4 September 2019




ALI CLARKE: Well, history unfolded here on ABC Radio this morning; over in the House of Commons in Britain. We will speak to some of the big players in Australian politics about what that means for us next.

DAVID BEVAN: Let’s welcome our guests, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator in South Australia and Minister for Trade. Good morning to you.


BEVAN: Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs and Labor Senator Penny Wong. Good morning to you.


BEVAN: And also on the line is Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick. Good morning Rex Patrick.


BEVAN: Senator Birmingham. If we could begin with you. What’s the latest briefing you’ve received on what’s unfolding in Westminster?

BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, I expect that there’ll be updated cables that I’ll receive from UK in the next couple of hours as they digest all that has happened and is happening in Westminster at present. What has been clear for quite some period of time now is that there seems to be a majority in the House of Commons against almost any pathway forward in relation to Brexit. But not a majority in terms of what a positive pathway forward would be. People know what they’re against. And they seem to be against most of the different directions which have been proposed either under former Prime Minister May or now Prime Minister Johnson, but not a majority of what they are for, and how to work their way through this.

What appears to have happened this morning – Australian time – is that a series of motions that would make likely a possible further deferral of the October 31 Brexit deadline that Prime Minister Johnson had set. That’s not certain yet, but it seems to make that likely. And it is possible that could result in a general election in the UK. All of this adds to the uncertainty that we see around the globe, whether it’s US-China, trade tensions, these Brexit situations all of which is why we have to continue to work hard to insulate Australia as best we can and to expand opportunities for us to and to engage with new markets like Indonesia, others like the European Union, and just continue to open up more opportunities for our farmers and businesses.

CLARKE: Well for those who missed it Mr Simon Birmingham, this is how it unfolded. Let’s revisit this historic moment as it happened here on ABC Radio. Adelaide exactly two hours ago.

[Audio from House of Commons vote]

BEVAN: Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. What do you think’s going to happen next?

WONG: It’s pretty extraordinary scenes this morning. I was in the gym this morning, and there were a whole range of captions or news summaries coming up on the screen. As I understand it, first it appears Prime Minister Johnson has lost his majority – there’s been a defection. Second, as Ali said the parliament has moved to block a no-deal Brexit. The Prime Minister is now seeking an early election, though it’s not clear that he will have the majority to have that occur. And I don’t think I’d want to be drawn on making a prediction, would you at this point?

It’s quite extraordinary scenes, but I would make the point: Simon at the end of his comments talked about the disruption in the world and the importance of making our economy strong. I agree with that. I just wish this government had the agenda to do that.

We’ve got interest rates at a third of the emergency lows of the GFC, sluggish wages growth – very sluggish or stagnant wages growth – and very sluggish growth across the economy. I see this Government has a political strategy but no economic strategy.

BEVAN: Coming back home, the case of this Tamil family. Your leader, Penny Wong, Anthony Albanese will be in Queensland today pleading for this family to have some sort of leniency shown to this family, he says we can afford to do this. Well, while he’s there, according to the front page of The Australian apparently thousands of asylum seekers are waiting to see if this case will help them to stay in this country. Do you agree this is not just about one family?

WONG: We support the strong border protection and operation Sovereign Borders. But I would make the point the minister has a discretion, the discretion he’s been prepared to exercise in relation to au pairs. I think this is a case where there is discretion merited. We’ve made clear, we understand the importance of having a cogent and strong system of border protection. But we’re talking about a family that has children here, and is well integrated into a regional community.

It has been pretty extraordinary to see the community of Biloela and other Australians asking the minister to exercise his discretion. And he can do that without compromising the system.

BEVAN: Well Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is quoted as saying that “the era of Labor bipartisanship on border protection under Bill Shorten’s leadership is over”.

WONG: Like I said this Government’s got a political strategy, and they are very good at that. I know he wants to fight on this, but I think there are many Australians who say: look we can exercise a discretion, did it for au pairs, you know you exercised your ministerial discretion very quickly in relation to a couple of au pairs, why don’t you exercise them in relation to a family who has really integrated into the community?

