26 April 2017




MATT ABRAHAM: Simon Birmingham, this time last year I think Cory Bernardi was number two on the Liberal ticket. He’s now not only leading his own party, the Australian Conservatives, he’s tired of you, but is now, according to the SMH, absorbing Family First, a takeover.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Well, I’ll let Cory Bernardi and Family First talk about their new marriage or whatever is happening there. That’s really a matter for them. I’d note if the media reports are correct that Cory and Family First are merging, but the new Family First Senator is not, so this appears to be a merger that has fallen apart already before it’s even got off the ground.

Ultimately though if we look at the history of Family First, it’s been around in Australia for about 15 years. Its vote has variously bounced between three to five per cent. It was less than three per cent at the last election. I think many people would have anticipated if Cory Bernardi was going to defect – and let’s be honest, there was a bit of speculation about that over the years – that he may have gone into Family First. But with the Bob Day difficulties there were brand issues, shall we say, around Family First and it seems as if they’ve found a different way of getting the same outcome.

ABRAHAM: Do you think they’ve abandoned Lucy Gichuhi or has she said ‘thank you but no thanks”?

BIRMINGHAM: That’s a matter for Lucy Gichuhi to have to explain that.

ABRAHAM: What does this look like?

BIRMINGHAM: Obviously she ran as a Family First candidate at the last election. It looks like she has said no, she doesn’t wish to be part of this merger. That would seem to be the case if the media reports are correct and of course given her party has chosen to merge into a different political entity then that’s within her rights, I guess, to choose not to do so.

DAVID BEVAN: Penny Wong.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I think this is all about the hard right of the Liberal Party flexing its muscles and trying to work out what’s the best way to do that. Cory’s a disgruntled Liberal, Bob Day was a disgruntled Liberal, I think this is all about them trying to work out the best way to flex their political muscles. I suspect the real target is Malcolm Turnbull and the real reason for this is about keeping Cory elected.

On Lucy Gichuhi, the Senator-elect, what I would say is I think she’s been smart enough not to go along with what is self-evidently a political game that seems to have very little to do with voters and a lot to do with political games in Canberra.

ABRAHAM: Nick Xenophon. We’ll come back to some of these issues, but Nick Xenophon, your view of this?

SENATOR NICK XENOPHON: My view is it’s going to be very tough for Lucy Gichuhi and it’s a brave new world there in the Senate if you’re a rookie. And whatever help she needs, whatever, even though we’ll have a number of policy differences, I think it’s important that she transitions into the job so she can do her job to represent South Australians that voted for Family First in the first place.

ABRAHAM: So you’ll be there for her?

BEVAN: Yeah, have you already spoken with her?

XENOPHON: No I haven’t. I met her at a Kenyan community function last year. I had a quick chat with her but I think it’s important that even crossbenchers that may disagree with each other quite a lot do try and help each other on issues of process and I think it’s important that she be given a fair go in terms of doing her job.

ABRAHAM: So Penny Wong and Simon Birmingham, when you heard there Nick Xenophon saying that she would need guidance and help, he’s there, you were both a bit of a wry smile there.

BIRMINGHAM: We’re a very collegial lot in the Senate and we will all be there to help a new colleague. That’s the approach we take.

WONG: Let’s just say Nick’s a very good operator.

BEVAN: Maybe you should be – maybe you should be courting her vote.

WONG: We’re very happy to talk to Senator Gichuhi. We’re obviously not going to agree with her on some issues and we’ll agree with her on others but I think we have been more than willing, with the exception of One Nation, to engage very closely.

BIRMINGHAM: I’ve reached out, offered congratulations to Lucy and of course in a practical sense we will help a new Senator. The Government seeks to offer certain assistance to new Senators in a very practical way. That’s been the case with previous Governments as well, there’s nothing new there in terms of trying to help crossbench Senators to effectively do their job which is a challenging role for them.

ABRAHAM: Penny Wong, the Labor Party challenged her eligibility in the High Court. It got slapped down. The High Court said Anne McEwen, former Senator, had adequate time to prepare her case and knocked it out. I’ve been told that if fresh information surfaces about her eligibility that the Labor Party may have another go at questioning that in the High Court. Is that totally out of the question?

WONG: Well that’s not something that I’m aware of. My view about it is that it is resolved. Those issues were raised and on the public record – not just by Labor but by others. It was raised before the High Court, the High Court’s made its decision.

ABRAHAM: On the information it has.

WONG: This issue of eligibility, both of, initially of Senator Day – obviously that’s been around for a long time and we didn’t want to see those issues continue. It was raised, the High Court said we’re not considering that. So I think the matter’s closed.

