KIERAN GILBERT: We’re now going to cross to Adelaide – Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham, spokesman for the Coalition on Murray-Darling and [in the Senate – see below] Communications. Senator, thanks for your time. First of all, can I get your thoughts on this [Australia21] report and the prominent Australians calling for a rethink on the war on drugs, saying that it’s failed – the former Liberal Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, among the signatories to this report. What do you make of it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, good morning, Kieran, and good morning to the viewers. Look, I will obviously have a look at the report during the course of the day. I’ve seen some of the news speculation and some of the commentary this morning but I think what’s important to be clear about here is that the Coalition has a track record of always being tough on drugs. It’s been a consistent message and, frankly, it’s a message that actually did work while we were in government because, during the time we were in government, between 1998 and 2004 we saw a significant drop in terms of the number of people who partook in illicit drug use, so we actually saw a decline during that period of government. Unfortunately and regrettably, the Labor Government have cut a number of those programs that were funded under the Tough on Drugs program but we want to see a clear message – and we think it’s important that politicians and governments stick to a clear message – that drug use, illicit drug use, is unacceptable, that we will be tough on it but we will, of course, back it up as well with appropriate rehabilitation services and education services to make sure we help those who do fall into this unfortunate trap.
KIERAN GILBERT: What do you think about the suggestion, though, that too many resources are focused on minor infringements – sniffer dogs put at railway stations to track down marijuana and so on when the focus should be on bigger problems, bigger drug issues?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There’s obviously a policing issue here and an enforcement issue as to where you balance up the resources. At the federal level, of course, much of our resources are naturally put into stopping drug smuggling and those big picture things that try to break and smash the supply chains and they’re very critical and that’s obviously where a lot of federal resources need to go. For the state jurisdictions, there are genuine questions there as to how they get that balance right between enforcement against users, as such, and enforcement against suppliers and I think all Australians would genuinely think that the focus needs to be on smashing the drug rings, focusing on suppliers, breaking down the supply chains and helping users to rehabilitate and get themselves back on track.
KIERAN GILBERT: Before we get to your area of responsibility in Communications and on the Murray-Darling, I do want to ask you one other issue before we move there. On Fair Work Australia, this report out… apparently the Fair Work Australia findings possibly as early as today, sometime this week but, regardless of the outcome, it’s unlikely, isn’t it, to affect this Parliament?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, obviously we want to see the report and the key thing for the Government here and for Fair Work Australia is, if this report is finished, then one of two things needs to happen. It either needs to be released publicly immediately or, if prosecution is to be pending, it needs to be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions immediately. We’ve had three years of this saga dragging out. We have a Government that is being propped up by a Member of Parliament who is under serious question here. We have an independent agency whose independence and whose work has been called into question because of the length of time that’s been taken because of apparent communications between the Prime Minister’s office and this agency previously. We need to see some progress on this so today we look forward, hopefully, to an announcement. Let’s see some progress here. Let’s see the report released or let’s see prosecutions start to take place.
KIERAN GILBERT: Another long running issue is the Australia Network tender. As the Shadow spokesman in this area [in the Senate – see immediately below], you’ve been critical of the way the Government’s managed this but do you support the payment of compensation to Sky News for the costs incurred?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, firstly, I shouldn’t let you promote me too much. Malcolm Turnbull’s the Shadow Communications Minister but I’ve followed this issue, as a Senator who handles Communications matters in the Senate, closely from day one. This is an outrageous abuse. Now, Sky News [Australian News Channel Pty Ltd], of course, along with the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], were dragged through a tender process by a Government that obviously, in the end, had no intention of it being a fair tender process so there’s no doubt that Sky are probably entitled to compensation but it’s disappointing that taxpayers again are having to pick up the tab for the bungling of this Labor Government. We have a situation here where a tender either didn’t have to be undertaken in the first place – the Government could have just given this contract straight to the ABC, which is what they ended up doing – or, if you were going to have a tender, it should have been an open, fair tender whereas, instead, this Government seems to have corrupted the process, on two occasions found reasons to reject the findings of its independent tender assessment panel. That’s just not good enough. I look forward to the release of the Auditor-General’s report today. I hope that we will see, as a result of that, at the very least some public apologies from this Government but, frankly, there are some real questions here as to whether heads should be rolling over such a botched tender process that is leaving taxpayers picking up the bill.
KIERAN GILBERT: And, finally, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority hearings head to Adelaide today – your home town. It’s going to be a very different sentiment to that which we’ve seen at other gatherings, other public meetings further up the river.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It no doubt will be, Kieran. I’ve attended many of these public meetings, interstate as well as in South Australia, but primarily they’ve all been in irrigation communities. Today it’s being held in Adelaide. Obviously there is a different perspective right at the bottom end of the system about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan but what we’ve seen under this Government, unfortunately, is that the reform agenda has really gone off the rails. We have reports today of the Victorian Government threatening to pull out and the South Australian Government threatening to pull out. We’ve got reports of different State Governments, environmental groups and irrigators all threatening High Court challenges over this Plan. This is such an important area of reform that I think we really need to get it back on track. We need to see what’s been 120 years of argument – between the states about the management of the Murray-Darling – brought to an end and I hope that, during the course of this year, the Government can get this back and track and we can get a fair and effective Plan that’s based on the best available science and evidence that can manage our most important river system sustainably into the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, Senator Simon Birmingham, covering a few issues there. I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for that.