PETER VAN ONSELEN: You get media releases all the time from politicians. Sometimes they’re interesting; 99.9 per cent of the time they are not. An example of one that’s not, from the Greens, that came in yesterday: they welcome Rio’s attempt to protect the new crab. God, who cares? Let’s be honest. I mean, that’s the kind of press release that is a waste of paper that you would think that the Greens would be well aware of, but a more interesting press release that actually did come through today… it’s a bit of a Dorothy Dixer question for our next guest, which is Senator Simon Birmingham from the Opposition front bench… Senator, thanks for your company.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening, Peter. Good to be with you.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: A press release that came through from Simon today: Taxpayers still owed millions of dollars over home insulation. It’s an interesting point, where he goes through a whole range of issues where, in fact, there are installers and so forth that actually still owe money back to the Government. Senator, I’ll just ask you to take us through the details.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right, Peter, I’m sure many people would think and would, indeed, have hoped that this whole sorry saga of the home insulation scheme was over but yet it continues to drag along – the $2½ billion Home Insulation Program that was originally so botched up under the Rudd Government the clean up of it continues to be botched up under the Gillard Government, so…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Yeah, but it wasn’t your political lines that I thought were the good part of the press release – it was the detail of the outstanding money. There’s letters of demand to installers and so forth… jump on from there… that have got millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money that’s still owing.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there are three categories of demand that have gone out. There, indeed, is around $25/$26 million of taxpayer funds still to be recovered under this program and they’ve gone to invoice companies that they think are still in operation – around 2000 invoices have been sent out to those companies. The Government has also gone out to administrators of now defunct insulation companies, trying to chase debts there and, indeed, for what was meant to be an industry assistance program, they are bizarrely chasing down debts for that industry assistance program as well, of people who managed to get their hands on money that they weren’t entitled to or eligible to, but the thing about all of this is most of the invoices went out in March of last year, so we all know, if you put an invoice out and it’s not paid within a year, you’re going to have a hard time…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You’re not getting the money back, it’s that simple.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … getting that money back.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You’re not getting the money back. Now, you found this out in Senate Estimates just today, was it? Yesterday. Sorry, yesterday?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It was actually yesterday that we found it out, Peter, but… so that’s right – $25 million that was wrongly given out by the Government to insulation companies who either put in dodgy insulation or just didn’t, of course, put it in in the first place and wrongly claimed it. Most of that money just won’t be recovered and it’s vanished into people’s pockets right around the country.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now, something that’s not in the press release is: were there any questions there to the relevant people appearing before the Estimates [committee] about the likelihood of it coming back, even in percentage terms, or, because it’s a year on, as you say, since the letters of demand were sent out, is the assumption that there’s not even going to be a 10 per cent or a 20 per cent recovery… this is worse than the bond holders of Greece?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, what we did establish is that the Government is basically to the point of giving up on its own capacity to get the money back and is negotiating with a debt collection agency now, so how much of it we’re going to get back from that is anybody’s guess and the Government couldn’t give us any exact estimates or figures. They claim to be in the final stages of negotiations with the debt collection agency but that’s where we’re up to, it seems, under this Government at present – we have a department of Environment engaging debt collection agencies to try to get money back off of people that the Government gave to them in the first place.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, well it’s not often that MPs write press releases that are interesting but well done on that one.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: A question that may not be as interesting – gay marriage. Now, you have come out publicly [Peter clarifies below] which, let’s face it, as a Liberal moderate is a good thing in my view and you are in favour of gay marriage. You’ve done that where most of your colleagues probably aren’t – certainly, the conservative wing of the party is unlikely to be in favour of it. Now, we also have a situation that’s developed now where Tony Abbott has made it clear to his front bench – and you’re a member of that – that he expects them to vote as a bloc because there is a commitment from the last election that the Coalition would not support an adjustment to the Marriage Act. Now, that puts you in a bit of a bind, doesn’t it? It forces you to essentially vote against something that you believe in?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Peter, we have a process to go through in the Coalition and in the Coalition party room. We haven’t seen legislation be brought to that party room as yet. As you well know, the legislation’s [Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 and Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012] only just been introduced in the last couple of days in relation to same-sex marriage, so it will come to the Coalition party room – that’s where I’ve indicated that I’ll get to have my say and my firm belief, as I’ve said on the record before, is that this should be a matter of conscience vote. It should be a conscience vote across both parties but, in particular, it should be one in the Liberal Party and a few reasons for that – firstly, because I think it is the type of issue on which so many views are informed by people’s religious, moral or ethical considerations, that really these are the types of issues that should be considered as a conscience vote but, secondly, because the traditions of the Liberal Party are that we have always granted all of our Members greater freedoms than does the Labor Party – we, of course, do that on every single vote…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay, but let’s cut to the chase on this issue here, Mr Birmingham. I mean, the reality is that Tony Abbott is expecting his front bench to vote as a bloc to honour an election commitment from the last election. Whatever the design of the legislation that gets put forward, in essence you support the concept of gay marriage. Now, those two things don’t go together – it’s a square hole, round block. What do you do?