Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide
David Bevan: You know what we do on a Wednesday, we gather three of South Australia's Federal MPs, they are all in Canberra today. Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Labor Member for Port Adelaide, good morning to you.
Mark Butler: Good morning.
David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo. Good morning Rebekha.
Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning.
David Bevan: And Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham did you have any idea on what you were voting on when the motion for "it's okay to be white" reached the Senate?
Simon Birmingham: The short answer there David, in terms of what the actual division was about at that point in time, no. The division bells rang across the building, I was in a meeting, I got up, I got to the chamber with I think less than a minute to spare and sat with the government.
Now sometimes you have to own up to your mistakes and it was a failure on my part not to have checked in advance that the government position being taken on that motion was as I would have expected it to be. Senate leadership had previously decided we would be opposing that motion. Somehow that got messed up on the floor of the chamber and I'm sorry for the failure of not having checked that, I'm sorry for the incorrect perception that that vote created.
I'm pleased that the Senate let us recommit the vote yesterday so that an accurate reflection could be recorded.
David Bevan: So you didn't know what the motion was?
Simon Birmingham: No and listeners might struggle with this but these motions are dealt with in the Senate without debate. There is a bunch of them, which mainly crossbench Senators put up, each and every day. The crossbench Senator moves, you know, motion 1,024 and the Senate then divides on that motion if required.
David Bevan: How often do you have no idea what you are voting on?
Simon Birmingham: Well this is the reason why we have processes beforehand to make decisions on those things. Ministers, Senators couldn't conduct business in the building, in terms of meeting with stakeholders, doing media interviews all those sorts of things if you had to monitor what each and every division coming up was going to be, and you rely on those processes.
David Bevan: But the question is how often do you have no idea what you are voting on?
Simon Birmingham: A good mix of the time, I guess. It depends, obviously, as the trade legislation is going through the Senate, as the Trade Minister, I know what each and every amendment is, what each and every vote is and my colleagues in the government look to my guidance to make sure that they are applying the government position at the time.
David Bevan: So a good mix of the time you have no idea what you are voting on?
Simon Birmingham: That's not to say you haven't looked at these matters in advance. That's the apology I made before. It was a failure on my behalf not to have checked.
David Bevan: If you had looked at it in advance and you thought, yeah this is the one where we decided we were not going to support this and then you go into the chamber and everyone is, you didn't stop and think "well what is going on here guys?" You just thought alright this is what I do, half the time I haven't got a clue on what I'm voting on I just follow the rest of them?
Simon Birmingham: I mean it depends David, obviously matters that are the subject of live debate in the chamber, you've got a fair idea of what is happening. Motions like this that are put without debate and without the motion being read out or anything like that is, like I say, a case of very formal process where these motions are sort of read out by a number, moved by a number, moved by the Senator, and then if there needs to be a division the bells summon us to the chamber, and you don't have a lot of time and that stage to get there and take your seat.
Now this was a mistake. It was a failure on my part not to have checked because if I had checked and seen the position that the Whips had on their instruction sheet was incorrect, compared to what the party position was meant to be, I would have made sure they fixed it and I would have made sure that we had voted the right way the first time. But unfortunately that didn't happen, it created a bad perception and I'm very sorry about that.
I deplore racism in all its forms. The problem with this motion is not just the words in the motion but the omission of other words in this motion. If you are going to condemn racism you should condemn racism full stop. Not start picking out elements of society and saying we condemn that bit of racism.
Spence Denny: So you can understand how there would be a reaction from our listeners along the lines of, did he just say often we don't really know what we are voting on? Can you understand how the voting public might be lacking a bit of confidence in the ability of decision makers to fully absorb the implications of a vote that is being taking?
Simon Birmingham: I do Spence and what I would say to those listeners is parties of government work through processes where each week our party room meets, the Labor caucus meets, and we discuss every bill that is coming before the Parliament. We discuss what our position on those bills will be. We agree a position that that is the way we will vote when those bills come up. We go through similar processes in relation to motions and all other procedural matters. So what happens is there is a thorough consideration of how you will vote in an orderly point in time. Then when the Parliament itself is running through all those matters, unless listeners want me as the Trade Minister to not when I'm in Canberra also meet with farmers, businesses, investors, stakeholders, foreign diplomats and all of the other people who come in, you actually have to rely on those processes that help ensure that when you get to the floor of the chamber you are reflecting the decisions which have been made in the past.
David Bevan: Let's see if your colleagues will cut you some slack. Mark Butler?
