11 April 2018




DAVID BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, let’s clear this up. We know you’re in the Senate but don’t let that get in the way. Would you one day like to go to the House of Representatives and be Prime Minister? Because Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton have all said they won’t rule it out.

SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely, emphatically, definitively not.

BEVAN: Why not? You’d be a good Prime Minister.

BIRMINGHAM: That’s very flattering, David, very flattering indeed. As much as I love my job, and I’m not afraid of all of the scrutiny or anything else that comes with it. I’m not sure I would want to subject my family or anything else to the many additional challenges that come with being the Prime Minister.

BEVAN: Is it helpful that people like Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton are even publicly entertaining this?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, first point is they have all said very clearly that they support and expect Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party…

BEVAN: But challengers always do?

BIRMINGHAM: Second point I’d make though is you, and many in the media, will criticise politicians when they don’t give a straight answer to a question. These guys are being asked ‘Would you like to lead the party one day?’ They said ‘Yes. One day I would like to lead the party. I would like the opportunity to step from being a Cabinet Minister to being the Prime Minister.’ Good luck to them. They are all incredibly capable and able colleagues. I have enormous respect for each of them but their support for Malcolm Turnbull is absolutely clear-cut and this is not about a challenge, this is not in any way close to that. This is about people giving honest answers about the very long term.

ALI CLARKE: So then essentially, would you prefer Barnaby Joyce wasn’t as straight talking because he set a public goal which ends up being a target on the Prime Minister’s back if he doesn’t start to get the party back together by the end of the year.

BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think colleagues always need to look at the contributions they’ve made whether that’s a helpful contribution and that’s not just about one comment but also over a period of time.

CLARKE: So if you mess up – butt out?

BIRMINGHAM: I think there’s always a period of time for a bit of introspection as to your own performance.

CLARKE: Okay. So he needs more time to be quiet about and deal with the fires he may have helped create in his own backyard is what you’re saying?

BIRMINGHAM: I’ll let others look at the words that I’ve used. But really, we as a Government, in terms of Malcolm, Senior Ministers you’ve cited, myself, we’re all focused very much on how we build on the strength of the job creation record that we’ve got and how we make sure we deliver more into the pockets of Australian families through our childcare reforms that will come into place in July by returning benefits to Australians now that we have a trajectory where the Budget deficit is going to be under control and we can look to lower taxes further. These are the things Australians expect us to do and that’s exactly what we will keep doing each and every day between now and the next election in a little over a year’s time. Notwithstanding the fact that I’m sure many others would like to talk about polls or otherwise, the leadership of the Government will focus on the interests of the Australian people.

BEVAN: There must be people in your party who think – who are appalled by what Barnaby Joyce has done. I mean the chutzpah of the man after the train wreck that he’s delivered to the Coalition in the last six months and then he turns around and gives the Prime Minister ‘if you haven’t turned things around Malcolm by Christmas you really ought to be looking at yourself.’

BIRMINGHAM: Well, you can be appalled or you can get on with your job.

BEVAN: Are you appalled?

BIRMINGHAM: I’m going to get on with my job, David, because that’s the important thing for me to do – and that’s for me is to make sure, come July, many Australian families will be thousands of dollars a year better off because we are investing more in providing support for childcare but targeting it to the people who are on the lowest incomes, working the longest hours and they’re the types of reforms that Australians expect from good government to deliver and that’s what we’re doing.

CLARKE: Penny Wong, you’ve been through this type of destabilisation with the Labor Party and sure, you wanted to focus on things like Simon Birmingham was talking about. Would you like us to move on to other topics or are you happy and sort of licking your lips?

PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I was sitting here listening to him and thinking ‘Ah, it’s a tough gig isn’t it’ when you’ve got a lot of colleagues who have I think been pretty clear that their hats are in the ring. Barnaby has taken a particular view and as you said, put up another political hurdle for Malcolm Turnbull.

I think that the more important policy question is this: what’s become painfully clear is that Malcolm had a plan to take down a Prime Minister but he didn’t have a plan for Government and that’s becoming increasingly clearer over this last period of time and over thirty Newspolls and that is something the Government is grappling with. He hasn’t projected the sort of economic plan that he promised. He hasn’t projected consistency. I don’t think people know what he stands for and I think that’s reflected in the response to him.

BEVAN: That’s a great line.

