SUBJECT/S:  Tony Abbott’s reshuffle; Representation of women in Cabinet; Tony Abbott’s performance as Minister for Women; Renewable Energy Target





LAURA JAYES: Joining me on my panel is the newly promoted Simon Birmingham who is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment at the moment but will soon move to Assistant Minister for Education. He joins me from Adelaide, and here with me in Sydney is Shadow Minister Michelle Rowland. Thank you both for joining me this morning. Simon Birmingham, first to you. Congratulations and what do you hope to bring to the new role?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks very much, Laura, and good morning. I’m very excited about the role. It will have a particular focus, in terms of my responsibilities, on training, apprenticeships and vocational education so really that pointy end of helping people get in to work, helping them be skilled for the jobs of the future and I look very much forward to working with Christopher Pyne of course in the education portfolio but importantly also, Scott Morrison, as part of the broader reshuffle with a real focus on how we assist people and drive people out of welfare into jobs, giving them the dignity of employment, the opportunity to achieve more for their family and of course the chance overall to contribute the growth of Australian businesses and the Australian economy which is so central to the objectives of our Government.

JAYES: The Government’s university reforms is something that has been stalled in the Senate with the crossbench giving no indication that this is something that it will pass, even in the new year. So bringing to this new role, you bring more concessions perhaps to try and get these reforms through?

BIRMINGHAM: I’ll sit down and talk to Christopher Pyne about the details of the reforms and exactly where discussions are with all of the crossbenchers but obviously as a Senator I look forward to helping him on that higher education reform agenda, I’ll be taking the chance over the break to meet with Vice Chancellors as well as those in the training sector to make sure I’m well informed on their views on higher education reform and that I can assist wherever possible in terms of trying to get those cross benchers across because it is absolutely critical that our universities are well positioned to compete in what is now a global field. It’s not a case of universities in Australia just providing services for Australian students. It’s a great big export market for the rest of the world but also they are at threat from other universities around the world and we need to enable them to compete and have the freedom to do so.

JAYES: Michelle Rowland, how do you look at this new reshuffle? Do the new faces on the front bench change anything for Labor in terms of strategy, in terms of going into 2015?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: Firstly may I also congratulate Senator Birmingham on his elevation, it must be a tremendous honour to serve as a Minister of the Crown, and I wish you well Simon.

BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Michelle.

ROWLAND: But as Simon said, there are huge challenges in this area and the announcement that the Prime Minister made saying that this will be a Ministry that’s focused on jobs and focused on families. The reality is Laura, if this was a Government focused on jobs and families, it would not have delivered the Budget that it did in May. And that focus on jobs and families is precisely what Bill Shorten made his centrepiece in his Budget reply when the community very quickly cottoned on to the fact this was an inequitable Budget. I find it also interesting there’s a lot of talk about these new Ministers and new faces being able to sell the message better. The problem isn’t the message, the problem is the product. The product is a dud in all these areas. Higher education reform as you mentioned, the GP tax still there in some form and being rejected even by the AMA. These policies are still there. So I think although we have this change of faces, the reality is the product is still a dud.

JAYES: Simon Birmingham what do you have to say to that? And also, with these reshuffles there are always winners and losers, sideways shuffles as well. Do you think David Johnston, being a Senator from Adelaide really had to go after the comments he made about the ASC?

BIRMINGHAM: Laura, I’ll let other people be commentators in regards to who was in and who was out and so on. Of course politics and reshuffles -

JAYES: But you can see both of those comments didn’t go down well in South Australia did they?

BIRMINGHAM: Well politics and reshuffles are a zero sum game, we need to create room for new faces to go in, other people have to go out. That’s just the nature of a reshuffle and they’re the difficult decisions that leaders have to make. In the Liberal Party, in the Coalition, that falls squarely on the shoulders of the Prime Minister. He’s made his call there. David Johnston is a good friend, he’s a fine man, he knows his Defence materiel inside out, he’s done a great job in terms of working through some of the challenges on the personnel side, around the sex scandals that the Defence Force has faced. He had them well positioned for the movements into the Middle East that had to occur in response to the threat from ISIL so David has done a great job, he’s had his challenges, that’s been widely acknowledged but I really do wish David all the best for the future. In terms of the broader point, as a Government, you’re always seeking to get the best policies you can for the future and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing since we were elected and we will continue to refine them and reshape them in part where we think they can be improved and in part where we have to make concessions with the Senate to be able to get things implemented and that’s just the nature of getting on with the business at hand but our absolute focus will remain on growing the economy, growing jobs, supporting families and fixing the Budget to get the deficit under control.

