SUBJECT/S: Indigenous recognition; Q&A; polls.



KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. With me this morning, the Assistant Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Shadow Citizenship Minister Michelle Rowland. Simon Birmingham, today this conference in Sydney; what do you hope comes out of it? What does the Government hope comes out of these talks? Obviously they can’t come up with a final question for the constitutional referendum but what do you think is the best case scenario out of today?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I really hope that today’s conference discusses the recognition of indigenous Australians bringing together Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, Indigenous leaders from around Australia can deliver a unity of purpose, a unity of process, a unity of direction in terms of this really important national reform. It’s not just important for indigenous Australians, although it is of course very much for Indigenous Australians, but important for all Australians to make sure we build a stronger nation, a nation in which all Australians can be proud of the recognition we give appropriately to the first Australians, that we correct some injustice that exists in our current constitution and that we get the right process forward. It is achievable, it is unified, and hopefully today is a step forward in that direction.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, I guess the risk is if some are pitching up an idea which is too ambitious in terms of change because the history of referenda in this country shows that people won’t buy it.


MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Kieran, you’re right on the point that the history of referenda in this country has had an unfortunate result. By-and-large referenda that go up end up failing, but the ones that we have seen succeed have a few common elements. Firstly, there needs to be bipartisanship, there needs to be a strong community backing for that. But on this particular point that we’re in right now, we need to be looking at the mechanics as well as the method. So the mechanics in terms of questions of the timing, questions of how a civics education campaign is going to be done. And the method of course, making sure that as many people as possible are involved.

But Kieran, I’m incredibly optimistic. I think Australians by-and-large would be absolutely mortified to know that there’s a provision in our constitution which enables people to be excluded from voting on the basis of their race. I think that having that as a starting point of the need to make sure that people know about that and are educated about that is really important. I think Jason’s comments earlier were quite insightful too. At the elite sport level, we have strong support for that. We have really strong support at the corporate level, reconciliation action plans across many local governments as well as private sector enterprises. So I am incredibly optimistic and I want to see this change happen and I think the majority of Australians would feel the same.

GILBERT: Well 85 per cent, according to the survey today in the Fairfax papers, so that’s encouraging. But I guess the question I put to Michelle I’ll put to you too in the context of Noel Pearson’s proposal for a representative body for indigenous people in the constitution. Others like Warren Mundine are worried that that is too ambitious, that that will enable a second guessing of the constitution through the judiciary and that that would fail because it is terribly ambitious. What’s your sense?

BIRMINGHAM: It is important to be appropriately cautious through this agenda. We are seeking to first and foremost remove the wrong elements in our constitution, the elements that vote for discrimination in inappropriate ways which Michelle just spoke about. And secondly, it’s long been discussed now about having a sense of recognition about the first Australians in the constitution and how that can be facilitated. To then go further you need to be very cautious, you need to be cautious that we don’t run conflicting messages in a referendum where you’re saying we want to remove racial discrimination from the constitution but in other ways inject a different form of discrimination in terms of setting up specific bodies for particular races of Australians. So I think it’s very important that we take cautious steps though the process. Today is about -

GILBERT: You have a number in your party who are worried about the changes, Labor’s behind it pretty much 100 per cent but there are a number of your colleagues who have expressed concerns. You need to placate those concerns as well don’t you to ensure that bipartisanship remains.

BIRMINGHAM: We need to make sure that whatever is done is a great leap forward for the entire Australian community and well embraced by the vast majority of Australians. There’s no point doing something that becomes divisive. I haven’t seen a single Aboriginal leader who wants to see a divisive debate here. They want to see a unifying debate here and that means attributing what can be unified, what will be unified, absolutely shooting for the best as it can be unifying, but not overreaching and ending up in a situation where we do have debate that potentially is divisive and self-defeating in terms of the purpose of this recognition campaign.

GILBERT: And Michelle Rowland, it’s not just the bipartisanship politically but across the notoriously difficult world of politics in the Aboriginal sphere, among indigenous leaders themselves, can you make sure that they are all on the same page here and I guess the risk again goes to whether or not they sacrifice what needs to be done in removing the racist elements and not sacrificing that effort which has complete support going for something like misrepresentative body which might prove to be too ambitious in the longer term.

ROWLAND: That’s a challenge Kieran, but I think we need to have a debate and I think we need to welcome robust debate. I represent an area which I think still has the largest urban indigenous population, in the Blacktown local government area, and I know from experience; if you think that there is a single indigenous voice on matters then you’re mistaken. And I don’t think you would expect to see a single indigenous voice, I think you would expect people to have different views. But that is what this whole process is about. It’s about having those discussions and coming to an agreement on what the most appropriate proposal to put forward that has the greatest chance of success. So I welcome fulsome debate and I think all Australians should be encouraged to participate in that debate as we get to the question, as we consider issues of timing, as we consider those issues of education, and as I said I think the majority of Australians would be very interested in being involved in this debate as well.


