about the conscience vote because I think there’s a lot of misinformation around on this. Many people in the media and certainly the Labor Party are saying “it’s up to Tony Abbott to allow a conscience vote” now my understanding is it’s actually up to the party room. The party room will make that decision for itself, but in order for it to do that it needs to be considering a bill, is that right? Is that the way the process will unfold on the government side?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Traditionally bills come to the party room; of course they’re traditionally brought to the party room by a Minister. What we would hope in this instance is that a member of the party room would say “it’s my intention to bring a bill forward” and that they would come to the party room in that sense, announcing they’re bringing a bill forward presumably in collaboration with a member from the other side and that would then facilitate or provoke the party room discussion on this topic. Yes, it is a party room decision; Tony Abbott made it crystal clear…

CHRIS KENNY: That’s right, it’s not for Tony Abbott to say whether or not there’s a conscience vote, the party room as a group will make that decision.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony made it crystal clear in the lead up to the last election that from his perspective this was a party room decision to be taken in the life of this Parliament at some stage and that’s what will happen at the right time.

CHRIS KENNY: Now do you believe that when that decision is made, there will be a conscience vote? Most of us seem to be assuming that the Liberal Party will now treat this as a conscience issue. Is there any chance that that could be wrong? Is there any chance that the Liberal Party would actually stick with this as a matter of policy, as a matter of a binding vote? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, I don’t want to predict party room outcomes, but I’d say in the five years since I first declared my position on this issue, I’ve been heartened by the increasing number of colleagues in that time who’ve come to a view and said “this really should be a free vote, this should be a conscience vote” whether they support change or not. I think there’s been an increased body of people of that opinion. Ultimately, the party room will have that discussion. Party room decisions are traditionally tried to be consensus decisions so of course, hopefully, we will see a clear viewpoint in that regard around what should occur and I hope, of course, that it will be taken to be a conscience vote, take the partisanship out of this, then let everybody else get on with running the business of government, which is frankly what most of us overwhelmingly focussed on at present. 

CHIRS KENNY: Just finally and quickly, do expect that this could happen before the end of the year or could it take longer than that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think there is a real possibility of it happening before the end of the year. I know there are colleagues, Warren Entsch of course has declared publically that he’s had discussions with members of the Labor Party, so those type of discussions are occurring which is all the more reason for Bill Shorten to take the step backwards, withdraw his bill, take the partisanship out of it and let those backbenchers engage in those discussions.

CHIRS KENNY: Now just on to this issue of citizenship and terrorists, we haven’t seen legislation yet but the government- the Prime Ministers announced changes, we’ve heard a lot of argy bargy in cabinet about this. Would there be any problem from your point of view if someone with only access to one citizenship that is Australian citizenship had it stripped having been fighting with Islamic State or the like overseas?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris I think the Prime Minister has applied the right approach to this in terms of saying that we have a clear policy to remove citizenship from Australians with dual nationality where they, of course, have undertaken act of terrorism or have been involved with these terrorist organisations. But in relation to Australians who only hold one citizenship, that being of course Australian citizenship, that we’re going to go through a proper process, that we’re sending Phillip Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells out to consult, to seek expert opinion, to get a good sense of community sentiment. I of course understand that the general sentiment that says once somebody has gone to one of these foreign conflicts, undertaken these atrocities or been involved in it, frankly, we never want to see them here again. I get that sentiment and of course that is the temptation for all of us but…

CHRIS KENNY: …this was a back down forced on the Prime Minister in cabinet, is it? He wanted to go harder against people with single…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …No, No, I think the Prime Minister has been very clear that cabinet has overwhelmingly supported the proposal that was put to it, which included having this discussion process with the community about this issue…

CHRIS KENNY: …are you concerned about those leaks? Are you concerned that we’re hearing so much about discussions that are apparently occurring in cabinet?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ah look, I never like it when in any environment there is a suggestion that confidential discussions may have been revealed publically. I trust and hope that many of these are perhaps not accurate quotations and that a lot of license may have been taken, but in reality we’re just focussed on the issues at hand and that’s where the government’s attention is and that is about removing citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorist activities in anyway and having a proper discussion with the community about whether there is a means to take that further and if so, how we would go about doing it.

CHRIS KENNY: Just a couple of things to finish up with in your own portfolio, in the training area, you’ve got a bit of a spat, a fight over money, strangely enough, between Canberra and the State Labor Government in South Australia over TAFE funding, but more generally there’s a fascinating confrontation going on now between your government, the Abbott Coalition Government in Canberra, and the Jay Weatherill Labor Government in South Australia. You seem to be at war with each other with the Labor Government in South Australia even taking out television ads and the like campaigning with tax payers money campaigning against Canberra. I mean this is a ridiculous situation, isn’t it, for our federation to descend in to this type of sparring?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ah Chris its completely outrageous that millions of South Australian tax payer dollars have been wasted on running ads and putting direct mail campaigns out against the Federal Government by the State Labor Government…

CHRIS KENNY: … but doesn’t that…sure that’s would you would say and of course the South Australian Government would make an argument for why they’re spending this money but doesn’t it just mean that when the relationship has descended to this level, that Tony Abbott and Jay Weatherill need to sit down and sort a couple of issues out? Because this is a ridiculous spat to be having at tax payer’s expense.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the Prime Minister and the Premier met when the Premier was last in Adelaide just a couple of weeks ago and I understand that was a positive discussion. Now, since then, yes I have an issue in my portfolio about the way the SA Government is approaching training funding and the fact that they are removing and stripping employers and students of choice in relation to that, that’s me attempting to uphold the terms of an agreement that the State Labor Government voluntarily signed with the Gillard Labor Government and making sure that they’re not just taking the money while ignoring the agreement. So, I think we’re acting appropriately in that regard, I don’t want to have a fight with my home state and I want to see every single dollar that can go to my home state, invested in it and I just hope that good common sense in relation to policy will prevail in SA on this issue. 

CHRIS KENNY: Just finally, you’re an Aussie Rules fan and like me, I think you’re a fairly frustrated Adelaide Crows supporter this weekend, but I want to ask you, especially given that this was the reconciliation round in AFL, what you made of the Adam Goodes war dance that created such a fuss in Sydney on Friday night, did you see that as just a good and unique celebration? Was there any controversy warranted there?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think there were some great celebrations of Indigenous Australians in Aussie Rules around the country this weekend and frankly, Adam Goodes’ dance was probably one of them. What on earth is different from that versus, say, the Hakka that is celebrated in terms of a war dance that’s performed by the New Zealanders in many areas of sport and frankly, in terms of Aussie Rules, we should be celebrating the fact that the biggest controversy going around in Aussie Rules at present is a debate about a dance, rather than in soccer where we are seeing corruption right at the heart of soccer and far more serious issues plaguing that sport.

CHIRS KENNY: I couldn’t agree with you more. Get your kids out of soccer, out of that corruption; get them out playing Aussie Rules. Thanks for your time, Simon Birmingham.