WONG: Which one?

BEVAN: He had a plan for taking down a Prime Minister but not a plan for replacing him.

WONG: Not a plan for Government.

BIRMINGHAM: It’s not an accurate line.

BEVAN: Did you think of that yourself or was that workshopped by some spin doctors?

WONG: They are my words. I know you think I might not be capable of that, David.

BEVAN: No, no, no – I’ve got great respect for your capability which is why I asked? Did you think of that?

WONG: I think it’s the truth. I mean Simon’s in a difficult position and I’m sure you’ll make him dance a bit more but I think that most Australians don’t know what Malcolm Turnbull stands for nor what his plan is.

I remember the press conference, and Malcolm can speak well, he talked about the need for economic vision and he talked about we’ve no compelling economic narrative and people have made their mind up. I think since then, he’s been an ongoing disappointment to many people including, frankly many voters in the centre and many swinging voters.

BEVAN: Do you think Malcolm Turnbull is in a similar position to the one that Kevin Rudd found himself in after he jettisoned his commitments over climate change? You were there in Europe when he made that decision and it always seemed to me that from that point onwards, if there was a downward trajectory for Kevin Rudd because he abandoned something that he told us was really, really important. Was that your experience? Is that what you think happened there?

WONG: Look, it actually was made in Australia after we got back and there was obviously a big internal debate about that and it has subsequently come out quite clearly with the position that various people took including me.

I do think that if you tell people something is very important to you and then you walk away from it, there’s a problem. And I think Kevin himself has acknowledged that that was his great mistake.

I think the problem for Malcolm Turnbull is he’s done it on a number of things but also I think this Government’s divisions are manifesting in policy. We’ve had a lot of discussions about energy over the last couple of years on this show and energy policy is being driven by division inside the Liberal Party and we’ve seen that with Josh Frydenberg today. So this is an ongoing fracturing of the Government, ongoing divisions, leaks from Cabinet as you can see on front pages of the papers today and I think a Prime Minister who is increasingly adrift from his Cabinet and from any sense of purpose.

CLARKE: So Penny Wong, would you like to be Prime Minister one day?

WONG: I’ve been asked that many times and the answer is emphatically no.

CLARKE: Sarah Hanson-Young, do you support Universal Basic Income?

SENATOR SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Well I think what we – I do – I think what we need to be looking at and from all sides of Government and all sides of the Parliament is what we’re going to do with the changing nature of work. We know with automation and unemployment rising that the welfare system we’ve got is not fit for purpose and that it is outdated. We don’t want to see young people graduating from high school or even TAFE or university and then there’s nowhere for them to go. A UBI has to be considered in the broader context of how we are going to make people job-ready and job-capable so that they can adapt as the workplace changes.

BEVAN: How does giving everyone – whether or not they’ve got a job – 20-odd thousand dollars a year, how does that help solve the welfare problem?’

HANSON-YOUNG: David, I think the point is here and the reason Richard spoke about this at the Press Club last week was that we have to start having the conversation. I don’t have all the answers, the Greens don’t have this policy ironed out. What we’re wanting is to start a conversation about making our social security system fit for purpose…

BEVAN: I know Waleed Aly who is a brain on a stick thinks it’s a fantastic idea and we all ought to be thinking about it but if you could explain to us how does giving everybody even if they’ve got money 20-odd thousand dollars a year – how does that solve a welfare problem? Because aren’t you just spreading your resources even thinner?

HANSON-YOUNG: Not necessarily David. What this is about is having to have a re-think about how we look after everyone and make sure, as the workforce changes, as certain jobs won’t exist anymore – how do we make sure people aren’t left behind. Rather than just saying ‘Oh everyone should just get on the dole’, we need to consider that some people’s nature of work is going to change, what’s available is going to change. We shouldn’t just say bad luck, those people are left on the pile to fend for themselves.

BEVAN: The whole point of Universal Basic Income is that it’s not means tested. Yes? How can giving somebody who has got money…

HANSON-YOUNG: I think this is about the fact that there are many different models and ways to do this. You could choose different cohorts of people. You could say young people deserve to have access to a universal wage so that whether they’re studying or training they have a liveable income to do that on. It may be that senior Australians, older people who just can’t find enough hours to stay in the workforce.

BEVAN: Yeah but that’s called a pension and its mean tested.

