Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast, Ali Clarke and David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Sam Duluk suspension; Holden closure; Jetstar TWU dispute.
18 February 2020

Ali Clarke: Right now we are going to introduce you to Senator Simon Birmingham. We do have a lot to talk to him about, especially as Minister for Trade. Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good Morning, Ali.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, before we get onto the Holden announcement…

Simon Birmingham: Which is what you asked me on air to talk about, but yes.

David Bevan: Do you have a message for the people in Waite? You’re the most senior Liberal in the state.

Simon Birmingham: Well, for the electors in Waite or the party members in Waite?

David Bevan: The party members who got together last night and decided to defy the Premier.

Simon Birmingham: That they erred in their judgment and that I doubt they had all the facts before them.

David Bevan: In what way do you think they've erred in their judgment?

Simon Birmingham: I don't think this motion was a helpful thing to do. Now, in the end the state executive was meeting last night and unanimously accepted the suspension of Sam Duluk’s membership.

David Bevan: You saying they don't- they don't know Sam Duluk like you know Sam Duluk?

Simon Birmingham: No well, we all know Sam, I'm sure they know Sam. And look, it's not unusual that local party members who have selected their local Liberal candidate – it’s the right of local members to make that selection – will have an affinity and affection for that member and that candidate. So, I can understand there would certainly be mixed emotions in terms of that branch.

David Bevan: Was Wayne Matthew right to warn them against doing this?

Simon Birmingham: Yes.

David Bevan: And he was right because it looks like conflict, because it is conflict?

Simon Birmingham: Well obviously they're expressing a point of view, that's not unusual across the many thousands of members of the Liberal Party that sometimes those members express a point of view that is not the one shared by the leadership. But the Premier's made it clear he doesn't tolerate, doesn’t accept and will not accept the behaviour that's been alleged, and the state executive has unanimously backed in the Premier.

David Bevan: Okay. But by their actions the Waite sub-branch are saying: well- well, what are they saying?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I haven't seen the full text of the motion, I've only heard your- your playing it on air this morning, David.

David Bevan: Well I can read it to you if you like. What it says is: the Waite State Electoral Committee notes the apology statement to Parliament and subsequent actions in relation to the events of 13 December 2019 and Branch wishes to inform State Executive its support- of its support for Sam Duluk’s ongoing representation as the Member for Waite.

Simon Birmingham: Well then that's obviously what it says, David.

David Bevan: And what do you think about it?

Simon Birmingham: … what are they saying, that’s- you've just read it out.

David Bevan: Yeah. And you think they were wrong to do that?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, I do and now I think even more appalling was the individual who chose to take a recording and leak it because obviously that individual has undermined the right of all party members to feel that they can speak freely and with some confidence at local branch meetings and that's a terrible act that's occurred.

But in the end, the party has taken strong action in this regard. The Premier is taking a clear and strong stance that the behaviour is unacceptable, the State Executive unanimously backing in the Premier I guess. The local branch who had pre-selected Sam originally has obviously expressed some views and sentiments there and we’ll all have to work through those with those branch members. But it doesn't change the position of the State Executive or the Premier.

Ali Clarke: Senator Simon Birmingham forgive me, but what does it actually mean to be suspended from the Liberal Party? If he can have this meeting in his office, which I understand apparently the sub-branch always met at, but then stand up and address and then have motions put in his name.

Simon Birmingham: Well Ali, I understand this meeting had been scheduled before the suspension took effect and so this was the routine and regular meeting which obviously they determined could go ahead still at this time and that place. But once the meeting heard from him about him departing himself from the Liberal Party, suspending himself from the Liberal Party, that he then left and that they proceeded without him.

David Bevan: In the meantime, hundreds of jobs lost across the country with the announcement from Holden that it's removing its brand, it’s removing its business here in this country. The government had just 15 minutes notice. What does that say about Holden's respect for your government?

Simon Birmingham: It says they're showing a fairly contemptuous attitude I think, not only for the government but really for their workforce, and to their dealerships, and to the people of Australia. And now they're choosing to shut up shop and exit, they're doing so because they've been woeful in the business of selling cars.

Their- last monthly sales were at the lowest level in 72 years and so if you- if your sales plummet to a seven-decade low then you’re going to go out of business and that is obviously what they've done and it's tragically terrible for the dealership and for the workers, and that's where all the efforts need to be. But General Motors have hardly covered themselves in glory in the way they've handled this.

David Bevan: Some people would say this is the end game of your government's decision not to support General Motors Holden years ago.

Simon Birmingham: But David, I’d say quite the opposite. That more than $2 billion of Australian taxpayer’s money was provided to General Motors to prop them up over the years and to try to make a success of the business. Now, we could have thrown even more money at that over the last few years in terms of manufacturing operations, yet what we're seeing is that they can't even sustain a retail business in Australia. Now, if you can't sustain a retail business selling enough cars to Australians, you’re certainly not going to sustain a manufacturing business. So any further money that had been thrown at Holden or General Motors, really would have been a case of putting good money after bad.

