PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now, as I mentioned before the ad break, Richard Marles is caught up at the moment in divisions going on in relation to some of the media laws but we are joined, out of Canberra, by the Liberal Party Senator Simon Birmingham who is involved in the Senate committee looking at some of these media reforms. Senator, thanks very much for your company.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening, Peter and viewers.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And we’re also joined here in Sydney… I’ll go through the panel from the far end… by Mr Bentley, Peter Bentley from the McKell Institute…
PETER BENTLEY: Thanks for having me.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: … Rowan Dean, thanks very much for your company…
ROWAN DEAN: Thanks Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: … and Troy Bramston made it to the church on time – I thought you were going to be late – glad to hear.
TROY BRAMSTON: Great to be here, Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now, listen, Simon. Don’t worry, Simon, I’m not going to inflict this panel on you too much if I can avoid it, but let me ask you straight off the bat: what do you know about the resignation of the Nationals candidate for the seat of New England? Now, he was the Nationals candidate, former Independent in the New South Wales Parliament, Richard Torbay. For legal reasons, the National Party tells us that they can’t take us through why it is that he has stepped down in their statement but he’s done so. He’s resigned from the National Party as well. They tell us that it’s about some incident that predated his membership of the Nationals. What do you know about it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Very little is the easy answer there, Peter. I learnt of the news on this regard on Twitter just before I walked into the studio here, so, beyond that, I’m afraid I can’t really help you out terribly much but obviously the National Party are going to have to move fairly swiftly to get a new candidate in place there.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What kind of well briefed conservative candidate comes on live television without knowing about the breaking news of the day?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, indeed. Look, I’d usually aspire to do better, although… and I’m sure if it were Liberal pre-selection I’d know the answer.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, the answer is, in fairness to you, that you’re doing me the favour of being here, so we’ll move on, though. One quick question, actually, on this. I mean, it’s obviously embarrassing – you’d agree with that. Whatever the circumstances, they sound controversial. No doubt, in the days to come, possibly in the hours to come, we’ll find out what they are but, at the very least, this is a major setback for the conservatives who were hoping to knock off Tony Windsor in that seat of New England. To lose someone like Richard Torbay is going to make it very hard at this late stage.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, this is not ideal, that’s for sure, but there are 179 days to go until September 14, should that still be the election date, and obviously the National Party’s going to have to move very swiftly to get a candidate on the ground there and make sure they get running hard and fast and I’m sure that there are many engaged members of the National Party who’ll be eager to contest a pre-selection.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you think they can do that? You think that’s enough time for them to get someone in there and win the seat?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction that still exists in Tony Windsor’s seat and Rob Oakeshott’s seat and that that electorate dissatisfaction is there to be harnessed. In the end, these voters in these electorates understand that Tony Windsor helped keep Julia Gillard in government. By doing so, he delivered the carbon tax. By doing so, he’s helped a Government that has delivered budget deficit after budget deficit. There are the issues to focus on here and, yes, we want to make sure we give it a good local candidate who can be a good local MP for New England but we will also be fighting on very significant national issues in that electorate.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I suppose if you can change Prime Ministers this close to the election you can probably get away with changing National Party candidates in the seat of New England. Let’s move on to…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it was a lot closer to the last election they changed the PM.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: That is true. Let’s move on to media reform. Now, you’re in this Senate committee that is taking a bit of a look at this. It’s going through the Lower House as we speak. Isn’t this just typical of the Senate – you guys are sort of debating something that’s already in the process of actually happening in the real House of the people?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think that just highlights the gross haste that these reforms are being pursued with. We were asked by the Government to look at these reforms. In theory we have until June 17 to report on this but, of course, we’re scrambling to produce a report by tomorrow morning. Now, I hope that large tracts of that report are null and void in that I hope the bulk of this legislation is knocked off tonight because it’s terrible legislation drafted in a terrible hurry that is attempting to do completely unnecessary things.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Why do you think it is that Tony Abbott decided to use Question Time today to make an observation about trying to somehow tie the success or failure of the media reforms to the success or failure of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership? We’ve got some footage here of Abbott and Gillard, followed by Pyne, going on about this in Question Time today. Let’s just have a quick look and then let me ask you about it.