JAYES: And what do we read into Scott Morrison’s appointment? He has been one of the best performing Ministers of the last 12 months, effectively stopping the boats. Now he’s been put into the economic team so what do we read into this? That Joe Hockey perhaps needs more help selling the Budget, to bolster that message with someone like Scott Morrison?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think you can say it’s a very strong team for sure. Kevin Andrews, one of the most experienced Ministers going into the Defence portfolio, a very steady pair of hands there and Scott Morrison who has been so effective in getting the issue of illegal arrivals fixed and addressed, in getting his reforms through the Senate, is now in that crucial Social Services portfolio with responsibility with getting people off welfare and into jobs, with responsibility for shaping and crafting a families package that deals with the childcare challenges Australia faces. These are critical issues and they are issues that we are determined to get right as a government and putting Scott, one of our best performers right out there in that space is a brilliant move and I’ve got no doubt that he will do an outstanding job in helping families, pensioners, people of Australia at every opportunity to get into the workforce and contribute to our economy and society.

JAYES: And Michelle Rowland, you and I, no doubt, will be welcoming the appointment or the elevation of three women. We see the elevation of Sussan Ley into the Health portfolio but also Kelly O’Dwyer into the Parliamentary Secretary and also Karen Andrews in that space. You’d welcome that?

ROWLAND: I welcome that and congratulate those three women on their elevation and they’re indeed well deserved. I don’t think however, Laura, we should be breaking out the party poppers yet because we’ve increased the representation in the Cabinet from one to two women. I think the reality is that women still remain chronically underrepresented in this Abbott Ministry and particularly in the Cabinet. I congratulate, as I said, all women who have been elevated but I think that Karen Andrews will bring particular expertise to her role with a background in science. It’s very pleasing to see after 18 months or so that science has now been given a title within the Ministry, and more than a title, I’m sure she will be able to bring some of that experience there. She has enormous challenges as well. The cut to the CSIRO which has decimated that area, the need to focus on science, technology and maths as part of the curriculum, also as part of an innovation agenda, they will be tremendous challenges for her. I wish her well in that role. Unfortunately I don’t think we have seen that to date. We have an Industry statement that excluded ICT as one of the focus sectors in this country. Hopefully that will be remedied.

JAYES: Simon Birmingham, just your quick reaction on the number of women in Cabinet? Still a fairly large underrepresentation wouldn’t you say?

BIRMINGHAM: We’ve got women in this Government playing very important roles. Julie Bishop in Foreign Affairs, the first ever female foreign minister in Australia, Sussan Ley now taking on the Health portfolio, one of the biggest long term budgetary challenges Australia faces and a huge task for Sussan in that space, Kelly O’Dwyer coming off the backbench into a Treasury role, Karen Andrews as you just heard for a role in Science. We’ve already got extremely capable women like Michaelia Cash, and Marise Payne and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells playing roles across Immigration and Human Services and Social Services, so really right across the Government there are women playing key roles and I’m sure that number will only increase as time goes on.

JAYES: Simon Birmingham, Michelle Rowland, stay with us. A quick break here on AM Agenda.

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JAYES: The Prime Minister, as he was out selling his Cabinet Ministerial reshuffle today, it was also noted that he is the Minister for Women as well as being the Prime Minister. He was asked on the Today show what he thought the biggest achievements were in that portfolio this year. This is what he had to say.

TONY ABBOTT [clip]: As many of us know, women are particularly focused on the household budget and the repeal of the carbon tax means a $550 a year benefit for the average family. We’ve got our fair dinkum Paid Parental Leave Scheme which will be coming into the Parliament in the new year, we’ve got improvements to child care, and obviously I am very pleased that I was able to promote three women in my own Ministry yesterday.

JAYES: Michelle Rowland, how has the Prime Minister gone in this portfolio as being Minister for Women?

ROWLAND: I find the Prime Minister’s response this morning extremely curious. He names three items. The first he names is getting rid of the price on carbon saying that this is something that’s family friendly to budgets. Their Budget that they handed down in May hit families the hardest and I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to realise that exactly what he said in terms of hitting household budgets was exactly what his Budget did. The second on Paid Parental Leave; it hasn’t even been legislated yet. This was a Prime Minister whose transition to PPL started off with ‘over my dead body’, ‘here’s my proposal’, ‘I’ve watered it down’, ‘I’m a convert’, and he hasn’t legislated on it yet. I just find this extremely curious that the Prime Minister nominates these things. And childcare; they’ve announced a title for a family package and it’s just a thought bubble without substance yet. I haven’t heard anything about making sure that we pursue pay equity, I haven’t heard anything about making sure that we have women fully participating in our education institutions, in higher roles, in the private sector; none of that. No vision whatsoever.

