Topics: AFP search warrants on AWU offices; New child care fee data; Higher education reforms
Julie Doyle: Minister, thanks for coming in today. Now, let’s start with the news of the day before we get to some issues in your portfolio, and the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash yesterday misled the
Estimates committee. Why shouldn’t she resign?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Julie, Michaelia Cash took the first available opportunity, as soon as she was informed that the information that had been provided to her was different, she took the first available opportunity to go back into that committee to correct the record. Of course, the staff member who had provided her with misleading information resigned instantly, and really, that is following exactly the proper process, that at every stage Michaelia Cash provided the committee with the truth as she knew it to be.
Julie Doyle: You said the resignation happened instantly, but this played out over the entire day. So early in the day, she was asked in that committee: are you absolutely certain that no one in your office contacted the media? And she said: my office did not find out about the raids until after they were being conducted. So clearly there, she did mislead the committee.
Simon Birmingham: And that was Michaelia Cash providing the committee with the assurances that she had been provided with at that time. As she has said endlessly, in terms of the questions that she’s been asked repetitively by the Opposition, she has been very clear that during the dinner break last night, having started questions at 9am yesterday morning, at 6pm last night she went back into her office between around 6 or 7, was told that the information she had been provided was incorrect. Her staff member admitted to her that he had misled her, that he had, in fact, engaged in those activities. He resigned. The moment the committee resumed, she went back in, she updated the record, she gave, of course, the account that had been provided to …
Julie Doyle: What …
Simon Birmingham: Now, this is great for the Labor Party to keep going on about this. Of course, Michaelia Cash has been open and forthright about what she understood at every single step.
Julie Doyle: But what about her behaviour earlier in the day though? She stepped it up a notch in that committee hearing when she was questioned by the Labor senators about this, and she said she was offended by the questions on behalf of her staff; she was outraged; she accused Labor of throwing mud; now she’s had to completely back down. Has she lost all credibility here?
Simon Birmingham: Well no, and you should have a look at the way the Labor Party have behaved about this enquiry, or indeed any questioning of the way in which unions conduct themselves. There are …
Julie Doyle: But this is about what Michaelia Cash said yesterday now.
Simon Birmingham: And Michaelia Cash has been completely forthright with this committee in terms of the knowledge she has at every step, and when she was informed that circumstances had changed, that there was updated information, she gave that updated information to the committee. Whereas there is …
Julie Doyle: But what about her credibility though? That was the question. Hasn’t her credibility been damaged here, that, for whatever reason, she didn’t know this information – she says – earlier in the day when she went before the committee, and then was advised about it much later in the proceedings.
Simon Birmingham: Look, as I think Christian Porter, my colleague, has said today: ministers don’t have psychic powers. If somebody is telling us the wrong thing, we don’t necessarily know that that is a falsehood at the time. Michaelia had been given assurances right throughout the day that her office had no prior knowledge and nothing to do with information about the raid. When she was given alternative knowledge, she went back into the committee and she updated it.
I don’t ever see any member of the Labor Party admitting that trade unions have done the wrong thing when they’re prosecuted and convicted. I don’t ever see them admitting that there could be wrongdoings or malfeasance when it comes to the use of members’ money, which, of course, is what is being investigated in relation to the AWU. Let’s just understand this is about police raids that were initiated because the independent Federal Police had been issued a warrant, approved by an independent magistrate with judicial oversight, requested by the independent Registered Organisations Commission, into the potential misuse of members’ money.
Julie Doyle: Just on that though, this is the approach the Government has taken here, trying to attack Bill Shorten and attack Labor over his record as a union leader. Hasn’t this all backfired for you now?
Simon Birmingham: None of this is about Bill Shorten per se. This is about trade unions in Australia, of which Bill Shorten admittedly was the leader of the AWU at that time …
Julie Doyle: But hasn’t it backfired now, now that we’ve seen what has happened with what Michaelia Cash had to do.
Simon Birmingham: Trade unions in Australia should be held to account, as should employer organisations and any others, to make sure that they are being responsible in their use of members’ money, that they are not subjecting that or diverting that off for entirely political or partisan purposes that is against the interests of their member. Now, that’s what the Registered Organisations Commission is investigating, their activities in a range of areas. Its powers apply equally to employer organisations as they do to trade unions, and of course we’ve seen many, many instances, particularly with the CFMEU, where the actions of unions have resulted in criminal convictions.
Julie Doyle: I was asking about, though, the way this has played out now and what we’ve seen with Michaelia Cash having to come back in and correct the record. This has not played well for the Government though.
Simon Birmingham: Well, of course you would wish that this had not happened. Michaelia would wish that her staff member had not misled her. I’m sure the man who has lost his job wishes that he had conducted himself differently as well, but ultimately Michaelia has kept the committee abreast at every possible step so far as the information was provided to her. The ROC will continue with their independent inquiry according to the laws of the land, as they should, and of course that will go down its path depending on whatever evidence is available.
Julie Doyle: Let’s move on to some areas in your portfolio now. You’re talking today about figures that have been released relating to how much families are paying for child care that show that child care fees are continuing to rise. Your changes don’t come into effect until next year; families are under pressure now. Why can’t you do something sooner to help them?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Julia, we would’ve loved for our changes to have come into effect this financial year, but of course the Labor Party and the Greens actually voted against our changes and they held them up in the Parliament for a long period of time. That ultimately forced, in terms of the sweeping changes to put in a new child care subsidy, that we had to delay implementation by 12 months.
Now, that’s unfortunate, and I know that many families are doing it tough in relation to their child care bills. The good news, as we enter a new year not that far away now, is that help is on the way and that, come the middle of next year, a new child care subsidy will commence for the new financial year. That will give increased rates of subsidy to many families, it will abolish the terrible $7500 cap in relation to the child care rebate. I remain astounded that Labor and the Greens voted against this legislation, that they opposed it and delayed it, but ultimately the Turnbull Government is delivering that help that families need.
Julie Doyle: Well, that’s one that did go through the Parliament. But just finally, you’ve got a big struggle now getting your higher education changes through. So the Nick Xenophon Team have said they’re not going to support the changes until there’s a review of higher education. Will you agree to that?
Simon Birmingham: There have been many reviews of higher education, and indeed just this week, of course, the Productivity Commission, in its latest review, provided commentary around higher education, commentary that we should be seeking greater efficiency for our spend, commentary that we should be ensuring that universities are held better to account for graduate outcomes. These are all measures that are in the Government’s reform package. We don’t need another review to tell us what reviews have already told us.
Julie Doyle: So that’s a no to a review that Nick Xenophon is asking for. What are you going to do then to get this through the Parliament?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope the Productivity Commission review might cause some figures to reconsider their publically stated positions. We ought to get on and simply do this. Of course, the Government is determined to ensure that our Budget projections are met and higher education, which has seen enormous funding growth since 2009, growing at twice the rate of the economy in terms of revenues, and all our proposals do is slightly slower the rate of growth, such that their funding would only grow by 23 per cent over the next four years. That’s a pretty strong rate of growth. They should be making, and we would continue to propose that they make, a contribution to those Budget savings to make sure that we do meet our Budget projections. We hope that occurs through the proposals we have before the Parliament.
Julie Doyle: Alright, Minister. We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Julie.