HANSON-YOUNG: David, there are different ways of doing this and what we’re asking for is a genuine robust conversation. We’re not saying ‘Here’s the policy, slap it down, it’s going to cost this much, this is how much everybody is going to get.’ What we’re saying is politicians who are avoiding the changing workforce…

BEVAN: Penny Wong, Labor Senator, do you think there’s merit in a Universal Basic Income?

WONG: I’m not actually quite sure what Richard di Natale is proposing to be frank.

Can we start with two principles: one is we are dealing with increasing inequality is an imperative and I think Labor has put a range of policies on the table which seek to do that. We do see that as a key driver of how we would operate were we to win government. I think the second issue is the fragmentation of the workforce, increasing casualisation of the workforce and how do we ensure that the promise that the Australian people have had over successive decades – that you get a decent day’s pay for a day’s work and that you can gain security of income and security of retirement income over your working life – is fulfilled.

BEVAN: Do you think it’s a good idea to give everybody 20-odd thousand regardless of their income?’

WONG: Chris Bowen said he doesn’t support it. I don’t understand how that could be funded. I don’t understand precisely how that is the best way of dealing with the two issues I’ve raised.

I have to say I read Richard Di Natale’s speech or the reports of it, I have to say I didn’t read all of it more as a reflection as where he needs to go in terms of his leadership. There are obviously some internal ideological divisions within the Greens and this was I suppose what you would regard as particularly a play to the left wing or whatever they might be called within the Greens, as a policy offering.

CLARKE: We might just now go to Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator. Earlier this week, we spoke to the South Australian Minister Tim Whetstone and we were talking about live exporting because so many of us saw on television, sheep here from South Australia mistreated and suffering abhorrent conditions in the live export trade. What are you going to do about this?

BIRMINGHAM: We are, of course, taking serious steps in that area. We’re not going to have knee jerk reactions like a ban because that would be punishing the farmers whose income is derived, and who generate export income for our country but who are doing the right thing. We are absolutely making sure that the regulators step up their action to guarantee the safety of animals.

But I do, Ali, also want to respond to some of what Penny had to say before. We have delivered in spades in terms of economic leadership this has established confidence across the Australian economy that has generated more than 420,000 jobs over the last year. That is the longest consecutive run of monthly growth in employment statistics on record. That’s what has happened under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and we’re working very hard to continue that.

We also have in Malcolm Turnbull as leader, who in contrast to Bill Shorten, is able to tackle the complex challenges we face in areas like energy policy. That’s what Josh Frydenberg will be speaking about at the Press Club today – the National Energy Guarantee – how we meet our emissions reduction challenges but also…

CLARKE: What will you do about the sheep? What will the Prime Minister do about that under his leadership?

BIRMINGHAM: I’m not going to let you give Penny a long kick at Malcolm Turnbull without responding to that. I think it’s very important people understand what has been achieved under this Government and what we are continuing to work to achieve in terms of economic growth.

BEVAN: So we’ve got that. What are you going to do about the sheep?

BIRMINGHAM: In terms of live animal exports, we’ve made sure that Australia’s regulatory standards are world-leading in this regard and they have lifted standards for many countries as a result because we have taken an approach that doesn’t just stop at the Australian border but seeks to follow the whole way through the export chain and the production chain. Obviously, the incident that was highlighted on 4 Corners earlier this week is a tragic incident and it’s one that we take incredibly seriously and we will get to the bottom of how it is that occurred and if there needs to be extra regulatory action then I am confident there will be.

BEVAN: It just can’t be that hard, can it? If you’ve got proper regulation of this, the inspector turns up before the sheep are put on-board and he says to the Captain ‘How many sheep are you going to put in here? There’s no way I’m going to let you put that many sheep on this boat, heading off to Arabia.’ It’s not rocket science.

BIRMINGHAM: It probably shouldn’t need to be rocket science and indeed, the boat that is in Western Australia is still undergoing inspection to make sure that we get it right and get it right we will but we’re not going to engage in the type of knee-jerk reaction that just applies a ban, punishes a whole bunch of innocent farmers that have done absolutely nothing wrong and hurts Australia’s exporting income.

CLARKE: We do have to leave it there. Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Sarah Hanson Young, Greens Senator for South Australia and Penny Wong, Labor Senator. Thank you for your time.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.