BEVAN: Nick Xenophon, is there any talk of fresh information?

XENOPHON: I’ve heard that there might be, but that’s a matter for those who want to test it. My view is Lucy Gichuhi is there and the presumption is that unless it’s challenged, she’ll be there until the next election. She’s only got a three year term, or effectively another two years, until July the first 2019, and that’s that.

BEVAN: Could you mount a case for the High Court, saying that Family First have been arguing for months now that they own that spot, it goes to their girl, in this case. At the same time they were negotiating to dissolve their existence. You weren’t being upfront with the High Court as you were managing this case. Could you mount a case on those grounds?

XENOPHON: I don’t pretend to be a constitutional lawyer but the vibe, the vibe, would tell me that the issue here is what is relevant at the time of nomination.

WONG: I think the points you make David are reasonable in terms of the court of public opinion.

BEVAN: Please expand.

WONG: Simply that. I think many people would look at this announcement today and think oh, we’ve just gone through this whole process. You had your first Senator who was rendered ineligible because he wanted a deal with the Government on a building. You’ve got issues that all the time you were contesting in the High Court advocating his eligibility and telling people it was okay, you were actually engaged in a backroom discussion with Cory Bernardi to dissolve your party.

BRIMINGHAM: None of which, it would seem, of course, has been any of Lucy Gichuhi’s dealings.


BIRMINGHAM: Just to make sure it’s crystal clear that she come in as the new Senator, and if media reports are correct she’s going to come in having said “I’m not going to be part of any new deal that might have been struck”.

Last week when we were discussing the High Court case, Mark Butler, it’s fair to say, was talking up the Labor Party’s challenge to her citizenship and expecting that the matters wouldn’t be resolved last Wednesday. Obviously the High Court found there was very little to the evidence put to them and they made a clear decision on the day in terms of appointing Lucy as the new Senator. I think we should all assume that is the matter resolved and we should go forward for the remainder of this term with Lucy serving in the Senate. Hopefully she does a good job for South Australia and hopefully she’s good for us all to work with, particularly for the Government.

ABRAHAM: In that recount that was done that confirmed her as a Senator, the recount effectively says that Cory Bernardi is still a Liberal Senator doesn’t it? It doesn’t say “Cory Bernardi, Australian Conservatives” does it?

BIRMINGHAM: The AEC went back through all of the ballots to determine who would fill Bob Day’s spot and that did spit out all of the different results which did says yes, Cory Bernardi is a Liberal Senator.

At the time of Cory’s defection I expressed my disappointment, as did many others in the Liberal Party, but we’ve moved on from that. We’ll get on with our job and we’ll prosecute our case as to why we think people should re-elect the Turnbull Government, why they should stick with voting for the Liberal Party.

As I said before, we’ve seen Family First rattle around South Australian politics for 15 odd years, and their votes bounce between three and five per cent.

ABRAHAM: Well they’ve got the Senator and they’ve got two in the Upper House here.

BIRMINGHAM: Sure Matt, but if you look at, I guess, the extent to which some of the commentary has talked this up, are we seeing a profound shift, or is it really just a continuation of yes, there is a Family First type party that sits there and may attract a few per cent of the vote?

Of course we will work with them if that’s the case, and they get elected representatives, but it may not be as profound as some of the media hype is making out

BEVAN: Nick Xenophon, you’ve written a think piece for The Sydney Morning Herald regarding Australia’s relationship with China, with the United States, and it paints a disastrous future for us if things go badly wrong. You say is Australia ready for a relentless parade of funerals? Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq if Australia was to become involved in a war with China, where there were relatively few casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, this time we may see large number of body bags returning or never returning at all. Is Australia ready for this relentless parade of funerals for calls from the extreme political fringe for Chinese Australians to be interned in camps, in India reinforcing its troops along its borders, etc etc. Can you explain to our listeners why you think something fundamental has changed and the stakes could not be higher?

XENOPHON: Well firstly, that opinion piece was an edited version of a speech I gave to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last Thursday night in Canberra, and it’s based to a large degree on an analysis done by the Rand Corporation in the United States, which is a mainstream think tank on defence issues, I think it even gets some funding from the US military to do its work. They said that a war with China, over the South China Sea for instance, would not be a lay down misere, it would go for at least a year, there would be no clear winner, there would be heavy casualties and heavy losses between the US and China, that there would be a 30 percent contraction of China’s GDP, a 10 percent contraction of the US GDP, and in Australia we have so much more allied with China for trade, it could see a 30 percent reduction in our GDP, in other words plunging the country into a depression. The point I’m making

BEVAN: But you say China may choose to kill the chicken to scare the monkey, what are you talking about?

