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

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Brexit situation; Tamil family; Christopher Pyne; SA Tourism campaign.
04 September 2019

David Bevan: Let’s welcome our guests. Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator from South Australia and Minister for Trade. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David.

David Bevan: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Labor Senator Penny Wong, good morning to you.

Penny Wong: Good morning.

David Bevan: And also on the line in Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick. Good morning, Rex Patrick.

Rex Patrick: Good morning.

David Bevan: Senator Birmingham, if we can begin with you, what’s the latest briefing you’ve received on what’s unfolding in Westminster?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I expect that there'll be updated cables that I’ll receive from the UK in the next couple of hours as they digest all that has happened and is happening in Westminster at the 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. But people know what they’re against, and they seem to be against most of the different directions that 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.

Now, what appears to have happened this morning Australian time, is that a series of motions make likely a possible further deferral of the October 31 Brexit deadline that Prime Minister Johnson had to set. That's not certain yet, but it seems to make that likely, and that 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 or 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 engage with new markets like Indonesia, others like the European Union, and just continue to open up more opportunities for our farmers and businesses.

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

[Excerpt]

Ali Clarke: Well Hannah, can we just interrupt? We're going to go straight to the House of Commons.

Unidentified Speaker: The ayes of the right, 328. The no’s to the left, 301. Not a good start, Boris.

Ali Clarke: So that does look like they have taken control of the Commons. Business just there, Hannah Ritchie.

Reporter: Wow. That’s huge news. We haven't really seen Parliament come together to strike a firm position, one way or another, to block a no-deal Brexit.

Ali Clarke: Sorry Hannah Richie, but let's in fact head back to Commons. As you said, this is history unfolding live on air. Here is Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson: … and the consequences of this vote tonight, it means that if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on October the 17th to sort this out and take this country forward.

[End of excerpt]

David Bevan: Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, what do you think’s going to happen next?

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

Really, quite extraordinary scenes, but I would make the points, 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 actually had an agenda to do that. I mean, we've got, you know, interest rates that have served as the emergency lows of the GFC, sluggish wages growth, and very sluggish or stagnant wages growth, and very sluggish growth across the economy. And I see this government has a political strategy but no economic strategy.

David 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. 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 stay in this country. Do you agree this is not just about one family?

Penny Wong: Look, we support the strong border protection and Operation Sovereign Borders. But I would make the point the Minister has the discretion. The discretion he’s been prepared to exercise in relation to au pairs. I think this is a case where there's discretion merited. Now 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 is- has children here, that’s well integrated into a regional community. It has been, I think, 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.

David Bevan: Well Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was quoted as saying that the era of Labor bipartisanship on border protection under Bill Shorten's leadership is over.

Penny Wong: Yeah, well like I said, this Government's got a political strategy. They're very good at that. But you know, 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 in relation to a family who’s really integrated into the community?

David Bevan: Well, is it correct that under Labor, more than 2,600 Sri Lankan asylum seekers were sent back, and that was at the height of the border protection crisis?

Penny Wong: I don't have figures in front of me. I think you're speaking off The Australian.

David Bevan: I am. I made it quite clear I'm quoting from The Australian.

Penny Wong: Yes. I don't have figures in front of me from when we were in government. I'd make the point we are at a point where this government - the Coalition- is in its third term. So we can keep talking about what happened nearly six plus or more years ago, but I think there's a third term government here. They're responsible, and I've made the point, we think there's a discretion [indistinct].

David 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?

Penny Wong: Well, David, thank you for asking questions from the past. This is about the present, and what we're saying is there is a system which has a ministerial discretion - that exists. Peter Dutton can exercise it.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, how do you explain to your children what's going on?

Simon Birmingham: David, I mean, these and- there are sadly all too often very difficult, challenging individual cases that the Immigration Ministers of the day have, that 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 were 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, if you don't qualify for refugee status or for that humanitarian visa category, then you don't receive settlement here. That consistency is important because that is the message that we have sent.

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

Simon Birmingham: Well I think I would explain it in longer and more compassionate detail than that. But you know these are- 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. And 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 of families like this in the future. And the Labor Party is being incredibly reckless here and yes, just three months after the change in Labor leader, Anthony Albanese is unpicking the bipartisanship that Bill Shorten claims there would be or was in relation to these policies.

