MICHAEL DONATO: On the phone with us now is our special guest, Liberal Senator for South Australia Simon Birmingham. Simon is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and the Murray-Darling Basin. Welcome to the program.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening. Good to be with you.
MICHAEL DONATO: Now, marriage equality or gay marriage has been placed back on the political agenda here in Australia after the passage of the Marriage Amendment Act in New Zealand [Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013]. Your Leader, Tony Abbott, has signalled that the Coalition members may be allowed a conscience vote on the matter after this current term of Parliament. My question to you is, if this were to go to a vote in the current Parliamentary term, is there anything other than Tony Abbott’s personal views on the matter holding Coalition members back from voting in support of marriage equality?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, this has already been to a vote in the current term of the Parliament and it’s been voted on in both Houses and was resoundingly defeated in both Houses and the position that Tony and the Coalition took was that there had been a clear policy position given at the last election which was to oppose same-sex marriage, or changes to the Marriage Act definition in that sense, and that we should stick by that policy through the life of this Parliament. Now, what Tony, importantly, has flagged is that in the next Parliament it will be open for debate as to whether the Liberal Party changes its policy and adopts a conscience vote and that is a change in position that I warmly welcome.
MICHAEL DONATO: Yes, you’re on the record as supporting marriage equality. Moving on now to education… on Friday we saw the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, fail to secure support, for the school funding overhaul, from state premiers, both Labor and Liberal, at the COAG [Council of Australian Governments] meeting. Under her model, the Government is offering the states $14.5 billion in school funding. She wants state Education budgets to increase by 3 per cent a year in return for a greater 4.7 per cent lift in federal money. How will the Coalition’s plan for Education differ from what is being proposed by the Government?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Coalition firstly wants to see what happens with this plan because obviously we don’t want to come to government and turn on its head education funding arrangements around Australia, so we’re going to take a sensible approach to this. We note that, of course, Julia Gillard went into the Friday meeting of the heads of Commonwealth Governments and not a single premier or territory chief minister signed onto the deal. Labor or Liberal, they all said it needed more work and that’s the concerning thing – that school funding is very important and it’s a real worry that the Government appears to have gone about such a shambolic process on this that they can’t get any of the states to initially sign up to their reform. Now, we are of course, like everybody, for more school funding – that’s like saying you’re for motherhood; everybody wants to see more money invested in education if possible – but it’s got to be sensible and it’s got to be affordable and it’s got to be done in the right way and, as many South Australians would know, there are some real concerns that the model on the table at present, frankly, disadvantages South Australia, so a Coalition approach will be to see whether Julia Gillard can get a deal on this. If she can, then we’ll assess the merits of that deal and make adjustments on that basis. If she can’t, then we’ll start from the premise of the existing schools funding formula and work on how that can be best improved within reasonable and affordable timeframes.
MEGAN APONTE-PAYNE: Simon, it’s Megan here. I wanted to direct a question to you in your capacity as the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin. Now, a bit of the age old question, I guess, of, you know, the Government’s restricted water access to pastoralists and irrigators. I think the Murray-Darling was about 10 per cent of its capacity. Now, obviously, you know, they’re upset with these restrictions but, with the Murray being as low as it is, is it not justifiable that we should be looking at distributing the water to a majority of the people and ensuring its long term sustainability?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it’s vital that we ensure the Murray-Darling Basin Plan adopted by the Parliament in a bipartisan spirit earlier this year is successfully implemented. The Murray-Darling has been mismanaged for much of the last hundred years and those of us in South Australia, at the tail end, have seen the effects of that very much in terms of the impact on water quality and salinity and a range of other factors. This is now a very bipartisan reform and a welcome reform in the sense that the process to fix the Murray was started by the Howard Government. John Howard said ‘enough of the states bickering, we should have a national plan, we should take over those powers and we should fund significant reform to get more water back into the system to the tune of some $10 billion’. Some five, six years later the federal Labor Government have finally delivered on some of those reforms and got a Murray-Darling Basin Plan through the Parliament. All of those steps have been bipartisan and I look forward, if we are successful at the election later this year, to playing a role in ensuring now that that Plan is successfully implemented and that we do give the Murray-Darling a more sustainable basis to operate not just for the environment, not just for the water security of Adelaide, but importantly for the many food producers in all of the states of the Murray-Darling up and down the system who grow food in Australia for consumption in Australia and for export to the rest of the world.