GILBERT: Now to another issue; this ongoing saga out of the Q&A program. Barnaby Joyce was meant to appear tonight, he’s now not. The spokesperson for the Prime Minister Tony Abbott told me this morning: “Given the ABC’s undertaking an enquiry into Q&A, it isn’t appropriate for the Minister to appear tonight. Is that fair enough given that this enquiry continues?

ROWLAND:  That’s the Prime Minister’s call. We’ve already had a summary enquiry report released from the Department of Communications and I understand that an external inquiry is being undertaken. Mark Scott has also made some statements in relation to this. We are into week three of it. I think it is unfortunate that certain members of our Parliament aren’t going to be allowed to appear. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister for Communications appears next week, I understand he’s scheduled to appear. But that’s a call the Prime Minister has made and I guess Simon and his colleagues will need to abide by that.

GILBERT: Isn’t it better to be engaging with an audience even if it might be seen as a hostile one, as the PM clearly believes Q&A is?


BIRMINGHAM: The Government wants to engage right across the community in selling our important messages around building a stronger and more prosperous economy and ensuring national security for all Australians in the face of increasing terrorist threats. Of course we make no apologies for the fact that when it comes to tackling terrorism we have been quite strong in providing additional funding to tackle it at the source and engage internationally. Passing new laws through the Parliament to strengthen provisions for our security agencies, and we do find it completely unacceptable that the ABC failed in the process by giving a national television platform, on the high rating Q&A program to a terrorist sympathiser, to a convicted criminal. Ultimately, the ABC is reviewing its processes around this. That review is welcome, it’s a step forward. We want to see outcomes from that.

GILBERT: As much as I would love for every person to be watching AM Agenda -


BIRMINGHAM: And why aren’t they?


GILBERT: Well they should be. But the fact is, Q&A has a big audience and is a chance for you to prosecute your case. I can’t imagine John Howard ever boycotting a national television program.

BIRMINGHAM: I’m not sure John Howard ever faced a situation…

GILBERT: He had a shoe thrown at him.

BIRMINGHAM: I’m not sure he faced a situation as grave as this one where the error of judgement on the part of the ABC’s producers of the Q&A program was so grave as to allow a terror sympathiser on air putting forward arguments as to why people would go and fight overseas for terror organisations. It’s a pretty serious error of judgement, it’s a pretty serious failure to have somebody mounting those arguments on the national broadcaster. We think they need to get their internal mechanisms right and I guess this is a signal to make sure that they follow through on that.

GILBERT: Like Michelle said, it will be interesting to see if Malcolm Turnbull is there next week. He’s a favourite on that program. And the leather jacket.

BIRMINGHAM: The leather jacket was obviously a highlight for the program and clearly having a terrorist sympathiser on there was a lowlight for the program, hopefully the ABC can manage to turn around its mistakes and come out quickly with measures that restore confidence.

GILBERT: Okay, Michelle Rowland, to finish off if we can on this poll that shows Bill Shorten’s approval rating has been in quite a dramatic decline. Is this a worry given that Labor overall is doing quite well but the leader seems to be a drag on the overall vote. Imagine if you had a popular leader.


ROWLAND: I think it’s an incredible result to have at the moment when you consider that nearly two years ago we were expected to be virtually wiped out from the Opposition benches and have much lower numbers than we are, so the fact that we are polling at the position that we are now I think says something about the tenacity of Bill Shorten but also of our team to be able to come together after such a devastating defeat in 2013. But I will say this, Simon and the government have been throwing everything they can at Bill Shorten. A $61 million inquiry for which I know Bill will appear and will come out of it showing that he is someone who stands up for workers, has been doing that his whole life, has been someone who has been put into practice the actual philosophy behind the Accord; making sure that employers and employees are able to work together productively in the best interests of our economy. So as much as the government would like to throw stuff as much as they can at Bill, I know that he is going to come out of this inquiry and continue to prosecute his vision for a country which is one of smarter young people, getting people into the jobs of the future and not being caught in the past like this government.

GILBERT: Well that’s the best case scenario obviously, heading into this Royal Commission and his appearance there on Wednesday but for the Prime Minister, even though it’s been a very difficult few weeks for Bill Shorten, the worst of his time in the job and he’s still trailing: 52-48 in the Newspoll, 53-47 in Nielson.

BIRMINGHAM: The public research that interests me and that the Government is focused on is the fact that consumer confidence is up, business confidence is up and employment growth is up around Australia. These are all signs that plans to restore confidence in the budget, that our plans to boost investment in productivity and small business are all starting to pay dividends. It’s particularly important when you look at the result of the Greece referendum and the uncertainty on the other side of the world. That we do have these strong levels of confidence in Australia, we are engaging more in our region through the Free Trade Agreements we’ve signed. Ours is a government that is focused on continuing to drive that economic agenda and making sure we grow our economy.


GILBERT: The polls will turn around eventually?


BIRMINGHAM: We have confidence that good policy will lead to good electoral outcomes.


GILBERT: Simon Birmingham, Michelle Rowland. Thanks so much, have a good day.