Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Topics: G20; Indonesia; Water tender

Transcript: Sky News AM Agenda - Interview with Kieran Gilbert
20 January 2014

KIERAN GILBERT: With me on the program this morning - as I say, our first for the year, and thanks for joining me this morning - Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, and also the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Foreign Affairs, Matt Thistlethwaite. Gentlemen, good to see you. Simon, Tony Abbott's comments there that he wants the G20 to be more than just a talkfest. Does that reflect a view, do you think, that the G20 has lost a bit of momentum, lost a bit of relevance?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, good morning, Kieran, and happy New Year to you and the viewers. The G20 is an enormous opportunity for Australia, being hosted later this year in Brisbane, and the Prime Minister in the leadership role for this very influential group of twenty of the largest economies around the world. And we're determined to make sure - very determined to make sure - that this G20 is one that focuses on opening up trade opportunities, on the type of engagement around world economies that can ensure Australia grows and gets benefits, and deliver the type of tangible benefits right through to everyday Australians through greater integration of our economies and greater opportunities to sell our exports to the world. Now, there are some criticisms to your question that over the last few years perhaps the G20 hasn't had the same degree of focus on seizing opportunities. There was a period of time where of course they focused on responding to the global financial crisis and on strengthening certain financial markets. But it's important now to really be seizing opportunities for how we take the world economy forward and how we make sure that as Australians we are best placed to be as competitive and low-cost a place as possible to seize all of those opportunities.

KIERAN GILBERT: Matt Thistlethwaite, given the precarious global recovery, that all seems to make a lot of sense, to make the G20, the premier economic grouping, to make it have a practical difference. You'd welcome that focus surely?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, Kieran, firstly, happy New Year to you and to all of the viewers. Look, we believe that - we're heartened by the comments of Tony Abbott about taking the G20 seriously. And it's really a continuation of Labor's legacy in government about its approach to important international economic fora such as the G20. I think it's fair to say that, certainly under Prime Minister Rudd's prime ministership and his leadership through the G20, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis, that organisation achieved significant reform, particularly in relation to stability in the international banking sector, financial liquidity requirements and the like. But you can't have the Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying one thing, spouting the rhetoric, but then doing a different thing here at home. And things such as the Commission of Audit, where they're seeking to slash and burn on a number of important policy areas, and potentially shrink our economy, isn't an approach, I think, that you can take at an international level, given this - the instability that still exists, particularly in Europe and the United States. So it will be interesting to see what happens.

KIERAN GILBERT: Matt, you don't seem to be reflecting the same sort of message we're seeing from Bill Shorten this morning. We'll move on from the global talks and focus in on that Audit Commission, because I think that's quite a good segueway to do that this morning. And Bill Shorten has said a very different sort of sentiment to what we're hearing from you this morning. He says, we're not going to say just no to everything on the Audit Commission. He says, we do support always making sure that we change. We support change, but we've got to make sure, he says, that it's constructive, that we don't leave people behind. Now, he seems to be open to the recommendation of the Audit Commission. You seem a lot more negative about it.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, I don't think there's any difference between what I'm saying and what Bill Shorten is saying. Certainly Labor is open to sensible economic reform and we've shown that in opposition and in government. But when you have a Commission of Audit process that is essentially being run by big business, where they're refusing to rule out programs such as cuts to Medicare, programs such as support for job creation in Australia, they're issues that Labor is going to have serious issues with. So there's no difference between what I'm saying and what Bill's been saying. We're at one on this issue and that is that Labor will support sensible economic reform, but we're not going to allow big business to dictate...

KIERAN GILBERT: Well...

MATT THISTLETHWAITE:...to this government what they're going to slash and burn in our economy.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Well, listen, you're having a crack at the big business and being involved in this Audit Commission. As I say, to me, in the comments he's made, Mr Shorten, to the Australian Financial Review this morning, they sound a lot different. I want to read a little bit of it to you and get your thoughts on it. He says, we believe in being inclusive for all Australians. We obviously include business. Class war rhetoric, it doesn't wash with mainstream Australia. It seems a very different tone from Bill Shorten to what you're saying this morning and in fact what Sam Dastyari, the Labor Senator, had to say late last week. He seems to be a lot more constructive, as opposed to your criticisms that business is driving this Audit Commission.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: No, not at all, Kieran. The Labor legacy is one of economic growth and job creation, but at the same time improving living standards. And you improve living standards by access to decent education services, both at a school level and a tertiary level, and access to good quality healthcare. Now, under the current government there's big question marks that have been placed over those important programs that not only ensure economic growth in our society, but also ensure decent living standards. And when the leader of the Labor Party says that we will consider serious economic reform, that's in the model of the Keating and Hawke Governments, which undertook serious reform to our economy to ensure that it was competitive, that it was efficient and that it grew into the future.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Let's go to Simon Birmingham.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: But it won't count when it's passed to Medicare.

