PETE DILLON: Simon Birmingham is a federal Liberal Senator for South Australia. He’s been in the news, particularly for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community, after the recent pre-selection for the South Australian Senate and was elected behind controversial Senator Cory Bernardi, the former [Shadow] Parliamentary Secretary to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. While Senator Bernardi suggested that legalising gay marriage would be the first slippery step to tolerating bestiality, Senator Birmingham is working within the Liberal Party to recruit supporters to the equal marriage cause. He joins us in the studio. Senator Simon Birmingham, welcome.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening. Pleasure to be with you.
SERENA RYAN: Thanking you for joining us.
PETE DILLON: Thank you for… yes.
SERENA RYAN: We tend to say things in concert.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Excellent. Well, that’s all good.
SERENA RYAN: Look, it’s wonderful to meet a Liberal – in person – that’s supportive of marriage equality. Can you talk us… I mean, can you talk us through the genesis of that for you? Because I know that there are people in the Liberal Party that believe it’s a good thing but we don’t meet many of them.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, there’s probably, I guess, two sides to that. There’s the philosophical side and I came to the Liberal Party very much as someone of classical liberal views, a viewpoint that ultimately government should be out of people’s lives, be that on an economic side of the ledger or on a social policy side of the ledger; that, if it’s not doing harm to others, we should simply be facilitating people to live their life as they wish, in a manner that they wish. Then there’s the more practical aspect of things and that is that I recognise we… there’s a reason why government’s in marriage laws. Frankly, it’s more to do with their dissolution than it is to their creation but nonetheless there’s a reason that we’re there and I think if government is there then it should treat the recognition of two loving couples in an equal manner regardless of the gender of those two persons involved in that loving relationship.
SERENA RYAN: Very nicely put. I couldn’t have said that better myself.
PETE DILLON: It’s very nice to hear. Simon, you also work with children. You’re involved with UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] and those sorts of areas. You have two children of your own. Has that brought you to this place, where you look at the lives of children, you look at the lives of young people, and think you would hate to leave a legacy for them that prevents them from declaring and exercising their love in a formal and legal sense?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think it’s certainly important that… we have a far better understanding across society today that there are a lot of pressures on young people and especially on gay or lesbian young Australians as they’re working through their relationship issues and I’m sure those pressures would be eased if we had marriage equality there. Now, it’s all part of the journey towards achieving this change and there’ve been some great advances over recent years and that’s really to be applauded – changes under governments of both persuasions – so it is a journey and I recognise that it won’t happen overnight but it’s important to have conversations like these and to make sure that young Australians coming through today understand that, whatever their sexuality, it is respected within our society.
SERENA RYAN: I think, you know, you’ve made some very interesting points there and the one that I pick up mostly is that which is endurance. Marriage equality is inevitable in Australia, I think, but it’s not coming soon. What role do you play in your own party locally and, I guess if you expand that out, in promoting this view that you hold that is, you know, well, everybody’s got a right to be equal?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Change takes its time and it has to, of course, hopefully bring the community with it. Now, I think the community is there, in large part, on this debate but the more the debate is had, the more the community will come onside and the same, in a sense, will apply to the Liberal Party, I’m sure. Ultimately, it took the Labor Party many years of debate to change their position on this and people like… prominent people like Penny Wong during that time said ‘please respect the fact that I’m working through my party to get change’ and finally they did. I hope that we can manage to achieve that same shift of position to, I would expect, a conscience vote that respects the differing views of people but allows people to exercise those views freely within the Liberal Party in future.
