PETER VAN ONSELEN: I’m joined here in the Sky News studio by Labor’s Bruce Hawker… can we still call you Labor’s Bruce Hawker after you were backing Kevin Rudd and not the Prime Minister?
BRUCE HAWKER: A bit of a Labor outsider in some parts of Canberra but, yeah, still loyal.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Good to have you on board… and former Howard Government frontbencher Ross Cameron, thanks for your company as well.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Ross, let me come straight to you and ask you… I know that I was only just making you aware of this before but it’s been breaking news online on The Australian‘s website – shameless plug… James McGrath, the campaign manager for the LNP [Liberal National Party of Queensland] up at the recent state election where they had such a thumping victory is… well, he hasn’t announced it as such but it has been declared that he’s having a run or a tilt at Peter Slipper’s seat… I almost called it his former seat… on behalf of the LNP against Mal Brough.
BRUCE HAWKER: I think probably Mal Brough has got his own issues at the moment with that litigation that seems to be floating around in the background involving [James] Ashby and Peter Slipper. There might be a little bit of insurance work going on there in case that blows up in Brough’s face.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, I’m glad you mention that because apparently there is some suggestion that more information on this case would be coming out roughly one week before this pre-selection is my understanding so maybe James McGrath knows something that we don’t.
BRUCE HAWKER: He may well and, you know, he might just be there because, if Brough for some reason falls over, they’ve got a candidate who, you know, has got some street cred at the moment who would be a formidable candidate in that seat and, you know, you would have to expect that he would win that seat, whoever the Liberals pre-select there are most likely going to win that seat…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, Ross Cameron, you were saying when we were off air that this is the first panel you’ve been on where it’s stacked in the Liberals’ favour so let’s prove you right and let’s bring Simon Birmingham, Tony Abbott’s frontbencher out of Adelaide, into the panel. Simon, thanks for your company.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: This is Showdown so let’s just cut straight to it. Who’s the better candidate – Mal Brough or James McGrath?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I know them well but I’ve got to say I know James better. I’ve known James a long time. He’s a first rate candidate. He’s a first rate guy. He’s got some street cred, as Bruce just said, on the political side but he’s also got a really good policy brain on his shoulders.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So you’re backing him?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I don’t get a vote so I’ll leave that to the pre-selectors but, as I’m saying, very clearly…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But if you did… if you did… seriously, if you got a vote…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, if I got a vote, I’d talk to them both and treat them fairly but you can tell from my comments I know James, I like James, I think James will do a first rate job for the Liberal Party and he is a candidate for the Party’s future who definitely has his best years ahead of him and brings some worldly skills to the Federal Parliament, if he gets there, that we would really benefit from.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, there you go. I mean, Ross Cameron, you’re a former politician but it sounds like Simon Birmingham’s all but calling Mal Brough a ‘has been’.
ROSS CAMERON: Well, Simon Birmingham’s expressing a personal view. I mean, he says he doesn’t even really know Mal Brough so, you know, I mean… but…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Let’s not put words in my mouth too much, Peter!
ROSS CAMERON: … I have a high regard for Simon’s judgement and I’m thrilled to see we’ve got two outstanding candidates and it looks to me like we’ll have two seats – Fairfax and Fisher – needing a great candidate and so maybe we’ll wind up with both of them.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, we might have two Liberals on the program – one out of Adelaide and one here in you, Ross Cameron – but, I tell you what, don’t try to make a political comeback because you’re not likely to get the support of Simon Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ross is a great man… couldn’t criticise Ross at all!
ROSS CAMERON: Thank you, Simon.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me bring you in, Bruce Hawker. Let me just, yes, change the subject entirely. We’ll move on to the big national issues of the week and likely the months ahead – I mean, at the end of the day, the standoff on refugees and obviously the carbon tax. Now, Bruce, the carbon tax… we’ve seen some theatrics – let’s put it that way – by Craig Emerson. Look, at the end of the day, strategy is what you do. I mean, it strikes me that, strategically, it is the wrong play by the Labor Party to try to mock Tony Abbott over his inflated rhetoric. I’m the first person to agree that it’s been inflated but, at the end of the day, shouldn’t it be commentators doing that or strategists like yourself, not MPs and Ministers and indeed the Treasurer on Twitter, the Prime Minister, Craig Emerson… it strikes me that this is silly strategy.
BRUCE HAWKER: Look, I wouldn’t do it, frankly, if I was asked to and I think he was poorly advised to do that for the reasons that you’ve enunciated and, let’s face it, he hasn’t got a very good voice either so, look, none of it really gelled as far as I was concerned and it really, I think, probably gave an opportunity to our opponents to, you know, take something of a moral high ground on the issue and I don’t think they’re in a position to take the moral high ground on it so I wouldn’t advise it.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I’ve been told that the Prime Minister’s office approved this. Now, I don’t know if that’s scuttlebutt as per internal politics of the Labor Party but I heard they at least knew about it beforehand.