KIERAN GILBERT: All right. I want to move to Senator Birmingham now. It does appear Bill Shorten is being constructive when it comes to the Commission of Audit, open to what Tony Shepherd and co will recommend. That must be encouraging to the Government.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, it sounds like the Labor Party is as all over the place in opposition as they were in government, with front benchers like Matt Thistlethwaite and power brokers like Sam Dastyari at odds with their leader, Bill Shorten, in terms of just how constructive they will or won't be. But if Mr Shorten's words in today's newspapers are to be taken at face value, then he should show some sincerity. Show some sincerity, Mr Shorten, and pass the savings measures that the coalition has already outlined, some of which the previous Labor Government had proposed, which can try to stop the trajectory on which Australia is headed. We will get to some six-hundred-and-sixty-seven billion dollars of gross debt without some change. So show some sincerity, Mr Shorten, and pass those savings measures. If he's true about his word of wanting to be constructive, then show some sincerity and axe the carbon tax. Actually get on with getting rid of that impost that makes Australian business less competitive, passes on expensive electricity bills and higher costs of living to Australian households. There's a raft of things Mr Shorten could already be doing to show that he's constructive, to show that he's willing to actually let the Government get on with an agenda of turning Australia's budget around, of turning our economy around. To date, we're seeing words from Mr Shorten, but very little action to back those words up.

KIERAN GILBERT: We're seeing a letter as well from Bill Shorten. He's marking a hundred days as Opposition leader and he's written to the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham, calling for the Government to provide funding for Danny Green, the boxer. He's released an advertisement. In fact, I think it's a year or two old, but he's made a renewed push on this ad to stop those awful one-punch king-hits that we've seen in recent times. The alcohol-fuelled or whatever fuelled violence we're seeing. It's been such a tragic turn of events really in the last couple of months, Senator Birmingham. Would you support this push from Bill Shorten to have the Danny Green ad aired and aired as widely as possible?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I'm sure that's something that the Health Minister will have a look at and see whether it fits within the campaign budget that usually exists for advertising around anti-alcohol abuse campaigns. This is a very serious issue and we've seen a series of tragedies and they do really strike at people's concerns about what happens when you go out for a fun night out, but this type of mad, random violence can occur. But it's complex. These are complex issues and they need thorough responses that deal with the type of penalties, the type of offences that people can be charged with, the policing activities, the interplay between certain drugs and alcohol. There's a raft of factors here and, look, this is a suggestion from Mr Shorten. We'll have a look at it and see whether it fits within the budget and whether it is of benefit to do so. But there are a lot of other things that need to be done to try to bring this mindless violence under control that we're seeing too much of on our city streets.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, it sure does look like we as a society need to take a bigger look at this. Matt Thistlethwaite, such a concerning trend that we're seeing and, as Senator Birmingham quite rightly points out, it is - it's obviously got to take a - more than just one ad to respond, but as effective as that ad might be and seems to me to be.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Oh look, Kieran, it's a deeply worrying trend, particularly right here in Sydney, where a lot of this violence seems to be occurring. And the trend seems to be young men who are fuelled by alcohol and this perverted and misguided perception that it's a demonstration of manhood when you're full of drink to punch someone. And I think - I'm really pleased that Bill's made this suggestion to the Prime Minister. I think it's a really constructive one because there's no doubt that young men in that demographic would look up to the likes of Danny Green, a former world champion, and someone that I think could get a message through to people who are perhaps perpetrating these crimes, and it's definitely worth considering. And we'd urge the Prime Minister to seriously consider funding this ad.

KIERAN GILBERT: Matt Thistlethwaite, Senator of Birmingham, stay where you are. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back on AM Agenda. This is AM Agenda this Monday morning. Thanks for your company. With me Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, and Labor front bencher, Matt Thistlethwaite. Senator Birmingham, to you. On President Yudhoyono's new book, which has been released in the last couple of days, he says he felt betrayed by the way Tony Abbott handled the spying controversy last year. Initially, according to what he's written in this new book, he did not order a harsh response from his Government officials, but did so in response to what Tony Abbott said to Parliament, that there would not be an apology. In hindsight, could that whole episode have been handled more sensitively?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, I think it was always important, and will always remain important for Tony Abbott or, frankly, whoever the Prime Minister of the day is, to put Australia's national security interests first and foremost. Now, of course, our relationship with Indonesia is also absolutely vital and so Tony Abbott worked as hard as he possibly could and the Government overall worked as we possibly could to ensure that any harm to the Indonesian relationship was minimised, that we restored it as quickly as possible and that we got it back on a strong footing. I think the Prime Minister said at the time that he appreciated that the Indonesian President may well feel hurt at some of the suggestions of phone tapping that were being aired and that was acknowledged. Indeed of course we saw the Prime Minister take the step of sending a senior retired general with a personal message to President Yudhoyono to try to work through the issues. But they were difficult issues but we need to remember in the context of national security that is the primary obligation of this Prime Minister and any Prime Minister to put that at the forefront when handling Australia's [unclear 0:15:53.8].

KIERAN GILBERT: He was so angry about it though. This book was due to be released in December of last year. He'd delayed it a month so he could include a chapter on the spying row. That gives you a sense of just how much anger there was and certainly if you look at the events of the last week or so, these incursions into Indonesian territory certainly aren't going to help things are they?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we have a mature relationship in Indonesia and we are able to communicate on these issues and deal on these issues sensibly. Now [unclear 0:16:25.6].