BEVAN: Isn’t it correct that under Labor, more than 2600 Sri Lankan asylum seekers were sent back? And that was the height of the Border Protection crisis.

WONG: I don’t have figures in front of me, I think you’re reading off The Australian.

BEVAN: I am, I made it quite clear I am quoting from The Australian.

WONG: Yes, I don’t have figures in front of me from when we were in government. I would make the point, that we are at a point where this government – the Coalition – is in its third term. So you know, we can keep talking about what happened nearly six plus or more years ago, but I think there’s a third term government here and they are responsible. And I’ve made the point, we think there’s a discretion that can be [inaudible].

BEVAN: …Well we’ll come to Simon Birmingham in a moment, but doesn’t it go to Labor’s credibility here? Labor is saying we need to show compassion to this family. I’m just asking, did you show similar compassion to people when there was a much greater crisis going on in Sri Lanka?

WONG: Well, David. Thank you for asking questions from the past. This is about the present, and what we’re saying is all there is a system which has a ministerial discretion. That exists, Peter Dutton can exercise it.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, how do you explain to your children what’s going on?

BIRMINGHAM: David, I mean, there are sadly, all too often very difficult challenging individual cases, that the immigration minister of the day have come across their desk and confront them.

In this case, we’ve got two parents who came to Australia separately. Both of them were arrivals by boat during that period where there was such huge numbers of arrivals and tragically, such huge numbers of deaths at sea. They met in Australia, they’ve had a family subsequently, but along the way on no fewer than seven occasions, the Australian courts have determined that this couple are not refugees, that they do not meet the status for refugees or qualify for humanitarian visas in Australia. And what has been at the core of our success in stopping those deaths at sea and stopping those illegal arrivals has been consistent application of a number of policies.

And one of those policy settings that is very clear is that if you come by boat you won’t be settled in Australia. But particularly, if you’re not even found to be a refugee, you don’t qualify for refugee status of that humanitarian visa category, then you don’t receive settlement here…

BEVAN: So if your kids are watching this unfold on the telly, these little girls are crying, they are clearly distressed, you would say to your kids, look, I’m sorry, they’re not refugees they just got to be sent back. That’s what you say to your family?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think I would explain it in longer and more compassionate detail than that. These are very difficult decisions. But this is about maintaining policy settings that have been proven now to work in terms of ensuring that in years to come we don’t have these cases to deal with David. That is the situation, we’ve managed to get to, that having been consistent and firm in our policy position. Through the six years, we’ve stopped arrivals, we’ve stopped them coming. And that means that in years to come, there won’t be these types of cases to have to address. And you know, that’s something we want to ensure continues that we have clarity that there won’t be people that we’re having to deal with in detention. There won’t be circumstances, families like this in the future. And the Labor Party is being incredibly reckless hearing it and yes just three months after the change in Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese is unsticking the bipartisanship that Bill Shorten claimed there would in relation to these policies.

CLARKE: Can we just go to Rex Patrick, quickly, we haven’t heard much from you. Centre Alliance Senator, where do you sit on this family and issue?

PATRICK: Well my view is the Government would be well-served adopting a compassionate approach in this particular instance, in looking at the circumstances and considering the best interests of the children, a little less politics and a bit more compassion.

BEVAN: And you don’t believe there would be wider consequences from doing that?

PATRICK: No, I think that there are some alarmist statements being made. I do not think that being compassionate in this instance, would open the floodgates. We’ve seen the government talk about the floodgates in the context of medivac and it doesn’t happen. A bit more compassion I think it’s deserved in this instance.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, why are they taken in the middle of the night? I mean, you know where they are, why are they raided by border control people and taken in the middle of the night. Why does it have to be so cruel?

BIRMINGHAM: David, I don’t know they are operational questions I haven’t. I am not the responsible minister, I haven’t asked the agencies responsible as to why they make those decisions in relation to timing and movements.

BEVAN: It just it is what it is. We’ve just got to accept that’s the way we do things in this country?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, as I said, we have got ourselves into a position where we don’t have boats arriving, we don’t have deaths at sea and we won’t have a backlog of cases tying up the court system and making these appeals in the future.