TONY ABBOTT: Are these bills of such importance to the Government that, if the Government fails to carry them in the House this week, she will regard that as a question of lack of confidence in her Government?
JULIA GILLARD: Let me say very clearly to the Leader of the Opposition: it will be a contest, counter-intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong, feisty woman and a policy-weak man and I’ll win it.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: The Leader of the Opposition asked a perfectly valid question. The Prime Minister answered the question and then she, as an aside, said, for some unknown reason, ‘misogynist Tony is back’. I would ask her to withdraw it because it is a slur on the Leader of the Opposition and a desperate play from a desperate Prime Minister.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I don’t think Christopher Pyne was wrong in his analysis. He just looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel. Have you seen it, Senator?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That was the first time I saw the footage then, just looking in here, and Christopher gets worked up but with good cause in the House of Reps, given the appalling behaviour of the Government. Why did Tony Abbott, to your question, raise the issue? Because it strikes at the heart of the judgement of the Prime Minister and the competence of this Government. We have a Prime Minister who has allowed her Communications Minister to go on, frankly, a flight of fancy without having laid the groundwork properly, without…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you’d want to be careful, Senator, because, if you keep pushing like this, you’re going to get Kevin Rudd coming back and the polls tell us that Labor’s primary vote shoots up to 47 per cent if Kevin Rudd comes back, so be careful what you wish for if you’re going to be attacking the Prime Minister that hard.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’ll attack the Prime Minister because she deserves to be attacked for her policy failures and for running a divided and dysfunctional Government.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Even if it results in a new leader that sees you lose the election?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister would probably be leading an even more divided and even more dysfunctional Government if we get to that stage and there’ll be plenty for us to work with there in terms of outlining the complete debacle that the last five years will have been if we get to the revolving door status but we’ll deal with whoever the Labor Party leader of the day is. That doesn’t bother the Liberal Party or the Coalition. We’re ready to run a positive campaign to highlight failures under Julia Gillard’s watch, under Kevin Rudd’s watch or, indeed, of many of the ministers like Stephen Conroy who I’m having to deal with at present on these media reforms.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Just not in the seat of New England, obviously, but let me ask you, on wider issues – you talked about divisions before – there are divisions on more of a micro-issue in the Liberal Party at the moment. Kelly O’Dwyer used a speech in Parliament to say that she is a supporter of gay marriage and, indeed, she went even further – courageous, you might call it – by saying that she also is of the view that the Liberal Party should change its policy for the next election so that it is not going into that election promising to hold a party line on this issue, that it should instead be a conscience vote in the next Parliament. Do you support that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I do, Peter, and that’s been well known for a long period of time. My position’s always been clear on this matter in terms of believing in a conscience vote, supporting change, and I respect what Kelly has done. She talked about the evolution of views within the Liberal Party. I suspect that evolution will continue over a period of time, just as it continues with the public debate.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What sort of period of time, do you think, because I’m doubtful that Tony Abbott is likely to be prepared to change this for the next Parliament from being a party vote required as opposed to a conscience vote.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, this is not an issue that I expect is going to be front and centre of the minds of people going to the ballot box this year but it’s an important issue to a particular part of the Australian electorate. We’ll have continued internal debates. The Labor Party took a long time debating this matter internally. It still has significant divisions in its ranks. We, of course, will continue to have our discussions internally and that’s certainly what I’ll keep doing.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What’s your hope? Do you think there’s much chance Kelly O’Dwyer and you are going to get your wish on this, that in the next Parliament a conscience vote would be allowed rather than a rigid party position?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m an optimist. I always hold out hope, Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, well, we’ll let you go in your optimistic state back into the Senate committee. Thanks very much for joining us, Senator. We appreciate it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, mate, any time.