KIERAN GILBERT: A troubled one right now, surely? You'd concede it's a troubled one as we speak?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I wouldn't say that it's a troubled relationship, no. I would say it's a mature relationship and one in which we have a frank exchange on issues where we sometimes have occasional difficulties but the truth is we are near neighbours. We are significant economies. We have much to work together on. It is in both our interests when it comes to the issue of people smuggling to stop that trade. The Indonesians acknowledge that as we acknowledge it. We want to get on with the job of doing so and we're confident that we can do so in a sensible working way with Indonesia.

KIERAN GILBERT: Matt Thistlethwaite let's separate the two issues here. Because obviously there was the spying row, the events of last week. First of all on the spying row and this book from President Yudhoyono - as Senator Birmingham points out this is something that is national security based, both sides are politics. In fact this spying took place under the former Labor Government and in fact all countries do it, so it's something which while it's sensitive at the time, there's also this real politic about it isn't there, that everyone knows it goes on?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, like the Government Kieran, we don't comment on these allegations for national security reasons, but there's no doubt that the allegations did put pressure on the relationship and Labor in Opposition sought to offer the Government all the support that it needed to normalise and restore relations with one of our most important regional partners. But there is the other issue that is putting critical pressure on the relationship between Indonesia and that is this Government's approach to asylum seekers. Just this week we've seen the unprecedented step of the Indonesian military sending an additional frigate to protect its southern borders from Australia which is potentially - or supposed to be one of its friendliest neighbours in the wake of our naval incursions into Indonesian waters. Now, we've had to apologise for that, yet there's this ongoing secrecy from this Government in respect of this very important and critical policy and no doubt the consequences that it has for our relationship with an important regional partner.

KIERAN GILBERT: If you look at this though, in terms of results, the results would suggest that that secrecy, while it's being criticised by yourself and others - certainly many in the media as well, for a lack of transparency - that if you look at the numbers it seems to be having quite an effect and the effect the Government promise.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, it's having an effect because of the regional resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea that was put in place by the previous Labor Government. If you look at the figures, the numbers were falling before the election of the Abbott Government. So you can no doubt that the regional resettlement arrangement has had an effect on people seeking to come here by boat. The proof in that is the fact that it hasn't been dismantled by this Government. But what we've now seen is additional pressure being put on our naval personnel ain potentially unsafe situations. We've seen the comments of them on Facebook last week and this secrecy by which, in an important policy area the Australian public don't have the right to judge how our resources are being spent on this important policy area and the consequences for our relationship with Indonesia.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Senator Birmingham, further to what Matt Thistlethwaite has said - that Indonesia has reportedly demanded an immediate stop to turning back the boats, that'd be at least a good start wouldn't it? If the numbers are already falling away, is it time now to extend the olive branch to Indonesia and say, okay we will listen to your concerns?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, what's been very, very important in terms of the success this Government has had to date in stemming the flow of arrivals is that people smugglers accept that we have a real commitment and a real sense of conviction to the policies that we're applying. They know that unlike Labor who flip-flopped over border protection policies through six tragic years that saw numbers and debts spiral, we will stand by our policies and the policies around offshore processing, the policies around turning boats back where it's safe to do so. These are all policies that we outlined before the election. They're policies we've got on with implementing after the election and in implementing them, we will demonstrate a sense of conviction and commitment to those policies because it's really important that you do so. The slightest crack in your commitment, the slightest crack in that conviction and people smugglers will seize on it.

KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask you one final question on an issue related to your portfolio too - Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment, Senator Birmingham - you're releasing tender details for a water sell-off in the Murray Darling Basin. It seems it is such a dry period. Is it really the right time to be having a water sell-off?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Kieran this is about the effective management of the vast holdings of water that the Federal Government now has under the Murray Darling Basin plan. What will happen is a little bit will be sold in one location in the Murray Darling Basin to get a better overall environmental outcome by buying a little bit somewhere else within the Murray Darling Basin. So this is about smart and sensible and innovative management of portfolio rather than just letting it sit there and stagnate and getting sub optimal environmental outcomes, we're determined to make sure we get real environmental outcomes that happen to come with an added benefit that the sale of this water in the part of the basin which will be announced later today, will provide some economic benefit to that region. But overall, we will get better environmental outcomes through smart and sensible trading and management of our water resources.

KIERAN GILBERT: We've only got - we've got less a minute left, but just quickly, any quick details you can provide our viewers who are in the Murray Darling who might be interested in this tender.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I wish I could. At ten am the details will be released but it's market sensitive information and will be released to the market then. It will be a small initial trade. This is the first foray in the six, seven years of the water act that the environmental water holder's done a trade. It's an important new step that will give us better environmental outcomes and can give a bit of an economic boost to some of those agricultural regions.

KIERAN GILBERT: Gentlemen, thanks for your time this morning. Good to see you at the first show of the year. I appreciate it.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Thanks Kieran.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks Kieran. Cheers Matt.

[ends]

Simon Birmingham

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