PETE DILLON: You bring an interesting point into the conversation, which is the conscience vote. The Liberal Party is founded on the conscience vote and has never been… the front bench has never been denied a conscience vote excepting on this issue. Does that put you at loggerheads with the federal Liberal Party Leader philosophically?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, Tony and I have obviously talked about this issue. I respect the fact that his argument is that he took a clear position to the last election and he wanted to honour that position. Now, that’s an admirable thing to do. It’s something that most people wish politicians did a lot more of, so I fully understand the stance that Tony took into the last election. I know that I’m not the only person to have these robust conversations with Tony and, of course, he’s acknowledged they occur within his own family now and I hope that we’ll see a position in future where we do see a conscience vote in the Liberal Party. I think it is in accordance with Liberal traditions but, of course, it is something that has to be worked through our own party processes and I hope that people will respect that and respect that I think Tony has, in all of my dealings with him, been very respectful of my views on this topic and I think understands that I’m certainly not a lone orphan in the Liberal Party in that sense.
SERENA RYAN: Do you think there’s capacity for Mr Abbott to evolve in the way that Obama did?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, I think there’s always capacity. I’m sure that Tony would be the first to acknowledge that his views have changed over the years on a range of topics. Now, on this one, I don’t know – I wouldn’t be holding my breath that we’ll see such a change but I do hope that we will see a point in time in the, hopefully, not-too-distant future where we see that conscience vote application on both sides of the political ledger. Now, it’s not a debate that’s really being had right now. The vote’s been had in this Parliament. That’s happened and I don’t think it’ll be revisited for a little while but it is a matter that will be revisited at some stage in the future, as you’ve said, and I hope at that stage we’ll see a different position.
PETE DILLON: You weren’t actually there for that vote, unfortunately, were you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Sadly, I wasn’t. Happily, I was at home celebrating the birth of my new baby daughter just a few days earlier, so… however, I made sure that I put some comments on my website so that I couldn’t be accused of squibbing it and not saying anything.
PETE DILLON: You’ve said you’re a lone orphan and…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, not a lone orphan.
PETE DILLON: … sorry, you’re not a lone orphan and I’m hoping that the work you’re doing behind the scenes will bring some more lone orphans together so that there is an impetus within your party to start to make this change over a period of time. Whether this was a core or non-core promise from Tony not to bring this to this next election, I think it’s something that we can look forward to, as you say, down the track, Serena, so it’s…
SERENA RYAN: Either that or a change of leadership. That would also be quite palatable, I think, for the Australian public if someone like Malcolm Turnbull came back to lead the Liberals. You don’t have to comment on that but we’re gunning for my ol’ Malcolm.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m not going to buy into that but I would simply say to your listeners and to the community generally: one of the great things about the debate that was had this year was the level of engagement, not just from gay and lesbian Australians but especially from their families and their friends as well and please keep that up with especially your local Liberals and make sure that that level of engagement is there, because the family stories are often the most powerful ones when you sit down with people.
SERENA RYAN: Yeah, it’s just a shame people have to vent their personal spleen to get the point made. It’s sort of… should be less about the story and more about, you know, the constitutional entitlements and…
PETE DILLON: Benefit of all Australians.
SERENA RYAN: Yeah. You know, we pay the same taxes and, you know, we’ve… and obey the same laws, you know, but we’re held back. It’s a really interesting moment for the Liberal Party to choose to be on this side of history, so I hope that’s reshaped over time. I hope it evolves.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I hope it evolves as well and it’s about equal rights and, of course, equal responsibilities in the mix of things, as well.
PETE DILLON: Senator Simon Birmingham, who’s a federal Senator from South Australia… federal Liberal Senator. We’ll not talk about the Cory Bernardi thing with you. It’s obviously done and dusted. We really…
SERENA RYAN: And it’s not worth the oxygen.
PETE DILLON: No. Really grateful for your time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The really important thing is the Liberal Party pre-selected me again, as well.
PETE DILLON: Well, congratulations.
SERENA RYAN: This is a very good thing and we do wish you the best of luck, you know? You’re a rare bird, so, you know, well done and we hope you continue to push our marriage equality. Thanks for joining us.
PETE DILLON: And we are very grateful for your time. Thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks very much. A pleasure.
SERENA RYAN: What a very nice man!
PETE DILLON: He’s marvellous.
SERENA RYAN: He is. We’re just waving him off now as we speak.
PETE DILLON: Thanks, Simon.