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, it’s not an easy situation – I don’t dispute that. Tony, indeed, is trying to honour his word to the last election and I absolutely respect him for wanting to do that…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But what about your word to your own personal beliefs, though? This is a tough one.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is a tough one and, in the end, I’ll make my decisions when matters come before the party room as to the argument I take to our party room and, ultimately, to the Senate, if and when we see a vote brought on in the Senate, at some stage this year but, look, I think, you know, this is an issue that there are many passionate views about. It’s also an issue that a large proportion of Australians aren’t terribly fussed about either way, and that’s probably the bulk of all Australians, but for those extreme views of either side, the one appeal I’d make is, let’s have a sensible debate this year and let’s have not… one that doesn’t involve slanging at each other but, you know, I’ll be taking my views, as I’ve made clear before, to the party room and I’ll be having my debate there and then we’ll see where that goes once the party room’s formalised the Coalition position.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, but just between you and me, I mean, what’s your position likely to be going in there? I mean, the reality is that you’ve cone out… I mean, it must have… by the way, my producer told me that when I said you came out it sounded like I might have accidentally accused you of being gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that but, you know, your personal life’s your own business. I was referring to the fact that you came out in favour of the concept of gay marriage but, on this issue, doing that, you were one of the few Liberals that actually did that, in the process of this debate late last year. Now, having done that, is this something… let me come at this another way… is this an issue that you would be prepared to resign from the front bench over or would you rather be in a situation where Tony Abbott as Leader perhaps gave you the grace to do what Liberals sometimes are allowed to do and cross the floor? My suspicion is you’d do the latter because you’re seen as a bit of a rising star in the Liberal Party, might I say?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think it’s safe to say that, given those two options, I would rather have the latter and that’s the question you put to me – that I would… which would I rather and I would rather, of course, this to be a conscience vote and that’s primarily what I’ve argued for. I think that’s the important threshold question for the Liberal Party to debate. I don’t think we should any more tie our Members in one direction than we should in the other. I hope that we can still achieve that but I understand Tony’s argument and it is an important one about wanting to honour his word to the electorate and so we’ve got to work through those competing issues of there being a diversity of views but the Liberal Party has often been described as a broad church. Some, like yourself sometimes, criticise it as not being broad enough. Well, hopefully I’m living proof that we are still a broad church and that we can have these debates but do them sensibly and constructively.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, as long as you’re allowed to cross the floor and don’t get dumped from the front bench, I’ll agree with you on that but we’ve only got a little over a minute on program so let me give you the free kick on your view on how the things are going on the Labor side. I asked Barnaby Joyce this same question: what’s more likely to happen, do you think – a Kevin Rudd return to the leadership or the Liberal Party deliver a surplus as promised?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I can tell you on the surplus front, if Wayne Swan is telling the truth, then the Liberal Party will be delivering a surplus in its first year in government because he’s claiming the books are all looking good, on track to go into surplus before we get there.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But… I love it the way the Liberals do that because you don’t think that he’s telling the truth on this. I mean, Liberals say that in media conferences all the time yet at the same time you rely on that, or at least Joe Hockey does, when trying to say that the surplus will be achieved as the Opposition claims.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And this, of course, is the problem trying to predict what we will do ahead of the election campaign when we see the final state of the books so, of course, until you know whether Wayne Swan has told the truth, for the next six months, 12 months, 18 months, depending on how long it is until we have an election, we can’t possibly forecast how bad the budget will look at that stage but thankfully the Howard Government passed the Charter of Budget Honesty. It means the books have to be thrown open before the campaign, or at the beginning of the campaign, and that means that we will be able to lay out costings to say we will bring the budget back to surplus if, indeed, it is still in deficit, as I suspect it will be under the Labor Government, or, if it is in surplus, we can forecast how big our surpluses may be but, you know, in the end, Wayne Swan is the current Treasurer; if he is claiming it’s going back into surplus, well then we’ll keep it in surplus – I’ve got no doubt about it – but if it’s in deficit, then we’ll tell you how long it will take to get it back to surplus but we’ll get there.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, Senator Simon Birmingham, I’ve got zeroes across the clock on the top, we are out of time, producers are screaming at me, I appreciate you joining us on Showdown, thanks for your company.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Peter. Thanks, mate.