Now, this is tragic. Australian consumers ultimately voted with their feet and their wallets and chose to buy other cars. You've got Ford, as AM was reporting this morning, quite clearly saying that they're doing well, that they are looking at employing more Australians. That in part is, I think, a result of the fact they've been very successful with the Ford Ranger, an Australian designed vehicle, that they've designed to meet the demands of the Australian marketplace, and as a result their sales are holding up while Holden's sales have crashed to the 72 year low. Now, that doesn’t help if you’re a Holden employee of if you’re a Holden dealer and you’re struggling with now the consequences of this. But we do have to accept that government can’t make people choose to buy certain types of car, and Australians had decided to stop buying Holdens.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, all the money that we gave to General Motors, by us -the taxpayer, did they fulfill every caveat that was on them getting that money?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I believe they met the conditions over the years. These were grants by successive Governments of all political stripes that were awarded to maintain those manufacturing operations here. And there were glimmers of hope that occurred along the way - I think we’d all remember some of the export deals that were struck in terms of sending cars to Saudi Arabia or making police cars for parts of the US. It's a shame that that success wasn’t able to be sustained in a long enough period of time. But certainly those options weren't on the table when they were last asking for more taxpayer money and at that stage I guess it was already apparent that their sales were in decline and they've declined continuously since then.

Ali Clarke: Tom Koutsantonis is the former state treasurer, he is also with us, also Shadow Minister for Transport. You took to Twitter yesterday to delay(*) part of the blame for the Holden decision - the Abbott’s government treatment of Holden, particularly the tender for the VIP car fleet. Do you really think that tipped this over the edge?

Tom Koutsantonis: Yes. I remember when the incoming Abbott government decided to choose for the VIP fleet a BMW over a Holden. The then CEO of GM contacted myself and the premier Jay Weatherill, really concerned about what this meant symbolically that the Australian Government was prepared to carry the Australian Prime Minister and the Governor-General in a foreign made car. We did our very best to reassure them about, that that was just a probably a security decision based on the armament of a vehicle. But we subsequently found out that the Australian made option was cheaper, better and there was a deliberate political decision to choose another foreign made vehicle. We then- subsequently we saw the determined efforts by the Abbott government to not offer subsidies, to not offer support. Holden were actually increasing sales, Australians do like their rear-wheel drive V8s - they were doing quite well, despite what Simon's saying now. There were a lot of Holden dealerships, we made this case to the Australian Government at the time. Both Joe Hockey and Abbott were adamant there'd be no more subsidies. And we reminded them that every car manufacturer in the world, including the BMW that the Prime minister was driving had government subsidy in it. I mean there's not a motor vehicle made anywhere in the world that is not subsidised at the point of manufacture - that is the nature of automotive manufacturing. If you want to be a country with advanced manufacturing and make your own motor vehicles, that’s the price you pay. Everything-

David Bevan: Tom Koutsantonis, we're going to quickly run out of time. Your party wanted to kick Sam Duluk out of the Parliament. He has the support of his Waite sub-branch. What? Do you want to kick them out too? I mean, what- you want to see them close down?

Tom Koutsantonis: No, I don't want to close democracy; I want democracy to flourish. What shocks me is the act of open defiance and the old wounds and the old enemies surfacing again to fight out battles in the Liberal Party. I mean this is in open defiance of the Premier. I mean, you had Wayne Matthew getting up and arguing against moving that motion and where was Stan Evans? The old arguments, they’re back again. And for the Premier to be so upfront in that needing to be warned about what this- how this will look for the Premier and then for all of them- I think you said 45 of them to seven voted to support their local MP. I think it goes to show that the divisions run very, very deep at a local grassroots level in South Australia in the Liberal Party. And I make this very common point that people make all the time about political parties - if you can't govern your own party, how can you possibly govern a state? If the Premier has no authority; how can he have authority anywhere else?

Ali Clarke: Tom Koutsantonis, thank you. Let's go back to Senator Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, another major company we're talking about now in Jetstar. Looks like there’s some bad news for airline commuters tomorrow - possibly one of our busiest days, or in the lead into our busiest days into here, into South Australia. As Tourism Minister, can you give us an update on this because we understand that they've cancelled around a quarter of domestic flights around the country?

Simon Birmingham: Look, thanks Ali. Look, just firstly, I just want to point out that it’s a bald-faced lie Tom’s telling in relation to the government fleet. You know, when you're talking about the Prime Minister's armor plated car, you're talking about around six or eight vehicles for the Prime Minister or the Governor-General across the country. Holden haven't shut down their retail presence in Australia over six or eight armor plated cars and it's just a preposterous lie that he’s telling there.

Now in relation to Jetstar, this is terribly disappointing – really, frankly, appalling action we're seeing from the Transport Workers’ Union, one of the more militant unions around the country. And they’re shutting down Jetstar flights across the country at the same time where I'm talking daily to tourism business around Australia who are trying to keep their small businesses afloat, trying to keep their employees in jobs as they face the impact of coronavirus and the downturn of visitation. And I would urge the TWU to reconsider its actions, to think about the fact that it is just piling more pain on top of a tourism sector that is already suffering enormously as a result of circumstances beyond anybody's control and that they really ought to keep these planes flying so that people can book and travel with confidence when the government is spending $20 million on an additional domestic tourism marketing campaign at present to try to get people travelling across Australia. And the trade union movement is working in exactly the opposite direction, undermining that campaign, undermining those small businesses and harming the jobs and threatening the jobs of people in tourism across the country.

Ali Clarke: Alright. Well we certainly will keep everybody up to date as these flights are canceled. As we said, lots of people need to travel in and out in this coming week so thank you very much Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade and Tourism. Tom Koutsantonis, also part of that conversation.

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