Mark Butler: I think Simon describes what happens in both houses – that the bells will ring and you've got four minutes to get from one corner of the building to another, or you might be doing a media interview, or a speech, or a meeting with a stakeholder – you've got four minutes to get to the chamber. And usually, certainly what happens in the House of Representatives, you're walking in and if there is not a sign indicating what the motion is or what the bill is that you're voting on, you'll say to the Whip or you'll say to someone "what is this vote?" and they'll usually say, as in this case, the Pauline Hanson motion on race, or the small business tax cuts bill, so on and so forth.
As Simon says, certainly the two major parties of government would have dealt with those motions or bills earlier on and reached a decision about how the Party would vote.
David Bevan: Okay so you don't have a problem with what Birmingham did? You're happy with his mistake?
Mark Butler: I think what we would do is we would walk in and we would say what is this vote on, particularly if we'd been in the other corner of the building and had only got there with 30 seconds to spare, we would say what is this vote. Certainly in our House they'd say, remember the Pauline Hanson motion on race. So I don't make a quarrel particularly with the fact that Simon says he is a rush, he comes in, a decision has been taken by the government Senators, in this case to vote on one particular side of the chamber or the other.
The question is really how the government came to this decision. Michelle Grattan has written a detailed piece about this. Bear in mind this is a motion Pauline Hanson flagged on race several weeks ago. And when Pauline Hanson moves a motion on race that should raise a red flag in everybody's mind – and it did. This was the subject of substantial media commentary because it only took a cursory examination to find that the wording of this motion is a rallying cry used by white supremacists groups across the world, including the KKK.
Now it appears from Michelle Grattan's article that Christian Porter, the Attorney General that has portfolio responsibility for this area first recommended that the motion be supported by the government. That was then overruled by Mathias Cormann and the tactics group in the Senate. So I guess Simon assumed that they weren't going to vote for it. But then on the day of the vote Christian Porter's office overruled Mathias Cormann so that the government's position was reverted to a position of support for Pauline Hanson's motion.
The big question is how on earth could this have happened? This was on the books for weeks, everyone understood this was not a rallying cry for equality, this was a rallying cry to maintain white supremacy and should have been called out as such by everyone in the Senate.
David Bevan: Alright let's go to Richard from Hahndorf. Good morning Richard.
Richard (caller): Good morning, this one really flabbergasts me. I'd say perhaps Simon is a puppet of a party and he is not even listening to what Pauline is arguing about, and I have a big problem because that's the reason he is supposed to be there. I suppose that is why I'd have to point out why the Hills vote for Rebekha Sharkie, because she is allowed her own mind and why wasn't he in the house? I know he could be there with a stakeholder, or whoever he said he was, really I'd expect the parliamentarians not to be asleep but to be listening to their parliamentarian other people.
David Bevan: We will come to Rebekha Sharkie in a moment but let's go to another Richard of Port Elliott. Hello Richard.
Richard (caller): Yeah good morning. I'm equally flabbergasted. Someone must have called a division for there to be the bells rung and members to attend the chamber to have their vote one way or another recorded. So who called the division on the first vote and why wasn't a division called yesterday to record all of the names of the members opposing this resolution?
Spence Denny: Richard thank you, we will just take one more call before we get some comments from Rebekha Sharkie. To Hope Valley, hello Janice.
Janice (caller): Hello, I am insulted that they have to apologise for saying it is alright to be white.
David Bevan: So you don't have a problem with what Pauline Hanson is putting up and you are curious why they are backing down now?
Janice (caller): Well I don't because I wouldn't have even dreamt that it meant about white superiority, or anything like that. I just think that the white people get a bloody bad go at the moment any time anybody says anything or does anything they are racist. (Inaudible) Asians marry their similar sort.
Spence Denny: Okay Janice I think we get your point there. We might go to Rebekha Sharkie, crossbenchers were mentioned in Simon Birmingham's discussion before. Rebekha Sharkie is one of those, good morning to you Rebekha Sharkie.
Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning, I will say though not my chamber. My Senators, our Senators, voted against the motion because we do our homework and if we don't know exactly what we are voting on in the chamber, if a vote is called, and I will say in relation to what Simon was saying, there was a particular short debate around this particular motion and the "it's okay to be white" is part b. The first bit is the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on white civilisation, it was acknowledging that.