BRUCE HAWKER: I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I think, though, that everyone should put that down in a little box and say ‘let’s not try that one again, it doesn’t work’ and, frankly, there are, you know, much more serious ways of engaging on an issue like this where, you know, the danger for anyone doing that is that it looks like you’re making fun of a lot of concerns that people have and I don’t think you should do that. In fact, but can I just say this about Craig. You know, no one goes into bat more relentlessly for Labor in very difficult circumstances than he does so, you know, this is a one off incident but, you know better than anybody else, every day he’s up there taking, you know, the fast and high balls and dodging and ducking and weaving and trying to hit a few, so he deserves credit for being somebody who’ll have a go because a lot of people in politics will stand back when the going gets tough and say ‘oh, no, I’ll leave it for somebody else to do’.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, well, a quick free kick for you, Simon Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Bruce knows from the leadership challenge earlier this year that Craig was out there as Julia Gillard’s spokesman, day in day out, so I suspect he wouldn’t be doing much without it being run past her or her office but, I mean, the whole thing is, frankly, insulting. Whyalla’s part of my electorate as a Senator for SA. The people there have genuine concerns. Those concerns shouldn’t be mocked. Those concerns should be respected.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But, by the same token, Simon Birmingham, they probably shouldn’t be frightened… have the bejesus frightened out of them by Tony Abbott and, it has to be said, union leaders by suggesting that they’re going to be wiped off the face of the map. I mean, it’s about balance on both sides.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And, Peter, I think that’s just it. You’ve picked up that the ‘wipe off the face of the map’ comment was, in fact, from Wayne Hanson, the state secretary in South Australia of the Australian Workers’ Union, not Tony Abbott’s quote, but, that aside, Whyalla…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Sure, but Tony Abbott took up the cudgel and ran with it, didn’t he?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Whyalla… and Tony and I have visited Whyalla and we’ve talked to local people so we’ve actually been on the ground without having singing, dancing or hysterics… we’ve talked to them and they understand that if they hadn’t got a $60+ million bailout under the Steel Transformation Fund, OneSteel’s operations in Whyalla would be in serious jeopardy and there’s a question for the long term about OneSteel as to whether that sort of funding will be available in the future to keep their operations going there, so let’s not say that Whyalla is out of the woods because it’s now a couple of days into July. Whyalla and OneSteel have got some real challenges under the carbon tax for a long time into the future.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let’s move onto the asylum seeker issue. In contrast to Craig Emerson, there’s no jokes on this one.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Ross Cameron, what’s going on here with human rights suddenly being the issue that the Liberal Party’s got a problem with vis-à-vis Malaysia? You were part of the Government, along with Tony Abbott, that was prepared to countenance Nauru when they hadn’t signed on, just like Malaysia hasn’t now.
ROSS CAMERON: Well, the difference with Nauru is, whether or not they sign the convention [1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees], it was going to be Australians running the program to Australian standards and it’s not just human rights, the issue here. I mean, the Malaysia solution, so called solution, has always been regarded by the Coalition as a dud deal and I think an ordinary person of good faith who hears the deal is they take…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: The Secretary of the Department [of Immigration and Citizenship] thinks it would work.
ROSS CAMERON: Oh, well, the Secretary of the Department also was the one who advised on the original Malaysia solution which the High Court tore into a hundred tiny pieces. The Secretary of the Department is kind of obliged to uphold the policy of the Government of the day. Now, what… Abbott made a number of significant concessions. He said ‘I would support a measure that took the total humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 20,000’. He said ‘I want Nauru in the mix’ but he said ‘I will support processing at any centre which is a signatory to the Convention,’ giving the Government a wider range of choice so I felt that was a material act of good faith.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me bring in Simon Birmingham. Look, before we get to the actual issue of the day I just want to ask you a question. You’re a Liberal moderate and not like Ross over here who’s part of the hard right of the Liberal Party… maybe not the hard right, but certainly the right. Let me just ask you straight up. You weren’t in Parliament during the 2001 Tampa standoff. Would you have been able to sit back and support the suite of measures that the Coalition went with at that time?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, I’ve got to say they didn’t always sit comfortably with me. Now, would I have been able to…? You know, that’s ten years ago – who knows? – but certainly they haven’t always sat comfortably with me but I can now recognise that, when it boils down, they worked in terms of stopping arrivals, or at least they contributed to a stopping of arrivals and I think everybody acknowledges that. The thing that baffles me today is that many of the same people emailing me and criticising Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party for not accepting the Malaysia solution are the very same people who a few years ago were attacking John Howard and the Liberal Party for any notion of offshore processing and wanted it taken off the table. Now, the Liberal Party has stayed firm in what it believes is an appropriate policy. We’ve offered, as Ross said, some concessions to try to get an outcome on this but the Labor Party have shifted from A to Z on this in terms of where their position is and they’re the ones, really, who should be looking long and hard at whether Malaysia is suitable to be on the table, given all they’ve said, and I think, when you boil it down, there’s a simple question that needs to be answered here – how do you stop people risking their lives at sea with the least possible impact on their human rights and their rights at land? – and I think, in the end, Malaysia is not that because there is a failure in terms of the safeguards in terms of Australia’s capacity to guarantee their protection and their rights. Nauru, with other processes and particularly TPVs [temporary protection visas] in place, has that capacity where Australia can at least guarantee the safety, the health, the education standards et cetera that you would expect while people are dealt with.
BRUCE HAWKER: But there’s very real contradiction in Tony Abbott’s position here. On the one hand he says ‘I couldn’t countenance Malaysia because it’s not a signatory to the refugee convention’…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You’re talking about tow backs.
BRUCE HAWKER: … and yet they’re going to tow them back to Indonesia? President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is right here in the country right now. It’d be interesting to see what he’s said to Tony Abbott about that because there is a contradiction in all that and it just goes to my point about I don’t think he really wants to find a solution.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And, Bruce, there’s a difference between turning a boat back to country from which it has come and picking somebody up and sending them off to another country to go at the back of a line of refugees where they may never make it to the front of the line and resettlement.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I am loathe to jump in but I have to because unfortunately I’m right out of time and I’ve got a pre-recorded interview that we’re about to show up next with the Tibetan Prime Minister [in exile] so, gentlemen, as fiery as this is, thank you for your company unfortunately.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Bruce Hawker, Ross Cameron and, joining us out of Adelaide, Simon Birmingham, thanks for your company as well.