SUBJECTS: Higher education reform; Racial Discrimination Act; Israeli-Palestinian conflict; South Australian state politics
COMPERE: Chris Pyne is Liberal MP for Sturt, Education Minister and Leader of the House, joins us on the phone. Good morning Chris Pyne.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning. Mark sounds better without a microphone, it must be said.
MARK BUTLER: Charming as always, Christopher.
COMPERE: Let’s try and be nice, at least to begin with. Christopher Pyne, you are talking to us from Canberra because later on today you will be addressing the National Press Club. Any news in that?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I will be talking about my higher education reforms, or the Government’s higher education reforms, to an audience of higher education players from Universities Australia and all the various universities and also the press gallery.
COMPERE: Apart from telling people what a sterling job you are doing, will you be making an announcement, that’s what I mean?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I won’t be telling them I am doing a sterling job, I will be explaining to them why it is very important to reform higher education in Australia but I won’t be making any new announcements, I will be continuing to explain calmly and methodically and carefully what our reforms are and why they are going to be good for students and universities.
COMPERE: Are you going to stick to those or are you going to drop them as you dropped the 18C reform that you promised to deliver before the election?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we will introduce the legislation for higher education later this month, early next month potentially and we will then go to the process of negotiating with the Senate. I am a realist knowing there will need to be negotiations with the Senate, that’s the way the system works, it has for decades. I am looking forward to working with the crossbenchers to bring about much needed reform.
COMPERE: Why did the Prime Minister, and it appears that it was his call, judging by the look on George Brandis’ face standing next to him at the press conference, why did he drop what you promised before the election and that was the right that, people had a right to be offensive?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well the reality is that we are facing a home grown terrorism threat which has become particularly obvious in recent weeks with the invasion of Iraq by the ISIS terrorist organisation, calling themselves a new caliphate. And we have a situation where there are Australians travelling to the Middle East becoming radicalised and armed and trained as terrorists. And right now in Australia, and I am sure all of your listeners would agree, we want all of our community working together to ensure that those Australians who are foolish enough to do this are not going to become problems in our society.
COMPERE: But surely that is the gimme. I mean, everybody would be appalled with what they are seeing coming out of the Middle East at the moment. So why did you have to trade off what you said before the election were important freedoms that you were returning to people in terms of free speech – why did you have to trade that off in order to get agreement on anti-terrorist measures?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we announced earlier this year an exposure draft of a Bill to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and we said we would go through a process of consultation, that’s what an exposure draft is.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I’m sorry?
COMPERE: Well, now you have just dropped it, forget that.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that’s the whole point of an exposure draft is to seek consultation, to seek community views. Now George has over 5,000 written submissions. He has been meeting with people from across multicultural communities in Australia ever since and the assessment has been made that this could potentially be a hurdle to all working together to meet the threat that Australia is facing and we want all the communities in Australia to be able to be on Team Australia and clearing away section 18C is I think a very sensible move.
COMPERE: Are you conceding here that you have, it has only just dawned on you, the Prime Minister and George Brandis that being racially offensive to certain groups is divisive in our community? Is that what you are telling us?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: There is always a trade-off between freedom of speech and protection of the rights of people not to feel intimidated or racially abused. Now we have issued an exposure draft, we have gone through a consultation process…
COMPERE: Yeah, I know you have told us that.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …that has caused us to decide to drop our changes.
COMPERE: You didn’t answer our question then.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I thought you would welcome them.
COMPERE: No but you haven’t answered the question. You have just repeated something I think for the third time.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: What was the question?
COMPERE: Well the question was, has it just only dawned on you that what you were proposing was divisive and distracting? That was what the question was, and you have given the same answer the three times to what was not the question. So you can you answer that question - has it just dawned on the Government, and you and George Brandis to what you are doing was what people said it would be and that is divisive?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well there was a very strong movement before the election and in fact since the election from some causes for it to be expansion of freedom of speech. There was a view that the section 18C of the RDA was limiting the freedom of speech and therefore we responded to that. There is still people who have that view but our view is that right now in Australia what we need is a Team Australia approach to fighting terrorism. We have announced some very important measures yesterday, $630 million worth of new spending, new powers for the Government and for the Minister and as part of that we want to clear away hurdles. This was a hurdle that needs to be cleared away.