I don't understand how a government minister, let alone a backbencher doesn't know what they are voting on. If I am a little unsure I go speak to the Clerk. And I have asked backbenchers on both sides voting in my chamber, do you even know what you're voting on? And they say no, just follow the leader. That is the great problem in our Parliament.
Spence Denny: Okay let's go back to Mark Butler. Mark Butler, Peter Malinauskas, State Opposition Leader here in South Australia on Monday on this station, he said it is time for the Nauru detention centre to be closed. Let's just hear a little of what Peter Malinauskas told our listeners:
Peter Malinauskas (recording): I don't think it is a sustainable position. I think it has been largely a disgrace in a way these people have been left in a limbo.
David Bevan: Do you agree?
Mark Butler: We've been saying for the five years of this government now that the government should have been making far more effort to resettle the people that are on Nauru, and previously on Manus as well, in the way that was intended in the way when Nauru was reopened five and a half years ago or so. These were intended as temporary regional processing centres but have become places of indefinite detention under this government. Particularly under Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, turned its back on any regional resettlement or third party resettlement arrangements, particularly turned its back on getting assistance from the High Commission for Refugees to do that. If they had done that in the way that was intended five and a half years ago, Nauru probably would be an empty centre now and it would be closed.
David Bevan: Do you think it should be closed now?
Mark Butler: The closure of Nauru really depends on being able to resettle people who are there. We've been arguing for years the Government has turned its back on the obligation it has to do everything possible to resettle those people on Nauru in third countries.
David Bevan: Should a Labor government close down all offshore detention?
Mark Butler: As I said, the precondition to being able to close down Nauru is being able to resettle the people there in third countries. For years we have said that a re-elected Labor government would persue that with real vigour. Really reinvigorating our relationship with the UNHCR and looking to third countries, like New Zealand and others, to be able to engage in a resettlement arrangement. If you do that Nauru becomes otiose.
David Bevan: Obviously you have got to put people somewhere. So the question is should a Labor government close down all offshore detention?
Mark Butler: Well you can only do that once you've resettled the people that are there and I don't understand Peter Malinauskas to be saying anything different to that?
David Bevan: I don't understand why you're having trouble with the word yes?
Mark Butler: Well yes once you've resettled people and I don't understand Peter was saying anything different to that - that is nothing different to what the Labor Party has been saying for years now.
David Bevan: So you're okay with having people in offshore detention, you just don't want them there indefinitely?
Mark Butler: They were opened as temporary regional processing centres -
David Bevan: Yeah we know why they were opened. I'm asking you Mark Butler do you think we should stop -
Mark Butler: You can ask me a number of different ways David. I've made it very clear that these centres were intended as temporary centres. They can only be temporary once you've resettled the people who are there. This government has turned its back on the obligation to resettle and we wouldn't.
David Bevan: Should we have offshore detention?
Mark Butler: Sorry I didn't hear that.
David Bevan: It's the same question I've been asking you for three or four goes now. Should we have offshore detention pending resettlement elsewhere?
Mark Butler: Pending resettlement, they were opened as temporary regional processing centres. That should be there purpose. This government has lost sight of the obligation that the Australian government should have to resettle people there. Once you've done that resettlement then the need for those centres disappears.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: (cuts in) processing is absolutely essential to the deterrent for people smugglers. When we took office there had been 50,000 arrivals under the Labor Party's failed border protection policies. Now we have addressed the overwhelming majority of those cases. There are probably 600 or so people on Nauru now, some of whom have been given options to return to their homes because they may not have been assessed to be genuine refugees and have refused to take up those options. We continue to work to resettle those individuals. But what you see from Peter Malinauskas' comments is the deep division in the Labor Party and the reality that despite Bill Shorten saying that he would maintain the Coalition's border protection policies, the reality is it would go the same way it did with Kevin Rudd. Kevin Rudd said he would maintain John Howard's border protection policies then he undid them all. Then we had 50,000 people arrive over that period of time, lost control of our borders. Our government has reinstated our borders.
David Bevan: You're happy with the situation on Nauru?
Simon Birmingham: I'm not happy that in the sense I would love us to be in a position where everyone had been resettled.
David Bevan: This is the natural consequence of the hard-line policy and if we have to do that you're happy to accept that because you believe it is for a greater good? Is that it?
Simon Birmingham: Well David to an extent yes –
David Bevan: That's not to an extent that is the reality. You are happy to accept that we have to be cruel to the people of Nauru because there is a greater good. That is your argument?