RAFFAELE PICCOLO: Simon, it’s Raffaele here, a Gawler boy like yourself but one of the issues I want to bring up is the current case, or case that’s coming, in front of the ICJ [International Court of Justice] with regards to whaling and the Japanese whaling. That’s kind of gone off the radar. When that case does come to be heard and if the case is made out in favour of Australia, will you be seeking enforcement of that case?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Raffaele, thanks very much for the question. I would fully expect that, if Australia is successful in that… that we would want to see that judgment upheld and that we would be urging the Japanese Government to respect the decisions of the International Court of Justice in that regard, so this is a very important matter; it’s been a long time coming; it’s something that the Government promised some time ago; they took a while to start it off and the wheels of justice turn rather slowly but we will see that case heard, as I understand it, in a few months’ time and that will be quite important. Whaling’s one of those issues that… you can put it in your diary – it dominates the news headlines in late December and through January, usually, when the whaling season is in full throttle and then it goes a little bit quiet in the Australian context but the bipartisan position of opposing whaling, of making strong positions clear to the Japanese Government, is very strong and, if this court case is successful, given the millions of dollars that the Government have invested in it we would hope that the findings of it will be upheld.
RAFFAELE PICCOLO: So, if the Japanese, I suppose, don’t abide by the decision, can we expect anything to be done on the part of Australia to enforce that decision?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That is something that I’d have to look a little more closely at as to just what powers the Court has in that regard. Japan are a party to these proceedings and so they have gone into these proceedings willing to, it would seem, accept the judgment of the Court and I hope that that’s what they will do. Obviously, were Japan to thumb their nose at a verdict, then we would be looking at using the powers of the International Whaling Commission and whatever appropriate measures we can. Obviously our diplomatic relationship with Japan is very important, our trade relationship with Japan is crucially important, and Australia shouldn’t cut its nose off to spite its face, as such, in these matters but we should be working very hard to make sure that appropriate pressure is put on Japan and I would expect that, as good international citizens in all other ways really aside from this whaling issue, Japan would accept hopefully the ruling of the Court.
MICHAEL DONATO: Okay, it’s Michael here again. I just wanted to ask you a question about an incident that took place at a gala dinner early this week. We Tony Abbott’s policy director, or former policy director now, Dr Mark Roberts, threaten to either cut the throat of a particular person or the organisation that he heads up, that person and that organisation being the… sorry, let me just get it…
MEGAN APONTE-PAYNE: The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation?
MICHAEL DONATO: Yep, that’s right, which is headed up by Andrew Penfold. Do you think Tony Abbott did the right thing in demoting Dr Roberts or should he have gone further and actually sacked him from his staff?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think it’s important that there was a very clear penalty in place. In the end, Tony has to manage his office as he sees appropriate and, in this regard, he has demoted the staff member in question; he is working through the processes to ensure that that demotion isn’t just a stripping of title, it involves a loss of salary as well; and it’s safe to say that, given he’s been publicly named across the country, he has paid a very high penalty in terms of reputational loss as well for this indiscretion but, look, I tend to work on the basis that ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ in these instances and we all make mistakes and we all hope that, when we make mistakes, we can be granted a second chance. We have to pay the price for our mistakes, though, and in this instance the staff member is [unclear] a serious price to his reputation, to his position in Tony’s office and to his income but, equally, he’s going to get at least a chance to redeem himself, albeit in a less important role and that’s probably a reasonable outcome from a very sorry incident.
MICHAEL DONATO: Senator Simon Birmingham, it’s been great having you on the program. Thank you so much for your time and we look forward to talking with you again soon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure. Thanks, guys, any time.