COMPERE: Mark Butler, are you on Team Australia?
MARK BUTLER: Well I think I am on Team Australia. Certainly the opposition is on Team Australia. But this 18C question has been a complete shambles and this is a very embarrassing back down for George Brandis in particular. I am not sure why the Prime Minister and powerful figures in the Government like Christopher let him indulge in this for as long as he did. The sales pitch from the start was a complete disaster. Remember he sold this in the Senate on the basis that Australians had the right to be bigots. It has got extraordinary opposition out there in the community and the fact that they have dropped this is welcomed. It is embarrassing I think for George Brandis but we certainly welcome it. What I think we don’t quite understand ….
COMPERE: Do you think the legislation as it stands though goes too far, in other words if it was handled properly you could have had a compromise, a middle ground where it wasn’t quite…
MARK BUTLER: I think we had a middle ground, the middle ground we’ve got, there are protections about free speech in the Racial Discrimination Act, 18D, not 18C. And I think that the middle ground that is achieved in the RDA, the Racial Discrimination Act, has been there for twenty years has served us well should be left in place. What I think, what I don’t quite understand is why the Prime Minister so closely connected the shelving of this 18C proposal with the security laws that he announced last year, yesterday sorry, the funding and so on.
COMPERE: You don’t…
MARK BUTLER: A number of ethnic communities have come out in the media this morning asking the question, well what was the Prime Minister implying there, that in order to get people on to Team Australia, they had to drop this proposal about the Racial Discrimination Act. I think that it was very hand-fisted and I can’t see why there had to be this connection. Of course everyone in Australia is part of Team Australia when it comes to trying to deal with these jihadists, these people who are traveling overseas engaging in some awful acts, putting some of it on the internet. You don’t need to bribe people to get on to Team Australia to do this.
COMPERE: Do you like that Team Australia thing, do you?
MARK BUTLER: I don’t. I’m using it…
COMPERE: You have used it about twenty times.
MARK BUTLER: Christopher used it, the Prime Minister used it. I just don’t understand why they suggest that people need to be given something in order to be part of a national consensus to fight these jihadists.
COMPERE: Chris Pyne?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think that is a very, very shallow analysis of the situation. Obviously by definition, by definition because they are 150 estimated Australians operating in the Middle East as jihadists, not everybody is on Team Australia. Now a fraction, a fraction of our population certainly. But it is a very dangerous fraction and the Government had to take the firm action that is necessary to protect Australia. Our very first priority is the safety of Australian citizens. And that is what we mean by everybody being on Team Australia. And we want to focus on that, we are not going to be distracted by other debates which I am sure Labor would like us to be distracted by. We are not going to be distracted by things like the Racial Discrimination Act debate because we want to get on with protecting Australia and saving the economy.
COMPERE: You have just come back from Israel, that’s right isn’t it?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yes, it is.
COMPERE: So you were there during the bombing?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yes.
COMPERE: You were closer to it than most of us who are listening to you right now, what are your impressions of the dispute there? Did you come away thinking there are goodies and badies here, because that is the sort of language that the Prime Minister has used regarding other disputes. Did you come away thinking I am talking to the people who are on the side of right here?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, firstly of course the Government and I think the Opposition’s position is that we both support a two state solution in Israel with two states living side by side peacefully, one recognising the other. And allowing them to get on with their lives without being in fear of terror. But the situation in Israel at the moment is that Hamas, which is a prescribed terrorist organisation, has fired over 3,000 rockets into Israel over the last month. Before that they kidnapped three teenage Jewish boys in Jerusalem and murdered them for no apparent reason. And clearly they have opened this conflagration. Now when I was in Israel for about four days; four nights and five days, certainly I could hear bombs at night. There weren’t sirens in Jerusalem, there were sirens in Tel Aviv and in other parts of Israel while I was there but I wasn’t in those areas, I was in Jerusalem almost exclusively. And of course I landed just after the ban of flying into Ben-Gurion Airport was lifted because of rockets landing near the airport.
COMPERE: Are you disgusted though on the flipside with the images of the children who have been killed or maimed in UN schools in Gaza?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Absolutely. I am aghast and horrified by the not just the images I am horrified by the reality of the casualty list which is mounting in Gaza. And I think Hamas and Israel both need to stop the war that is going on in there. Obviously Israel needs to withdraw from Gaza and Hamas needs to stop firing rockets at innocent people in Israel.