Simon Birmingham: We are not cruel. The people on Nauru are not in detention they are free to move around the island. They have education and health facilities available to them. We provide all of that but we have to maintain this position because it is what has worked to ensure that our borders are secure, the flow of people has stopped, and as a result there are far fewer people -
David Bevan: So you don't think Nauru is a disgrace?
Simon Birmingham: I think Nauru has worked to ensure –
David Bevan: No we want a yes or no.
Simon Birmingham: No I don't David.
David Bevan: You don't think it is a disgrace?
Simon Birmingham: I think it has worked as a policy and of course we had thousands and thousands of people in detention when we came into government. The reason that there are so many fewer people in detention today is because we have resettled but also because the boats have stopped coming and we have control over our borders now, and the refugees we take as a country, in record numbers, we take through an orderly resettlement program from refugee camps around the world rather than because people smugglers, who have been paid, push them onto Australia.
This is a much better position Australia is in today then we were five years ago. That would all be at risk and in jeopardy under a Labor government.
David Bevan: We are going to quickly run out of time and we need to ask you about the possibility of shifting our embassy to Jerusalem but Rebekha Sharkie regarding Nauru, and we asked you this many times during the Mayo by-election?
Rebekha Sharkie: And yes my position hasn't changed. In fact this week I co-signed a Bill with Andrew Wilkie for us to get the children off Nauru. The children in need of medical treatment urgently because Doctors without Borders have been kicked out of the country, we do not have any free media. We know there are 20 children with critical medical needs. They are trying to kill themselves, they have resignation syndrome. There are a further 28 who need urgent medical attention. This is a great shame of Australia. I cannot believe that we can spend billions of dollars on border protection and stop the boats and yet not address this legacy issue. It is a great shame to our nation. We can do better and it is the crossbench who has had the courage to stand up, and only the cross bench.
Spence Denny: Five to nine is the time. Rebekha Sharkie there is a fair bit of scepticism surrounding the announcement by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison that he is considering a move of our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That is being seen to coincide with the Wentworth by-election. You have faced some criticism from local constituents because you went to Wentworth to do some campaigning. What was the rationale behind you going there?
Rebekha Sharkie: Look I had crossbenchers come and help me. I spent all of about an hour and a half in Wentworth on Sunday afternoon on my way to Canberra. Two economy flights, I might say, and did not use Comcars or any taxpayer cost. With respect to the ideas of moving the embassy, let's remember this was not the position of our previous Foreign Minister, this was not the position of our current Prime Minister just a couple weeks ago or in fact indeed the former Member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull. I think it is a cynical move by the current Prime Minister, and we are having some very bizarre captain's calls in the last fortnight heading towards Wentworth.
David Bevan: Which makes you think that maybe you won't support him after Wentworth?
Rebekha Sharkie: Well look I have worked well with government. I think it would be fair to say that myself and Cathy McGowan on the crossbench have been more stable than many members of their own party. But I'm very keen to speak to the Prime Minister beyond Saturday.
David Bevan: Right so he'll need to sweet talk you after Wentworth?
Rebekha Sharkie: Well I'm just very keen to have a conversation with him around all the things he has raised, whether it is agriculture visas, whether it is moving the embassy, a whole range of issues that relate to Mayo and South Australia.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham final word to you. You are Minister for Trade, this opening up, the possibility of shifting our embassy to Jerusalem, what sort of impact is that going to have on our trade?
Simon Birmingham: It didn't have any effect David. Our trade negotiations continue on track. That is what we have said, that's what other international partners have said. In terms of this conspiracy regarding the timing of these matters, the timing was related to the key vote that was had in the United Nations overnight. The Prime Minister outlined the position on that and associated matters yesterday, that is why the timing is now and this is just about the normal business of government.
David Bevan: So you don't have some explaining to do to Indonesia?
Simon Birmingham: Indonesia has publicly said in the last 24 hours are plans to see the trade and comprehensive partnership agreement signed by the end of this year are on track.
David Bevan: You don't think this will have any effect on our relations with Indonesia?
Simon Birmingham: I think Indonesia and Australia are both mature countries. We are able to have our own foreign policy positions in relation to third nations and that doesn't impact our bipartisan position. I'm grateful and I thank Indonesia, and I've done that personally, for the fact that they have publicly indicated these discussions for our economic partnership agreement are on track and we want to work to see that realised by the end of the year.
Spence Denny: There we must leave it. Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.
Spence Denny: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, thank you and Mark Butler Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Labor Member for Port Adelaide, thank you.