XENOPHON: Well that’s an old Chinese proverb, which basically says that sometimes, and it’s something that was used as recently as Deng Xiaoping in the Tiananmen Square massacre, back in 1989. It’s based on a Sun Tzu proverb, that basically says sometimes you flex your muscles against a weaker ally or a weaker power in order to let the stronger power know that you mean business. So that’s the point, and it’s based on defence analysts who I’ve spoken to who say that we’ve got to be very careful about our engagement, diplomacy obviously, and that’s something that Malcolm Turnbull to his credit has been pushing very hard in resolving the South China Sea dispute before it blows up on us.

ABRAHAM: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong. Is this scaremongering?

WONG: I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about body bags and wars. There’s always a lot of scenarios you can construct in foreign policy, the world is a place where you know there can be conflict. But I think, two things, the first is Governments of both political persuasions have sought a constructive relationship with China. We have a strong bilateral relationship, they’re our largest trading partner, and they’ve demonstrated a willingness to engage with Australia constructively.

BEVAN: But do you agree with Nick Xenophon that increased tension between the United States and China seems inevitable?

WONG: No I don’t think anything is inevitable, I think human agency and diplomacy and statecraft have a role to play.

The second point I was going to make is precisely that, we do have an interest in a strong and stable US/China relationship. And just as we invest in our relationship with the US and with China, we also need to do what we can to encourage stability between the United States and China, whether it’s in the South China Sea or more broadly. That’s the way we should approach these matters.

Yes the South China Sea has been a point of tension, and we have consistently said that this should be resolved peacefully. We do support freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, they are in Australia’s national interest, and we encourage all claimant parties to resolve these matters peacefully.

ABRAHAM: It is a cot case isn’t it? Because it’s effectively a narrow sea, you’ve got so many nations trying to enforce their maritime zones, their 200-nautical mile maritime zones, and you’ve got China in there saying “no we’ve got to build an island here, put a base on it, this is ours”, sending very clear signals, not to just Australia and the US, but to all those other countries that border it.

WONG: I think what’s important to recall is this, that every country, China included, and certainly Australia, has an interest in continued freedom of navigation. We all have an interest in global trade continuing, we all have an interest in making sure people can get things where they need to get them, and that international trade continues unimpeded, and I think China does to.

In fact, some of the figures Nick quoted just now, reminds us that China also has an interest in that. So I don’t think this sort of language is helpful, nor is describing these sorts of scenarios as a political leader is helpful.

ABRAHAM: Simon Birmingham as Education Minister, a bit out of your brief.

BIRMINGHAM: A little out of portfolio.

ABRAHAM: It’s also a long way from pokies to Beijing isn’t it?

BIRMINGHAM: It is, look I think it’s in nobody’s interests for these matters to be inflamed, and I think that we would urge Nick, as we did Stephen Conroy, a former Labor Senator, and others to exercise restraint in their commentary around these matters. We’ve seen the Labor Party through some spokespeople previously claim that Australia should proactively consider undertaking freedom of navigation exercises, that’s not something that the Government thought was helpful, I’m not sure Nick’s comments are terribly helpful either.

We urge within Australia as we do in our engagements with both China and the US, restraint between parties in their commentary around this. We urge respect for those freedom of navigation issues that ought to be showed. We encourage, and have made it very plain to China that we discourage the militarisation of the islands in the South China Sea, and that we want to see peaceful resolutions to these matters in accordance with international law.

ABRAHAM: Simon Birmingham, as a member of the Government, do you accept failure on the Commonwealth part to run the Oakden facility? It was a Commonwealth-accredited facility. Putting aside what’s happened here at State level, you’re the lender of last resort on these things and you presided over an absolute disgrace.

BIRMINGHAM: Well, Matt, I don’t accept the idea that we presided over it. I do accept that we absolutely need to make sure that in terms of the federal regulatory bodies that exist, that if there were failings in any of their actions we ought to get to the bottom of those failings to make sure that they are clear. But it does seem to be quite apparent that there were various warnings that were certainly made known to the State Government, to the State Minister in particular, that were not heeded. They are the operators and managers.

ABRAHAM: It does make you wonder about the federal accreditation process doesn’t it?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, we don’t run the centre.

ABRAHAM: No, but it can’t run without your accreditation.

BIRMINGHAM: And we don’t run the centre. The warnings plainly were made to those state agencies. Now if there were failings in relation to the federal agencies, that is something we ought to get to the bottom of and understand what can be done to fix those processes in future. But we know quite clearly there were failings at the state level where warnings were given, given direct to the Minister and they were not acted upon.