Topics: Child abuse in Alice Springs; The Voice; 

09:20AM AEDT
Friday, 14 April 2023


Laura Jayes: Welcome back. Sky News has just revealed the shocking extent of child abuse in the Northern Territory as the issue became a political football in Alice Springs this week. Peter Dutton has called for a royal commission into child abuse. His political opponents in the NT Government called that a dog act. As if the stories of young children, sometimes babies, isn’t enough. Now we have evidence Mat Cunningham has just revealed that the instance of child abuse in the Northern Territory is five times higher in the Territory than the rest of the country. Joining me live now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. He joins us from Adelaide. This has been a red hot issue this week and it seems that there is politics being played on this. Simon Birmingham, why isn’t this the priority?


Simon Birmingham: Well LJ, this should be the priority. And frankly, it was shameful to see the reaction of the Labor Party yesterday that suggested they somehow had their heads buried in the sand when it comes to this far too tragic issue. Now I don’t want to play politics with it and I hope that they can put the politics aside and we can put the politics aside and people can focus on the issue, which is the extent to which there is sexual abuse, assault and violence. The type of activities in Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory that have been going on for far too long. Got worse when alcohol restrictions were removed. Are driven by a range of different abuses of alcohol, of drugs, of gambling, of different gambling technologies, a range of different factors that have been at play. But these are a known scourge and shame on our nation. And they ought to be an ongoing focus of governments. Nobody pretends that the solutions to the areas of dysfunction are easy, but the problems are real. People speak of them honestly. Peter Dutton has spent time in those communities to his credit, and it was amazing to see people seek to politicise him simply stating the facts yesterday.


Laura Jayes: And a royal commission is required in your view?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve had royal commissions over recent times into, frankly, far less serious matters than what we’ve seen in relation to the rate of abuse and the endemic nature of some of these issues, too. So again, as I said, I’m not pretending this is an overnight problem that’s only arisen under the Albanese Government. Yes, it got worse when the alcohol restrictions were lifted, and we ultimately saw the Prime Minister have to put some Band-Aids and backflips in place on that. But this is an enduring problem and indeed it’s an intergenerational problem nowadays. And so it really does deserve the highest level of consideration and thought.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, I agree with you. And you’re right to point out that we’ve had royal commissions into things that seem far more frivolous than the issue confronting the Northern Territory and confronting all of us. I’ve heard it said behind closed doors that the NT Government believe they have a PR problem, not an actual problem. I mean, who’s going to do something about this? Anthony Albanese needs to step in here, doesn’t he?


Simon Birmingham: Well, he does. He ought to show far more leadership on these issues than has been the case. Yes, he visited Alice Springs, but all too briefly. Simply to put in place essentially a form of semi restoration of alcohol restrictions that were in place previously. But there needs to be much deeper analysis of these issues, and he needs to show leadership, especially given what we’ve seen in terms of the reaction in the Northern Territory over the last 24 hours or so. And that shows that people aren’t willing to face up to the problems. And if people on the ground locally, in terms of leaders locally of the government in place there in the Northern Territory at present aren’t willing to face up to the problems, then that’s a reason why the Prime Minister should step in and make sure that they have to face up to those problems and they have to take the type of steps and actions to try to steer the change through. Of course, there are programs absolutely trying to do that already. Again, I acknowledge that the realm of different programs under the Closing the Gap initiative that our government funded, that this government is funding, they are all important measures to try to close gaps in health areas, in education areas and in areas of justice. But clearly, they’re not working sufficiently in terms of these areas that are resulting in children facing the most heinous of circumstances. And they deserve urgent effort to try to make sure if there is one gap that should be closed faster than all others around the country, it really probably should be to eliminate child sexual abuse and child violence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous families in Australia.


Laura Jayes: Yup, and Matt Cunningham brought us that data this morning. It was simply breathtaking that reporters in Alice needed some kind of data to justify this call when, you know, we’ve heard, we’ve seen the reports. Matt Cunningham just told us about a 12-year-old girl who was raped and then had a child out of that crime. Look, let’s talk about the Voice. No one’s pretending the Voice is going to fix these things. We know your position. We kind of know your position. Perhaps you can clarify that this morning. I know you’ve been on Facebook saying nuances is really difficult here, but you’ve had some of your colleagues, indeed one of your colleagues in South Australia, Alex Antic, saying that you need to step down from the front bench.


Simon Birmingham: Laura, you’ve put a few questions there. I’m not going to act contrary to the party position and the party position calls for and would give bipartisan support to constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. That’s something I’ve long supported. The Voice got added to that in the journey over the last couple of decades of debate around this topic and it’s gotten more complicated under this Government as it has taken forward a more expensive version of Voice. So, when I say there’s nuance, there genuinely is in terms of the type of Voice, how it fits into to a model of recognition. But I don’t intend to act in ways contrary to the position taken by the party. But I do hope and still hold out some faint hope that the government, through the parliamentary committee process that’s starting today, could give consideration to whether we can still have a unifying national moment around recognition of first Australians, whether there is a way to address the concerns that have been raised about the more expansive proposition for constitutional change they’ve advanced than what had previously been considered by many of the early architects and engagers on the Voice proposition, such as Greg Craven or Julian Leeser himself.

In terms of, you know, personalised calls about me or my role or the like. Look, I’ve been in politics a long time. I’ve built up those, of course, who wish to seek any opportunity to seek retribution or otherwise. And that’s up to them. I think there are many issues this country faces and many issues we face around the world at present. I’m not going to spend all of my time talking about or thinking about Voice when we’re in a situation where globally the IMF is predicting recession in parts of the world and real risks there. When households are feeling the pressures of inflation, when businesses warning that the government’s industrial relations reforms are going to be productivity sapping and hurt jobs and economic prospects for the future, let alone the range of international issues in my portfolio of foreign affairs. So, I’ve got plenty of things to do other than campaign on that. And of course, we started this conversation with the fact that there are other serious issues in Indigenous affairs where the Government needs to show that it can walk and chew gum at the same time in terms of addressing them.


Laura Jayes: So, you say you’re not going to act contrary to the party position, whatever your personal beliefs are, and you believe that is within the rules of the frontbench for the Liberal Party and the position taken in party room, does things change for you? Would things change for you if you were forced to campaign, no?


Simon Birmingham: Well, nobody is proposing that to. To my knowledge. I mean, there might be commentators or others who think that that should be some type of expectation. But as I just outlined-


Laura Jayes: And have you spoken to Peter Dutton about. That’s not the expectation of you?


Simon Birmingham: Peter and I continue to have our normal conversations as we have every single week. And so, no concerns have been raised with me about expectations that somehow I’m out there addressing rallies. I think my job as the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, first and foremost, is to hold the government to account in relation to foreign policy, to ensure we advance foreign policy in as bipartisan a way as possible in Australia in our national interest. But there’s plenty of other issues. And if anybody in this country thinks it’s wise to drop everything for the next six-nine months and focus exclusively on the voice or devote disproportionate time to campaigning on the Voice when we face real global challenges, real economic challenges, real threats from other areas of policy that this Government is implementing, such as in industrial relations, then they are deluding themselves in terms of the importance and far greater importance and relevance, frankly, of so many of those other factors.


Laura Jayes: So okay, we have the explanation. Just quickly, yes or no, you’re not even contemplating stepping down from the front bench?


Simon Birmingham: No, I have an important role to play, continuing to work as the Shadow Foreign Minister, continuing to uphold Liberal values as I see them within our leadership team, within our shadow cabinet. And it is important that people do fight for liberal values to uphold the electoral prospects of our party as a broad church in the future as well defended and defined by John Howard over many years.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.