Ali Clarke: Can we just go to Rex Patrick now? We haven't heard much from you, Centre Alliance Senator, where do you sit on this family and what should happen?

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

David Bevan: And you don't believe there would be wider consequences from doing that?

Rex 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 opening in the context of medevac and it doesn't happen. A bit more compassion I think is deserved in this instance.

Ali Clarke: That is the voice of Rex Patrick, Centre Alliance Senator. We also have the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs in Penny Wong with us and Minister for Trade and Tourism, Simon Birmingham. It's 14 minutes to nine and you're listening to ABC Radio Adelaide.

David 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?

Simon Birmingham: David, I don't know. They're operational questions. I haven't- I'm not the responsible minister, I haven't asked the agencies responsible as to why they make those decisions in relation to timing and movements.

David Bevan: It just is? It is what it is and we’ve just got to accept that’s the way we do things in this country?

Simon Birmingham: Well David as I said, we have got ourselves to a position where we don't have boats arriving, we don't have deaths at sea, and we won't have a backload 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.

David Bevan: Rex Patrick on another topic, will former defence minister from South Australia, Chris Pyne, have to front an inquiry regarding his new job?

Rex 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.

David Bevan: And what are you going- sorry, are you a part of that inquiry? You get to sit on that or are it- you'll just be handing somebody the questions?

Rex Patrick: No I am- I in fact initiated the inquiry. I think when you have a minister, 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.

David Bevan: Okay so you are looking forward to personally being able to grill Christopher Pyne?

Rex 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.

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

Penny Wong: Do I look forward to Christopher Pyne what?

David Bevan: Giving some answers, explaining himself.

Penny Wong: Giving some answers, well I think the key question here you know is also for Scott Morrison. I mean these ministerial standards ultimately are only as good as the ethics of the Prime Minister and because that's the only way in which they can be enforced is have the Prime Minister enforce them. That's clear and I think that was clear from the evidence of Dr Parkinson to this inquiry, or to another inquiry. These are the Prime Minister's standards. And to this stage it seems that the Government and certainly the Prime Minister just don't want to talk about it. They don't want- 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. And I think people deserve answers to that.

David 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?

Simon Birmingham: Well Scott Morrison asked the head of the public service to compare it and to look into it and he handed down his findings and there was no breach on ministerial standards.

Penny Wong: Yeah and all he did was give him a call mate. All he did was give him a call. I mean that is- that’s what I mean about Scott Morrison, like he can't just say handball to some bureaucrat, bureaucrat calls-

Simon Birmingham: We’re not handballing to some bureaucrat, it’s the head of the public service, Penny.

Penny Wong: Well yes, let me finish. Handball it to him and then say well I’ve washed my hands of this because you know, he called Chris, Chris says there’s no breach. So therefore there’s no breach. I mean- Sounds like something out of-

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s got its own [indistinct] partisan and prejudiced so instead he got the independent head of public service to do it. And you criticize that instead.

Ali Clarke: Alright. Alright, to both of you, how about we see if we can find something we can agree on. Simon, Minister, old mate, buddy, you are the Minister for Tourism in this. The tourism ad has been getting a lot of play here in South Australia but the whole idea is to get the people to come to South Australia and it features old mate. What do you think of it?

Simon Birmingham: Well I wish old mate had come to South Australia earlier. Then clearly he wouldn't have been upset.

Ali Clarke: So has it got a tick from you? This whole campaign?

Simon Birmingham: Look it's obviously got lots of people talking and it's got interstate media coverage in terms of the breakfast programs talking about South Australia.

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

Simon Birmingham: Well no, you know, look South Australia doesn't have a huge budget it can spend on tourism advertising, you want to do something that actually gets free media attention, gets people talking and…

David Bevan: Penny Wong what do you think?

Penny Wong: It was just- I thought it was gloomy I thought it was pretty gloomy.

David Bevan: Rex Patrick?

Rex Patrick: So it kind of starts off happy then it turns gloomy and 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.

Ali 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 populace. Thank you so much Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade and Tourism, Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Rex Patrick, Centre Alliance Senator.

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