COMPERE: So you are as appalled with Israel’s actions as with Hamas’?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I am disgusted that Hamas would continue to tell its people to go back into their houses when Israel sends out leaflets, SMSs and asks people to leave suburbs where Hamas is operating and Hamas uses its people effectively as human shields. I am horrified about that. But nobody, nobody whether they are a parent, whether they are a single person, could be anything other than horrified at the deaths, the maiming, the injuries being visited on the Palestinian people in Gaza.
COMPERE: Mark Butler, what’s your position?
MARK BUTLER: Well Christopher’s right…
COMPERE: Are you on Team Israel, or are you on Team Palestine?
MARK BUTLER: Well Christopher is right, both major parties have had the same policy position for many years which is that two state solution based on the 1967 borders which are shifting almost daily because of the vast settlements being built by Israel, particularly in the West Bank which is the major part of what would be a Palestinian state. The wall that has been erected over the last many years has also been in many cases gone well beyond the 1967 borders so we do have the same policy end but I think what a number of Labor, including me, have been talking about in the last couple of weeks is a rising frustration at the lack of any progress. Indeed not only is there no progress, we are actually going backwards in terms I think of there foreseeably being a two state solution. And we have been in that position for years particularly since Rabin was murdered almost twenty years ago. They seem to be slipping further and further from our grasp and I think it is time that Australia started to think more assertively about getting these two states that are both been largely now taken over by more radical, more radical positions, less inclined towards a peace settlement than was the case twenty years ago.
COMPERE: Christopher Pyne, before you leave us, as Federal Education Minister, do you have confidence in Jennifer Rankine, the South Australia Education Minister?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well obviously I have had my disputes with Jennifer Rankine since the election in September and Jennifer plays a lot of politics which is a very unfortunate aspect of the State Labor Government in South Australia. The latest amateur hour of our politics is this ship building exercise. Obviously what has been exposed through the media about Families SA is horrifying. The Royal Commission to me is another Weatherill kind of reaction. I’ve listened to parents recently saying on television that they knew what needed to be done, they didn’t need another Royal Commission, what people wanted was action to be taken. Whether I have confidence in Jennifer Rankine is rather here nor there. Unfortunately the Premier seems to not understand the Westminster system which is that when there is a major fiasco in a person’s Department, the Minister takes responsibility for it. But I don’t think that Jay Weatherill has the political capital in Labor to sack a Minister.
COMPERE: And Mark Butler…
MARK BUTLER: That was a very statesman’s like contribution with no politics in it at all.
COMPERE: I’m glad you conceded that. Well he didn’t really bag Jennifer Rankine, he had the opportunity to.
MARK BUTLER: He bagged the Premier instead. I think that Jennifer Rankine is doing a really strong job in an extraordinarily difficult position. And I think we talked about this last week when Jamie Briggs was subbing for Christopher. It is really difficult I think when a Minister like Jennifer or the Premier gets legal advice that says information is best kept within the Government so as not to jeopardise any prosecution or trial that might proceed and it is very frustrating.
COMPERE: They were happy to get information out there when it helped their case, that is that nothing was known about this fellow by Families SA.
MARK BUTLER: I think it is in everyone’s interest as Ministers and as Premiers and Prime Ministers to get as much information out as possible and that is very difficult when you are getting advice from Crown Law or from Police, I am not sure where this is coming from. Not to get that advice out for fear of jeopardising the prosecution of someone who is alleged to have done some pretty evil acts.
COMPERE: Just finally before you leave us Chris Pyne, we have a lot of talk from both you and Mark Butler about Team Australia this morning. Malcolm Farr, a journalist, wants to know when does his Team Australia arrive, has any thought been given to a Team Australia uniform for Australia? If you are not wearing the uniform, you’re not on the team?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well when the ABC adopts a uniform then I will consider whether we might extend it.
COMPERE: Why does everything have to come back to the ABC?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Because the ABC is the font of all wisdom, as we all know. Everything comes from the ABC.
COMPERE: Christopher Pyne, Liberal MP for Sturt, Education Minister and Leader of the House. Thanks for talking to us. And Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide, Opposition Environment and Climate Change spokesperson, thank you.
MARK BUTLER: Thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Pleasure.