But the only way we continue that is to hold firm to the policies that have got us to that position. You start unpicking those policies, and yes, there are thousands of people. And of course, there are people smugglers, who will seek to take advantage of that again in the future. These are incredibly difficult, challenging issues. But we’ve worked through policy application in terms of boat turn backs, in terms of ensuring no settlements in Australia, in terms of the reforms to visas, and those policies have been proven to work. And Australia in the future, and today, in fact is now able to ensure that our humanitarian quota for refugees is allocated effectively, not just to those who’ve managed to get here with the assistance of people smugglers but helping people out of refugee camps around the world instead.

BEVAN: Rex Patrick, on another topic, will former Defence Minister from South Australia Chris Pyne have to front an inquiry regarding his new job?

PATRICK: Well, there is an inquiry that is running, there is a hearing tomorrow and my understanding is that Christopher Pyne will appear by teleconference.

BEVAN: And are you a part of that inquiry, you get to sit on that or will you just be handing somebody the questions?

PATRICK: No, I in fact initiated the inquiry. When you have a Defence Minister who negotiates a job whilst he is the minister and three weeks later is a defence consultant, there’s something very wrong going on.

BEVAN: So you are looking forward to personally being able to grill Christopher Pyne?

PATRICK: Well, we’ve got to get to the bottom of how he thinks he can protect information that is only available to him, through his former role as the minister from being used when he forms up advice to EY thereby giving them some considerable advantage over other players in the market.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, you look forward to Christopher Pyne giving some answers?

WONG: I think the key question here is also for Scott Morrison. These ministerial standards ultimately are only as good as the ethics of the prime minister. Because that’s the only way in which they can be enforced, is to have the Prime Minister enforce them. That’s clear from the evidence Dr. Parkinson gave to another inquiry. These are the Prime Minister’s standards. To this stage, it seems the Government, and certainly the Prime Minister just doesn’t want to talk about it. They just want to sweep it under the carpet, make general assertions that the ministerial standards are being complied with, when serious questions continue to arise on the public record. I think people deserve answers.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, we’re pressed for time, I just take it that you think Christopher Pyne has done nothing wrong, nothing to see here, move on.

BIRMINGHAM: Scott Morrison asked the head of the public service to look into it and he handed down his findings…

WONG: And all he did was give him a call mate. All he did was give him a call. That’s what I mean about Scott Morrison, he can’t just hand ball to some bureaucrat…

BIRMINGHAM: …he’s not handing to some bureaucrat, he’s the head of the public service Penny…

WONG: Let me finish, he hand balls it to him, and then say, you know, ‘I wash my hands of this’, because he calls Chris, Chris says there’s no breach, so therefore there’s no breach.

BIRMINGHAM: Well if Scott had done it himself you’d have said it was partisan and prejudice, so instead he got the independent head of the public service to do it. And you criticise that instead…

CLARKE: Simon, Minister, old mate, you are the Minister for Tourism, the tourism ad has been getting a lot of play here in South Australia but the whole idea is to get people to come to South Australia and features old mate. What do you think of it?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, I wish old mate had to come South Australia earlier on. Then clearly he wouldn’t have been upset.

CLARKE: So has it got a tick from you, this whole campaign?

BIRMINGHAM: Look, it’s got lots of people talking and it’s obviously got interstate media coverage in terms of the breakfast program.

BEVAN: That is damned with faint praise Simon Birmingham, Federal Tourism Minister.

BIRMINGHAM: South Australia doesn’t have a huge budget it can spend on tourism advertising if you do something that actually gets free media attention and people talking.

BEVAN: Penny Wong what do you think?

WONG: I thought it was gloomy. I thought it was pretty gloomy.

BEVAN: Rex Patrick

PATRICK: It starts off happy, then it turns gloomy, then there’s a twist at the end. I’m sort of 50/50 on it. Other than the fact that it was awarded to a Victorian company to produce, so it probably puts it in the negative for me.

CLARKE: Alright, so we had I think one yes, one no and someone on the fence. I think that’s exactly what’s happening out there in the populous.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.