JAYES: Simon Birmingham, was the Prime Minister perhaps caught off guard this morning with that question?

BIRMINGHAM: The Prime Minister gets asked questions of all manner of topics all the time and he’s as well prepared as he ever can be for all of them and it sounded to me like he made a great case for the fact that a Coalition Government rightly prides itself on reducing costs for households and for families. Michelle Rowland might, and the Labor Party might like to talk about how there’s ever increasing sums of Government money going into the hands of people. We think it’s far more important to reduce the costs wherever you can, and getting rid of the carbon tax is about reducing those household costs, those electricity costs, those grocery bills, driving down the cost pressures for families so they are in charge of their own destiny and that’s what’s so important. Now on a more broad spectrum in terms of women’s participation in the work force, Tony Abbott has been a relentless advocate in relation to Paid Parental Leave and making sure that there is every opportunity for women to increase their participation in the workforce. It is one of the issues he has championed and championed with some criticism, even from those like Michelle and the Labor Party and on the left of politics so he has been at the forefront of that and of course is now at the forefront of this Cabinet reshuffle, the need to develop new packages and new policies to ensure that childcare supplements that Paid Parental Leave Scheme and they complement each other brilliantly to make sure we boost that workplace productivity and participation by women at every opportunity.

JAYES: Criticism from within the party, you’d have to say as well. But Michelle Rowland, I just wanted to ask you, looking at Kelly O’Dwyer’s elevation into Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, her promotion well deserved but she is an expectant mother, she’s pregnant. She’s due to give birth next year. You also gave birth whilst in Parliament, not in Parliament but -

ROWLAND: Thankfully.

JAYES: What’s your view on how difficult it is for women in politics to also balance the two and is Parliament conducive to motherhood?

ROWLAND: The answer to the second question is, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s seriously not. But I think it all comes down to, if I had to sum it up in one word, it’s logistics. It’s the same I think for any working mother, especially if it’s for a working mother who has a partner that’s working as well. It’s the story that I think our constituents go through every day. It’s getting the timing right, using your time appropriately, making sure you’re getting enough time to give to your baby. It’s especially difficult when you’re a first time mother, I think, going into this and not really knowing what to expect. I actually drew a lot from the women that I worked with in the private sector. I had a before life before coming into Parliament, I drew on those experiences. I was also given a lot of encouragement from people like Tanya Plibersek, Nicola Roxon and Catherine King and I found that to be very useful. And I think when I say sometimes it’s not conducive, things like the hours, the hours are not conducive, especially for me: a hung Parliament, still breastfeeding, it was a very difficult time. Hopefully Kelly won’t have some of those issues that I had to deal with there. It is a matter of logistics and it is a matter of making sure that you have enough time for yourself, your child and for your job. There’s no reason Kelly won’t be able to do that and I wish her every success.

JAYES: We wish her luck. I just want to finish on one last topic; the Renewable Energy Target. Now Simon Birmingham, you’re still Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment at the moment. We’ve seen Minister Macfarlane, this morning in The Australian newspaper warn that if a deal is not done on the RET soon this will push up electricity prices. Is it now time for the Coalition to get back to the negotiating table with Labor and start looking at what seems to be moveable from the Government’s perspective and that is on the real 20 per cent target?

BIRMINGHAM: Let’s have a look at the facts underlying what Ian Macfarlane said there. He’s relying on evidence from the Australian Energy Market operator whose estimates are that we will see some 4000 gigawatt hours of extra wind capacity come into the market before 2020 which is only around half to two-thirds of what the RET mandates. So if the RET target is not met, it goes into default. If it goes into default there are significantly higher costs and penalty costs that will flow through to the electricity bills of Australian households and Australian businesses. So this is a real warning to Bill Shorten and Mark Butler in the Labor Party; come back to the negotiating table and work through a sensible outcome on the RET. We’ve outlined four key principles around the RET, our intention is to move towards a real 20 per cent, we want 20 per cent renewable energy, that’s what we’ve always been committed to and want to move towards to ensure that we provide the right exemptions and support for trade exposed industries and that we keep protections there for Solar PV and for the industry in general.

JAYES: Michelle Rowland, will Labor, should Labor go back to the negotiating table?

ROWLAND: It’s quite clear that Bill Shorten and Mark Butler some weeks ago now said they were prepared to enter into renegotiations on this matter. The reality is that Ian Macfarlane started out with quite an unrealistic proposal to decimate the RET and we can’t support that.

JAYES: Michelle Rowland, Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for joining me on AM Agenda.

ROWLAND: Merry Christmas.

JAYES: Thank you and Merry Christmas to you both.

BIRMINGHAM: Merry Christmas.