Doorstop interview, Melbourne
Topics: Launch of ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery; Same-sex marriage; Citizenship of Parliamentarians; Sam Dastyari
Simon Birmingham: I’m thrilled to be here today to launch the ARC, the Australian Research Council, Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery. The Turnbull Government is backing this centre of excellence with some $31.3 million of investment, to help ensure that Australia’s work, which remains at the forefront of global collaboration on the discovery of gravitational waves, continues to lead the way, that we support and underpin the development of another generation of skilled researchers who can expand our knowledge of the universe and indeed of systems throughout the world and beyond.
But what is essential for Australia is that we are at the forefront, not just of developing breakthroughs in basic knowledge and new understandings of the way the world works, but also that we find ways to apply that science in manners that can benefit us into the future.
So, we see already, potential for use, for knowledge for understanding gravitational waves, that can help us more sustainably manage environmental water and river systems. The knowledge can be applied in ways to help us with our understanding of defence systems that can help enhance security monitoring and other processes. These are important breakthroughs that have very practical benefits as the science continues to develop. Australian researchers have done so much and as a nation we should be incredibly proud of our scientists and researchers in their work in gravitational waves, that they have done. And I’m incredibly hopeful that their breakthroughs will continue to provide many benefits into the future.
Journalist: Just some questions on other matters, firstly, do you still believe that there is a yes vote on same sex marriage, then the best private members bill to go through Parliament would be Dean Smith’s bill?
Simon Birmingham: The Dean Smith bill is the logical starting point for Parliamentary debate in relation to same-sex marriage if there is a yes vote. If there is a yes vote, the Turnbull Government is committed to facilitating debate and to seeing same sex marriage legislated by the end of this year. Logically, we should start with Dean Smith’s bill, because it has been the one that has been most subject to exposure already, in improvements already, has been through and formed out of a Parliamentary committee process. I see suggestions of other bills that some people are working on and indeed bills being proposed by people who have been opponents of change. It would be illogical and inconsistent with past practice for those who oppose change who seek to be the authors of a bill for that change. Of course, though, every single member of Parliament, in what will be a free vote that occurs in debate around same sex marriage, will be entitled to put forward whatever amendments they wish to put forward. If we have to sit longer hours to consider those amendments, then we should and we will sit longer hours to consider those amendments. But, ultimately, we want to see this matter dealt with according to the will of the Australian people. If there is a yes vote, we should debate the Smith bill, get it passed in one form or another, and see the matter settled this year.
Journalist: What about the issues of inadequate religious protections? Do you think that stronger protections are necessary?
Simon Birmingham: I believe we have very strong protections in a number of ways already for freedom of religion, and indeed ways that protect, for example, in my portfolio, religious educational institutions, in their freedom to be able to make staffing decisions and teach according to doctrine and their faith. Those protections with their faith, their conscience, their teachings or doctrines when it comes to same sex marriage, and I would fully anticipate that those provisions in the Smith bill will be carried through the Parliament. If people have additional proposals they want to put forward, well they should rightly bring those amendments to the Parliament, spell out what they are, justify why they’re necessary and people will debate and vote on them accordingly.
Journalist: So, considering there are already protections elsewhere, does that mean you believe Smith’s bill doesn’t need to be altered to include religious protections and is that something you would consider about putting into Smith’s bill?
Simon Birmingham: If there are additional protections that people think are necessary, beyond what is in existing law, beyond what’s in Dean Smith’s bill, we’ll let them bring the amendments to Parliament, specific what they are, what the need for them is, outline how it is that they don’t, in any way, undermine existing anti-discrimination provisions, and that the Parliament can debate and vote on them in what will be an entirely free-vote scenario, should this debate be occurring.
Journalist: On citizenship, would the government be willing to consider a tighter timeframe and stricter disclosure rules for dual citizens in order to reach an agreement with Labor on the Parliamentary register?
Simon Birmingham: Malcolm Turnbull has made it very clear he wants to see full disclosure from Members of Parliament, he wants to see the matter settled and resolved this year in terms of that disclosure. And if there need to be referrals to the High Court, that ought to be possible this year as well. Now, the ball is very much in Bill Shortens court. He said that he wanted to be collaborative and cooperative with the government on this. We’ve provided him with terms of reference, he spent two hours with Malcolm Turnbull yesterday without proposing a specific amendment or change. Let’s actually see Labor say, if they believe that this is a good process, if they support full disclosure, then they commit to actually getting on with it rather than playing politics with it.
Journalist: Do you think that John Alexander should own up to the fact he’s a dual citizen and step down?
Simon Birmingham: Well, John Alexander has made clear statements that he will comply with whatever process of disclosure is agreed to. The Government is committed to the process of disclosure, John Alexander will have to comply with that, and if there are issues, they will be addressed from there.
Journalist: Do you think he should come forward sooner? I mean, he’s been seeking clarification, but he hasn’t clarified it for the Australian public. So should he just own up and tell people either way?
Simon Birmingham: Well, my understanding is that John Alexander believes his father had renounced his British citizenship, in which case he believes he does not have a problem. Now, it’s to John to make sure that disclosures he makes are keeping with the requirements set down by the Parliament. We want to get that process underway. We will proceed with it, we hope that the Labor party stops playing politics and comes on board and lets this full disclosure happen.
Journalist: Just moving on to a different issue, Sam Dastyari was verbally abused by a couple of people who worked for Toll Holdings at a Victoria University pub yesterday. Do you think those employees who filmed themselves doing it should lose their jobs?
Simon Birmingham: One of the prices of public life is that sometimes we find we get public abuse. There’s no place for it, and it shouldn’t happen, and in particular racially motivated public abuse should absolutely not happen and it should be fully condemned. Toll Holdings will need to consider whether or not these individuals have brought disrepute on their business, that’s a matter for their employment practices and codes of conduct, but the mere fact that we’re talking about it would suggest that there has been disrepute created. But of course, they were acting in an inappropriate manner and a manner that frankly is very unaustralian.
Journalist: I mean, no matter what side of politics you’re on, I mean it’s clearly unacceptable to verbally abuse someone for their ethnic racial background. It doesn’t have any place in the 21st Century in 2017.
Journalist: Just on that point, Sam Dastyari just said he’s seen an increase in the far-right white nationalism, just tying in with that question, have you noticed an increase in that and is that a concern?
Simon Birmingham: I think Australia is still a proud and successful multicultural nation, that has much to advocate to the rest of the world about how we have successfully settled refugees, migrants from all corners of the globe, over a long period of time. And we ought not to talk our country down in terms of that success. But, equally, we have to be very clear that it is unacceptable for people to engage in racial vilification, to target others based on their race, and indeed because of our proud history, because of our proud success, I would argue it is unaustralian for individuals to target others because of their race. We’re a tolerant country, we’re a country that has embraced migrants, been built on migrants and we ought to continue to show respect to all migrants.