Topic(s): Commonwealth Integrity Commission; Religious Discrimination Bill;
Laura Jayes: Joining me live now is the Government Senate Leader Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been a really long week for you I imagine. So, is that right? Is this an election promise that’s going to be broken?
Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, Laura. Good to be with you, and every parliamentary sitting week is a long week. This was a week in which we managed to extend further the business tax incentives that we’ve got as part of our economic recovery plan that are working so well in terms of driving forward business investment across the country and underpinning so many jobs. The Prime Minister also this week did as he had promised, and that was to bring religious discrimination bill to the parliament. Now parliamentary proceedings are, of course, just that the democratically elected body and it brings a lot of people of different views together and we saw that on display this week. We’ll work through the next steps as I know, the Attorney-General looks closely at the legal advice around what the amendments that were put forward mean and how they would intersect with different issues that are at play there.
Laura Jayes: So that means not before the election. Therefore promise not kept.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, the PM has worked through very carefully to ensure that we brought a religious discrimination bill to the parliament. His commitment to that was very clear it was very evident to everybody. I’m pleased that a chunk of the week was spent debating how we reduce discrimination in Australia, how we reduce discrimination against people of faith, how we reduce discrimination against children who may be of same sex relationships or children who may have different sexual orientation or indeed gender identity themselves. These are challenging debates in terms of then how you ensure the interplay between those anti-discrimination laws works in a way that respects everybody and protects everybody to the maximum extent possible. They’re not always simple when you get to the technical detail. The principles are very clear, and that is we should be reducing discrimination against everybody as much as possible. But I’ll leave it to the Attorney-General to work through the details of the laws.
Laura Jayes: I guess sitting around your kitchen table this morning, you might be saying what is so difficult about it isn’t protecting children the biggest priority here?
Simon Birmingham: Codification and putting these things into actual legal terms that don’t mean that you take away rights as you give rights is where it becomes really tricky in these areas. So that is what the AG’s worked through over a period of time. But as I said, the principles are certainly sound clear, straightforward principles from my perspective and from the government’s perspective. And this is a debate that takes a little bit longer to find the right landing point that ensures that everyone can feel their rights are respected, be they people who are caring about their rights in relation to their faith or their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Or, of course, all of the other different areas of anti-discrimination frameworks we have in relation to race, age, gender, etc. They’re all important web of rights there to be considered.
Laura Jayes: Did the Prime Minister get rolled in cabinet?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not about to go into cabinet discussions-
Laura Jayes: Thought you might say that.
Simon Birmingham: You’d not expect that I’m about to do that. It’s a pretty predictable response because that is the obligation I have as a cabinet minister.
Laura Jayes: Well, doesn’t it show- without going into any kind of cabinet confidentiality doesn’t it show that he can legislate a federal ICAC before the election, but he won’t?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we could and we would if there were clear support for the model that we have put forward, let’s be really clear on this one, Laura. We have developed the legislative framework 300+ pages of legislation for a federal integrity commission. What it does is it creates an umbrella architecture because we already have a range of different Commonwealth entities that do tackle corruption and that have responsibility there so this integrity commission would create that umbrella framework and ensure that criminal corruption was gone after through a law enforcement division and a public sector integrity division. But where we are also very clear is we are not interested in seeing the type of Star Chamber processes that, for example, the New South Wales ICAC operates under, set up that goes about destroying reputations before even finding any sense of criminal corruption occurring. We want to make sure this is a fair and legitimate process for all parties, and we are not willing to risk the situation that on the eve of an election for political point scoring purposes, the opposition or others would combine together to manipulate the model that is there. So if they’re willing to support our model that we’re proposing and put it through the parliament, it can sail through the parliament still before the next election. But if they’re not, well then we’re not going to run the risk. And people can choose between a clearly detailed model that is an anti-corruption of Commonwealth Integrity Commission body that we have established or the flimsy couple of bits of paper that is what Labor says their model is.
Laura Jayes: How can you still blame Labor, though? Don’t we now know that is a lie? The Prime Minister was willing to horse trade this to get this through if his own MPs didn’t cross the floor on religious freedom.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, again, I’m not going to talk about cabinet discussions, but the point I would emphasise there is, of course, we as a government consider what we think is the right policy in terms of the model of integrity commission and we’ve developed that. Then we consider the process in terms of legislating it and how we can have confidence that what we want to see legislated would be what is legislated. Now that’s where our, in the end, deliberations and thoughts around how we get that legislated falls down to the fact that for something as serious as this, for something that could see it used and deployed as a weapon against people in the future, rather than an integrity vehicle to uphold standards and to fight corruption, we want to make sure that the right model gets through the parliament, and the best way for that to happen is for it to have bipartisan support. That’s why the invitation is there. If Labor can come on board support, clearly the model that we have developed in the legislation we’ve got. Well, then it can go forward.
Laura Jayes: Okay. 5 MPs crossed the floor yesterday. They were put under immense pressure. There was negotiating behind the scenes. The Prime Minister himself, his principal private secretary as I understand it, Yaron Finkelstein was also involved. With these things it is a big deal to go against your party’s line. Can you guarantee that there won’t be any retribution against these five MPs?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I would certainly hope that there won’t be I trust there won’t be, I don’t expect there will be. I respect all five of them as I do all of my colleagues. You’re right, it is a big deal to make the decision to cross the floor. It’s also a decision that effectively only Liberal and National MPs in terms of the major parties have the right to do. If these had been Labor Party MPs, the retribution would be automatic. They would be expelled from the Labor Party-
Laura Jayes: Sorry to interrupt, Senator. But they were told yesterday in the height of the negotiations that if they crossed the floor, it could see the government fall and they would be responsible. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, I can’t say what every different statement that was made by individuals having conversations, but the point there is sometimes these things get a little bit untidy. And in the Liberal and National parties, we find ourselves answering these questions. Why did your member cross the floor? How did you let that happen? Isn’t that a sign of disunity? Well, it’s actually a sign of the fact that in our parties, we bring together people of diverse opinions and they don’t always agree. And they used the right that we give them sometimes to reflect their values or the views of their electorate and to cross the floor. Now, of course, we want the team to vote together as much as possible as many times as possible. But it is also a defining principle of our parties and one I will defend. And if it means a little bit of awkwardness from time to time because we lose a vote when our members actually go and exercise their right. Well, I’d still rather be us and have that right than be in the Labor Party and just have to be a muppet who does exactly what the caucus decides or face that automatic expulsion that they apply. And so that, I think is actually one of the things that when it comes back to the local electorates around the country makes us stronger as a party that whilst there are things that well and truly unite us in terms of the principles and the approach we bring to economic management, the approach we bring to national security. There are areas where our members have differing perspectives and that just reflects the communities they represent and their values.
Laura Jayes: An important message to some within your own party as well as outside this morning. Thanks for turning up, as always. Good to see you, Simon Birmingham, and it was great to see you at the National Press Club in the audience for Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins address to the NPC this week. So good on you. Thanks so much.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, L.J.